Reflections from the Monday morning theme plenary session “Learning from the history of large-scale social innovations and transformations”

The focal question of this session was basically: what can we learn from large-scale historical transformations, to help inform our thinking about future transformations to sustainability? The session presented findings from a large project exploring different cases of historical transformation, taking stock of existing knowledge and drawing out new insights. Led by Frances Westley, the JW McDonnel Chair in Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo, the session was not only incredibly rich in insights from the project itself, but interwoven with broader reflections from Westley’s extensive experience working on social innovation over many years.

Presentation snapshot
The material started with a dilemma: When you look at cases of social-ecological innovation, how can you tell which ones will be transformative? If “transformative” implies changing the system that an innovation emerged from in the first place, this means challenging social, cultural, political, legal institutions at the root of causing a problem. Hence a key question is whether or not an innovation challenges institutions, as an indicator for whether it might contain a radical seed for transformative change.

The project focused on back-tracing transformative changes to examine the processes over time by which it occurred. Through a case presented on the evolution of National Parks in the US and Canada, empirical data revealed the ongoing salience of early ideas and values of romanticism in the creation of the parks. Interestingly, long-term empirical data shows clear patterns of “punctuated equilibrium” – the idea that change over time involves periods of stability punctuated by shorter periods of upheaval or more radical change. Another key insight was the importance of unusual alliances between actors that seem to be working towards different goals but find mutual benefit at some moment in time. For example, in the early days of the creation of national parks involved partnerships between conservationists, railroads companies, and mineral expeditions.

This last finding catapulted to perhaps one of the most profound insights for scholars interested in transformations to sustainability: the prevalence (and perhaps unavoidability) of paradoxes or tensions that characterise the essence of an issue, and shape its fault lines over long time periods. For the national parks case, tensions like wilderness vs park, science vs tourism, and nature vs culture are not just present today, but were present right from the beginning. These seeming contradictions mean that innovative solutions may never be pure and perfect, and are instead are “always going to be hybrid processes, rife with contradictions and paradoxes, that we have to manage through multiple cycles”.

Another profound observation was that since transformative change takes time – often likely to be years and decades or more – this goes far beyond single individuals. This is a deep challenge in the face of the urgency of contemporary environmental challenges, but may just be the way it is. “Nonetheless,” said Westley, “you can begin to move things forward, and you’re not the first person to try”. “Change is a long relay race, not a sprint, but you need to carry the baton further and hand it off to the right kinds of people.”

Plenary discussion
The facilitated discussion further explored implications from the presentation. A key topic was the distributed nature of agency across space and time, vs a focus on “heroes”. In explaining the implications for individual leadership, Westley used the metaphor of building a cathedral to remind yourself that “it will take time but I am only a part” … “I am a servant to the process, may be lucky to be part of radical change in a punctuated equilibrium moment, but may not”. This can also be a release, since change does not rely on just one person, but you can play a role in moving it forward: “every leg of a relay race is equally important”. The discussion finished with talking about the opportunity context for change in a broad sense, recognising that in complex systems opportunities are always arising for action, but this relies on “creating the right links at the right time around the right issues”.

Final reflections
In a conversation following the plenary, audience member Dr. Sandra Schiller reflected that it was particularly interesting to see “how the idea of agency is linked to systems theory”, and that “allowing yourself to have a long-term perspective is very reassuring”. This captures extremely well the mix of both intellectual and personal insights from this session!

Your Resilience2017 correspondent:

James Patterson is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), Vrije
University Amsterdam, working in the area of environmental governance. His current research focuses on climate change adaptation in cities, with a particular focus on institutional innovation and change. He also has a keen interest in sustainability transformations, collective action, and science-policy interactions.



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