Conference preparations running under full steam

By Lotte Lutz

It seems that many people are interested in the concept of leverage points, or find that a conference on Leverage Points sounds really good: we were positively surprised by the sheer number of applicants and very happy about the high quality of abstracts and ideas for sessions. We have invited approximately 400 people to present their work!

Now we are very busy to make this a really cool conference.

The whole project team is involved in the different steps that will lead to a (hopefully) inspiring conference. Currently, we are in the process of combining presentations that run in the same session, so that interesting and meaningful discussions can evolve.

Parallel to the design of content, we take all these little decisions on rooms, food, music and extras, so that all participants at the conference will spend a good time with us at Leuphana. For example, brass riot, a group of three young musicians, will play live music at the ice breaking event.

As you have probably seen on our website, we have reserved hotel rooms for conference participants. The reservations expire in the coming weeks, so please don’t forget to book your room soon. Also, the early bird registration is only available until the end of October.

We are very much looking forward to seeing you at Leuphana!

Can a transdisciplinary PhD contribute to transformative change?

Originally posted on

This is the fifth post in the series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’.

My name is David Lam. I am a PhD student at Leuphana University Lüneburg Germany in the research project ‘Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformations’ and currently a guest PhD researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden.

I am doing research in a transdisciplinary case study in Southern Transylvania, Romania. I aim to make my research in Transylvania useful in two ways: First, to better understand a sustainability problem in a specific context. Second, to contribute to possible solutions. We are working with a network of approximately 30 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which try to foster sustainable development in the region by, for instance, supporting small-scale farmers, conserving the cultural heritage, or protecting the unique landscape with its  high biodiversity value. With my PhD research, I want to understand how these inspiring NGOs increase their impact in order to accelerate the sustainability transformation in the region.

A question that always comes into my mind is: How transformative can transdisciplinary sustainability research actually be? Additionally, can my PhD research support transformative change? Scholars have advanced our understanding of sustainability transformations of social-ecological (Olsson et al. 2014) or social-technical systems (Grin et al. 2010) as well as of transdisciplinary sustainability research methods a lot (Lang et al. 2012; Wiek et al. 2012; Wiek and Lang 2016). For PhDs, this literature is strongly motivating and inspiring because it shows that fundamental systems change is possible, and that research can play an essential role to foster such change. I think this is one of the main reasons why many PhDs decide to do transdisciplinary research.

In Southern Transylvania, we seek to answer: How can we reach the sustainability vision, named Balance Brings Beauty? (Hanspach et al. 2014). We developed this question by talking to the people and based on our experience from former research projects in the region. I really like this question. When I started my PhD, I believed that if my research can contribute to answering this question, I will contribute to positive changes in the region.

Today, my thoughts are still the same, but much more nuanced. After two years of being a PhD in a transdisciplinary case study, I realized that my research can contribute to change in so many different ways, such as providing scientific results and evidence, using scientific methods to understand complex system dynamics, or even by simply building up relations with stakeholders and being present in the case study area. In my opinion, the latter are the most relevant ones for transformative transdisciplinary research. However, it is difficult to fulfil them because they need more time and as PhDs we are under pressure to collect and analyse data as well as write and publish papers. This takes a lot of time and happens not in the field, but at our desks in our offices. Being in the field to really connect with stakeholders on the one hand, and writing scientifically rigorous papers on the other hand is a tough challenge. Especially, when you have the ambition that your PhD research should be meaningful and contribute to something better.

So, is it too much to expect transformative impact from your own PhD research? How could we organize a PhD programme for transformative transdisciplinary research (including funding, time, supervision, and evaluation)? I think a lot of PhDs working on sustainability transformations or using transdisciplinary research methods have thought about this. I would love to hear your opinions about this, here, as a comment. Alternatively, I invite you to join our early-career researcher pre-conference event at the Leverage Points Conference 2019 at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany on 5thFebruary 2019.


