How Can we Build Transformation Systems for Sustainability?

The advent of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals already shows that human consciousness has risen to the point that the globality of the challenges has been acknowledged. While negotiated at the UN level, the SDGs have gradually entered the political and administrative arena of every country, to a greater or lesser extent, with many activities and initiatives emerging from civil society to governments to business.

If the SDGs should fulfil their function for transforming the world, and subsequently change the way collective world-making takes place, they need to bring about systems aliveness . However, the scale of change envisaged in the SDGs – the large system change required – is complex and fraught with wicked problems that can be seen as dysfunctional patterns reducing or preventing systems aliveness. This means that multiple initiatives at different levels and with different actors will be needed to bring about transformative change.  Given the nature of both complex systems and wicked problems such change can at best be stewarded, but not controlled. The many actors in many countries that aspire to implement the Agenda 2030 can be seen as a transformation system (link to the respective page in sustainability transformations). The goal no. 17 on partnerships suggests to seeker the implementation of the SDGs as a  collaboration ecosystem. These systems needs to function much better than in the past to  deliver the collective behavior change necessary and to avoid the much predicted planetary collapse. They need to bring aliveness or the question of what enhances systems aliveness into the centre of attention. Change agents need to work with life-enhancing patterns of interaction, creating synergies, diversity, and adaptiveness to circumstance rather than rigid, one-size-fits-all approaches.

In that regard, working toward the SDGs means accepting humankind’s place in the natural world and understanding and working in concert with the ways in which nature creates flourishing environments. It means that the task of leading may require a new focus in the context of overcoming global challenges. Leading transformative change for SDG implementation is no individual task, but rather the capability of distributed and cross-institutional actors to collectively steward co-evolutionary patterns of aliveness. This includes safeguarding existing patterns of aliveness, actively maintaining them, regenerating disturbed or compromised patterns of aliveness, and more consciously co-creating new patterns of aliveness.

Collective sense-making and collective co-creation approaches need to empower a large number of people to recognize patterned realities and make sense of them as a basis for action towards patterns of increasing aliveness. Continuously operating feedback-loops can provide iterative learning, and inspire responsiveness (and responsibility) of all actors to foster patterns of aliveness. The challenge is to make the co-creation process in human interaction systems sufficiently conscious and explicit so that it can happen in a more fruitful and constructive way. In this context, the future of leadership is collective, in the sense that rather looking only at individual leadership capacities, working towards a transformed world in a spirit of collective leadership must be defined as the capacity of a group of diverse leaders to deliver their contribution to a more sustainable future through assuming joint and flexible leadership in service of the common good . At the core of such a new conception of leadership is the human capacity to dialogue and transform differences into evolutionary progress. It enables the transcendence of self-centred views, a prerequisite for successfully addressing the challenges of globalization and sustainability.

However, despite the fact that in their underlying intention, the SDG’s aspire to change the entire world, many change initiatives are still in competition with, or in ignorance of, each other and, as a result, actions and initiatives are often duplicated. For SDG transformation to become more effective it is therefore increasingly important that change initiatives identify with their role within a larger transformation system, consciously operate in a distributed networked action mode, create synergistic connections across different change initiatives, and stay aware of the movement and effectiveness of the overall change system as represented by the SDGs.

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