The following is the established format for referencing this article:Tuckey, A. J., Z. V. Harmáčková, G. D. Peterson, A. V. Norström, M.-L. Moore, P. Olsson, D. P. M. Lam, and A. Jiménez-Aceituno. 2023. What factors enable social-ecological transformative potential? The role of learning practices, empowerment, and networking. Ecology and Society 28(2):27.
Achieving sustainability in the Anthropocene requires radical changes to how human societies operate. The Seeds of Good Anthropocenes (SOGA) project has identified a diverse set of existing initiatives, called “seeds,” that have the potential to catalyze transformations toward more sustainable pathways. However, the empirical investigation of factors and conditions that enable successful sustainability transformations across multiple cases has been scarce. Building on a review of existing theoretical and empirical research, we developed a theoretical framework for assessing three features identified as important to transformative potential of innovative social-ecological initiatives: (1) learning practices, (2) empowerment, and (3) networking. We applied this framework to a set of African-led and Africa-related initiatives that we selected from the SOGA database that were divided into initiatives with more or less transformative potential. We coded the presence or absence of features relating to the theoretical framework using secondary data, and then compared the initiatives using qualitative comparative analysis (QCA). This analysis revealed that of the three features tested, Networking emerged as the most important feature for transformative potential when compared amongst cases. By developing and testing a framework for the comparison of cases we provide a basis for future comparative work to further identify and test properties of cases that enable transformation.
There is a growing consensus that addressing ongoing environmental crises requires transformative change. For example, IPBES (2019) summarize the results of the IPBES global assessment by stating that the pervasive decline of life on Earth requires transformative change in the ways that humanity operates and is organized. Similarly, the latest UNEP emissions gap report clearly shows that the only way to limit the worst impacts of the climate crisis is a rapid transformation of societies (UNEP 2022).
Sustainability transformations have been defined as shifts from regimes associated with unsustainable pathways of development to alternative regimes in which development pathways are sustainable, e.g., from fossil to renewable energy regimes or from declining to prospering fisheries (Clark et al. 2020). Transformations aim to “alter existing authority, power, and resource flows, norms and values, and social-ecological feedbacks that created the problem in the first place” (Olsson et al. 2017). This requires initiatives (e.g. new technologies, social-ecological projects, organizations, or movements) to consolidate system changes and amplify their impact (Lam et al. 2020).
There are multiple schools of thought on sustainability transformations. In their review of perspectives on transformations to sustainability, Fisher et al. (2022) highlight that although there is an agreement among these schools that transformations involve nonlinear and deep changes, it remains disputed what processes, characteristics, or outcomes transformations entail and how they arise. Fisher et al. (2022) broadly identify five schools of thought, namely, e.g. social-ecological systems innovations (e.g., Westley 2017, Herrfahrdt-Pähle et al. 2020), socio-technical transition management (e.g., Loorbach and Rotmans 2010, Geels 2019), sustainability pathways (e.g., Leach et al. 2010), transformative adaptation (e.g., O'Brien 2012, Eriksen et al. 2015), and perspectives on social activism in the Global South (e.g., Temper et al. 2018, Ashish et al. 2019). These different ways of understanding transformations might affect the identification of new insights and what actions, practices, or pathways are advocated in the real world to move toward sustainability. However, developing tools to assess the transformative potential of a situation is a key challenge facing all theories of transformation (Fisher et al. 2022). This challenge of operationalizing transformation theory has been recognized by a wide variety of authors (Loorbach and Rotmans 2010, Olsson et al. 2010, 2014, Westley et al. 2013, Chaffin et al. 2016, Moore et al. 2018). Where case studies exist, these typically identify, rather than test transformative features, and focus on a limited number of cases in similar types of social-ecological systems or geographical areas (e.g., Olsson et al. 2004a, 2004b, 2006, 2008, Meijerink and Huitema 2009, Biggs et al. 2010, Loorbach and Rotmans 2010, Westley 2017). Others compile existing empirical work, but do not test variables against cases (e.g., Walker et al. 2006, Westley et al. 2013, Moore et al. 2014, O’Connell et al. 2015, Pereira et al. 2015, Wolfram 2016, Fedele et al. 2019)
In the context of the general lack of empirical research on the assessment of transformative potential (Fisher et al. 2022), we address this challenge by examining which key features (denoted as “conditions”), present in innovative sustainability initiatives themselves, enhance their transformative potential and lead to successful transformations (denoted as “outcomes”). We use qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) to compare these conditions and outcomes against each other. Conditions are derived from the development of a framework summarizing current literature on key features enhancing transformative potential. This framework is then applied to a set of innovative small-scale sustainability initiatives in Africa classified with the outcome “potentially transformative” or “potentially non-transformative.”