Grin J, Rotmans J, Schot J (2010) Transitions to Sustainable Development: New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change. Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Hanspach J, Hartel T, Milcu AI, et al (2014) A holistic approach to studying social-ecological systems and its application to Southern Transylvania. Ecol Soc. doi: 10.5751/ES-06915-190432

Lang DJ, Wiek A, Bergmann M, et al (2012) Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: Practice, principles, and challenges. Sustain Sci 7:25–43. doi: 10.1007/s11625-011-0149-x

Olsson P, Galaz V, Boonstra WJ (2014) Sustainability transformations: a resilience perspective. Ecol Soc 19:. doi: 10.5751/ES-06799-190401

Wiek A, Lang DJ (2016) Transformational Sustainability Research Methodology. In: Sustainability Science. Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, pp 31–41

Wiek A, Ness B, Schweizer-Ries P, et al (2012) From complex systems analysis to transformational change: A comparative appraisal of sustainability science projects. Sustain Sci. doi: 10.1007/s11625-011-0148-y

Registration for Leverage Points 2019 conference is now open

We are happy to announce that the registration for the Leverage Points conference in February 2019 is now open. Emails are currently being sent out to all people who have submitted an abstract.

We had the privilege to read many very interesting and well-founded abstracts. Now we are doing our best to offer you different platforms for enriching discussions, inspiring exchange and playful experiences with the leverage points concept.

We very much look forward to seeing you in Lüneburg in February.

More information on registration and payments can be found on the conference webpage, and you can register and pay directly in the ticket shop.

Transformations’ Deep Change Challenges

By: Steve Waddell, Lead Staff – SDG Transformations Forum

Leading up to the first face-to-face SDG Transformations Forum meeting last September in association with the Transformations2017 conference, I talked with over 80 people involved with what I perceive as a transformations initiative. The key question I asked was “What is holding you back from being even more successful with your transformations work?” Their responses were key to designing our meeting, organizing of the Forum and developing a Theory of Transformational Change (ToTC).

The Forum distinguishes between incremental, reform and transformational change by associating each with different loops of learning as pioneered theoretically by Argyris and Schon (single, double) and extended to triple loop by various theoreticians. Since learning is a core change activity, this definition provides a particularly powerful perspective. Transformational change is distinguished by its depth of challenge to prevailing systems including ways of thinking, assumptions and power structures; it involves re-defining of purpose and system boundaries and structures. Of course there is often misalignment between an espoused transformational vision, and the type of change tools and strategy used.

A thematic analysis of the responses to my question resulted in the following:

  1. Transforming Assessment and Evaluation: Current input-output assessment approaches undermine transformations, which require deep learning; jurisdictionally and project limited boundaries are limiting scale and time of transformation.
  2. Meta-narrative: The current economic-focused stories about success associated with growth and GNP must be displaced with sustainable ones focused on human and environmental well-being.
  3. Innovation: Rather than designing innovation based on some physical technology propelled by financiers, we need to categorically design with integration of the new narrative.
  4. Financing Transformations: The current finance system is highly fragmented between “pots” of money (e.g.: commercial finance, government finance, philanthropy, science funding, sovereign wealth funds) with very inadequate ways of smooth connections for funding the quality and quantity associated with transformation.
  5. Capacity: “Change” capacity efforts are highly fragmented and generally mired in non-transformational change methods and approaches.
  6. Transformational Systems Analysis: We need ways to see the complexity associated with transformation, for purposive transformation efforts. Although mapping and data visualization methods are advanced and advancing rapidly, they are generally under-utilized and still under-developed.

The Forum’s September meeting was organized around these responses, and subsequently the Forum has organized its Working Groups around them. The responses are not seen as comprehensive – for example, “governance” as a transformational challenge is missing; nor are they seen as silos, but rather as mutually inter-acting and informing issues.

This has led to understanding these challenges as “deep causes”, in contrast to direct and proximate causes of transformational difficulties. The Table helps illustrate these.

This distinction is part of the Forum’s evolving ToTC.  Today people refer simply to “theories of change” without distinguishing the type of change they mean. However, given the types of change are very different in terms of dynamics, required tools and activities, this simplistic approach results in muddling of actions. To address this, the Forum is evolving a theory of transformational change, including its relationship to the other types of change. In this, the need to address the deep causes by emerging new patterns of relationships and actions as the basis for transforming systems, is a critical ingredient.  We look forward to further advancing this work at the Leverage Points 2019 conference.


