Vol. 15 (2022): Sustainability Transformations in Practice
Welcome to the Transformations Community’s (TC) second annual special issue, Sustainability Transformations in Practice.
This issue highlights the people, ideas, and initiatives undertaken by TC members that form a global community of action-oriented researchers and reflective practitioners supporting transformations to a sustainable and regenerative future. Our community began in Norway in 2013 with the first Transformations conference, and we have met since then in Sweden, Scotland, Chile, and online during the 2021 pandemic when we released our first special issue. This issue appears in preparation for our sixth international conference in Australia and online in July 2023.
This special issue has four sections. The first section results from a year-long project to understand the transformation community. Over 150 Sustainability graduate students interviewed 56 members of the Transformations Community, asking them:
- How do you pursue transformations in practice, and what skills and capacities do you use?
- What does the word ‘transformations’ mean to you?
- How did you become a transformations practitioner?
- What are your challenges to being an effective transformations practitioner?
A research team led by TC members David Manuel Navarrete, Raksha Balakrishna, and Bruce Goldstein analyzed transcripts from these interviews to produce the four articles in this special issue. Key findings include:
- Transformations practice is rooted in three core transdisciplinary capacities: participatory
diagnosis, expertise in knowledge co-production, and collective action. Moreover, members of our community are 'metadisciplinary', often seeking to advance the transdisciplinary field by developing innovative techniques and integrative leadership practices, creative systems pedagogies, and by reflexive theorizing on their practice.
- For practitioners, transformations are a complex, multi-level and multi-phase process that often involves morally grounded commitments to redressing historical injustice. Transformations practice also is often grounded in personal change, which requires re-examining assumptions and core beliefs through disruptive learning experiences.
- As this suggests, becoming a transformations practitioner is often the result of epiphanies and crises that result in abandoning conventional frames and beliefs and turning away from a conventional career path. A practitioner’s meaningful interactions with non-Western cultures often triggered these crises, causing practitioners to “let go” and “unlearn” what counts as valid and useful knowledge and how learning occurs.
- The challenges to being an effective transformations practitioner occur at distinct levels –
personal, professional, and systemic – throughout their transformations journey. Rigidity is a common feature of systems undergoing change and is found within institutions where transformations work occurs, expressed through obstacles such as insufficient financial resources, barriers to collaborative work, and the low priority accorded to action-oriented research.
The next section of this issue highlights three exciting projects the TC has been conducting. The first, by TC staffer Oisin Gill and colleagues, is a deep dive into our Systems Change Education Catalog, which we developed as a resource for students, researchers, and practitioners. The analysis identified three distinguishing characteristics of systems change education programs: audience, pedagogies, and competencies. The second article, by TC staffer Michelle Benedum and colleagues, shares insights from a dialogue session organized by the TC on the ‘Pathways’ Transformative Knowledge Network (TKN), held at the 2022 Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress, a TC partner organization. The last article, by Niko Schäpke and Richard Beecroft, provides guidance on how to monitor and evaluate of highly participatory experimental spaces for transformation, known as “real-world labs”, “living labs” or “transformation labs”. These projects are examples of how the TC supports the spread of innovative techniques, integrative leadership practices, and resources for systems education.
The third section of this issue contains three case studies of efforts to apply the three transdisciplinary capacities of participatory diagnosis, expertise in knowledge co-production, and collective action. The first, by Glenn Page and colleagues, explores how to integrate Indigenous wisdom and western science, confront issues of colonization, and enable collective “seeing” of complex systems through bioregional learning journeys in Casco Bay, Gulf of Maine, USA. The second, by Lee Frankel Goldwater and Abbey Kingdon-Smith, shares lessons for network leadership and practice from a five-year study of the Savory Global Network, a multi-scalar learning network that promotes transformations to regenerative ranching. The last case, by Mary Ann Boyer and Harrison Lundy, is a close look at Philadelphia’s People Advancing Reintegration (PAR) Recycle Works, which pursues social justice and environmental responsibility by coordinating over 200 organizations to collect e-waste, provides transitional employment to people returning from prison, and offers education in digital and financial literacy, conflict management, and mental health strategies.
Our last section contains two excerpts from two influential books that contain core insights for transformations practitioners. A chapter from Peter Plastrik and colleagues’ second book on social innovations networks explores four distinct network leadership roles: Innovation Broker, Network Weaver, Trusted Strategist, and Storyteller. In a chapter from her book on quantum systems change, TC’s founder Karen O’Brien explores how our intentions, assumptions, and values influence our agency and capacity to engage with systems change. O’Brien focuses attention on our continuous “intra- actions” within one entangled system and underscores the importance of actions based on values that apply to the whole, such as equity, dignity, and compassion.
We hope you enjoy this special issue highlighting the creativity and vigor of transformations practice. We invite you to join the TC as we develop new leadership practices, institutional arrangements, and participatory techniques to bring desirable transformations to life. Special thanks to the organizing genius of Nick Graham, the Transformations Community network weaver, our amazing intern Chukwuma Paul, and Shane Casey, a graduate student in the Masters of the Environment Program at the University of Colorado Boulder, who coordinated the production of this issue.
Bruce Evan Goldstein, University of Colorado Boulder
Nicholas Torres, Social Innovations Journal