Data collection and sampling design: The Seeds of Good Anthropocene database
We selected a sample of initiatives from the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes (https://goodanthropocenes.net) database, a collaboration between the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), McGill University in Canada, and the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST) at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The project began in 2014 collecting many innovative social, ecological, and social-ecological initiatives that have, under the proper circumstances, the potential to create more sustainable societies (Bennett et al. 2016, Preiser et al. 2017). The first initiatives for the database were collected through an exploratory workshop co-hosted by SRC and CST in Cape Town (South Africa), in which scientists, artists, and change makers were brought together to describe key features of their initiatives and then collaboratively imagine what southern Africa would be like if their initiatives were to grow, combine, and become the new normal. Later on, more than 500 initiatives have been collected in workshops, conferences, and through an online questionnaire on the project website, where various initiatives self-identify based on criteria provided to be included in the database. The project calls these initiatives “seeds” and they are currently marginal endeavors, operating at small scales, but aid us in envisioning alternative, and often radically different, futures, which better maintain the Earth system’s resilience (Pereira et al. 2019). Key characteristics of the initiatives have been registered, based on variables such as the challenges it addresses, its innovative aspects, or the number and type of people involved (see Bennett et al. 2016 and Pereira et al. 2018 for more information).
Out of the 69 seeds from the Seeds database located in Africa and previously analyzed by Jiménez-Aceituno et al. (2020) to explore how African initiatives are addressing the Sustainable Development Goals, we selected those that:
- Were social-ecological in nature, based on the information provided by the initiatives in the Seeds of Good Anthropocene database, where they reported their environmental, social, or integrated social-ecological approach. In the case of missing information, this was coded by two of the co-authors based on the information provided in the database and online resources. Social-ecological approaches refer to both primarily social initiatives having positive environmental outcomes and vice versa, as well as more integrated approaches.
- Have existed long enough to potentially transform their surrounding system (i.e., initiatives running for at least 4 years were considered as being consolidated; see Lam et al. 2022).
- Possessed sufficient information in the database and online resources for coding. This required being able to answer a clear majority of the set questions during coding. Coding involved assessing the presence of specific phenomena and/or explanations in, for example, initiatives’ strategies and visions or other institutional arrangements (see also QCA explanation below). For example, “Does the seed bridge multiple kinds of knowledge systems?” was coded “yes” for initiatives that listed or described multiple sources of knowledge within given education programs, decision-making bodies, or other processes and “no” for initiatives that described knowledge processes in terms of technical skills, assistance, or training.
Given this study’s aim to develop an approach to assess transformative potential across an array of cases without the possibility to conduct primary research in the selected case areas, we chose to consult secondary and publicly available data, i.e., online sources, and excluded conducting interviews or field-based studies. These included initiatives’ individual project websites, the SOGA database, academic articles, and reports published internally and externally. A total of 30 initiatives met the 3-fold criteria.
Literature review: developing the transformative potential framework (TPoF)
Research has identified numerous features present within individual initiatives that may indicate an initiative’s transformative potential. For example, Olsson et al. (2006) mention key factors for preparing social-ecological systems for change, while Wolfram (2016) considers subject and components of “capacity” conceptions addressing urban/system transformation. To identify these features, we conducted an extensive (but not systematic) review of sustainability transformations theory literature using a snowball technique starting with key articles from the social-ecological systems research stream (such as Folke et al. 2002, Olsson et al. 2004b, Westley et al. 2013, Moore et al. 2014, Olsson et al. 2014, Bennett et al. 2016, Westley 2017, Moore et al. 2018, Pereira et al. 2018) and socio-technical transitions school (such as Geels 2004, Geels and Schot 2007, Loorbach and Rotmans 2010, Loorbach et al. 2017). We also reviewed papers related to the Leverage Points perspective of system change (Meadows 1999, Abson et al. 2017). This review led us to numerous papers that compile numerous features for assessing transformative potential (including some of the key articles themselves) according to some form of theoretical framework. These frameworks and the papers from which they are drawn are listed in Appendix 1. The review also identified other papers that more deeply explored single additional transformative features, e.g., empowerment (Avelino 2017) and bridging knowledge (Tengö et al. 2014). The review was closed when the features enhancing transformative potential identified in the review started repeating themselves. This research seeks to contribute to the theoretical integration and collaboration between these two schools of thought, which has been emphasized as necessary by transformation scholars (Olsson et al. 2014). Furthermore, in their review of perspectives on transformations to sustainability, Fisher et al. (2022) group both scholarships under the common umbrella of “sustainability transitions,” highlighting their long tradition and rich theoretical heritage, which we considered key to our overall objective of operationalizing transformation theory.
