Co-creating transformative pathways for a thriving society and nature

Published on
May 8, 2023

Twelve international research organisations are working together on TRANSPATH, a project that aims to create pathways for a world where plants, humans, and other animals can thrive. The project re-thinks established financial systems, business models, and value patterns.

What does it take to create a truly sustainable society? To create an economy that does not harm biodiversity, but actually enhances it? These are the questions that the research project TRANSPATH aims to answer.TRANSPATH examines financial and business systems, as well as deeply ingrained values, and proposes approaches to change these fundamental structures in our society. Because, as TRANSPATH's project leader Francisco Alpizar pointed out in an earlier interview: humanity does not cause damage to nature because it wants to do so, but because of “an underlying system of incentives”.

In order to address these root causes, the project’s researchers outline different routes towards transformative change, so-called "transformative pathways." Enrique Ibarra from the Costa Rican research organisation CATIE (Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre) and Jeanne Nel from Wageningen University & Research discuss the importance of the research, their approach, and the art of looking beyond one's own paradigm.

The global impact of EU policies

TRANSPATH officially launched in November 2022. The four-year study is part of a selection of eleven research projects on transformative change and biodiversity, funded by Horizon Europe, the EU's main funding programme for research and innovation. The selected projects all aim to contribute to the fourth pillar of the EU's Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 on enabling transformative change.

Wageningen University & Research and CATIE coordinate TRANSPATH, with a total of twelve research organisations participating: eight parties from the EU, as well as Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ghana, and Costa Rica. “

Horizon projects usually focus on Europe”, explains Nel. “But since our project focuses on the impacts that European policy has on global spaces, we’ve included Ghana and Costa Rica as case studies.”

Transformative like the internet

Transformative change is a fundamental shift in the way society governs itself. Ibarra explains that the internet is a good example, as it has brought fundamental changes in how we work, communicate, and consume news. The idea of transformative change can be applied to various aspects of life, including business, politics, and the environment. "In the context of biodiversity, transformative change refers to a fundamental shift in how we as a society view and value nature”, says Ibarra. “We need to shift our perspective and stop viewing nature as merely an input for productive processes. Instead, we must recognise it as the environment in which we live, upon which our very lives depend."

We live in a world that is inherently reacting to short term crises, adds Nel. “These short term crises are used by lobby groups with vested interests to cause confusion on how to move forward and delay action.” In this context, creating a long term vision is a great challenge.

The role that we can play as scientists is to test various alternative options and interventions.
Enrique Ibarra

TRANSPATH places its focus on systemic change, rather than individual change. Ibarra argues that solely blaming consumers for their choices overlooks the larger systemic issues at play, such as the creation of rules and incentives that hinder them from making more sustainable decisions. “In that sense it is quite necessary to address a wider political and institutional environment in which we make our decisions.”

Nel: “For example, you can say that people should buy nature positive food that hasn’t caused deforestation. You can say all of that, but what a person is able to eat or can choose to eat is very much dependent on the food environment that’s created, for example, in the form of affordability, regulations, stores, and labels.”

Therefore, the research targets regulators and decision makers. “The role that we can play as scientists is to test various alternative options and interventions. This way, we can make it very much explicit what the problems are.”

Organisations, communities and the financial market

For example, the researchers at TRANSPATH engage in conversations with organisations and communities that self-identify as working sustainably, seeking to understand their motivations, the challenges they face, and what they believe could be improved. “We then want to come up with a theory on transformative change with them, on what types of interventions we could use at a structural institutional level to enable them to move forward with nature-positive actions that are considered just and sustainable”, explains Nel. Regarding the financial market, the researchers plan to do case studies that focus on two aspects: the impact of trade policy at an EU level on biodiversity, and the role that the financial sector can play in contributing to nature-positive value chains of specific commodities such as coffee and cocoa.

Moving beyond paradigms

Without embracing new perspectives of how nature is valued, it is impossible to break the lock-ins that entrench the status quo, and prevent us moving towards futures where nature and society live in harmony, says Nel. To bring more diverse perspectives into institutional policy and decision making processes the research team employs the concept of inclusive deliberation. The goal of such a process is to examine a problem from various perspectives and value systems, and negotiate the most suitable way forward for everyone, explains Nel. “In most sustainability decisions there will be winners and losers, but at the moment the ones that benefit from the status quo tend to make the decisions, which further entrenches the lock-ins. Inclusive deliberation therefore tries to break dominant ways of doing things. By bringing in voices with values aligned more closely to nature and human rights, we are likely to chart to a far more sustainable and just world.”