Since the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was launched in 2010 with the aim of popularising the idea of a circular economy, the concept has gained momentum from policy makers, businesses and NGOs. The European Commission is fostering the implementation of a Circular Economy Action Plan across Europe, and other countries, including China, have been inspired by the European initiatives to produce their own ambitious circular economy agendas.

At Smart CSOs Lab we have started work on our Pathways to the Great Transition project. Part of this project is a research dialogue – we will engage researchers and practitioners on two guiding questions:

  1. The vision question (‘what’): Is there a puzzle of the new/next system emerging and if so, what are some of the key elements?
  2. The strategies question (‘how’): Can we identify a number of promising pathways for activists and funders towards the Great Transition?

We want to help system change discussions among civil society actors and funders become much more concrete and less dogmatic, as well as rooted in existing knowledge about human nature and human systems, rather than our reflexes and emotional attachments to particular theories of change.

Make Europe Great Again 

The more often you repeat something, the more likely it is that the idea sticks. For example, the most active ‘Feel the Bern’ supporters distributed thousands of messages describing Hillary Clinton as a neoliberal evil that had to be avoided at all costs. This seems to have influenced many of the millions of young activists who gathered around Bernie Sanders’ U.S. presidential candidacy. It is well-documented that many of these Sanders supporters did not vote for Hillary at the US elections. One of the frequent reasons stated by non-voters was: "it doesn't matter for who you vote, it’s just the lesser of two evils".

In 2016 we had Brexit, we had Trump. In 2017 we will see elections in Netherlands, France, and Germany, where right-wing parties threaten to make important advances. Especially in France the risk is increasing that Marine le Pen becomes president.

Right now it looks like the populist right has a powerful narrative. It blames the liberal elites to be responsible for catastrophic immigration and Islamisation. Politicians ("Merkel must go"), experts ("people have had enough of experts") and the media ("the Lügenpresse") are the enemies.

The scary thing about all this is it's not just rhetoric. The right has a project it wants to implement: To create authoritarian national regimes à la Putin, Erdogan or Trump, to leave the EU, to ‘bring back’ national control on policy, to stop immigration, and to strengthen traditional (Christian) values.

The signs from the Degrowth Conference have now been removed from the walls of the portentous building of Corvinus University, and the streets of Budapest emptied from the stalls and the babble of the Degrowth-Week: the time is ripe for a first-round evaluation. The conference can be assessed from diverse perspectives – with disparate outcomes, I suspect. Even if I am relatively new to the degrowth scene, I am strongly persuaded that this is a decisive time in the evolution of the European degrowth intellectual and activist movement. For this reason, I think it’s important to take a moment to reflect on the current direction of the degrowth community, to take its pulse.

It seems to me that a key variable in the complex equation for the success of the degrowth movement is an effective and rewarding mutual fertilization between degrowth scholars and activists. The current prevailing assessment in the community seems to be that there is ‘too much academia and not enough activism’.  Even if such a critique of ‘sterile intellectualism’ should not come as a surprise in the framework of the friction-prone – yet, let’s face it, indispensable – alliance between the academic and activist spheres, my concern is that bridging the two spheres requires a more focused, deliberate, and constructive approach than such a simple rebuff. Failing to build a strong bridge between these two worlds poses two parallel threats to the degrowth discourse:

Four philosophers concluded that the concept of utopia is outdated. We don't agree. Do you?

These days public debate is either rude and provocative or it is being censored and contrary opinions are shut down solely on moral grounds – social media being most affected by both extremes. Maybe this explains why spaces where thought experiments and free respectful debates are encouraged show great popularity these days. This is the case with Germany's largest annual philosophy festival PhilCologne held last week in Cologne.

We (Silke and Micha from Smart CSOs) were attracted by this year's festival themes and speakers and attended two of its evening colloquiums.

by Barbara Unmüßig (Heinrich Böll Foundation)

Answering the question as to what contribution civil society can make towards social and economic transformation should involve an analysis of the political and economic framework (external factors) and a differentiated and honest examination of the composition of civil society (internal factors). It should also delve into how external and internal factors intertwine and, in part, amplify each other – as complex as this may be.

Since the early days when we discussed setting up the Smart CSOs Lab, the million-dollar-question has been: Is there any realistic chance that established professional NGOs adopt the key Smart CSOs insights and become effective change agents for the Great Transition? Or are these organisations too much stuck in the system and are our efforts to change them doomed to fail?

Well, we knew that changing large NGOs would always be very difficult and the attempts over the last three years by members of the Smart CSOs Lab to make steps forward have often been daunting tasks. On the other hand the little successes and meaningful steps forward have often stayed invisible and have only later shown to actually add up to become bigger steps. We have definitely learned that change takes time and most importantly if (Great Transition) change agents in organisations are steady and patient, there is a good chance that they can build internal networks for system change. Job van den Assem has been such a change agent for the last few years at Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands).

CSOs are very good at managing projects: planning, managing, evaluating. But are these competences useful when it comes to the need to support systemic change? Can transformation be defined, planned and controlled just like most projects NGOs usually deal with?

Johannes Krause, founder and board member of Impuls - Agency for Applied Utopia, recently wrote an essay in which he digs deeper into the topic of transformative change theories and our scope of action to bring about system change. We have conducted an interview with Johannes where he summarizes the basic arguments and insights of his essay. To read his full essay, you can download the German original or the translated English version.

Johannes is leading the action learning process ‘Competences for the Great Transition’ and is part of the Smart CSOs team. He holds a PhD in political philosophy and has worked as process facilitator in Global Citizenship, Leadership and Citizen Participation.

This little personal note of mine might create some controversy amongst our readers. And if it does, I would welcome a discussion as it might help sharpen our minds on some important questions.

