Sustainability transformations: sense-making across societies

Tools and Methods

How can we understand what drives such transformative changes, to what extent transformations can be governed, and how actors’ understandings of the goals and pathways of transformations differ within and across societies?

These are the types of questions that motivated us to write our book Sustainability Transformations: Agents and Drivers Across Societies (Cambridge University Press, 2019). We analyse the multiple and multifaceted ways in which actors make sense of how to change the world sustainably. We explore historical and current analogies, metaphors, stories and narratives from around the world, based on studies of academic literature, countries’ contributions to the Paris climate agreement and the UN 2030 Agenda, international news media, and laypeople’s focus groups on five continents.

A Typology of Transformations

Depending on the system boundaries, the scale and the pace of the transformation, different types of challenges arise. We see a need for enhanced clarity on the many uses of the transformation concept in climate and sustainability science and policy. We suggest a basic framework to distinguish between fundamental aspects of systems change.

First, we need to reflect on the boundaries of the societal system that is being transformed, ranging from specific parts of civilizations to entire civilizations. Second, we need to consider the pace at which such transformations are thought to occur, from the perspective of a decades to centuries. In our book we discuss a number of historical, ongoing and suggested transformations that differ in terms of system boundaries and pace. Examples include:

  • Rapid and comprehensive transformations on a civilizational scale, such as the reshaping of cultural and economic practices coinciding with the development of electronics, information and communication technologies;
  • Relatively fast transformation of particular institutions, such as when Britain abolished slavery in the early 19th century, where slavery had been seen as a natural order five decades earlier;
  • Protracted processes spanning centuries such as the great European civilization transformation identified as industrialisation or modernisation (depending on what drivers are in focus); and
  • Relatively slow, gradual transformations of particular segments of society, such as carbon net-zero energy and urbanization.

Based on these distinctions, we get four overarching types of societal transformations.  First, the quantum leap approach to transformation characterised by a rapid pace and a civilization-wide approach to transformation. The quantum leap approach encompasses rapidly accelerated social changes that break with prevailing patterns of social organization.

Second, the  convergent approach is rapid in pace and includes novel initiatives aiming for abrupt change, but addresses particular segments or sectors of society.

Third, the emergent approach is protracted in pace and civilization-wide in scope. The emergent approach  commonly rests on evolutionary conceptual breakthroughs, recombining well-known elements that contribute to changing world views and fostering new social organization.

Fourth, the gradualist approach is protracted in pace and particular in scope. In the gradualist approach we find customary initiatives that are repackaged into targeted piecemeal governance approaches aimed at addressing particular issues or societal sectors.

Ways of Conceptualizing Transformations

Furthermore, in the book we discuss five major ways of conceptualizing transformation, recurring in our data sets: as a journey, a building process, a war, co-creation, and recuperation. Each of these metaphorical ways of describing transformation processes highlight different dimensions of societal change, all with their particular strengths and limitations, and need to be critically scrutinized by anyone involved in communication on sustainability transformations.

We learn from complex systems theory that endeavors to command large-scale socio–ecological systems  are unlikely to progress as planned, since we cannot foresee all irregular and nonlinear interactions. Future societal transformations are probable to involve mosaic combinations of emergent and deliberate transformation processes, shaped by a combination of political governance, shifting modes of transnational economic exchange, technological and social innovations, public perspective shifts citizen priorities, global and local environmental changes.

We also point to the importance of identifying platforms for dialogue that can support the types of ‘clumsy institutions’ that will be needed for governing sustainability transformations. We reflect on the role of utopian visions in spurring discussions about new pathways that could escape from path dependency and go beyond current lock-ins – while also taking into account how culture is nested in material conditions and practices and, vice versa.

During our work, we found a multitude of inspiring stories of transformation, indicating how the movement for sustainability transformations is growing. In our book we hope to reflect the plethora of insights, stories, experiences, and visions which provide a basis for continued discussions about future conditions, challenges and pathways for sustainability transformations.

Victoria Wibeck and Björn-Ola Linnér are Professors at Linköping University, Sweden.  Victoria’s interests focus on communication and sense-making of global environmental change, with a  particular interest in exploring citizens’ understandings of global environmental challenges. Björn-Ola Linnér focuses on societal transformations worldwide that are able to cope environmental changes while advancing global development

Note: Parts of this text have previously been published in a blog post for Fifteeneightyfour, the Cambride University Press blog

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