The call for abstracts for the Leverage Points conference is now open until 15 July 2018.

For more information please visit:

If you have any specific enquiries about abstract submission please contact:

Seeking narratives of transformation in Transylvania

By Liz Clarke and Ágnes Balázsi

In an earlier post on this blog, Karen O’Brien describes humans as being simultaneously individuals (particles) and collectives (waves), and that we have individual agency to be leverage points as well as being part of system processes and relationships.

This is very apt for our research in the fertile and biodiverse, but rapidly changing, landscapes of Transylvania, where we have been interviewing change agents or “transformers” who are seeking transformation of livelihoods, food production and their relation to the land, to create not just a sustainable future but a regenerative and meaningful one. The narratives we heard wove together individual insight, innovation and transformation and at the same time revealed deep and emerging connections – to other people and to the landscape in what we describe as a system of social innovation.

We were particularly struck by the diversity of these change agents and the networks of transformations for sustainability that are emerging within the Transylvanian system. These change agents already hold some of the key ingredients for sustainable system change such as: 1) small, but influential local networks of change agents and community; 2) practical pilot projects or individual activities; 3) influential international backgrounds and flow of global knowledge transfer on sustainability; 4) strong sense of environmental stewardship; 5) motivation to act against the dominant mindsets which we argue limit our efforts to achieve sustainability transformation.

From the Leverage Points perspective, these narratives reveal sources of deep leverage — engaging with the deepest of Donella Meadow’s 12 leverage points to intervene in a system:

No. 4: Self-organisation

No. 3: changing the goals of the system

No. 2: changing the mindset out of which the system arises

No. 1: the power to transcend paradigms


But more personally, the interviews and the narratives struck a deep personal chord within each of us, and led to some deep self-reflection.

Liz said: Listening to these stories inspired me and renewed my faith in our (human) ability to change and be changed for the better, as well as admiration for those who are prepared to undertake the difficult and painful process of self-reflection and personal change. Feeling their deep connection to their landscape, I began again to feel the deep tug of my own roots in the landscapes of Australia as well as reinforcing for me the importance of strong international connections and dialogue.

Ágnes said: Each story found fertile ground inside of me and activated something that I was hiding for a long time. I am a potential change agent, but I do not assume my motivations actively and constructively. Interviewees repeated several time “practice what you preach”. The most meaningful was to see that they followed an internal motivation to act, to make their place a better one. It was empowering for me to connect with such potential change agents in Romanian society and to see the opportunities that might appear as a next stage of our research, and of my life.


Hear more about this at the 2019 Leverage Points Conference, February 6-9th.

The call for abstracts is now open until 15 July 2018.

For more information please visit:

If you have any specific enquiries about abstract submission please contact:


Emerging ideas for a leveraging conference

by Rebecca Freeth

The Leverage Points conference will be a place to think and talk about Restructuring, Reconnecting and Rethinking for sustainable transformations.  It will also be a place to experience restructuring, reconnecting and rethinking.

Expect the structure of the conference to bear the hallmarks of what works best for sharing knowledge and information.  And anticipate some re-structuring of what you may have come to expect at conferences.  Enjoy opportunities for deeper dialogue and creativity.  We hope this will encourage (re)connecting with each other and, as far as the winter weather allows, with nature.  You’ll find abundant woodland just a few steps from the conference venue at Leuphana University.   From experience, we know that these kinds of reconnection can ignite re-thinking.

In other words, we are designing the conference as a productive place to discuss key concepts for leveraging sustainability transformations, and as a productive place to practice with these concepts – with the hope that the combination enriches our understanding of leveraging change and broadens our ideas for addressing and approaching sustainability transformations.

For this, we will be preparing a “leverage games room” for the conference, in which you can physically experiment with some of Donella Meadows leverage points. We are planning formats of presentation and engagement that lend themselves to meaningful engagement.

