Emerging Transformations Systems through Transformations Brightspots

“Transformations systems” is a core concept of the SDG Transformations Forum. However, that concept is ethereal and abstract, making it hard to grasp. At its May meeting in Marseille, Forum leaders rallied behind developing transformations brightspots as a way to address this problem and operationalize the Forum’s work.

One way to describe transformations systems in words is to compare themto health care systems that support health or food systems that produce food; transformations systems support transformations. A transformations system is the ensemble of all those initiatives that are (explicitly or, implicitly) aiming to radically change the status quo. Of course there is often paradox and contradiction between visions and actions.

To get a more visceral and experiential sense of what transformations systems are, and to propel their development, the Forum is advancing the concept of “transformations brightspots”. This is a specific geographic location where all those working on transformation – with their various concerns and issues – are already forming early-stage transformations systems. For example, Councillor Glenn Page is taking the lead with this in the Gulf of Maine (see separate story). In some ways this reflects an approach to economic development taken by economic development zones, by concentrating activity on one location.

  • The Forum aims to apply its three-activities approach to support their further development:

  • 1.   Transformations Systems Analysis: Working with the initiatives in the geography to map and apply other visual analysis techniques to help “see” each other as emerging transformations systems;

  • 2.   Connecting: Building relationships between the initiatives themselves, and with the Forum Working Groups to address the deep barriers to transformation those Groups are addressing;

  • 3.   Radical Learning and Acting: With the local change initiatives, identify actions that will strengthen their work collectively to be more powerful transformations systems.

This approach provides additional benefits. The Forum can provide specific, illustrated examples that can be shared in documents, webinars and learning journeys. By developing a long-term relationship with the locals, the Forum could attract the attention of investors (e.g.: governments, foundations, impact investors) not just for the learning and for the Forum, but for the local communities as well.

The Forum is also exploring the option of forming one or more Benefits Corporations (“BC”), perhaps around a specific brightspot, to attract investment. Known under various names in other countries, in the US a BC a new type of for-profit corporate entity that includes positive impact on society, workers, the community, and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals.

Forum Leaders Meeting in Marseille: Rear left to right: John Colvin (Councillor - Capacity WG), Ioan Fazey (Councillor - Transformations Conferences), Steven Lovink (Councillor - Financing Transformations WG), Glenn Page (Councillor - Transforming E&A WG); From left to right: Tony Cooke (Lead Steward - Capacity WG), Zenda Ofir (Lead Steward - Transforming E&A), Sandra Waddock (Councillor - Meta-Narratives WG), Kaela Slavik (Guest - Future Earth), Steve Waddell (Lead Staff).

Gulf of Maine: A Developing Transformations Systems Brightspot

An early “learning journey” in mid-July is the focus of organizing a Transformations Brightspot on the Gulf of Maine (GoM), northeast of Boston. This activity will further develop the concept for seeing, connecting and accelerating Transformations Systems toward Large Scale Change. The concept is to create a bioregional Transformations Brightspot as a hub linked to similar efforts around the world with a major focus on what people are doing to create/enable and support large scale systems-change. This hub would be the first for the SDG Transformations Forum and would feature deep engagement with the people, institutions and networks who are developing local capacity to solve their own problems, consistent with their own needs and with the ecosystems around them.

The hub intends to collect, make sense of, and disseminate information about the transformations systems that are emerging. The hub will be part data repository for systems change and part publishing, broadcasting and learning center; it will be a space for collaboration and integration. The focus is on large scale systems change that crosses sectors, themes, disciplines etc. There are several forms of entrepreneurial activities such as apprenticeships, learning journeys, workshops, consulting and other forms of entrepreneurial business development.

The Gulf of Maine (USA/Canada) has favorable characteristics as a demonstration site. The area is a complex interrelated social-ecological system, punctuated by cycles of boom and bust, currently in a downward trend and bracing for another collapse of a key economic driver (lobster) over the next 20-30 years. There is a growing sense of urgency toward systems transformation, but efforts are nascent and fragmented. With diverse expertise, key actors are action-oriented and data-informed, but lack coherent facilitation/structure toward wider systemic change.

