Transformations as relations between actors: framing, reflexivity, and action

Speakers: Marco Billi, Christina Zurbriggen, Roxana Bórquez, Anahí Urquiza, Silvana Juri



Discussing structural, systemic and enabling approaches to socio-environmental transformations: Stimulating an interdisciplinary and plural debate within the social sciences
Marco Billi

In recent decades, the social sciences have engaged more deeply with the evolving interconnection and interdependence between the social and the natural world. Once the privileged domain of ecological and Earth sciences, the observation of how human processes alter and shape the biophysical and human environment has become a key topic within social science circles. Similarly, social science scholars have brought novel concerns to the table about the changes that societies are undertaking in order to respond to or prevent such human induced changes in the environment. The very idea of ‘Nature’, and of a separation between Humanity and Nature, has become a key topic of debate within social science practice.

While this has fostered a creative expansion of the analytical toolboxes employed to tackle socio-environmental transformations with novel concepts and methods, it has been accompanied by a fragmentation of the topic into an array of different (and sometimes conflicting) approaches, each imbued with distinct conceptions of change and more or less explicit value-commitments. With few -albeit notable- exceptions, each of these approaches has been pursued differently and in relatively self-enclosed epistemic communities, often reflecting enduring disciplinary or theoretical divides, and preventing a reflexive debate on the interactions and possible synergies between each of these perspectives on socio-environmental transformations.

In order to overcome these traditional divisions and foster a more plural, creative and reflexive debate, in this Poster we present the fruit of an interdisciplinary discussion involving scholars and research practitioners from different regions and epistemic communities to engage with the different approaches to and dimensions of socio-environmental transformations, as well as their possible interaction and integration. The results discuss novel theoretical and methodical reflections on different conceptions of and analytical approximations of socio-environmental transformations, considering particular experiences and case studies.

Transformations as relations between actors: framing, reflexivity, and action
Christina Zurbriggen

A significant challenge in the transformation processes is to accept that the understanding of reality requires a reconceptualization of the underlying assumptions that define the social ecological construction, with an understanding of the interactions and complex dynamics of the systems in question (climate change, poverty, and loss of biodiversity, etc.), integrating different knowledge systems. Although there is a growing consensus in academia on this matter, our understanding of how this may occur and does occur in practice still needs to be improved. We seek to discuss how the relational approach can contribute to the transformation process, relying on three fundamental competencies that the combination of different strands of systems thinking has generated: the understanding of the existing system and its complex dynamics, the multilevel approach to the design of local systems and its transitions; and the knowledge of the actors of the system and their participation in a co-creation process. We will reflect on relational theory and the systemic approach, attempting a dialogue between three different systemic strands, all of which have taken a relational understanding on transformations (socio-ecological resilience theory, socio-technical transitions theory, and social systems theory). We assume that, to achieve transformations, we need to develop new assemblies between communication systems through structural couplings (second-order couplings) with the consciousness systems of the actors responsible for the diachronic and differentiated transformation of the interventions in space that characterize them. This could allow us to understand transformations as relations between actors distinct from their contexts but structurally coupled to them, keeping in mind that driving change means engaging other systems on their terms. To illustrate, we provide brief examples of case studies we have encountered in our practice in Latin America, particularly in Chile and Uruguay, discussing the lessons learned for the practice of just transformation to sustainability.

Territorial transitions in Latin America: a dialogue between social systems theory and sociotechnical systems approaches
Roxana Bórquez

This paper seeks to will discuss how systemic design can contribute to territorial enhancement by relying on three fundamental competencies that the combination of systems thinking has generated: the understanding of the existing system and its complex dynamics, the multilevel approach to the design of local systems and their transitions; and the knowledge of system stakeholders and their involvement in a co-creation process. We will then reflect on what systems design can learn from social systems theory and particularly from the literature on contextual interventions. In the first section, the paper proposes a conceptual dialogue between Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory and two other interdisciplinary systems-theoretical approaches, associated with the study of socio-technical systems transitions, and socio-ecological systems resilience. After briefly revising the similarities and differences between the epistemological and analytical approaches each of these offers, we advance an integrated conceptualization of the ‘territory’ as a system-of-systems emerging from the interaction between socio-ecological, sociotechnical and social systems dynamics. We show how this conceptualization allows us to offer a deeper and more integrated perspective to understand and foster territorial-sensitive climate resilient transition pathways. In a second part, we will discuss, from the proposed theoretical perspective, the contribution of systemic design methodological approaches. The sustainable transition of territorial systems requires effective inter and transdisciplinary research methods and tools to manage its systemic complexity. Said complexity, particularly, requires a learning process to understand the local context, acknowledge local knowledge, and to make such knowledge available to all the actors involved in the transition process. The transition design approach can support these learning process by framing the complexity of the territorial system as a whole and help the actors involved in the transition process to understand the current system, build a new vision, and implement it into a new territorial system.

SARAS T-Lab: from imagining to realizing desirable futures
Anahí Urquiza

The complexity of the socio-environmental problems facing Latin America and the world demands bold, urgent, and creative collective action. Such a process requires innovation in designing public policies and developing new attitudes, capacities, and tools to achieve them. This prompted us to develop the Transition Lab at the South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies (SARAS), an experimental platform that adopts the Transition Design approach. This paper will present the theoretical and methodological model that constitutes the platform by highlighting the aspects linking Transition Design with frameworks such as Resilience Thinking, Socio-technical transitions, Systemic Interventionism, and Critical Policy Design. The lab is an evolving process open to new approaches in constant reflection and learning. We will outline the main contributions of these integrations and the areas that need further examination, expansion, or testing in practice. Our model aims to enable and support apolitical imagination and the creative foreshadowing of sustainable and resilient futures otherwise. This involves accepting the socio-political nature of transformation processes, agreeing on desired trajectories, managing conflicts and controversies, understanding narratives and the values of the different actors, and the generation of dialogical arenas to envision desirable futures, develop a theory of change, and co-produce knowledge that results in transformative action. In this article we propose to reflect on innovative experiences that allow this pluralism and consilience of knowledge to develop the knowledge and nurture the wisdom necessary for this existential challenge. Finally, we discuss this approach by putting it in dialogue with other experiences in Latin America and the world.