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Enabling transformative change

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By Kasper Benjamin Reimer Bjørkskov

· 6 min read

Typical efforts to change behavior often fail because they operate under the flawed assumption that simply informing people will change their actions. However, acquiring new information without the means to act on it—especially when time and cognitive resources are limited—proves largely ineffective. There is a growing recognition that we need to shift from purpose-driven motivation to transformative approaches.

Values and actions: a reciprocal relationship

Actions shape our values, not the other way around; that's why it's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting. This perspective is subtly embedded within Donella Meadows' leverage framework, which reveals deeper truths about effective change. Many seek a silver bullet solution, opting for the most effective leverage point: transcending paradigms. However, overhauling an entire culture and system at once is nearly impossible, leading to frequent failures.

Environmental movements: phases and failures

This insight helps explain why the mobilization efforts around the environmental movement have repeatedly failed, despite its evolution through three distinct phases, each marked by its own challenges and achievements.

The initial phase of the environmental movement began in the 1970s, ignited by the publication of "The Limits to Growth." This seminal report highlighted the unsustainable nature of current economic and demographic trends, sparking a global conversation about environmental sustainability. However, the impact of this phase was constrained by its broad focus on shifting mindsets rather than setting specific, actionable goals.

Moving into the late 1990s, the second phase emerged with the release of the Brundtland Report, which introduced the concept of sustainable development that intertwined environmental protection with economic growth and social equity. Despite its influential framework, the movement continued to struggle with the implementation of tangible changes, primarily due to its lack of concrete objectives.

In the 2020s, the environmental movement entered its third phase, propelled by the escalating crisis of climate change. This era brought heightened awareness and a sense of urgency, yet it repeated the historical pattern of focusing more on changing mindsets than on establishing clear, actionable demands.

The limited success of these environmental movements contrasts sharply with the outcomes of social movements like the civil rights movement, which thrived by having specific, simple, emotional, beneficial, and actionable asks. For example, the initial demand to end legal segregation and discrimination not only brought about a significant societal shift but also set the stage for subsequent asks. These early successes fostered more interaction and understanding between different racial groups, reducing fear and prejudice. This paved the way for the next major demands: voting rights and political representation, which gave minority groups a stronger voice in the political process and further solidified their societal standing.

Following these, the third major ask for equal access to public services and education built on earlier successes. As more people from minority groups gained access to education and public services, it led to increased representation in various sectors, including the elite, promoting greater equality. Although the oppressive structures are still embedded within the systems, the civil rights movement made a transformative change and enabled a better and more equal society.

Identifying leverage points for change

Social movements have achieved success by identifying leverage points that lead to social tipping points, thus accelerating systemic changes through a ripple effect of small, yet impactful incremental steps. This strategy emphasizes the importance of clear, targeted objectives to catalyze systemic change. In contrast, the broader, less defined goals of the environmental movement have hindered its ability to create similar tipping points. This analysis suggests that for environmental advocacy to achieve comparable success, it must adopt a strategy of simple, emotional, beneficial, and actionable demands to drive the systemic change necessary for a sustainable future.

The understanding that values grow out of actions reveals that influencing the lower, easier parts of the leverage framework can be the gateway to enabling widespread systemic change. While systemic change is indeed necessary, it is most likely to happen through transformative, incremental steps.

Incremental steps play a role in normative transformation when they lay out a clear destination—as distinct from "incrementalism," which is incremental steps with no destination.

Nora Bateson and Dave Snowden's distinction between complexity and systems thinking reinforces this approach. They recommend focusing on the best “adjacent possible” and avoiding the common hubris of assuming we know what’s best at higher levels and can anticipate the nth-order consequences. This mindset aligns with the idea of leveraging simpler, actionable steps to facilitate broader systemic change.

Transformative business practices

Brand expert Thomas Kohlster emphasized this approach seven years ago, arguing that the focus should not be on “what” you help people become, but on “who” you help people become. Regenerative business practices that transform habits are the most effective.

For example, vegetarian meal kits may seem insignificant on the surface, but they are transformative because they facilitate easy access to a new skill: preparing vegetarian meals. This enables the development of new habits, which in turn shape values. By making it easy for individuals to incorporate vegetarian meals into their diet, meal kits lower the barrier to adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. Over time, as individuals repeatedly engage in preparing and consuming vegetarian meals, these actions foster a shift in values toward sustainability and health, illustrating how small, manageable actions can lead to significant behavioral and value changes.

Within any organization, from workers to CEOs, the question should be: How can we remove barriers that hinder desirable, transformative decisions? As the saying goes,

"You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems."

In a 100-meter race, every runner shares the goal of winning. Success depends not just on the goals set but on the quality of systems and preparations in place.

Building robust systems for transformative change

Thus, building robust systems for transformative change involves more than goal-setting; it requires a clear roadmap to achieve these goals. A common mistake is attempting to change everything simultaneously, which seldom leads to success. Instead, we should identify pivotal actions that trigger a snowball effect, gradually building momentum toward our ultimate objectives. By focusing on enabling actions that align with transformative steps and embracing the “adjacent possible,” we can create systems that truly drive meaningful and lasting change.

To truly enable behavior change, it is important to ensure that the "ask" is simple, emotional, beneficial, and actionable. This necessitates making the request or action straightforward and easy to comprehend, thus avoiding complexity and providing clear instructions. It requires tapping into the emotions of the individual being addressed, employing storytelling, vivid imagery, or compelling language to create a profound emotional connection and motivate action. Highlighting the benefits of the desired action is crucial, clarifying how it will positively impact the individual's life by addressing their needs and goals. Additionally, providing specific steps or a clear path to follow is essential to facilitate immediate action, thereby removing any barriers or uncertainties.

Incorporating these elements allows us to effectively drive behavior change and encourage individuals to take the desired action. This transformative ask can catalyze the acceleration of the social tipping points we so desperately need, ultimately leading to widespread and lasting systemic change. It is within this approach that we find the profound potential to reshape our world, steering it toward a more sustainable and equitable future.

To enable this change, start by identifying a simple, emotional, beneficial, and actionable step you can mobilize around in your own life, community, or at work. Begin to enable collective action for systemic change; 

stop appealing to power—start mobilizing to counter it.

 illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Kasper Benjamin Reimer Bjørkskov is an architect who specializes in converting complex environmental and social challenges into innovative, sustainable architectural solutions, promoting inclusive design that spurs societal change. He has actively engaged in numerous architectural projects dedicated to minimizing CO2 emissions, demonstrating the feasibility of constructing buildings and simultaneously reducing CO2 with no additional costs.

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