Over the last 3 years of the Leverage Points project, we have learned that the concept of leverage points is a useful boundary object. It has epistemic and intuitive appeal to many people. In that way, it can bring together a wide diversity of people and potentially support a more coherent discourse on sustainability transformations, for a more global community. We hope to realize some of these ambitions at our conference. People all over the world are learning important things about leveraging change. This conference is an invitation to keep learning together.  We hope you take advantage of the extended deadline to submit an abstract and join us.


We have now extended the deadline for the submission of abstracts until 15th July 2018 Submit your Abstract here.

If you have any specific enquiries about abstract submission please contact:

Deadline extended to 15 July

By Dave Abson

Due to popular demand and academia’s somewhat loose interpretation of the notion of a deadline*, we have extended the abstract submission deadline for the Leverage Points 2019 conference until 15 of July 2018. Please spread this information within your networks.

* Best said by the late great Douglas Adams “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”


Leverage Points 2019: International conference on sustainability research and transformation, Lüneburg, Germany, 6-8 February – Call for abstracts

Humanity sits at a crossroad between tragedy and transformation, and now is a crucial time for sustainability research. Radical approaches are needed in sustainability research and praxis if they are to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Inspired by the work of Donella Meadows’ “Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system”, this conference will explore the deep leverage points that can lead to sustainability transformations, asking: how do we transform ourselves, our science, our institutions, our interventions and our societies for a better future?

The conference is premised on three principles: 1) The importance of searching for places where interventions can lead to transformative change; 2) Open inquiry, exchange and co-learning across multiple theoretical, methodological and empirical research approaches; and 3) The need for reflection on modes of research and processes in sustainability research. We hope that this conference will help us move from incremental to transformational change; extend our thinking about complex sustainability challenges and deepen our collective and transdisciplinary research practices.

The call for abstracts is now open until 15 July 2018.

For more information please visit:

If you have any specific enquiries about abstract submission please contact:

You are a Leverage Point!

by Karen O’Brien

Have you ever thought of yourself as a leverage point? Someone who can shift systems in big ways? At the 2019 Leverage Points Conference at Leuphana University, I plan to explain why you – and all of us, for that matter — should think of ourselves as leverage points for systems change. I will encourage you to lay aside your favorite “–ism” and consider your potential to generate change from a wider and deeper perspective, starting with the idea that systems are relationships and that your relationship to nature, to others, to yourself, and to the process of change actually matters. Literally!

As a big fan of Donella Meadows’ 1999 essay on “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” I am particularly interested in working with the highest leverage points. Shouldn’t we all?  Given the challenges facing humanity and the urgency of responding to them, we need to use the greatest leverage that is available to us. This, I will argue, is much more than we think.

Meadows identified 12 leverage points, each of them more powerful than the preceding one in terms of their potential to transform systems. The top three leverage points that she identified were:

  1. The goals of the system;
  2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
  3. The power to transcend paradigms.

Meadows describes the capacity to transcend paradigms as a basis for radical empowerment. If there is anything that we need today, it is radical empowerment. In my keynote presentation, I will discuss the “three spheres of transformation,” including how they relate to Monica Sharma’s approach to Radical Transformational Leadership. I will then discuss the paradox of paradigms, including how thought patterns influence our “degrees of freedom,” particularly when it comes to systems interventions.

Drawing on insights from my ongoing exploration of quantum social change, I will then explain why and how you matter. If we think of ourselves not as merely individuals (i.e., discrete particles), and not as merely a collective unity (i.e., a big wave), but as both particles and waves, we become more like processes rather than fixed entities. When we introduce consciousness into the picture, including the role of beliefs, intentions, and free will, we may even recognize that we are the individual, the collective, and the system. This gives us tremendous power to transform ourselves, our communities, and our systems.

We are, of course, transforming already, all the time. Yet the current transformations are pushing us towards a world that is unequal, fragmented, homogenized, reduced, and broken, rather than evolving us towards a world of equity, integrity, diversity, coherence, and healing.  When we recognize that the future is a choice, and that the meanings we give to ourselves and our future do actually matter, we may start to see ourselves as the most powerful leverage point that exists and empower ourselves to transform systems in equitable and sustainable ways.


