Incremental vs. transformative change
There are growing calls for more transformative approaches to addressing persistent interlinked societal problems such as biodiversity loss, hunger, climate change, unsustainable growth, poverty and social inequality. These problems cannot be addressed by merely ramping up the things that are already being done, often termed 'incremental change'. Instead, calls are growing for 'transformative change' – a fundamental system-wide reorganisation of how societies are governed. This includes shifts in social, economic, environmental, and technological dimensions, and underpinning paradigms, goals and values.
Exploring different perspectives
While there is growing consensus that transformative change is needed, there is less agreement about what it entails and how it can be achieved. Many approaches to transformative change exist. Grassroots and 'bottom up' approaches emphasise small new steps, through experimentation and innovations that emerge and accumulate over time. Structural and 'top down' approaches generally focus on radical overhaul of dominant political and economic structures; for example, how production and consumption is organised by societies. At Wageningen University & Research, we are undertaking a process to explore many of these different perspectives – both their tensions and how they can better connect. We have done so through interviews, a dialogue series and a new PhD course on transformative research.
We aim to explore the role of research in transformative change to build new narratives, relationships and ways of learning and thinking to address interlinked global challenges. In a recent report called '71 visions on our role in social-environmental transformative change', we identified four ways of working to foster transformative change:
- Pluralising: how to open up and navigate diverse perspectives;
- Empowering: how to mobilise people to act for collective good;
- Politicising: how to understand and address power relations; and
- Embedding: how to sustain iterative learning and action.
By using these approaches, we seek to bring together diverse people in research and society to extend the imagination about possibilities, reverse power relationships and lock-ins, and embed new ways of learning and decision-making in society.
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