Human agency is at the core of sustainability transformations

The implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as well as other approaches to sustainability transformations including stabilizing the geophysical planetary life support system require the capacity of multiple actors to better understand not only dynamics of the Earth System, but also the features and dynamics of societal change processes. Only this will eventually lead to more effectively designing transformative change. Collective Stewardship for transformations by multiple actors will mot work in a command-control style of steering – it requires networks of collective action at all levels of the global society.  Transformation literacy  can be seen as the knowledge and capacity of collectives of decision-makers, change agents and institutional actors to steward sustainability transformations effectively together across institutions, societal sectors and nations.

This is beginning to happen with the emergence of global transformation networks with multiple stakeholder around sustainable solutions (e.g. SDSN), water management (e.g. CEO water mandate), or climate action networks (e.g. Science Based Target Initiative), to name just a few.

  • But do these initiatives take a holistic approach?
  • Do they take spectrum of questions into account that address an issue from multiple perspectives at the same time?
  • Do they take the human mind and the human heart into account when they suggest pathways to transformations?

Collective action is always based on a number of premises:

  • The understanding of an urgency or necessity
  • A sense of belonging (even if to a pioneering group of future-makers)
  • A sense of responsibility for the future which creates meaning
  • Tangible pathways and actionable plans
  • A sense of ownership and the feeling to be part of designing the future together

This leads to the human capacity to collectively identify and shift the dysfunctional patterns of interaction that currently occur between people and between people and nature. In their article on the big shifts needed for a large-scale systems change a group of scientists (Rockström et al. 2018) mention that tackling the big challenges of humankind „requires a deep integration of knowledge from biogeophysical Earth System science with that from the social sciences and humanities on the development and functioning of human societies (5).“

This integration of knowledge is more than urgent, but the efforts need to go beyond – Insights from Earth Systems science need to come together with the practice knowledge of transformations, because it is there, literally on the ground, in projects and local to global network initiatives where the proof of concept for transformations is taking place (or where it fails). This is where also the obstacles become clear and where people gain knowledge on the practice of what is possible and impossible in transformations. This is where transformation literacy emerges.


Transformation literacy is the knowledge and capacity of a collective of decision-makers, change agents and institutional actors to steward sustainability transformations effectively together across institutions, societal sectors and nations.

Petra Kuenkel

The scientists ask a profound question: „What human actions could create a pathway that would steer the Earth System away from the potential threshold and toward the maintenance of interglacial-like conditions?“ This is more than a valid question, but it lacks preceding questions:

  • What is the thinking that needs to precede the actions?
  • What is the mind shift, the new paradigm, the new north pole that needs to guide people’s actions?
  • And who should steer, if at all possible?

There is an urgent need to bring the agents of transformation practice together, help them network and learn together. Because only this improves the quality of collective sense-making and collective co-creation in ways that it becomes easier to collectively steward sustainability transformations. Such collective stewardship means that -across sectors, institutions, and nations – multiple actors need to engage in multiple simultaneous efforts for which not all pathways can be prescribed in detail. There is not one pathway to transformations, there are many, and particularly in avoiding the Hothouse Earth, there are many actors at multiple levels that need to join into the transformation practice.

Given the complexity and multitude of the task, these efforts cannot be controlled or steered. They need to thrive on dynamics of mutually supportive and interacting self-organization, with a certain degree of multi-level agreements and regulatory guidance. They can only be partially coordinated, but they can take place in acknowledgement and awareness of other approaches or entry points for transformative change.


Find out more about how best to steward sustainability transformations.