Characteristics Include:
  • Diverse, Transboundary, Nested Systems: The State of Maine, with a population of 1.4 million, is largely rural with only a few (apart from Portland) small urban centers. The Gulf of Maine is a one of the world’s most dynamic environments.

  • Linked Social-Ecological System: Livelihoods in the region are still heavily linked to the health of the natural system, both of which are changing rapidly. For example, $1.5B lobster industry, critically vital to livelihoods, is expected to virtually disappear within 20-30 years due to a rapidly warming Gulf of Maine. The social system has experienced significant cyclical, structural and disruptive change with increasing generational poverty, an aging population, shrinking workforce, and a growing list of public health concerns.

  • Demand for transformative change: In response to the issues above, there are a growing number of people working to transform systems, including food (ecological aquaculture and agriculture), renewable energy, rural education, river restoration, local economies, ecosystem-based fisheries management and stewardship tourism, to name a few. These are mostly niche innovations and are poorly integrated. They are all relatively recent (active for 5 years or less) and have not shifted the regional perception, although each in its own way is gaining momentum.

  • Early Adopters: The trend is being led by a small but growing number of early adopters who are gaining success by articulating a shared vision for a specific transformation system, have been building social network cohesion around the vision, and are eager to learn how to change the wider system. But progress is slow.

  • What’s Enabling them and Holding Them Back: There appears to be no current effort underway to broadly understand what’s enabling and holding the system back. There is no current coordination to support cross-sector or cross-scale integration within the change landscape. Broader system interactions such as potential traps, windows of opportunity, path dependence, tipping points, etc. across the broader transformation systems will be documented.

  • Proximity, Invitation and Forum Perceived as Trusted Source: The location of Eastern Maine is close to some members of the Forum. Informally, an inquiry has been initiated to understand how the Forum could accelerate transformation systems as a trusted and competent collaborator.

Seedbeds of Transformations

The Forum in Africa

he SDG Transformations Forum organised a participatory process over May 9-11 in Port Elisabeth, South Africa with the Seedbeds for Transformations Conference. Co-convened by Future Earthwith the National Research Foundation of South Africa, the South Africa government Department of Science and Technology,START and the SDG Transformations Forum, this conference brought together over 300 scholars, policy and community actors and change makers. Participants articulated tensions associated with sustainability work and the SDGs in Africa, and responses to address them.

Giving due recognition to the history of Africa and its embeddedness in the long duree of colonial impositions, the need for healing and developing new agency-centred trajectories for taking Africa forward in the world order, the conference sought to foreground dialogue around tensions, contradictions and opportunities that are embedded in or associated with the SDGs. In doing this, the intention was to recognize some of the core contradictions associated with implementing global agendas in local contexts, while also dealing with absences and opportunities. The intention was to surface transformative learning and agency pathways towards sustainability and social justice in Africa.

Leads in the participatory process included Million Belay, John Colvin, IoanFazey, Karen Goldberg, Monica Kapiriri, HeilaLotz-Sisitka, Dylan McGarry, Lerato Mpofu and MutizwaMukute.They supported identification of 12 directional points offer potential guidance for research and praxis, all of which can be further developed and elaborated on the road to 2030 and beyond.

The first, central point was that for a Future Earth we need Africa to claim her power, identities and knowledges as central to sustainability and social justice on the continent. There was a strong sentiment that there is need to transform the current world order that sees Africa more for what it is not, than what it is.

To effect this transformation in tandem to engaging with the power, potential and opportunities embedded in the SDGs, other points included the need to give attention to:

  1. Transforming cultures of research by foregrounding the role of communities in defining research questions; continuing establishing co-engaged partnerships between academia, politicians, civil society and communities; re-thinking research designs and practices; and re-thinking concepts of quality and how research in Africa is funded.

