Pathways to the Great Transition

This project ran from mid 2017 to mid 2019. Its goal was to critically evaluate current progressive approaches for systems change and become more concrete in clarifying promising strategies and solutions towards the Great Transition. We were aware that the precise political and cultural moment requiered a more precise analysis and reflection about the variety of assumptions that were hidden behind the discourse on systems change that the Smart CSOs Lab has been part of.

We wanted to provide an impulse to emerging discussions about systems change, using the most recent critical reflections on discourse and theories of change.

The project had two strands:

  • Learning from practice – We worked with civil society organisations that were interested in experimenting with different strategies for and ideas about change. For this we used an action-research approach.
  • A research dialogue – We engaged researchers and practitioners in a dialogue guided by two questions:
    1. The vision question (what): Is there a puzzle emerging in the new/next system, and if so, which are some of the key elements?
    2. The strategy question (how): Can we identify any promising pathways (for activists/funders) to the Great Transition?

front cover of the paper, Theories of change
  and the vision of the Great TransitionAs a precursor to Pathways to the Great Transition, the Smart CSOs Lab made an initial exploration into theories of change and the vision for the Great Transition at our Barcelona workshop in October 2016. We detailed the larger themes that were motivating us and some trends we identified through the activities that participants did in this report.

In 2017, we teamed up with Oxford University PhD researcher Dina Hestad to help CSOs and grant-making organisations make better decisions as they pursued their goal of systemic change. There was a lack of tools for identifying potential leverage points and, most importantly, monitoring and evaluating whether the actions of CSOs were actually helping promote systems change towards sustainability.

So, we decided to try our hand at creating a tool. We invited people in our network to participate in a survey about proposed leverage points and give their feedback, the results of which we summarized in a report.

And at our Paris event in March 2018, the Agora for the Great Transition, one of the sessions organized was a group exercise that aimed to engage Agora participants with our proposed tool for exploring criteria that helps identify effective leverage points. We put together a short report outlining the session, where you can read about how we organised it and check out the results.

Ahead of our Agora event, we wrote a discussion paper meant to spark discussions and meaningful dialectics by posing questions that might need clarification before we can design strategies and approaches to systems change. The paper brings up the problem of political polarisation and ideological echo chambers and the importance of being open to knowledge we might not have, to engaging with people we might disagree with—that is, if our goal is really to establish truths and make progress that benefits us all.

Some of these topics are expanded upon in an article we published: “Why we need to switch the story for the Great Transition to succeed”. We highlight some blind spots we think progressives in systems change spaces need to work on and describe the limitations of the oppression narrative. We might benefit from thinking of the story of humans as an evolutionary one, and in addition to the value of understanding our biological evolution, there is much to explore in the arena of cultural evolution that could hold the key to dealing with our political polarization.

The project finished with the publication of the book Switching off the autopilot: An evolutionary toolbox for the Great Transition.

In the book we argue that campaigns and activist approaches to tackling systemic problems have increasingly looked at the world through a lens of identity, power and privilege. We're concerned that this approach is highly divisive and counterproductive. Instead of bringing us closer to tackling our most pressing issues, like climate change, they contribute to further political polarisation and increase the risk of authoritarian regimes. The current political climate might set us back many years from tackling the ecological crisis, years we don’t have. It might also reverse some of the enormous social progress made in recent years instead of contributing to a fairer world.

Civil society leaders and funders have a lot to gain from adopting an evolutionary worldview. Evolutionary science teaches us how we got to where we are now, and how understanding our gene-culture co-evolutionary heritage will make it much easier to switch off our destructive deep-seated tendency for tribalism and design a good society. We have to shift all our attention to tackling the hard problem of evolution: figuring out how to adapt to the new conditions on Earth much faster than humanity has ever done or has had to do.