The literature review revealed three key features, present in sustainability initiatives themselves, to help study the transformative potential of these initiatives. Within these main features, 21 sub-features were inductively identified as the most relevant to operationalize the transformations literature into analytical questions. The full description of the TPoF, its sub-features, and related literature is presented in the results.
Qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) of the transformative potential features
To identify which key feature(s) within the framework have a greater influence on the transformative potential of the initiatives, we conducted a qualitative comparative analysis (QCA). QCA is a method to study causality in small datasets based on set theory and Boolean logic (Rihoux and De Meur 2012). QCA is particularly useful for analyzing causal complexity where multiple combinations of various factors (conditions) can lead to a particular outcome. The technique is able to compare very distinct cases as long as they are a part of the same “universe” of cases, i.e., a group of cases possible to identify based on clearly defined criteria and outcomes (Berg-Schlosser et al. 2009). It is also able to associate common factors (denoted as “conditions”) with a given “outcome” by producing causal pathways, i.e., combinations of factors that lead to the chosen outcome (Rihoux 2006, Hill et al. 2019). Furthermore, QCA bridges qualitative, or case-based, and quantitative, or variable-based, methods. This is useful for datasets of n = 5–50 (in this study n = 16), where n is too large for entirely case-based analysis, but too small for variable-based analysis (Berg-Schlosser et al. 2009). Lastly, QCA is replicable, which means that the framework developed in this study can be tested in additional study-contexts (Rihoux 2006). This description aims to provide a non-technical explanation of QCA for readers unfamiliar with the method. A complete technical description is available in Ragin (2008) or Duşa (2019).
Conditions and outcomes
For conducting the QCA, the three main features and 21 sub-features of the transformative potential framework (TPoF) were used as “conditions,” and the potential transformations enabled by each initiative as “outcomes,” in order to be compared against each other.
To define the conditions, the 21 sub-features of transformative potential outlined in the TPoF were formulated as individual questions that can be answered as: “yes, the system’s feature is present” (1); “no, the system’s feature is absent” (-1); or “unknown, mixed or lack of evidence” (0). This coding scheme is adequate for performing a QCA (Rocha et al. 2022). The 21 sub-features/analytical questions were identified inductively from the literature review following a two-fold criteria, namely that: (1) they were deemed answerable with the given data available online for the initiatives (e.g., no questions could be formulated for transformative leadership, perception of crisis, depletion of resource stocks, or exploiting windows of opportunity given the expected lack of information and (2) the expected divergence between answers for each initiative coded as present or absent for each feature was sufficient. Both conditions were assessed in a preliminary testing. Additionally, we ensured that each of the three TPoF groups would include enough questions to allow for a diversity in scoring and be roughly even in size.
To define the outcomes, the 30 initiatives were then classified as “potentially transformative” or “potentially non-transformative” on the basis of their success in changing their surrounding system according to a two-step process. First, potentially transformative initiatives were required to have proved international recognition of their relevant contribution toward sustainability (e.g., through winning an international award). Although fully acknowledging that international recognition represents only a proxy information, we decided to use this indicator for the lack of better indices in the literature given the currently available knowledge in the field of transformations. Second, they needed to have developed strategies to increase or amplify the impact of their actions in their respective systems, which is considered integral for transformations (Westley et al. 2011, Moore et al. 2015, Gorissen et al. 2018). We divided the amplification strategies into three groups based on Lam et al. (2020) typology of processes that aim to increase the impact of sustainability initiatives. These are: amplifying within: increasing impact by stabilizing operations or speeding up impact mechanisms; amplifying out: increasing impact by involving more actors either through undertaking the same or similar operations in similar or dissimilar contexts; and amplifying beyond: increasing impact by changing rules and institutions or norms and values. Because system change requires the interaction of various strategies to span numerous scales (Moore et al. 2015), initiatives were considered to be more potentially transformative if they have developed mechanisms to address all three different types of amplification processes. Finally, we ranked the initiatives according to the abovementioned criteria: initiatives scored one point for having achieved international recognition, and one point for the presence of each of the amplification processes, resulting in a maximum of four points per initiative. Of the 30 initiatives, both the eight highest-scored (potentially transformative) and eight lowest-scored (potentially non-transformative) cases were selected to provide a more extreme contrast because QCA requires the inclusion of both cases with the outcome present and absent. This process resulted in a final sample of 16 initiatives used for the QCA analysis. Figures 1 and 2 outline the process of initiative selection and the geographical distribution of the initiatives, respectively. See Appendix 2 for an overview of the selected initiatives.
