If we have figured out transformation, why is the world still in such a mess?

From a quick look around the climate change community, at the conferences and the titles of projects and programmes, you would think we have cracked it. We know how to deliver transformation and save the world from the climate emergency. This is great news. Time is running out and the challenge is urgent and huge.

However, given the huge complexity of socio-economic systems, the inertia in instigating change and what we know from history, this seems suspiciously easy.

This debate on transformation is within the context of the increasing rise of urgency in the climate debate and the narrative of 12 years to save the planet. So, there is an additional pressure not just to transform, but to dramatically accelerate transformative processes.

Learning from early results

This year I have been working with research and practitioner communities to develop ideas of what it means to aim for transformation in the context of climate change, and how we can learn from this in Europe’s climate innovation agency, to deliver our own strategy Transformation, in Time.

I have written already about our work on the potential for non-linear tipping points. This blog is my next reflection on what we have learnt from reviewing the practical experiences of international climate programmes on understanding transformation – the early mover group as I like to think of them.

To get started we reviewed the nine main international climate programmes that have attempted some form of measurement of transformation. This included the work of programmes and institutions like the Climate Investment Funds, Action on Climate Today, the work of DFID (the Department for International Development in the UK) and the Green Climate Fund. We looked at their conceptual approach, indicators and any reports or evaluations they had conducted around transformation.

The first thing we found was that most of these programmes are using the same core concepts to understand transformation – these are relevance (targeting the right thing), depth (addressing root causes or systems), sustainability (will last in the long-term), and scale (potential for significant impact). Some also include ‘inclusivity’ to make sure that the most vulnerable are included.

Much of the learning that has emerged has been at the early stages of instigating transformation, so about the potential mechanisms that could deliver transformation in practice and/or the processes of trying to be more transformative.

We found that engaging a broad range of stakeholders enabled investment design to be more transformative. Programmes used techniques such as stakeholder dialogues, finding influential individuals to champion the agenda and aligning with relevant existing initiatives. The design of investments needed to consider underlying power dynamics, legal and institutional structures and an analysis of the politics and incentives behind different policy approaches.

Programmes emphasising the local benefits such as poverty reduction and economic development as well as addressing climate change in their activities found this helped create more systemic change in local contexts.

Systems change initiatives faced higher levels of complexity and were more unpredictable, so they needed to adopt management systems which could respond quickly and flexibly to the changes in the programme and context, an approach called adaptive management. Techniques for adaptive management include using annual context assessments, flexible finance, devolved decision-making and flexible monitoring and evaluation systems that help projects better manage and respond to uncertainty and change.

We also found that very few investments developed theories of change for transformative mechanisms and impacts at the start of the programme, and so have used evaluations at the end to assess potential impact. This may limit the potential for real-time reflection and learning about the transformative potential of the activities they support as they unfold, and may limit the potential for adjusting activities and programming to stretch the boundaries of what is possible.

Is transformation really measurable?

Those working in the field understand the huge complexities of trying to catalyse significant shifts in systems and the tension between holding the complexity of systems versus conceptualising change through a framework that cuts across this complexity. They know their own efforts are only at the beginning of this journey.  

This review opened up many of these questions for me. Some for us at EIT Climate-KIC and some for the broader field. I am left wondering if there a risk that as the climate community moves towards neat indicators of transformation that can be aggregated across time and space, we forget what a messy unpredictable non-linear process it actually is and how we might contribute to achieving it in less tangible ways.

How much is the type of transformation we are starting to measure just achieving our usual objectives really well, versus a fundamental and sometimes disruptive shift in the system towards something that is compatible with a 1.5 degree limit on global warming?

How do we work with unexpected and sudden changes or when improving the enabling environment (such as through increased capacity and political commitment) doesn’t lead to the bigger shifts needed?

How do we incentivise and support genuine learning and reflection that is not in the shadow of needing to prove our approach is working and achieving impact for top-down accountability purposes?

It is great to see these initial efforts to programme and plan for significant changes in the systems that drive climate change and shape how we respond to the impacts. As practitioners, we cannot throw our hands up at all this complexity and the tensions between different objectives. We need to find the best way through to find workable answers to the questions above. To put out an approach, to test it, to reflect and to improve it.

Now we have such an opportunity. We have the initial results from these first programmes and a variety of experience to draw on. Let’s look and learn from these early experiments by the pioneers in the field and move forward together on finding the truly transformative pathways that will deliver the change we need.

 
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