  2. Centring values and ethics by challenging normativity, including the whole person and her cultures and ways of being in sustainability research and praxis, and confronting the deep-seated vestiges of coloniality and its dualisms, while challenging corruption and other ills impeding the flourishing of African society directly.

  3. Valuing long term processes and dialogue by addressing a history of short term development project logic, and establishing longer term partnerships and relationships for change that adequately take account of the time required for authentic transformations to emerge in complex contexts.

  4. Co-designing all aspects of change processes by involving communities and all actors in co-designing change processes, including but not limited to evaluation criteria and indicators.

  5. Conceptualising and applying methods that are appropriate for engaging complex issues and tensions by giving more attention to both the development and application of methods and approaches that are suited to dealing with complex issues and tensions. Methods should also be truly participatory.

  6. Aligning expectations to lived realities and ambitions by developing a critical response to currently emerging consumption patterns that are market driven and that often fail to take adequate account of lived realities, expectations and ambitions for fair and inclusive social transformations and development processes. Time should be given to fully understand expectations and ambitions for a good life and to align these with development goals such as the SDGs.

  7. Re-framing taken-for-granted definitions: here it was noted that taken-for-granted definitions of poverty, resilience and vulnerability often tend to be inadequate for guiding sustainability science and practice, and that there is a failure to consider these more critically in light of the possibility for creating and working with alternative definitions that foreground well-being, flourishing, creative solidarity, liberatory political praxis, transformative agency and what Africa is, rather than what Africa is not.

For live streaming of the final plenary and the emergence of these perspectives, visit https://seedbeds.futureearth.org/

Council Expands

The Forum is pleased to announce that Josh Tewksbury has joined as a Councillor-at-Large. Below Josh gives us his background.

I am currently the lead executive for Future Earth in the US, and one of five executives for Future Earth globally. Future Earth is a network organization with global hubs, regional offices and national structures in 25+ countries. We exist to focus the efforts of global research and innovation communities on the major sustainability challenges we face and to connect these communities to private and public sector decision processes. A lot of this work is about creating pathways for the best ideas to come to light faster, and building structures that speed the transition from results to scalable solutions.

I am also the co-founder and executive editor of Anthropocene Magazine with the concern that our capacity to scale research and innovation is limited more by imagination and communication than by technical ability.

I was raised on farms by artists and I became a scientist because I thought that studying the world would keep me outdoors a bit more than other disciplines. My training (Undergrad, PhD, Postdoc) was in landscape ecology, conservation and evolutionary biology. I have spent a lot of time with climate change impact (people, flora, fauna), landscape fragmentation, landscape connectivity, invasive species, and the loss of key native species on surviving populations and communities.

I was raised on farms by artists and I became a scientist because I thought that studying the world would keep me outdoors a bit more than other disciplines. My training (Undergrad, PhD, Postdoc) was in landscape ecology, conservation and evolutionary biology. I have spent a lot of time with climate change impact (people, flora, fauna), landscape fragmentation, landscape connectivity, invasive species, and the loss of key native species on surviving populations and communities.

Somewhere in the midst of this research, I became concerned that far too much science is done in stove-piped disciplines, and there is little support for researchers working to align their work in support of major sustainability goals. I started working on the formation of a new integrative “College of the Environment” at the University of Washington. I was Full Professor in 2012, when my family and I moved to Switzerland, where I launched the Luc Hoffmann Institute, a global research center embedded in the International Secretariat of the World Wide Fund for Nature. I launched a dozen research projects, including work on the Food-Energy-Water nexus in Southeast Asia, assessments of development corridors in East Africa, and the development of regionally-appropriate low-carbon sustainability targets for cities. The work in WWF was an excellent springboard for my current role in Future Earth.

Hackers series, where Josh and he speak about the need for science to become more trans-disciplinary and the perverse disincentives that hold it back, about the need for scientists to join bigger tables alongside other stakeholders, about the importance of ‘public scientists’ leading public debate on science and the contemporary need for an ‘army of Galileos’ rooted in their own contexts, about the need for scientists as servants rather than heroes, and about his preference for being part of driving systems transformation over personal legacy.

