The ‘how to’ of collaborative transformation

By Josie Chambers

“Ok, that’s interesting, but HOW can that help me actually facilitate transformation in practice?”

I’ve asked this question. I’ve been asked it many times. The past two days have shown the possibilities are endless – an exciting yet daunting prospect. Here are some insights I’ve gathered so far from some of the many inspiring researchers at leverage points.

  1. “Phase 0 (i.e. the “setting up of the setting up”) was four years” – Andra-Iona Horcea-Milcu. The initial phase often requires long-term relations and trust to frame the work and allow safe spaces to mature.
  2. “Iterative development of collaborative methods based on feedback” – Ariane König. If the proposed methods are never critically examined, we limit how people can express themselves and risk reproducing the same visions for change.
  3. “Sustainability is not an answer but a question – what should be sustained or let go?” – Elizabeth Barron. Our role as researchers is not to make everyone think like we do but to embrace our own humility and learning.
  4. “There is no single solution; we must focus on multiple seeds and pathways for transformation” – Elena Bennett. An attempt to establish a hierarchy of solutions too soon can greatly narrow the scope for action.
  5. “Dia-Logos are the space in between more than one logic who think together” – Ariane König. Interweaving both diverse internal knowledges and external knowledges (and accepting, not simply trying to resolve emerging tensions) is important to promote critical examination of perspectives and assumptions.
  6. Transformational power exists in the emotional experience of being listened to and feeling valued. For example, Angela Morrigi’s carefully adapted photo-voice and walking interviews enabled participants with mental disabilities to express their voice. Her co-created photo album and memory box gifts fostered reciprocity and care.
  7. The politics of language matters. For example, by seeing “place” as “reactionary” (e.g. isolated with boundaries) versus “progressive” (e.g. relational to all outside places). – Elizabeth Barron.
  8. Power lies in “making the familiar seem unfamiliar”? – Kevin Collins. This social learning can emerge from experiencing situations in new ways that reveal interdependencies.
  9. “How do you find a new color?” – Claire Deschner. Radical and creative methods are needed to create alternative realities that can diverge farther from current realities.
  10. “The response by a participant that we did something serious here [in a game-playing context] was already an outcome” – Leo Reutter. The power of creative methods can require participants to first overcome barriers of lacking confidence in the method.
  11. “Finding relations of shared understanding from contradictions can help transcend individual perspectives and result in new frames of reference.” – Ariane König. This is an important part of establishing concrete action fields that join people together in new ways.
  1. Andra-Iona Horcea-Milcu’s leverage points work in Transylvania shows the power of valuing existing efforts and strengthening relationships to amplify and scale sustainability efforts for broader societal transformations.
  2. “Managing expectations is crucial. There is a struggle between the time it takes researchers to do what they want to do, and what other people want to do.” – Angela Morrigi
  3. “It is important to overcome the fear of failure early on” – Andra-Iona Horcea-Milcu. Martina Schäfer showed that this requires being reflexive and upfront about the interests and risks of all partners.
  4. Franziska Ehnert showed the importance of connecting bottom-up work to supportive top-down processes through institutionalized intermediaries and funding.

After this long list, you are probably still wondering – but really, HOW can I put some of these ideas into practice? Elena Bennett showed us in her keynote how even simple methods like “radical listening” can be a powerful initial step. A diverse and exciting range of options exist, with a few shared here:

  1. Ariane König introduced us to Collaborative Conceptual Modeling (CCM) – a tool to engage in relational thinking, establish influence diagrams, co-produce norms and values, and transform dialogue. This process always starts with participants sharing practical experiences.

CCM

By Newell and Proust 2017 (shared by Ariane König); methods details on pg. 17 of above link.

  1. Angela Morrigi showed us the power of Theory U in practice, and harvested this knowledge into an amazing toolkit of arts-based methods.

Theory U

By Pearson et al 2018 (co-produced and shared by Angela Morrigi)

  1. Jaco Quist introduced us to the complex world of participatory visioning to define problems and possibilities and mobilize actor-networks and narratives. He describes Community Arena Methodology, which involves transitions management, backcasting (i.e. working backwards to reach the desired vision or state), social learning, and operationalizing the inner context (i.e. everything that goes on inside individuals).

Transition management cycle

Wittmayer 2011; Adapted from Loorbach 2007, 2010

  1. Claire Deschner shared ethnographic theatre methods. She used mirroring exercises to build trust and put concepts into action to reveal their complex nature. For example, “care” was portrayed in a patronizing way (a pat on the head), which sparked discussion on how the transformative potential of care lies in understanding as an ethical and relational responsiveness and learning. Claire’s methods build on Augusto Boal’s The Theatre of the Oppressed and associated methods. Also based on these methods, the Forum Theatre performed a problem situation, where audience members could freeze the performance to intervene and change the series of events. This opened up dialogue over possibilities for transforming systems.

Putting these (and sother) collaborative methods into practice requires much more than the theories and manuals. Here the art of facilitation becomes especially critical – whether taken on by a researcher or professional. At leverage points, I’ve been introduced to a number of wonderful training opportunities – both online or in person – to advance these skills. For example, 1) Art of hosting – http://www.artofhosting.org/, 2) Presencing Institute – https://www.presencing.org/aboutus, 3) Theatre of the Oppressed – https://www.tonyc.nyc/workshops, 4) Changemakers – https://www.changemakers.com/. I hope to take advantage of some of these trainings to develop a sense of methodological bricolage myself to draw upon diverse methods and ideas to adaptively navigate complex and emergent processes of transformation.

The final question which has come up so often in discussions is – But do these methods REALLY lead to transformation, and what kinds of transformations?

The general sense is that we are far behind in our efforts to assess transformation outcomes. This is perhaps in part due to the legitimate concern of how a focus on solutions and outcomes could compromise the process quality. However, many expressed a desire to better understand both process and impacts to evaluate how we see and do our work.

We need better ways of following learning journeys, such as through Jennifer Rao-William’s creative use of metaphors. Do people see themselves as drivers or passengers throughout the process? As Jess Cockburn asked, “should we be navigating towards a destination or just trying to avoid all of the icebergs?” To better understand impacts, we need methods for tracking how understandings are reframed, and that reframing becomes linked to changes in actions over time.

Hopefully this whistle-stop tour through the “how to” of collaborative transformation in some spaces of the leverage points conference will spark some new ideas for how we each think about and do our work. I look forward to seeing how conversations and insights continue to evolve beyond the conference space!

Josie_photo

Josie Chambers

Josie Chambers is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. She is broadly interested in the implications of different approaches to environmental governance, and recently investigated the role of diverse collaborative approaches as a postdoctoral researcher with the Luc Hoffmann Institute. She holds a PhD in Geography and MPhil in Conservation Leadership from the University of Cambridge, an MSc in Integrated Resource Management from the University of Edinburgh and a BSc in Integrative Biology from the University of Illinois.

 

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