Transformations2019: A Narrative Perspective

Metanarrative

The Transformations2019 conference held in Santiago, Chile, presented a unique opportunity for reflecting on the what and the why of transformation. The ‘what’, of course, was the focus of the content of the conference. The ‘why’ exploded on the last formal day of the conference when protests broke out throughout Santiago. The protests almost seemed like a metaphor of rationale for the conference itself. Triggered by a fare increase for the Metro, the protests, which sometimes turned violent, highlighted long-term discontent with inequality, living costs, rising debt, and corruption in the country.

Chile’s protests, along with numerous others simultaneously erupting in many parts of the world, both symbolically and in practice underscore the need for transformation. Many citizens are frustrated with the status quo of today’s winner-take-all, competitive rat race, where the rich seem to always win and most people get left behind, and where the natural environment is pillaged in the name of profit and wealth. Climate change, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, violent weather patterns mirror the unrest about inequality, corruption, high cost of living, and other societal ills that suddenly spilled into public view as the conference wound down. In Santiago and in numerous other cities in Chile and elsewhere in the world, many people were (and are) demanding through public protests that leaders move their societies towards greater equity for all.

The ‘what’ of the conference perhaps can potentially shed a bit of light on the visions for a better world that some conference participants hold. One premise that I and some of my colleagues brought to the conference was the idea that the important stories and narratives that people hold about their world, or what anthropologists call their cultural mythologies, frame the way they see and ultimately act in the world. The idea is that to begin to transform towards a better world, we all need to shift our framing—our cultural mythologies—to understand the world in a new way. Today’s dominant mythologies tend to be economic, and around individualism, growth at all costs, and purportedly free markets. This mythology has led us to today’s many ills, including climate change and social inequality—the very stuff of which protests are made, even as envisioned by some of Chile’s children (see photo of children’s artwork displayed at the conference).

Figure 1: Some of the artwork from boys and girls of four different schools displayed at Transformations2019, Santiago, Chile, October 2019.

 

Many people, and certainly many conference attendees, envision a different world with a different type of myth. Here is one synthesis of some key ideas emerging from the conference, particularly in narrative sessions in which some future visioning was done. Maybe these ideas can begin to form the basis of a new cultural mythology for a transforming world:

  • Harmony between Mother Earth and human beings, recognizing that we humans are inextricably linked to the natural environment’s flourishing and to all other living beings on the planet.
    • One phrase that came from the workshop was “Mother Earth took care of us. Now it’s our turn to take care of her.”
    • Partly, this harmony means acknowledging ancient wisdom acknowledging our human interdependence with each other and with nature. These ideas were expressed in a number of ways including the idea of Ubuntu, the pan-African notion that I am because we are), Mitákuye Oyásiŋ (the Lakota idea that ‘We are all one’ or ‘All my relations’), or the Bhutanese worldview in which reality is perceived as interdependent and impermanent, knowledge is viewed as wisdom and co-existing in harmony, and a core value is benefitting others.
  • Connection, both with the natural environment and with other people. Connection in this context means recognizing that human beings share common interests in having a healthy and supportive natural environment (ecosystem, our Mother Earth) and in developing healthy societies that support the wellbeing of all of their people. Some characteristics of this (newly-recognized) connected world include:
    • Diversity as a means of fostering resilience and wellbeing in human societies and in nature.
    • Recognizing our very human need to belong
    • Generational wellbeing, a holistic perspective both in terms of honoring ancestors and in providing stewardship of the future to preserve a livable world for future generations, i.e., engages with the past, present, and future.
    • Caring for other people, other beings, and the socio-ecological systems that support today’s societies, including healthy oceans, healthful agricultural practices, effective transportation, communication, and political systems.
    • Holistic pathways of interconnectedness and webs of community that transcend disciplinary, sector, geographical, and other boundaries are core to needed self-organization to develop (or remember) the knowledge needed to transform.
  • Hope, even ‘radical hope,’ as a vital element of the journey towards transformation, in recognition that this journey is a long-term process in which many people are engaged. Part of the journey involves:
    • Mystery, love, beauty, sensuality, embodied being, diversity, and multiplicity.
    • (Re)-generative healing, particularly around restoring what is being lost, restoring regenerating ecosystems, building healthy societies that support wellbeing, connection, and a flourishing natural environment.
    • Re-storying the future.
    • Purpose and meaningful work are important aspects of the desired future, recognizing the capacity for self-organization and individual and collective agency in transforming the system.
    • Inclusive, participatory, and integrated systems, in which all voices can be heard and people can be seen.
    • The world and human societies conceived as dynamic, adaptive, innovative, and experimental processes, that is, as living systems in which learning is ongoing (lifelong) and the beautiful and the good (ethics) are front and center.

Integrating these ideas into our societal and economic systems, and particularly in to the stories and narratives that help orient all of us to the world around us may be an important step in the direction of system transformation.

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)

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