What is Transformational Change?

By Steve Waddell

This is one of a series of guest blogs on large systems change written as part of GOLDEN’s Ecosystems Labs activity.  It is extracted from a draft Working Paper prepared for Enel Foundation on Pathways to Sustainability.

A global system for any industry or issue domain is vast.  For example, the global energy system in its broadest definition includes the sourcing of fuels and energy generation, transmission, distribution, and consumption – both stationary and mobile.  In other words, we are talking about a vast network of connections and interdependencies.  A sustainable energy system implies dramatically changes in today’s energy system.  The transformation involves change at the geological, historical, human, and individual scales.

At transformation’s grandest scale, with the physical sciences, it is associated with “geological ages”.   These are defined by the International Commission on Stratigraphy based on massive global events, such as global geological events and mass extinctions. (ICS 2013)  These are associated with shifts in physical composition of the earth, and/or organisms and species.  This transformation concept has come into more common parlance with the proposition that we are now in the anthropocene – an era beginning with the industrial revolution when human activity began to have a dramatically increasing level of influence on natural systems. (Crutzen 2006; Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill 2007)

On historical scales, transformation is associated with changes in technologies (eg: bronze to iron), belief systems (eg: pantheism to monotheism), governance systems (eg: monarchies to democracies) and economies (eg: feudal to capitalist).  These are analytical frames that can be applied to the same period since transformation in one dimension has an interactive relationship with others.  Historical transformation reflects a basic realignment of structures and ways of life.  (Malia 2008)  In terms of energy systems, the historical perspective is dominantly technological as moving from carbon-based to a renewable energy base.  However, as many observers have noted, the structure is closely intertwined with our economic, governance and other structures.

In terms of popular imagination, something between historical and human scale transformation is perhaps best associated with the concept of “paradigm shift” that Kuhn developed to explain scientific change.  Scientific paradigms change with change in definitions of what an analysis should observe, the kinds of questions that should be asked, how the questioning should be developed, and how the results should be interpreted. (Kuhn 1962)

“Human scale” transformation focuses on organizations and social institutions within relatively short time frames.  It is associated with the idea that changes can be controlled, or at least consciously influenced, since the driver is human action.  This is the basis for much organizational decision-making, management science and development economics.  A cross-disciplinary review compared six revolutionary change theories and summarized their focus as changes in “deep structure”, defined as “fundamental, interdependent ‘choices,’ of the basic configurations into which a system’s units are organized and the activities that maintain both this configuration and the system’s resource exchange with the environment.”  (Gersick 1991) p.15 Gersick used the biological sciences label of “punctuated equilibrium” to describe the process of systems evolving through alternate periods of equilibrium, and a period of revolution when underlying structures are fundamentally altered.  The structural components are sub-systems and their exchanges, and these change as the process of punctuated equilibrium unfolds.

Looking at organizational change has produced a framework of three types of change. Alpha and beta take place within a system’s traditionally recognized ways of thinking and assumptions, whereas gamma involves a redefinition of the relevant psychological space  (Golembiewski, Billingsley and Yeager 1976).  Organizational theories have noted that this involves basic shifts in attitudes, beliefs and cultural values (Chapman 2002) – something Bartunek summarized as shifts in schema and framing.  (Bartunek 1988)

Another approach to definition of change builds on learning theory (Chapman 2002; Waddell 2011) that reflects distinctions of Golembiewski et al., but draws on the work of Agyris in particular (Argyris 1976; Argyris 1999). This sees three different learning processes driving three modalities.  Single loop is associated with repeated attempts to do the same thing, and double loop as when experience leads to change in how something is being approached or even the goal itself.  Triple loop is when the very framework for observing and analyzing is questioned.  (Flood and Romm 1996; Nielsen 1993; Yuthas, Dillard and Rogers 2004) Although the original analysis was done for individual and organizational-levels of learning, Waddell posits that the same dynamics are at play at the societal levels through “societal learning”.

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