In order to prevent circular reasoning, the classification of initiatives as potentially transformative or potentially non-transformative and the coding of initiatives for the presence or absence of the framework sub-features were two separate processes based on distinct criteria (Rocha et al. 2022). The classification of initiatives as described above was conducted by a panel of co-authors independently and based on different criteria than the structured coding of the framework’s sub-features, which strictly disregarded the (non-)transformative potential of the initiatives.
Necessary and sufficient conditions test
To identify which of the three key features of the TPoF represent necessary and sufficient conditions for reaching the outcome (here, transformative potential of the initiatives), we applied a standard fuzzy-set QCA procedure (Ragin 2008, Duşa 2019), conducted in R (R Core Team 2019) using the R package ‘QCA’ (Duşa 2019). The analysis procedure consisted of four steps (see Ragin 2008 and Duşa 2019 for a full description of standard fuzzy-set QCA steps):
- Data calibration: The aggregated scoring of the three main features of the TPoF for each initiative was calibrated to a fuzzy-set membership using a linear function and membership thresholds identified based on complete-linkage hierarchical clustering. This step is necessary to prepare the data for a fuzzy-set QCA.
- Analysis of conditions necessary for potentially transformative outcomes (i.e., conditions that are always present when the outcome occurs, but their presence does not guarantee the outcome because these conditions can be present also in cases that are not potentially transformative). This step is necessary to identify which conditions need to be unavoidably met to allow for a transformative outcome.
- Construction of the truth table (i.e., a table incorporating all logically possible combinations of conditions and indicating the relation between combinations of conditions on the one hand, and an empirical outcome on the other) as the basis for the logical minimization of conditions.
- Analysis of conditions sufficient for potentially transformative outcomes (i.e., the outcome always occurs when the sufficient condition is present, but the outcome can be also generated by other sufficient conditions). This step is important to identify potential causal pathways (recipes) leading to potentially transformative outcomes. See the relationship between sufficient and necessary conditions in Figure 3.
In the real world, evidence for phenomena is always imperfect. Fuzzy-set QCA accommodates this using inclusion and coverage scores to express the level of coherence in the evidence. Inclusion scores indicate the degree to which empirical evidence is consistent with the set-theoretic relation in question. Coverage scores express the empirical relevance or importance of a set-theoretic connection (Ragin 2008). Prior to performing the analysis, the researchers are required to set a cut-off level for inclusion and coverage scores (at the scale 0-1), which determines which identified causal relations will be deemed relevant enough to be considered a result. There is no strict rule to set the cut-off level; nevertheless, following the guidance by Schneider and Wagemann (2010) and Duşa (2019), we set the cut-off levels for necessity testing at 0.9 for the inclusion score and 0.6 for the coverage score, and for sufficiency testing at 0.6 for the inclusion score and 0.4 for the coverage score.
Because logical causation is asymmetrical, both the occurrence and the non-occurrence of an outcome require separate analysis since the presence and absence of conditions may play crucially different roles (Schneider and Wagemann 2010). Thus, as a recommended part of the standard QCA procedure, we conducted “mirrored” analyses, which also help identify seemingly paradoxical situations, i.e., situations logically contradicting the causal relationship between identified necessary and sufficient conditions. Such situations emerge when not only the identified combination of conditions but also its negation paradoxically leads to a given outcome, or when the identified combination of conditions leads not only to the given outcome but also to its negation (Cooper and Glaesser 2011, Thiem and Duşa 2013).
The transformative potential framework (TPoF) for social-ecological initiatives
Based on the sustainable transformations literature, we identified three key features present within sustainability initiatives, which enhance their transformative potential: (a) learning practices, (b) empowerment, and (c) networking. These informed the production of our analytical framework, the transformative potential framework (TPoF), which is also suitable for an assessment of the transformative potential of sustainability initiatives across datasets using QCA. We present the theory informing each of the three main features with an emphasis on the characteristics that inform the 21 sub-features included in the TPoF as analytical questions (see Fig. 4).
