Philosophy and framing of transformation in science

Transformations in science have evolved considerably in theory and academic approaches. Before we continue developing the transformation paradigm, what is required is a critical look at how this evolution in science has occurred, allowing deep reflection. We need to create spaces to enquire in a flexible and creative manner, about the theoretical bases of transformation, what we understand and how we frame transformation, how the concept has evolved and the diversity in which it has been defined. Moreover, what are the convergences and divergences of the conceptualization of transformation with other related concepts such as adaptation, resilience and how they can complement each other. What is also needed is to look into how transformational methods have progressed in science and what are the innovative methods developed to take into account the particularities of the transformation paradigm.

Learning from transformational stories and narratives

Stories of transformation in the ‘real world’ offer an opportunity for learning from the diversity and richness captured in different types of knowledge, beyond science. Transformational processes have been integral to human history and ancestral and traditional stories keep the knowledge that has been passed on through generations, for instance, in indigenous groups that have survived colonization, such as the Incas, Mapuches, Mayas, Aymaras, and the Toltecas in the Latin America Region. Local knowledge is contextual, and is associated with unique geographical, social and political contexts. The aim of gathering this knowledge is to learn from a spectrum of transformational actions, practices and processes that can be adapted to different realities. What is important to consider is that communities at the local level are at the ‘front line’ in terms of experiencing the impacts of climate change and other transformative pressures, and consequently they are often ‘front line’ responders. There is also a great source of knowledge that emerges from formal institutions that have included the transformation approach, and how these institutions have changed over time. Formal institutions include policies, norms, strategies, plans and agreements implemented at local, regional, national and international levels. Studying these instruments is as important as studying the processes in which these institutions are designed and implemented. Therefore, it is necessary to consider that policy processes do not finish when new legislation is enacted, or when new guidelines are delivered through new plans or programs imposed from the top-down. Rather, the process continues in the implementation phase, where practitioners respond to the new directives. For example, in climate change policy the approaches to adaptation, resilience and mitigation have been included explicitly, which is not the case for transformation.

Learning from each other: integrating different knowledge and thinking for transformation

The approaches detailed above (Themes 1 and 2), which can be summarised as knowledge in science and practice, which are clearly necessary to achieve transformation. However, we believe that for complex problems the trans-disciplinary paradigm, understood as a combination of these types of knowledge, could give us a more comprehensive picture of reality and of the transformational responses and processes required. Learning from each other emerges as pivotal, but how we can navigate the way to get there, deserves more attention. Thus, we need to foster a dialogue between science-policy and science-society, including different kinds of knowledge coming from different scientific disciplines, as well as the ones that emerge from society, including ancestral, traditional and local knowledge. The central question here is which are the approaches, methodologies and methods that allow the creation of channels, spaces, platforms and opportunities for the flow of knowledge, learning, reframing and co-production for transformative processes. Some of the approaches that underpin learning from each other are action research and transdisciplinary inquiry.

Agents of transformation: who, why, how and what

Even if great advances have been achieved in the theory and practice of transformation, lesser attention has been paid to the ‘agents’ of transformation. Transformation is not passive, rather, transformation agents or ‘transformers’ are actively involved in transformation processes. Therefore, who is involved, why and how they are involved, and what are the characteristics of these agents are crucial aspects to be studied. The recognition of the who is relevant, for example to facilitate and encourage participation and the connection with others, as working in isolation most of the time constitutes a barrier for transformation. This goes beyond thinking only about individuals, it could also be about communities, associations, groups and so on. The why is also important, in terms of knowing the motivations, priorities, values and goals that underpin their interest in transformation. The how, meaning the ways transformers understand, design, implement and evaluate transformation, including for example partnerships, networks, formal institutions, and how they imagine the future with transformation as part of the responses to climate change and other societal challenges. Finally, the what, what are the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful transformers? How can they best be supported? How can scientific knowledge contribute?

Transformation for navigating complexity and uncertainty

Nowadays, transformation is not the same as it was only a decade ago, not only because of global changes, but also because of the particular contexts faced by different societies, considering globalization, and increasing and dynamic complexity and uncertainty. Societies with similar or different development models share growing complexity and uncertainty in elements such as an aging population, the disarticulation of the social fabric, an increased distrust in institutions, conflicts of power, the reduction of subjective well-being, the centralization of participatory processes, the imbalance of territorial practices with the natural environment, the instability of livelihoods, the fragility of state and community protection relations, the excess of information and the de-qualification of education, among others. All these result in an unequal distribution of opportunities and capacities for transformation, and their impacts between different social groups, can result in emergent differences, perceptions and experiences of injustice and fragility in a culture of growing uncertainty and vulnerability. The challenges are then to analyse the particular social conditions that could hinder or enhance positive processes of transformation. At the same time, it is necessary to analyse how the transformation process helps, or not, to reduce the vulnerability of certain social groups and support changes in the structure and social functions that improve common welfare.

Transformation and disaster risk

In recent decades, disaster risks have increased due to the impacts of climate change and other global changes such as urbanization, which in most cases has resulted in the construction of ‘risk traps’ that often coincide with areas of socioeconomic fragility, exacerbating the impacts of dangerous phenomena, especially in less developed countries. However, the occurrence of disasters can also be seen as an opportunity to intervene in the root causes and conditions of disaster risk, reducing negative impacts. Past disaster events have triggered important transformations such as improvements in building regulations, the creation of disaster risk institutions, the design of public policies, changes in land-use planning instruments and others, which have made it possible to improve the resilience of countries and communities, as well as a range of social and other benefits. This transformation process can be constituted by individual or collective strategies that respond to the need to reduce socio-natural risks related to climate change, and in some cases, to face complex multi-hazard scenarios. The various responses are conditioned by the cultural and socioeconomic systems of both less and more developed countries. These strategies also include larger-scale transformation processes associated with national efforts that can have significant long-term effects. Therefore, it is relevant to explore the efforts made at different scales of analysis to learn and adapt successful experiences into other territories that need to start or deepen their transformation processes to prepare for, or respond to disaster risk.

  • Transformations 2019 aims to provide a platform for reciprocal learning between less and more developed contexts, and between researchers and practitioners, in order to enhance both practice and theory to support transformative changes for addressing climate change and other contemporary societal and environmental challenges.