New Transforming A&E Lead Steward

The forum is fortunate to have Zenda Ofir step up to be the Lead Steward of the Transforming Evaluation and Assessment. Former Lead Steward. Glenn Page relinquishes the role, but remains Councillor for the Working Group.

Zenda Ofir is a full-time independent evaluator from South Africa. With a PhD in (Ecological) Chemistry, she held senior management positions in a South African science council and was Director Research for the University of Pretoria before turning to evaluation. Since 2000 she has worked across the world from the national to global level on the interface of science, evaluation and development, with a special focus on Africa and Asia.

Zenda is a former President of the African Evaluation Association (AfrEA), former Vice-President of the International Organization for Cooperation in Evaluation (IOCE), and former Board Member of the American Evaluation Association (AEA). She is currently Vice-President of the International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS), member of the International Evaluation Advisory Panel of UNDP, steering committee member of the emerging South-South Collaboration in Evaluation (S2SE) initiative, and a member of the EvalSDG reference group.

Zenda has served on the evaluation advisory bodies of a range of multilateral and international organizations as well as on the editorial boards of two international evaluation journals. She was visiting professor at the University of Hiroshima, presented for several years the Aid Effectiveness module at the United Nations University (UNU) in Tokyo, and has the title of Honorary Professor in the School for Public Leadership in Stellenbosch University, South Africa. She is currently based near Geneva in Switzerland.

On the Forum…

The Forum brings together people who believe the world urgently needs radical transformation in order for societies to live well and in peace, in greater harmony with nature, and within planetary boundaries. Evaluation can and has to be harnessed for this purpose. The Forum enables connections among an inspiring diversity of highly experienced specialists whose collective efforts can be a major force for good.

Working Group Reports

Following are updates on activity of the Capacity, Financing Transformations, Innovations, Meta-Narratives, and Transforming Assessment and Evaluation Working Groups.


Lead Steward: Tony Cooke – tony@oneplaneteducationnetworks.org

Councillor: John Colvin – john.colvin.emeraldnetwork@gmail.com

  • Operation Cascade: Tony Cook is acting as Lead Steward with five partners, to develop an ambitious program to create sustainability literacy and engagement amongst India’s 305 million people in full time education around the following

  • Vision: To develop all young Indians as change agents for sustainability

  • Long Term BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal):

  • Recruit 1,000 Indian companies to commit CSR investment and an average of 30 young managers to the program (Responsible: WWF India & Valluri Change Foundation)

  • Train 30,000 young Indian managers on business sustainability literacy and how to train 100 undergraduates in sustainability (Responsible: Ecociate and OPEN)

  • Train 3,000,000 Indian undergraduates on sustainability literacy and how to train 100 schoolchildren on sustainability (Responsible: CMR & OPEN)

  • Develop world-class, low cost educational content to support a program on this scale (Responsible: CMR, WWF India, Ecociate & OPEN)

  • Underpin the program with blockchain enabling technology to amplify goodwill generation, scale of impact and ROI for companies investing in the program (Responsible: Happystry)

  • The current focus is on developing a pilot.

  • Ficino Project: Thisis advancing as a AR+ - Forum activity led by Hilary Bradbury, with active support by Steve Waddell. The project is rallying people around “action-oriented science” and research that is (1) with stakeholders, rather than by/for them; (2) categorically aimed to support change in a direction aligned with the Forum’s; and (3) reflexive

  • Vision: Liberating Ivory Towers to create sustainable learning societies

  • Goal: By 2025, to enrich/connect up/broaden action oriented transformation research experiments within and across 100 universities; with ‘glocal’ communities on socially relevant issues at the center of education;. They will be cultivating self and community in crowdsourcing cross sector intelligence that scaffolds democracy, agency and mutuality.