Regarding the first main feature, learning practices, transformations literature commonly mentions the need to facilitate, build, synthesize, or mobilize knowledge (e.g., Olsson et al. 2004b, 2006, Westley et al. 2013, Wolfram 2016), specifically knowledge that fosters transformative learning (e.g., by connecting diverse knowledge systems (Tengö et al. 2014), combining experiential and experimental knowledge (Folke et al. 2002), or fostering the creation of a community of practice (Reed et al. 2010). Furthermore, scholars also mention the need to create a shared vision, common language, or a joint base for action to enact transformations (Olsson et al. 2004b, Loorbach and Rotmans 2010, Westley et al. 2013, Moore et al. 2014, Wolfram 2016) in an ongoing process of trial and error that requires processes of conflict resolution, trust building, and sense making (Olsson et al. 2010, Olsson and Galaz 2009). In the TPoF, learning practices refer to transforming learning activities and processes beyond traditional education to create changes of values and attitudes toward sustainability, such as educational field trips, community-managed sustainability projects, and the creation of learning communities. For example, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy fosters conservation stewardship through interactive learning programs taking place during overnight camps in the reserve.
Regarding the TPoF’s second key feature, empowerment, several authors have emphasized explicitly considering issues of power asymmetry, equity, and social justice if any transformation is to be sustainable (e.g., Leach et al. 2010, Moore et al. 2014, Leach et al. 2018). We argue that empowering agents and their innovations requires changing the rules of the game through the exercise of power that “explicitly challenges dominant macro‐trends (e.g. capitalism, individualization, globalization) and supports countertrends (e.g. collectivism, relocalization, deceleration)” (Avelino 2017:511). Such an exercise of power might also entail the creation of certain contexts that empower or increase the agency of specific social actors to mobilize or create new resources and institutions (e.g., informal or formal institutions, social spaces) to achieve a goal (Avelino and Rotmans 2009, Avelino 2017). Furthermore, the creation of new resources (e.g., solid shampoo, bamboo toothbrushes, glass containers, etc.) can make actors less dependent on existing resources (e.g., plastic), which at the same time makes them less dependent on existing structures and institutions that control those existing resources (e.g., the oil industry; Avelino 2017). The creation of new resources and institutions also requires keeping options open for unforeseen events or activities to happen or products to be developed (Loorbach and Rotmans 2010). This frequently translates into initiatives experimenting in a continuous process of learning-by-doing and doing-by-learning as well as developing and maintaining a portfolio of diverse activities or projects, waiting for opportunities to open (Westley et al. 2013, Moore et al. 2014, Wolfram 2016, Loorbach et al. 2017). Finally, as Olsson et al. (2017) suggest that, “even the most seemingly social challenges (gender inequity, for example) may shape, and are shaped by, changes in ecosystems, and thus, innovative programs ... should include elements that reflect that link,” the TPoF includes how initiatives explicitly foster supportive links between social and ecological domains. Thus, empowerment in the TPoF refers to empowering actors and innovations by challenging existing power structures and norms while keeping multiple options open for the development of the initiative. This includes activities such as ensuring equal representation for women, fostering self-sufficiency, and managing risk. For example, Tyisa Nabanye engaged in the illegal occupation of an abandoned military base, located in a wealthy neighborhood, for permaculture farming run by poorer communities.
The third and final key feature of the TPoF, networking, concerns the fact that transformations in social-ecological systems require skills that go beyond the capacities of individual actors. Social networks can connect nodes of expertise, create links among motivated actors, facilitate information flows, identify knowledge gaps, or link different systems (Walker et al. 2006, Olsson et al. 2010). Some authors highlight the importance of building a diverse set of interested actors operating at different scales and levels (Folke et al. 2002, Olsson et al. 2004a) and holding different types of knowledge (Meijerink and Huitema 2009). In the TPoF, we considered the three types of networks identified by Westley et al. (2013) as relevant for transformative processes, namely: bonding (i.e., link with similar others), bridging (i.e., links with similar and/or different groups), and linking (i.e., links with key individuals in different sectors and across scales). Additionally, the viability of social innovation in the long term often depends on the ability to access and leverage basic resources, such as human, knowledge, time, financial, technical, or organizational resources (Moore et al. 2012, Wolfram 2016). To this aim, strategic alliances are built based on narratives, demonstrations, and other strategies that seek to attract support at different scales (Meijerink and Huitema 2009). In this sense, the role of intermediary actors, platforms, or organizations has been highlighted as crucial by several authors:
There are intermediaries positioned between societal stakeholders that bridge relevant gaps amid sectors (public, private and civil society), action domains (e.g. energy/transport/land use), and/or spatial scales. Intermediaries have a stable financial and organisational basis. There are key individuals acting as boundary spanners or knowledge brokers between sectors, action domains and scales. Intermediaries effectively align different actor interests and help to create a shared discourse. (Wolfram 2016:127)
In the TPoF, networking refers to building broad networks of support that are able to facilitate resource generation for actors and innovations. This involves activities such as creating linkages with actors of similar and different interests and employing intermediaries to bridge any relevant gaps in networks, for example, Africa BEECause through partnering directly and via intermediaries to ensure resource provision and co-running of projects.
