Small wins: essential seeds for systemic changes
The future is circular. But how do you initiate a transition to a circular society? And can it be steered? Politicians and policymakers are often impatient. But system change does not come about overnight. 'That's why I prefer to speak of a transformation rather than a transition, to indicate that we are talking about a profound and unpredictable system change', says Prof. Katrien Termeer of the Public Administration and Policy (PAP) group.
Together with colleagues from her group, Termeer developed the small wins approach for transformative change. Small wins is a concept that has been developed in organisational psychology in the US', says Termeer, 'I have further developed the theory together with parties in practice for steering transformations towards sustainability'.
In the vision of Katrien Termeer, small wins are small-scale, but profound and meaningful innovations that start a transformation or help it further: 'The strength of a focus on small steps is that it prevents us from becoming paralysed by the complexity of an issue or getting stuck in endless talking. Small wins can accumulate into a transformation. In the end, a strategy of small steps turns out to lead to change faster than a big leap'.
Ban on free plastic bags
There are plenty of examples of small wins in the transformation to a circular society. Think of the Vegetarian Butcher who started experimenting with vegetarian meat and whose company has now become part of Unilever. Or the ambitious company Kipster: the most environmentally and animal-friendly chicken stable in the world. Another fine example is De Herenboerderij. Started at one location with a group of consumers who became the owners of a sustainable and cooperative farm, the Herenboeren are now a real movement with more than fifteen projects under development.
'But small wins are not always about technical innovations', Termeer emphasises. 'It can also be about new legislation, such as a ban on free plastic bags, or about an innovative business model. The legal proceedings that caused the nitrogen crisis can also be seen as a small win. The court ruling on the Programmatic Approach to Nitrogen (the PAS) in the Netherlands also marks a profound change'.
Profound, radical change
PAPs research into small wins is taking shape together with innovators and policymakers in practice. 'Together we are looking at how we can help small wins to spread, connect and deepen', says Termeer. 'Spreading is about expanding the initiative. After all, you haven't started a transformation with only one Herenboer. Connecting is about linking up with other themes. Think, for example, of the establishment of a repair cafe in a school, linking circularity to technical education. Deepening is about fundamentally changing production processes. If an initiative like the repair café also leads to devices being made differently, making them easier to repair or re-use parts, you really have initiated a profound, radical change'.
On the basis of these practical examples, the theory of the small wins approach also took shape: what are the characteristics of small wins and how do you identify them? How can you stimulate small wins in such a way that they really contribute to the transformation?
The focus of PAP as a group of policy experts lies with the government, but they also investigate private initiatives and public-private partnerships. ‘Together with these parties, we are investigating which policy interventions work to further stimulate small wins, and which do not’. According to Katrien Termeer, it is important for governments to link up with initiatives that already exist and support them. ‘Not by pampering them or using perpetual pilots, but by creating policy space and keeping a finger on the pulse. Make sure that innovation subsidy programmes are easily accessible and not too strict. As a government, make sure you are a sparring partner - for example, by appointing a permanent contact person who also connects parties and thus helps create added value. Ensure that the transformation is also reflected in legislation and, in any case, stop policies that are counterproductive for the circular economy'.
The fact that the 'small wins' approach has a lot of resonance among policymakers and that Termeer is often asked to participate in committees and expert groups, she thinks, is a good result. 'It's not that surprising,' she says. 'Because we don't offer an abstract theory, but a concrete action perspective that parties can use directly. Partly because of the positive approach and because the approach does not disqualify initiatives and companies, it is an approach that gives parties energy to move a transformation process forward.'