  • There will be a meeting of 35-40 people at Chalmers University in Gothenburg in Sweden, March 8-10, 2019. About 40 interviews have been undertaken to identify who should come and major issues to address. The product of the meeting will be an action plan and community committed to implementing it.

  • Virtual Programs: Explorations are underway for Forum - Ubiquity University connections; Ubiquity is a virtual university based in Amsterdam, incorporated as a Benefits Corporation in California, which is focused on developing capacity that is very aligned with needed transformations capacity. The founders have been particularly influence by Ken Wilbur’s Integral Theory.

  • Writing Projects:
  • Global Case Studies on developing communities of change agents for sustainability - based on LEAP! (UN PRME Working Group on Sustainability Mindset), GOLDEN for Sustainability and OPEN. Co-written by 3 members of Capacity WG - Isabel Rimanoczy, Maurizio Zollo and Tony Cooke.

  • Understanding the learning needs of change agents for sustainability - based on a questionnaire developed by Isabel Rimanoczy and Tony Cook in partnership with IEMA and SocEnv (two leading membership bodies for sustainability professionals with 25,000 members between them) plus EAUC (UK equivalent to AASHE). This is essentially a bootstrapped version of the research outlined in our Capacity WG action plan and will hopefully give us some insight into where the priority areas are for educators to focus on in supporting change agents.


Lead Steward: Matthew Reading Smith – matthew.reading-smith@civicus.org

Councillor: Per Olsson – per.olsson@su.se

  • There have been exchanges to clarify the way forward. The core topic the WG identified to focus on – blockchain – seems very compelling for the Forum as it is almost certainly a transformational innovation.

Financing Transformation

Lead Steward: Steve Waddell – swaddell@networkingaction.net

Councillor: Steven Lovink – jslovink@planet2025.net

  • The major activity is around a July 11-12 meeting, Philanthropy Transforming Finance: Building an Impact Economy. It is organized by Heather Grady as part of her Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors scaling impact work, and Laurie Lane-Zucker who has organized a network of 18,000 impact investor stakeholders and he is joining the WG. Three additional WG Stewards will be there: Steve Waddell, Mark Halle, Andrea Armeni. Hence, there is a Financing Transformation WG meeting with the five Stewards present, planned for the evening of July 12, and morning of July 13

  • A concept note is being developped to advance mapping of the system.


Lead Steward: Chris Riedy – criedy@uts.edu.au

Councillor: Sandra Waddock – waddock@bc.edu

  • Research & Publishing: An example of what we are doing in the Working Group is Sandra Waddock’s recent work looking at conservative and progressive narratives by analyzing recurring words in aspirational statements by think tanks. She finds that the progressive narrative is considerably more diffuse and neutral than the conservative narrative, making it much less compelling as a narrative for making sense of the world

  • Introductory Webinar – Join Us! It is now time for the Meta-Narrative Working Group to connect with diverse narrative initiatives that are working on transformation and to expand Working Group membership. To facilitate this, we are planning a series of webinars to explore the concepts of meme, story, narrative and meta- narrative and to start to map and connect existing narrative initiatives. The first webinar to introduce the Working Group and its concepts and start to make connections between initiatives is planned for Wednesday 27th June. We welcome participation from groups that are working with story and narrative for transformation.

Transforming Evaluationand Assessment (T-E&A)

Lead Steward: Zenda Ofir – zenda@evalnet.co.za

Councillor: Glenn Page – gpage@sustainametrix.com

The T-E&A officially launched in May 2018 under the leadership of Zenda Ofir as Lead Steward and Glenn Page as Councillor. Together, they have shaped a working group of 35 people to further mobilize expertise and other resources worldwide in order to (i) strengthen the transformative power of evaluative thinking and practice, and (ii) transform evaluation and assessment systems so that they can help create and accelerate effective efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

As a working group, we want to encourage and support the emergence of a powerful E&A system for transformation worldwide. We are therefore building a global network with those who are using evaluative practice from a national, international or global perspective. With our diverse membership (representing a wide range of expertise from many countries, disciplines, sectors and fields of work), we hope to establish a transformational system in the field of evaluation and assessment, with people and institutions that can act as change agents around a common vision. We want to energise and open up new pathways for learning, acting and reflecting that can truly serve the era in which we now live.