System features emerging across potentially transformative initiatives
Divergence and the presence or absence of the features in the set of cases
Although information was not always sufficient to assess every TPoF feature, nearly all questions could be assessed for a majority of initiatives. Ten out of 16 initiatives were assessed for more than 85% of the questions (18 or more out of 21 questions). A further five initiatives were assessed for 70% of the questions (15–16/21), while one initiative, Local Futures, was scored for a little more than 60% of the questions (13/21).
Each initiative was scored for the 21 system features related to their transformative potential (Fig. 5). The divergence among scores (i.e., whether the features tended to be either near universally present or absent in the initiatives, or not) differed across features. Two sub-features related to networking had particularly low divergence: (a) if the initiative links with actors with similar goals and interests operating at similar scales [3.1.1] and (b) if the networks mobilize local and regional resources to help sustain or expand the initiative’s operations [3.2.1]. In both cases, almost all initiatives presented these features (and scored 1). Sub-features with lower presence rates were fostering trust (learning practices, [1.2.4]), experimentation and risk taking (empowering, [2.2.2]), and the presence of intermediaries (networking, [3.2.3]). Some features exhibited greater divergence, for example, whether the initiative bridges multiple kinds of knowledge systems (learning practices,[1.1.4]) or whether it creates alternative resources/ processes that reduce dependence on existing power structures (empowerment, [2.1.3]).
The aggregated scores for each initiative in the categories learning practices, empowerment, and networking show that many of the potentially transformative initiatives exhibit positive scores for all categories, and the scores are especially high for networking (see Fig. 6). Exceptions are Pure Earth and Local Futures, which do not cluster closely with other potentially transformative initiatives. Tyisa Nabanye, a potentially non-transformative initiative, does not cluster closely with any other initiative in the dataset.
Necessary and sufficient features to potentially foster transformations
The necessity analysis revealed which features are necessary to meet for achieving the potentially transformative outcome. A single feature, networking, emerged across the dataset as a necessary condition with an inclusion score of 0.913 and coverage score of 0.603. These scores are reasonably high (maximum value 1), which suggests the condition was met rather coherently across the potentially transformative initiatives (Schneider and Wagemann 2010). Hence, networking (i.e., as a key feature aggregating a number of sub-features) represents a condition that is necessary for initiatives to meet to achieve a potentially transformative outcome. When conducting mirrored analysis to test for paradoxical relations, networking emerged also as a necessary condition for the negative outcome (potentially non-transformative initiatives); however, with a much lower inclusion score of 0.602 and coverage score of 0.397. Still, this suggests that networking may even be an important factor amongst potentially non-transformative initiatives.
The sufficiency analysis revealed which combinations of conditions are sufficient for a potentially transformative outcome. The combination of empowerment and networking (EMP * NET) emerged as a sufficient condition, with an inclusion score of 0.671 and coverage score of 0.434 (in QCA terminology, this combination represents a parsimonious, intermediate, and complex solution). These values were not particularly high, indicating that the empirical evidence for this combination of conditions for the outcome was not strongly coherent across the initiatives. This result is hence not as conclusive as for the necessary condition, and the implications of this finding for further research are explained in the Discussion. However, in general, initiatives scoring high in the solution EMP * NET showed the potentially transformative outcome, while the cases scoring low did not (see Fig. 7). The outlying cases, which are inconsistent with this solution, were Lynedoch Ecovillage (a potentially non-transformative initiative scoring notably high in the solution) and Pure Earth (a potentially transformative initiative scoring notably low). See Figures 8 and 9 for a summary of the key results from the QCA and Appendix 3 for the supplementary results of the QCA analysis (including testing for paradoxical relations and the uncertainty analysis).
We applied the transformative potential framework (TPoF) developed in this paper, and its key features enhancing transformative potential, to a set of more or less potentially transformative cases. We discuss in more detail the key results of our analysis, namely that networking has been identified as a key factor for an initiative’s transformative potential. We also highlight some tentative implications our findings may have in informing the future transformation research agenda.
Networking as an important feature for the transformative potential of sustainability initiatives
A key aspect of the transformational potential of a seed was how well networked it was, i.e., activities that build broad networks of support that are able to facilitate the generation of resources of actors and innovations. In our analysis, almost all the potentially transformative initiatives exhibited networking and only a few cases scored low on networking. It is important to note that networking also emerged in the mirrored analysis as a paradoxical condition for the potentially non-transformative outcome. Hence, we must consider the possibility that networking is important for any outcome, even if it emerged to a greater extent amongst potentially transformative initiatives. Two possible explanations for these results follow.