Abstract submission for this conference closes on 30 June — soon! Submit your Abstract here.

If you have any specific enquiries about abstract submission please contact:

A family friendly conference

By Anne Jo Berkau

Many of the members of organising committee for Leverage Points 2019 have children – from very young babies upwards. As such, we are acutely aware of the support needed in order to work AND care for your children. At this conference it will be us who support you.


Free childcare during the conference sessions

Professional kindergarten carers can take care of your children during day (from 8:00-18:00). Yes, all day! The day before the conference starts, your children can get acquainted with the carers while you are there. You can discuss your children’s special needs and preferences. If you want to know more about the carers beforehand please stay tuned, we will introduce them on our website soon.

Nursing room

We have a quiet nursing room for breastfeeding and pumping.

Napping room

We have a napping room: completely dark and quiet. If your child needs a nap during day time one of our caretakers will watch over your child while it sleeps.


We have a kitchen with the possibility to store food, milk etc. in the fridge and a microwave and kettle to heat baby-food.

Short distances:

All of the childcare facilities we provide are in the same building as the conference. They are easy to access with strollers. All facilities are next to one another.

Food for children

We will supply baby food and food and drinks for older children during the day.

Meet the parents at the conference

You will not be the only parent attending this conference. There will be a special networking event for you organised by Prof. Julia Leventon (details will be provided closer to the conference).

Babysitters during the evening

We can arrange individual babysitters for your children in the evening (and night) if required (costs not covered by the conference).

Special arrangements

We want you to come to this conference! With your kids! We know how much of a struggle this can be, but we will be there to support you! Let us know what you and your children require, get in touch with us.

Please contact me, the conference coordinator, Anne Jo (mother of two sons, 5 and 7 years old)


Learning with and from cases: A case-based Mutual Learning Session at the Leverage Points conference

By Moritz Engbers

Mutual learning is a fundamental aspect in transdisciplinary sustainability research. It is considered to increase the knowledge of participants, and at the same time appreciate the multiple perspectives co-existing in the process. Mutual learning is also one of the prerequisites for the creation of socially and culturally robust knowledge. In order to facilitate and reflect on those learning processes, we will have a case-based Mutual Learning Sessions (cbMLS) as part of the Leverage Points conference. This transdisciplinary workshop format aims to organize mutual learning, knowledge integration and knowledge transfer among people from different disciplines, fields of action and societal domains.

What is somewhat particular to cbMLS is that they are focusing on a single case or a set of cases as focal points of the research. A cbMLS involves case experts, practitioners, scientists, policymakers and further participants that learn from each other, from the case and with the case during the process. It is composed of three phases: 1) the preparation phase consists of forming a research team and writing a case booklet, 2) the case encounter, during which participants are engaged face-to-face in excursions and workshops in order to jointly develop outcomes and 3) the post-processing phase focuses on the dissemination of results. A goal is to support learning from, with and between cases and to develop a concrete outcome – such as policy orientations – for the case study sites.

The cbMLS at the Leverage Points 2019 conference will focus on two cases, one is related to the district of Oldenburg (Lower Saxony), Germany and the other is one is based in Southern Transylvania, Romania. Both case study areas are confronted with intensive landscape changes which have ecological, economic, social and cultural consequences. A focus of the cbMLS will be on reactions and attitudes towards these changes. Pro-active attitudes and beliefs are dependent on perceived agency in both cases. Therefore, participants from both cases will be present in the cbMLS. The session consists of the preparation of a shared booklet at the forefront, an excursion to the Oldenburg district on the day before the conference (5 Feb 2019), further sessions, and a presentation of results on the first conference day (6 Feb 2019).

Examples in which cbMLS have been implemented are the 1st Global TraPs conference, and a project on sustainable family farming practices in Colombia (Ortiz et al. 2018). For further information on the concept of cbMLS see Vilsmaier et al. 2015.


Abstract submission for this conference closes on 30 June — soon! Submit your Abstract here.

For more information please visit:

If you have any specific enquiries about abstract submission please contact: