What makes a transformations system powerful? What must it do well, in order to realize its change goal? Academically, these questions lead to questions about “functions” or “activities” that are necessary for systems and networks to be effective. A review of answers to these questions led to identifying seven activities.


Visioning: Creating a shared sense of direction among diverse transformations initiatives is critical, to create collective power.  The Sustainable Development Goals are playing this role globally, but defining goals and directions. There are often differences in the visioning that requires resolving to make a particular transformation system really powerful.  For example, SDG8 describes economic growth in very convention GDP terms, whereas many working for economic transformation say that is a source of problems for many SDGs.

Individual organizations can play distinctive roles in visioning. Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) is playing a pre-eminent role globally for energy systems. It is creating a much broader vision than the climate change one associated with the Kyoto Process by including issues of access. It is creating coherence amongst intergovernmental organizations: the World Bank, for example, has categorically adopted the SE4All goals as its own. However, every change initiative has its own particular focus that is the basis for its work and is critical for it to mobilize action. The Electricity Governance Initiative, for example, holds a vision of an electricity sector that is transparent, inclusive and has accountable decision-making. Issues of effectiveness of the change system raise the question about whether the individual visions are sufficiently aligned with the broad change system one and the individual subsystem ones.

Organizing: Transformations systems require organizing of effort and stakeholders in ways that provide coherent aggregation of voice into appropriate scale. Transformations initiatives themselves represent system organizing for their participants.

The trade associations for renewables such as the Global Solar Alliance play a key role in organizing voice and effort of their emerging industry. The Climate Action Network is playing an important role in creating a global voice for NGOs.  However, organizing is also a significant challenge for change initiatives within an organization such as a utility. Sometimes this organizing produces new roles, such as the arising “pro-sumer” world of those both producing and consuming energy with solar panels on their homes.

Financing: Provision of financial resources is required by transformations initiatives and funding of transformations systems. Generally speaking, the systems are badly underfunded because their work is badly understood, the beneficiaries are often hard to identify, the work is complex, and its impact long-term.  The seafood industry has developed “pre-competitive agreements” for pooling money from businesses to fund transformations actions.  Some science funding is critical to supporting transformation actions at early stages where innovation is a key factor.  Work is often financed in partnerships, such as with NGOs funded by governments and foundations. The development banks, like the African Development Bank, are big funders in the policy and service provider subsystems. Climateworks is a collaboration of foundations funding change globally.

Learning: This is an absolutely critical function to address complex change challenges integral to transformations action. Actions require deep innovation in new ways of thinking about issues and taking action. Mindsets and capacities are key issues at the individual, organizational and system levels. Transformations initiatives are generally involved in mundane, but also critical, learning infrastructure to support development and exchange of knowledge arising from prototyping. For example with respect to sustainable electricity, REN21 provides a pre-eminent multi-stakeholder network for collective knowledge products . The World Energy Council is a multi-stakeholder network that focuses on creating events, exchanges and publications to realize an affordable, stable and environmentally sensitive energy system for the greatest benefit of all. The UNEP with developing country governments, and ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, also provide critical capacity development for their respective stakeholders.

Measuring: A robust focus on supporting ‘transformation’ demands from evaluation fundamentally new approaches, if it is to deal well with diverse contexts, values, scales, timespans and other complexities. An example of one innovative approach is Blue Marble Evaluation, as well as systemic evaluation and outcome mapping.  Evaluation must be done in a way that helps financial investors, governments, implementing organizations and communities to move away from short-term, project-based, low-risk interventions based on linear thinking and an idea that change is fully predictable. It can help challenge the status quo. It can support society to engage with constructive disruption, while dealing with harmful side effects. It can help improve the transformative actions we need to confront the complex problems facing economically poor countries, depleted ecosystems, and the planet as a whole.

Many different measures are needed. In the energy sphere policy making requires a different array of measures, such as those developed by the UNFCCC on national level carbon emissions. Both the policy and consumption subsystems depend on standards-setting measures such as those produced by Collaborative Labeling & Appliance Standards Program (CLASP);  the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) develops measures for companies’ and cities’ carbon emissions to influence investors in the finance subsystem and the consumption subsystem.

Advocating: A transformations system must have a powerful change dynamic generating pressure and energy for change. The Principles for Responsible Investment and the Global Investor Coalition on Climate Change and its members such as CERES’ Investors Network are good examples of advocating within the finance community.

Prototyping: This could be considered part of the learning function, but it is so critical to transformation that it is separated out as its own function. It is usually associated with new technologies, such as is being done with the MIT Energy Initiative. However, actually testing new ways of organizing, new policies, new financial products, and ideas to influence consumption are important as well.  The Renewable Energy Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP) focuses on prototyping both new technologies and financing approaches.