First, networking might be more important for transformative potential because it provides necessary linkages across larger temporal and spatial scales. The complexity of navigating transformations requires more than the skills of individual actors, it requires the development of networks of support and building alliances among key individuals and groups (Folke et al. 2002, Olsson et al. 2010, Westley et al. 2013). Building supportive networks can improve the capacity of initiatives in securing finance, exchanging knowledge, gaining support, or reacting to challenges (Moore et al. 2012, Westley et al. 2013). Networking can involve connecting to nearby actors and organizations. Networking can also involve actors operating at different organizational levels, for example, a local initiative could seek recognition from the international Man and Biosphere Programme (Olsson et al. 2006). Forging connections and building partnerships with organizations or actors at larger organizational levels is especially important if an initiative aims to change the rules or logics of systems in which it is embedded (Lam et al. 2020).
Second, aspects of networking are more likely to be captured in this analysis than those pertaining to learning practices and empowerment. Hence, the presence of networks in the initiatives was simpler to document and score than the more complex components of learning practices or empowerment. For example, many of the initiatives were required to list the sponsors of their projects on their published materials. Conversely, learning practices shows the highest number of questions scored as unknown/mixed/lack of information (0). This suggests a greater difficulty in coding initiatives’ learning practices. For its part, empowerment had an ease in coding between that of networking and learning practices and also emergence level between that of both factors in this empirical testing. Greater difficulty in answering certain questions removes possible distinctions between potentially transformative and potentially non-transformative initiatives. This would mean that some patterns in certain transformative features would be less likely to emerge in this type of empirical testing.
Reflections on methods: limitations and further research
Based on our experience, we believe there are three key ways future research on transformation could be improved: (1) determining what constitutes a potentially transformative initiative; (2) choosing which features to include in the framework; and (3) ensuring the codability of questions and initiatives.
Determination of “potentially transformative”
One key methodological challenge that emerged in this study was determining what constitutes a potentially transformative initiative. For a single case, even with a deep understanding of the social-ecological system in question, it is difficult to set objective criteria for measuring how transformative the initiative is. This becomes increasingly challenging when comparing multiple cases across differing social-ecological systems. In this study, initiatives were considered potentially transformative if they exhibited signs of amplification of impact and international recognition. Although the amplification characteristics were based on a clear, theoretically grounded matrix (following Lam et al. 2020, and further based upon Westley et al. 2011, Moore et al. 2015, Gorissen et al. 2018), the international recognition could be made more robust. In this paper, this was defined mainly as winning an international award. Typically, international awards require nomination either by the initiatives themselves or a third party. Initiatives that possess a broad network, particularly ones that operate internationally, are more likely to (1) hear about the potential award and seek nomination; or (2) be drawn to the attention of other bodies and receive a nomination from them. This may mean that initiatives scoring high on networking receive an unfair advantage according to the way in which success is measured and hence are more likely to emerge in QCA. This suggests that other ways of determining and ranking potentially transformative initiatives should be explored in future research. Some possibilities include local perceptions of the degree of change that has occurred, changes in physical structures or ecology over large temporal or spatial scales, or changes in social structures such as resource allocation, representation, or decision-making abilities.
Selecting the features to include in the framework
The second methodological challenge lay in the TPoF, which showed mixed results in clearly identifying the key features that would distinguish the more or less transformative initiatives. To further develop the framework, we suggest future research could improve (1) the use of secondary data; and (2) divergence levels in existing questions.
First, our research design, which depended on secondary data, did not allow us to incorporate features in the framework that can only be examined through direct field research. Consequently, we were not able to include in the framework some context-dependent features, which have been proposed by other studies, to enhance transformative potential. This was the case for variables drawn from practitioners’ perspectives (see Moore et al. 2018), e.g., transformative leadership (Olsson et al. 2006, Wolfram 2016); local community perspectives, e.g., perception of crisis (Olsson et al. 2010); issues arising early in the initiative’s history, e.g., recognition of the depletion of resource stocks (Gelcich et al. 2010); or political contexts, e.g., exploiting windows of opportunity (Meijerink and Huitema 2009). Incorporating additional data collection methods to complement secondary data (e.g., interviewing, surveying) and capture more context-based features could further improve the efficacy of this methodology and hence develop further insights into transformative potential.
Second, there was rather limited divergence among the cases in some of the questions, including many relating to networking. This means that such features and their related questions did not uncover differences in the transformative potential of our set of cases. Therefore, they could be replaced by more informative factors and questions. We suggest divergence be considered in further iterations of this study and if certain questions continue to provide limited divergence in further research, they should be removed from the framework, because they are non-informative.
