Harnessing transformations: To open up or close down?
There is little contention that the world is undergoing significant change at the planetary scale, primarily induced by human activity: think of climate change, ocean acidification and coral bleaching, plastic pollution, increasing biodiversity loss, to name but a few. Scientists have termed this era the Anthropocene, where human actions are the main drivers of global change. It therefore follows that human ideas and ingenuity are necessary for transformations aimed at dealing with these issues. So I was curious to hear of how people at the Transformations 2017 conference framed “transformations”, and how transformations can respond to some of these challenges. The numerous presentations did not disappoint.
As with any big biennial conference, Transformations 2017 was abuzz with participants from various disciplines and various parts of the world. The three-day conference began with much enthusiasm, but the plenary and subsequent speed talk sessions revealed the nuanced nature of transformations: What exactly are they? Can we know them when we see them? And are they attainable? The initial task of conceptualizing transformations was where I saw very divergent views, albeit with the implicit agreement that – first of all – there was need for change, but the scope and nature of the change became elusive. My conclusion from this is what I call ‘varieties of transformations’; transformations mean different things to different people. While this may appear frustrating, I believe that having such a variety is better, since it opens numerous avenues for action.
The Transformations 2017 conference also oscillated between theoretical and practical approaches, which I found quite enriching. While attempts to conceptualise and define transformations were hotly debated, there was always an implicit acknowledgement when an interesting case of transformation was presented. For instance, dinner on the first day of the conference was hosted by the Centre for Stewardship at the magnificent Falkland Estate, where centre researchers demonstrated how they were creating a sufficient and sustainable food production system, focusing on encouraging local people to grow their own food in a sustainable manner, as well as providing training on how to conserve natural resources in the area. Despite being very “small” vis-à-vis the planetary scale, the Falkland Estate provided useful insights into creating change from the immediate surroundings.
But perhaps the best part of the Transformations Conference was the final keynote that marked the close of the conference. The speech was focused on evaluation; after all, how do you measure change and reach the conclusion that is transformative? Michael Quinn Patton made quite a provocative presentation, taking aim at a practice that is challenging to pin down. His talk focused on utilization-focused evaluation, and presented a critique of how evaluation is almost always misused or not used enough, if at all. The lecture presented the perfect segue to the second, smaller workshop which I attended immediately after, focusing on the use of Transformation Labs (T-Labs) in the PATHWAYS network to analyse and catalyse transformations.
The PATHWAYS network is using the T-Labs approach in different places and learning across these contexts; in this case, the project involves six hubs: China, India, Africa, United Kingdom, Argentina and North America. Each of the hubs chose a pressing challenge from their immediate area to focus on, and deployed various T-Lab methodologies to analyse and foster transformative change. It was therefore not a surprise that the different hubs had used different methods suitable to their context. However, there were some commonalities in their findings: defining the point of inflection that can be understood as transformative was always difficult; the gap between envisioning transformation and making it happen, given the numerous constraints, is not an easy task; transformations are of various varieties; and that in some cases it is very challenging to attribute transformations, or actions towards them, to your influence. The Africa Sustainability Hub (ASH), for instance, analysed whether mobile-based payment systems for solar PV were transformative by bringing together various stakeholders from government, the private sector (including the developers of the innovation), civil society and incubation hubs, and found that each of the stakeholders had varying views of what transformation entails. Even though the project’s contribution has been useful for developing an evidence base that different stakeholders can draw on, identifying the specific inflection point in the near-term has remained quite challenging, if not elusive. The China Hub found that its research provided insights into the debates on green transformation, but noted that it had not been possible to identify a specific inflection point from their contribution, primarily due to time-constraints of the project – transformations usually take longer. Despite these challenges, the most important lesson from the workshop was the need to learn across the different hubs and share experiences.
In sum, transformations – even though they may be perceived as unicorns or moon shots – are important in setting momentum and ambition towards solving challenges. The key take-home messages from the conference and following workshop are: have a purpose to create transformative change; get on with it; learn; share; evaluate; and always try to maintain momentum.