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Learning to be un-disciplined for the emergence of the field of transformation

Figure 1: Ten essentials for more action-oriented transformation research. The research paper is open access and available here

Whether we like it or not, transformation is inevitable. Transformation will either occur through deliberate attempts to shift societal trajectories towards a more sustainable way of living or – if these attempts are not successful – as the impacts of climate and other global changes continue to grow. While we can try to hide under the proverbial blanket in the hope it will protect us from the monster coming out of the cupboard, humanity has little option other than to try to embrace and work with global change.

Not even academics can escape this inevitable transformation. The very notion of what it means to know and how we go about knowing will also eventually change. This is because current modes of knowledge production are increasingly unfit for the world in which we find ourselves. While scientific and technological know-how have brought phenomenal benefits over the past 300 years, many of the challenges we now face, such as climate change, obesity, food scarcity and plastics in the oceans, are themselves the product of past successes in producing knowledge. Science and technology have also unleashed devastating capabilities that have enabled war, and led to loss of cultures, languages and species. As Nicholas Maxwell argues in his book ‘From Knowledge to Wisdom’, such problems have arisen due to an emphasis on producing vast amounts of knowledge about the nature of the universe and our place within it, rather than on learning how to create a wiser world.

Despite all of the brilliant success of science, doing more of the same will not address the problems that science has also produced. This then raises a major challenge for those in academia. How can we genuinely contribute to transformations when the very foundations of our activities are the basis of many of the problems we now face, and how can we make shifts towards learning wisdom rather than just producing knowledge? This also applies to the growing field of transformation, where we need to ask ourselves about how far this field can avoid the trap in which science – and research more generally – finds itself.

To make genuine steps to shaping transformations, transformation research will therefore need to boldly go where very few have gone before. Those engaged in the field of transformation will need to learn to be able to continuously redefine themselves to avoid reinforcing the status quo. This will require strong action to ensure that transparency and openness prevail, and that group think is avoided. There will be a need to strenuously guard against complacency, continue to push boundaries, and disrupt and seek to do things differently. It will require smart approaches that simultaneously involve engaging in different ways of doing things differently whilst working from within to disrupt the constraints of current knowledge systems.

In short, the emerging field of transformation needs to be disciplined in learning to be un-disciplined and to ensure that novelty and innovative thinking is celebrated and encouraged. It will also need to work hard to avoid the deeply compartmentalised disciplinary structures that perpetuate current knowledge systems which, according to Foucault, are underpinned by the same social movements and mechanisms of control that constrain, characterize, classify and specialize, and which also led to modern notions of prisons and penal systems.[i] This form of disciplined thinking can easily lead to disqualifying or rejecting new ways of thinking and doing, both of which are critical for transformation.

To be successful, the field of transformation research therefore needs to find ways to overcome the inevitable limits imposed by the systems within which the field finds itself. Fortunately there are many examples that are already trying to this. This last year has seen the continuation of the Transformations to Sustainability conference series (held in Dundee, Scotland in 2017) which sought to break some of the traditional ways of delivering conferences to create greater space for dialogue about change. This series is growing and continuing, with the next conference to be held in the Global South in Santiago, Chile in October 2019. Other emerging events include the Future Earth Seedbeds of Transformation in South Africa and the leverage points conference in Leuphana in early 2019. This last year has also seen the birth of the SDG Transformations forum, which seeks to enhance connections between different activities across academic and non-academic domains, to help shape the emergence of a transformation-oriented system and to help ensure that work towards the UN Agenda 2030 is transformative. The work of the ISSC and its Transformations programme projects also continue to help shape the emergence of transformation research, while the attention to interdisciplinary methodologies is building through work such as that of AR+ and the Belmont Forum. The notion of transformation is also gaining a wider profile outside of normal circles, such as through the recent publication of the Royal Scottish Geographic Society’s spring 2018 edition of its high-profile magazine, with transformation as its main theme.

There is still a very long way to go. As with all of aspects of transformation, it is critical to recognize that we are all part of, and actively reproduce, the systems that also constrain us. As such, for the advancement of the field of transformation it is critical to start viewing research and its practice as occurring from within the systems we seek to understand and change. Taking this view vastly frees up new possibilities for involving different ways of knowing and learning, such as through more participatory forms of research and learning from doing. It also places the onus on the learner to take greater responsibility for examining their own role in perpetuating the systems in which they are embedded. Some of these issues were highlighted in recent work on methods for transformation research, which outlined ten essentials for more action-oriented and transformation modes of knowledge production (Figure 1). These ten essentials collectively call for greater discipline in how transformation research might be conducted, but in a way that explicitly encourages those involved to be more reflexive about their role in contributing to shaping or inhibiting transformation. Thus, despite a future of rapidly approaching global change, it will be ever more important to stop, slow down and reflect on what matters and to consider how each of us can reshape what we do to ensure that it has the maximum effect in bringing about a wiser, rather than just a knowledge-filled world.


[i] Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975, Paris; first English edition 1977)


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