Codability of questions and initiatives
The results of this research hinged upon how the initiatives are coded. During and after coding the initiatives, we identified several challenges that should be addressed in future research: the relative ease of coding (1) questions and (2) initiatives.
First, as already explained, certain questions were easier to score than others, especially for networking. The most difficult questions to score related to trust (from learning practices) and experimentation (from empowerment), which both suffered from a lack of evidence. This may be due to the complexity of both measuring these process-related questions and how initiatives would be able to document the creation of, e.g., trust, on a website.
Second, the codability of some particular initiatives also encountered challenges. For example, Local Futures is an international collaboration with chapters across various social-ecological contexts. This meant that the way that each chapter functioned in its unique context varied significantly. This led to uncertainty or mixed evidence in answering some questions. For the 5 initiatives that only answered 15–16 questions this generally was due to lack of evidence. One of these, Tyisa Nabanye, had notably few online materials that inhibited coding in some circumstances. In general, using online data might not represent the quality of work that the initiative undertakes. Some transformative initiatives may lack the resources for informative websites that document the features necessary for successful coding and hence impact the results. We believe that a mixed data collection approach, including online materials as well as interviewing practitioners and stakeholders, could improve the codability of both initiatives and questions.
Our work contributes an empirical framework and a method for case comparison of potentially transformative sustainability initiatives that we hope can inform future research on transformation. Most research on transformation has analyzed either individual cases or few cases (e.g., Olsson et al. 2004a, 2004b, 2006, 2008, Biggs et al. 2010, Loorbach and Rotmans 2010). In the light of lacking empirical research on assessing transformation potential (Fisher et al. 2022), we have pioneered an approach that could be revised, extended, or adapted by other researchers’ work on sustainability transformations. Our framework was based on transformation theory and coded cases based on three key features enhancing transformative potential: learning practices, empowerment, and networking.
We also show how QCA can be used to analyze a set of cases, which is too small and heterogeneous for multivariate statistical analysis, and in which there are substantial differences in the quality and quantity of secondary data available. Our approach represents a feasible alternative to more in-depth exploration of transformative potential of individual cases and provides important insights both regarding the conditions related to transformative outcomes, and regarding future development of frameworks for transformative potential.
Our work also extends transformation research by empirically analyzing the transformative potential of sustainability initiatives. Our results suggest that networking, i.e., building networks of support, is a necessary condition for potentially transformative initiatives across a set of sustainability initiatives that vary in nature, scope, and mission. For policy makers and practitioners working in this space, our results point to the need to support and invest in broad networks of support that are able to facilitate resource generation for sustainability innovations. For example, this could involve supporting communities of practice with actors of similar and different interests, and nurturing intermediaries (e.g., bridging organizations) to bridge any relevant gaps in networks.
The application of our framework also highlighted the need to more fully specify what constitutes potentially transformative initiatives. Furthermore, our analysis highlighted that the context in which initiatives operate needs to be better analyzed to determine whether transformative initiatives operate substantially differently across a variety of contexts. Comparing initiatives and their contexts thus appears to be a fruitful area of further research.
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Conceptualization: Aaron Tuckey, Amanda Jiménez Aceituno, and Zuzana Harmáčková
Methodology: Aaron Tuckey, Amanda Jiménez Aceituno, and Zuzana Harmáčková
Preparation of seeds dataset: Amanda Jiménez Aceituno, David Lam, Garry Peterson, Zuzana Harmáčková
Investigation and formal analysis: Aaron Tuckey
Writing - original draft: Aaron Tuckey
Writing - review and editing: All
Project administration: Aaron Tuckey, Amanda Jiménez Aceutuno, and Zuzana Harmáčková
Many thanks to M. Sellberg, L. Guerrero Lara, and L. Pereira for reviewing the preliminary theoretical framework of this paper and to W. Boonstra, L. Schultz, and two anonymous reviewers for their inspiring comments on an earlier version of the paper. We also want to thank those who have contributed to the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes website database (https://goodanthropocenes.net/) with their seeds. Z. Harmáčková’s contribution was supported by the NPO "Systemic Risk Institute" number LX22NPO5101, funded by European Union - Next Generation EU (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, NPO: EXCELES). Research supported by FORMAS grant 2017-01326. Open access funding provided by Stockholm University, Sweden.
The data/code that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author, [AJA]. None of the data/code are publicly available because the authors do not have permission to publish that database. Ethical approval for this research study was granted by Stockholm Resilience Centre with approval number "2019-01_Aaron Tuckey_Exploring the transformative potential of social-ecological initiatives through qualitative comparative analysis."
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