Spurring Radical Change

Tools and Methods

‘The future, as always, is uncertain,’ says the introduction to the 2020 Future Earth report, Our Future on Earth.  Certainly, there is a lot of evidence that the future for humanity may be risky at best and is deeply uncertain. The combination of uncontrolled climate change, lack of sustainability, inequality, political rhetoric of hatred, racism, and general divisiveness, combined with lack of ‘voice’ or democratic participation for too many people, creates ever more uncertainty and unpredictability.

Getting discouraged is easy when reviewing the risks facing the planet. For example, a survey undertaken by Future Earth and discussed in the 2020 report highlights five major risks that ‘have the potential to impact and amplify one another.’ These risks include the failure to reduce the trajectory of climate change or sufficiently adapt, extreme weather events, the species extinction resulting from biodiversity loss, and the potential for food and water crises.[i] And those risks are only part of the depressing set of statistics and trends presented in the full 2020 Future Earth report. Further, despite all the evidence of problems in numerous natural systems ranging from climate to oceans to biodiversity declines and significant problems in human systems of food, transportation, and politics documented in the Future Earth report, the current system seems relatively ‘stuck’ in its patterns of business as usual.

SDG Transformations Forum (the Forum) authors argue in the report’s chapter How to Spur Radical Change that purposeful transformation is needed to change this problematic trajectory towards achieving United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and beyond. Incrementalism and even reform of current systems will not be sufficient. Transformation, the Forum believes, involves deep, broad, and multi-level change in human systems, including socio-economic and socio-ecological systems. Such transformation needs to be driven by emerging new narratives and generally agreed guiding goals like the SDGs. Broader objectives that emphasize something more like wellbeing and dignity for all would be much more helpful in guiding global transformation than today’s much more narrowly driven metrics and narratives, which emphasize only material and financial wealth.

To play its part in emerging understanding about how such positive—purposeful—transformations might come about, the Forum emphasizes what it calls T-systems (or transformation systems). T-systems are the collection of transformational change agents who are working towards purposeful change and innovation in given regions, systems, or around specific sets of issues. T-systems, as SDG Founder Steve Waddell says, operate alongside of whatever system is the subject of transformation efforts (for example, an energy system, an economic system, a food supply system). T-systems are part of the system needing change and also distinct from it, in that they represent either a coherent or incoherent set of change initiatives aimed at whatever system needs to change.

The problem, as the Forum sees it, is that T-system change actors are currently operating mostly independently of each other. They tend not to be connected, and may sometimes be duplicating or even contradicting transformational efforts. T-systems, that is, are currently fragmented and unformed. To be effective at achieving goals like the SDGs, they need to cohered, coordinated, and coalesced so that their efforts are focused in important new ways. One of the core purposes of the Forum is to bring such cohesiveness to T-systems, drawing together key actors so that they can work collaboratively and collectively, amplifying their efforts in constructive ways, so that transformations in desirable directions can be sped up and constructively enhanced.

Achieving coherence in T-systems means finding common or shared purposes, which can be expressed, for example, by something like the SDGs—an aspirational set of goals that have been agreed by all of the nations of the world. The SDGs, if fully implemented, would go a long way towards alleviating many of the socio-ecological problems outlined in the Future Earth report. The Forum’s report outlines four transformational strategies that T-system agents can use in shaping change: ‘warrior’ or activist, ‘lover’ or collaborative, ‘entrepreneur’ or innovation, and ‘missionary’ or purpose-driven strategies with clear, often sustainability-oriented values.

T-systems, the Forum argues in its article, need to find what change and systems theorist Donella Meadows called leverage points for change[ii] if they are to be effective. Five aspects of different types of systems, the Forum article argues, are important potential such leverage points. One is purpose, or what change agents (and the system) are trying to achieve. A second is perspectives or the mindsets that enable change, which Meadows argued is perhaps the most powerful change lever. A third is performance metrics or what is rewarded and incentivized in the system. The practices, policies, and processes that characterize any system are also important potential leverage points. Finally, and too often overlooked, are power relations, which indicate who has and does not have input into decisions, and who gets or does not get resources, among other factors.

So, yes, transformational system change is difficult. By creating powerful new T-systems with objectives like the SDGs or general wellbeing for all in mind, we believe that it is indeed possible.

Sandra Waddock is the Councillor for the Forum’s Metanarrative Working Group,  Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, and Professor of Management at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, Chestnut Hill, MA USA. (waddock@bc.edu)


[i] Ivanova, M., M. Reichstein, M. Garschagen, Q. Ye, K. Chaudhari and S. Wood (2020). A survey of scientists’ perceptions. In Our Future on Earth, 14-17, URL: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1frtujIePBi5yTP1ccwefk-NxH1tRnpXb/view/.

[ii] Meadows, Donella (1999). Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Harland, VT: The Sustainability Institute. Posted at: http://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/.

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