Creating Purposive Transformation in Time!

Transformation Forum

By Steve Waddell, Lead – SDG Transformations Forum

Whether to transform is not a choice. Our world is transforming. Every day we see signs that the environmental, political and social structures of the 20th century are crumbling: plummeting bio-diversity, fracturing of governments and rise in autocracy, and growing economic inequality to mention a few indicators. However, we can influence what emerges with our Great Transition. Will it be simply a collapse into anarchy? Can we manage a “joyous re-creation” where our greatest aspirations and highest potentials have greater life? Or something muddling between?

Whatever the outcome, we know that there will be great destruction, because that is a core element of transformation. The new – for better or worse – displaces the old. Accompanying this is a sense of loss and disorientation. Think of previous transformations – the rise of Christianity displacing polytheism; representative democracy replacing monarchy; agriculture replacing hunting-gathering; industrial economies invading land-based ones.  This is the scale of our transformation today. Destruction and dealing with loss of what was valued as well as gaining new possibilities are part of it.

Three Differences

Three differences mark our current transformations in comparison to historic ones. One is the number of pressure points demanding transformation. Most notable are climate change, technological change and an economic system pushing well past planetary carrying capacity.  None of these can be responded to within the rules of the game that have dominated since the beginning of industrializing society. They all require immense imagination and experimenting, to move into a desirable purposive transformational directions.

The second difference is the gathering speed of the pressure points for transformation. The countdown on climate change certainly dominates, partly because of the structures in place to monitor it, the role of weather in our daily lives and the increasingly visible impacts with disappearing island states. However, as the nine planetary boundaries mapping has pointed out, degradation is faster with two other boundaries – genetic diversity and biochemical flows – which have already been breached by our relentless environmentally damaging economic system.  The technological pressures, particularly with bio-technology and artificial intelligence, hold promise but they might turn out very badly or mirror: recent research suggests information technology has had a negative impact in terms of sustainability concerns.

The third difference is the major source of hope: the great growth in initiatives, knowledge and tools for creating purposive transformation. The Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Accord and the Global New Economy Movement are the most outstanding transformation initiatives, although there are many, many lesser ones. The term “transformation” is often used loosely to simply mean big changes, rather than in a more useful way that distinguishes it from other types of change. However, its increasingly common use correlates with changing mindsets about the need for deep change and increasing knowledge and tools to support it.

Three Transformation Gaps

Three things in particular are still lacking, that the Transformations Forum aims to address. One arises from most efforts’ focus on a particular issue, such as water, migration, food or climate. This approach reflects the mindset that gave rise to the problems and will simply not work, as the SDG architects have emphasized. Except in the very vague form of SDG 17, those architects have not focused on the necessary element to address our dire challenges: the need to create transformations systems and build societies’ capacity for transformation. Just as we have food systems to produce food, we need transformations systems to produce transformations. The issue-focused approach denies the broader capacity need and mind-set to address the overwhelming number, scale and speed of transformational challenges, and the high leverage point of developing transformations systems.

Along with this transformations systems approach, there is need for coherence of transformations knowledge, tools and actions. Currently, these are highly fragmented. One source of fragmentation is the knowledge-action one: the ivory towers and practice are not well connected. There is also fragmentation by issue, discipline, department/ministry, and industry. This greatly slows down action, learning and capacity development, as people struggle through diverse words with similar meanings, to share tools and knowledge, and to make knowledge operationally relevant.

The third problem is blockages in transformations systems: structures and processes that impede transformation efforts. The Forum’s Working Groups are organized around these:

  1. Transforming Assessment and Evaluation: Current input-output assessment approaches undermine transformations, which require deep learning; jurisdictionally and project limited boundaries are limiting scale and time of transformation.
  2. Meta-narrative: The current economic-focused stories about success associated with growth and GNP must be displaced with sustainable ones focused on human and environmental well-being.
  3. Innovation: Rather than designing innovation based on some physical technology propelled by financiers, we need to categorically design with integration of the new narrative.
  4. Transforming Finance: The current finance system is highly fragmented between “pots” of money (e.g.: commercial finance, government finance, philanthropy, science funding, sovereign wealth funds) with very inadequate ways of smooth connections for funding the quality and quantity associated with transformation.
  5. Capacity: “Change” capacity efforts are highly fragmented and generally mired in non-transformational change methods and approaches.
  6. Transformational Systems Analysis: We need ways to see the complexity associated with transformation, for purposive transformation efforts. Although mapping and data visualization methods are advanced and advancing rapidly, they are generally under-utilized and still under-developed.

This Working Group array is not comprehensive. Other efforts are growing, such as the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium. Others are needed. The Forum is based on the premise that by connecting these efforts, the needed transformations systems will develop much more rapidly as they will have active bridges between efforts with a focus on responding to the evolving needs of transformations systems, and take action with awareness of the needs.

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