I lived for 6 years in London and must admit that I often enjoyed the ads in the London underground trains. Often they are very creative and funny and know how to capture your attention in an unpretentious way. Some ads in the cinema are entertaining to watch as well… other ads can be annoying and on commercial TV channels where movies are interrupted by TV ads this can be a frustrating or rather a must-avoid exercise. I do believe as well that advertisement can serve a positive function in an economy if they have a strong focus on spreading honest and truthful information about novel products and their specifications. How will I let people know about a concert we are going to give or a new album recorded if I am not allowed to ‘advertise’ it?

As we have experienced in the Smart CSOs community over the last two years, changing an organisation to work on system change is far from an easy task. Most civil society organisations are deeply entrenched in the current system. We might irritate partners and constituencies if we don’t fulfil their expectations and we have a reputation and trust to lose. Most available funding schemes are far from supporting the type of uncertain work needed for long-term system change. But the most difficult part is to change the organisation’s culture, its structure and way of doing things. It requires a change in mindsets and developing the right capacities.

Recently Forum for the Future launched its report Creating the big shift – system innovation for sustainability. The report explains in a nicely didactic way the six steps approach Forum for the Future developed and uses in its System Innovation work and it reminds us of the useful insights we can draw from the systems thinking work from Peter Senge, Donnella Meadows and others. We should use their tools and methods to get more systemic in our work. For the Smart CSOs Lab’s ambition to improve our theories of change, this report is a good resource to look at.

However, the report also made me quite nervous as it reminded me that we often mean very different things when we talk about system change and the report talks a lot about system change.

When we set up the Smart CSOs Lab two years ago, the aim was always to inspire as many change agents as possible in civil society to start experimenting with strategies aimed at system change and the Great Transition. Immediately we realised that capacity building had to be part of the portfolio of our work if we wanted to transform organisations and their strategies. It was great that since the beginning we had very enthusiastic and committed change agents in the Smart CSOs community and many of them at executive level. But organisational change has to be supported and driven by people working in the organisation at all levels, even more so in CSOs that have a history of participative decision making and are reluctant to accept heavy top-down decision making. The leadership at director’s level can be a crucial factor but it has to be supported much more widely.

The Smart CSOs Lab proposes a radical reconsideration of NGO practices in order to stimulate a system shift towards a more just and sustainable world. This is quite a challenge for NGOs, busy with daily policy business, trapped in topical silos and steered by the aspiration of short term wins, when the inclusion of our momentary buzz words in an official policy paper becomes the success story of the year.

Getting out of the business as usual and starting to pull the “key leverage points” such as systems thinking, cultural transformation and building a global movement is a major strategic shift for most CSOs. At CONCORD, the European Development NGO Confederation, the DEEEP4 Project was recently set up as an action experiment to try out some of the Smart CSOs thinking in practice, and hopefully to scale up its experience in the wider confederation.

Tackling the current global ecological and social crises urgently requires a cultural transformation away from today’s dominant consumerism and nationalism towards a culture of wellbeing with simpler living and a sense of planetary solidarity and identity.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) have a crucial role in helping to bring about such a Great Transition to a sustainable and equitable future (more about the vision of the Great Transition in the annex). Yet, current CSO campaigns often fail to address the cultural dimension of the Great Transition. The shortcomings can be found at two levels:

Last year our friends from Impuls (Agency for Applied Utopias) in Berlin started an action learning process with young campaigners (in German: Kampagnenwerkstatt) to collaboratively design and put into practice a campaign that would experiment with new ways of supporting the type of changes needed for the Great Transition.

What we know from the Smart CSOs dialogue is that current CSO campaigns are mostly focusing on concrete and often very technical policy wins and are too often driven by short-term tactical considerations rather than by a strategy of long-term systemic change. In his recent book What Money Can’t Buy, Harvard’s political philosopher Michael Sandel laments the vacancy in public discourse about the big moral questions that people really care about. As there are no signs from governments or political parties to fill this vacancy, it seems that civil society has a real opportunity to fill this gap and design campaigns that kick-start societal conversations and thereby play a role in a much needed cultural transformation. This is exactly what the Impuls campaign learning process arrived at.

Since the Cologne Storytelling Workshop last November with Jonah Sachs, I´ve had the opportunity to run a series of workshops with change agents from the Spanish Development sector.

Under the label “Colaborative lab” we co-convened a project with the Spanish Development NGOs Confederation (CONGDE) exploring new ways to empower their social base towards systemic change. The storytelling workshop was part of it and is well documented on the project website:

The aim was to provide new tools to civil society within the scope of the Smart CSOs leverage point CSO Strategies for Cultural Transformation towards the Great Transition. My main reflections were:

It was March 2010 and our Executive Director Kumi Naidoo’s addressed his first Executive Directors Meeting. It was just after COP 15 and we were all still not over its failure. Kumi expressed his concern: "We are winning many battles, but are loosing our planet". His talk resulted in Greenpeace Executive Directors from across the world addressing what we needed to do differently.

A number of initiatives were agreed directed at the way we campaign, the way we are organised, where we put our human and financial resources, etc. One of the initiatives was the way we address (or not) the dominant socio-economic paradigm, which is core to the problems we face today.

The Widening Circle (TWC) campaign to enlarge and strengthen the global movement of global citizens is off to a slow but steady start. TWC builds on the existing work of many important organizations, initiatives, movements and grassroots efforts. TWC invites all who want to strengthen the global citizens movement, and all who recognize the need for new planetary institutions of global democracy, to widen our circles in a coordinated campaign.

The campaign is evolutionary by design, adapting to changing world circumstances and the input of new members as the circles widen. To this end, TWC is planned in phases – which each phase simply responsible for building the capacity to reach the next phase.