The working group formed with a group of 6 people and together prepared a DRAFT Manifesto and held a series of webinars at the end of 2017. The webinars featured a promising new area of evaluation called Blue Marble evaluation as one of the founders is renowned evaluator Michael Quinn Patton. The webinars introduced the Blue Marble as well as TE&A WG initiatives to those interested in global systems change. These two initiatives are in synergy, both working towards transformation in the field of evaluative practice. By ‘evaluative practice’ we mean all those fields of work worldwide that use evaluative thinking and systematic work to help generate evidence, understanding and assessments about what is to be done or what is being done – by and for whom, where, why, when, how, with which values and under what circumstances, costs and trade-offs – to effect systems change from a national to global perspective, with long time horizons and sustained development trajectories.

In the first few months of 2018 we conducted a survey among those who have expressed their interest in our working group to determine their priorities and specific areas of interest, what they expected to gain from and can contribute to the Working group, and get their suggestions.


With a committed membership and extraordinary collection of very well-connected expertise, the group keeps on growing. We have identified several initial projects while we mobilize funding for larger initiatives. They include among others mapping the ‘evaluation system’ worldwide and, at more granular level, in specific case countries; synthesising what is known about, and connecting those who are involved in the evaluation of transformation and global systems change; and supporting specific initiatives interested in engaging with the Transformations Forum.

We are now in the process of establishing small subgroups who can each take on a specific task in support of the work of the Working Group. We therefore invite those who share our vision to join us so that we can move forward with energy, inspiration and a focus on profound systems change.

Transformations 2019

Learning from Transformative Action and Thinking
Save the date!

16-19th October, 2019. Santiago, Chile.

The major Forum-associated global conference, Transformations 2019, will provide a platform for reciprocal learning between countries with developing and developed economies to advance practice and theory to support transformative changes for addressing climate change and other contemporary societal and environmental challenges. For the first time, the Transformation Conference will be held in Latin America, in this case in Santiago, Chile hosted by the Centre for Climate and Resilience Research at the University of Chile, with support from other organisations such as CITRID. The event will build on the success of past Transformation conferences to provide spaces for learning from both practice and research about how to achieve systemic change. Exciting supporting events are also being planned, so don’t miss out on this important event. For queries, please contact Paulina Aldunce: info@transformations2019.org

Upcoming Events

  • Meta Narrative Working Group Introductory Webinar:

    Introductory Webinar, Wednesday, June 27 8:00am ET, 13:00 UK, 14:00 CET, 17:30 India; 22:00 Sydney, Australia: Join a webinar on Transformative Narratives. The purpose of the webinar is to bring together those who are working on the stories and narratives needed to meet the transformative challenge of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)Our aim is to map current activity, make connections and work towards a shared agenda. Join from PC, Mac, Linux, iOS or Android: https://zoom.uts.edu.au/j/964267174

Or Telephone:

Meeting ID: 964 267 174

International numbers available: See https://about-zoom.uts.edu.au/connecting-zoom

Or Skype for Business (Lync):

https://zoom.uts.edu.au/skype/964267174 For information on how to connect to a Zoom meeting, see https://about-zoom.uts.edu.au/connecting-zoom

Chris Riedy, Lead Steward - Meta-Narrative Working Group: christopher.riedy@uts.edu.au

  • Td Summer School, 2018, Sept. 2–11, 2018 at the University of Leuphana, Lüneburg, Germany Luneburg, Germany

    Transdisciplinary Research at the Science | Society Interface within an Intercultural Orientation
  • Leverage Points Conference, Feb. 6-8, 2019, at the University of Leuphana, Lüneburg, Germany

    International conference on sustainability research and transformation Proposals due June 30.