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Connecting and nurturing multi-level transformative knowledge networks at Transformations 2017

This post originally appeared on the T-learning website.

In her keynote address to the Transformations 2017 conference, Susi Moser, Senior Adviser to the Transformations to Sustainability programme, identified the purpose of global transformations networks as ‘life for people and for the planet’.

When eight short-listed learning networks from across the globe met the International Social Science Council (ISSC) in September 2015, in Durban, South Africa, they visualized just that: a global transformative knowledge network of the Transformations to Sustainability programme. As Mathieu Denis, ISSC Executive Director noted

We are therefore developing a Global Knowledge Trust – an openly accessible repository of knowledge on social transformations towards sustainability, drawing on the expertise of the extended community of researchers involved in each network.

The three Transformative Knowledge Networks (TKNs) under the programme are T-LEARNING; PATHWAYS and ACKNOWL-EJ, which began functioning as networks researching transformations to sustainability in the face of climate change in 2016. On one hand, the TKN research involves identifying and reframing problematic social ecological issues in context, co-developing practical solutions and alternatives with the groups of people affected, and reflecting on the intervention of research. On the other hand, their work draws on research-in-context to generate inter-institutional, inter-country and transdisciplinary expansive learning that culminates in the development of potentially useful conceptual, methodological and theoretical insights for wider sharing.

It is these emerging insights that TKNs came to share at the Transformations 2017 conference, mostly through five-minute speed talks and subsequent reflection-oriented discussions. For example, the four-member T-learning network team presented four speed talks, drawing on the work of nine network members in nine countries across four continents. Two were pitched at country level – Ethiopia and Vietnam – and one at regional level: southern Africa. The main T-learning network talk highlighted the emerging understanding of transgressive learning as:

A form of transformative learning which seriously challenges the taken for granted, that which has become normalised. It involves innovative strategies to engage with cognitive, social, economic and environmental justice leading to a substantive change in social practice, structure, norms or social justice.

This understanding resonates with the point made by South Africa’s Kumi Naidoo during his keynote address at the conference, when he said systemic change involves bold and tenacious ‘challenging immoral conventions and orthodoxies.’ The T-learning talk also underlined that the concept was not yet well-developed and needs to be given meaning in context. Methodologies that support transgressive learning are still under-developed, varied, and have different foundational assumptions that can be contradictory. Developing such methodologies requires in-depth, reflexive contextual and theoretical engagement in and across case contexts. The presentation of these insights, which were drawn from the nine members of the network, helped to highlight the contributions of the members who could not attend.

Attending several speed talks from knowledge networks outside the TKN, all the keynote addresses and some theme-based reflections on transformations in practice gave me new insights and hope into how different actors around the world were grappling with similar issues of social justice and ecological sustainability. It also raised many questions, one of them being, ‘How do we “unadjust” ourselves to the status quo that even those in the progressive movements have fallen victim to?’ I was inspired by the interaction between the more seasoned researchers (such as Anthony Hodgson) and the young (such as Kennedy Mbeva of the PATHWAYS network), which is good for on-going cultural accumulation and developing of transformative knowledge. A lot of the credit must go to the hosts, the University of Dundee, for being so creative in designing the conference: the relevant music in the mornings, the art work to capture the proceedings and the visit to a castle that is being transformed!

It is not surprising that this creativity was also reflected in part of Michael Quinn Patton’s evaluation of the conference, put in a song that we sang which included the following stanzas:

Part of the song composed out of the Transformations 2017 conference

He also noted, ‘There is a lot of actionable knowledge to address transformations to sustainability challenges discussed during the conference. The problem is that we do not use it.’

The last two days of my visit in Dundee (Saturday and Sunday) focused on deepening networking between TKN partners by reflecting on our work (ACKNOWL-EJ, PATHWAYS and T-LEARNING) during a post-conference workshop organized by PATHWAYS. I learned the work and progress of the different PATHWAY hubs; and the research approaches that they and ACKNOWL-EJ use. I presented on the expansive learning process and the change laboratory method and shared our (T-LEARNING) emerging theory of practice. This made me appreciate the different entry points and methodological framings that the three TKNs are using towards the same end. More importantly perhaps, we also discussed how to collaborate across TKNs focusing on themes that we identified from the Transformations 2017 conference. This resulted in a proposal to jointly (across TKNs) write papers on topics that include:

Dinesh Abrol of PATHWAYS, Iokiñe Rodriguez of ACKNOWL-EJ and I agreed to coordinate a process of writing a monograph on movement building, the emergence of contradictions and how they have been – and are being – dealt with in transformations to sustainability in the TKN work. This means that we will serve as conveners of a writing process that will involve many researchers from all three TKNs. The monograph will seek out explanations for the growth, and sometimes, subsequent contraction of social movements. We foresee the process, which commences immediately, taking place over a full year.

It will be very interesting to see how the Transformations to Sustainability networks have developed, and the knowledge resources they have generated, when the next Transformations Conference takes place in Santiago, Chile, in 2019.


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