Blog #13: Action-Oriented Research


Roughly a year ago, my good friend Ioan Fazey and I were hiking the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland and planning for the upcoming Transformations 2017 conference. With a long (42k) bike ride to the “bothy", we had plenty of time to discuss the upcoming conference and how to integrate aspects of a recent paper that Ioan and I wrote together. The paper was under review at the time of the conference so we had to be thoughtful about what we could present, yet believed  the paper (recently published) could be a game changer. Here are some thoughts that we chewed on while hiking through the heather, thistle and spectacular vistas:   

What can we learn when we bring together different insights from the rich and diverse traditions of action-oriented research? Will this help us more effectively understand and navigate our way through a world of change to ensure knowledge production contributes more directly to societal needs?

(Fazey et al., 2018)  <<Click here to download the new paper.

In a recent publication , we explored the critical question of how to develop innovative, transformative solutions and knowledge about how to implement them. Addressing these questions requires much more engagement with more practical forms of knowledge, as well as learning from action and change in much more direct ways than currently occurs in academia. It is like learning to ride a bicycle, which can’t be done just by watching a powerpoint presentation, and which requires learning by “getting hands dirty” and by falling off and starting again.

Learning about how to achieve transformative kinds of change requires learning by doing in the real world of practice where researchers acknowledge they are part of the systems (and problems) that need changing. Approaches are therefore needed that:

·  allow for inclusion of a much wider diversity of kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing

·  free researchers up to more directly learn from actions seeking to promote change

·  facilitate thinking about wider systemic issues that may be constraining possibilities for transformations.

In our paper, we focused on achieving changes towards more sustainable patterns of living and highlighted ten essentials for research and science to have greater impact. These essentials are:

1.   Focus on transformations to low-carbon, resilient living

2.  Focus on solution processes

3.  Focus on ‘how to’ practical knowledge

4.  Approach research as occurring from within the system being intervened

5.  Work with normative aspects

6.  Seek to transcend current thinking

7.  Take a multi-faceted approach to understand and shape change

8.  Acknowledge the value of alternative roles of researchers

9.  Encourage second-order experimentation

10. Be reflexive.

These are illustrated in the circular image. The two-part table at right provides an explanation for each of the ten essentials.

 Ioan Fazey

Ioan Fazey

Ioan Fazey is Professor of Social Dimensions of Environmental Change at the University of Dundee in Scotland, United Kingdom. He is actively involved in helping support and facilitate the emergence of a growing field of research on action on Transformations to Sustainability. He is also a founding member and steward of the Sustainable Development Goals Transformation Forum, and trustee of H3Uni, an action oriented organisation that seeks to promote transformative thinking.





While applying any of these essentials will help improve possibilities for learning about sustainability and transformative change, the greatest impacts will be achieved when the essentials are applied together. This will create a much more adaptive, reflexive, collaborative and impact-oriented form of research, as well as intellectual depth that enables integration of knowledge with normative considerations of what is considered to be good (ethics) and beautiful (aesthetics).

We would love to hear your thoughts about this and other related work. What has your experience been of research seeking to achieve change? Do the ten essentials resonate? What’s missing? How can we put these essentials into practice? How can the kinds of changes to the way knowledge is produced and used and advocated in this work be better supported?

To find out more:
Fazey, I., Schäpke, N., Caniglia, G., Patterson, J., Hultman, J., van Mierlo, B., Säwe, F., Wiek, A., Wittmayer, J., Aldunce, P., Al Waer, H., Battacharya, N., Bradbury, H., Carmen, E., Colvin, J., Cvitanovic, C., D’Souza, M., Gopel, M., Goldstein, B., Hämäläinen, T., Harper, G., Henfry, T., Hodgson, A., Howden, M.S., Kerr, A., Klaes, M., Lyon, C., Midgley, G., Moser, S., Mukherjee, N., Müller, K., O’Brien, K., O’Connell, D.A., Olsson, P., Page, G., Reed, M.S., Searle, B., Silvestri, G., Spaiser, V., Strasser, T., Tschakert, P., Uribe-Calvo, N., Waddell, S., Rao-Williams, J., Wise, R., Wolstenholme, R., Woods, M. and Wyborn, C. (2018). Ten essentials for action-oriented and second order energy transitions, transformations and climate change research. Energy Research and Social Science40: 54-70. Online (open access):

Blog #12: The Blue Marble Call

Over the weekend, I received a “wake-up” phone call with an opening line no parent wants to hear: “Dad I’m in a police car…”  With these words, my world changed! I wanted the facts - to be sure, but my raw instinct was to act, whatever it may be. I soon learned all was fine, a wheel had come off his car (long story) and a police detective just happened to be driving by and stopped to offer immediate assistance. But something about those first few words initiated a response mechanism that changed everything.  In an instant, I was called to action! I would have done anything to help, support, and provide whatever was needed, regardless. I was ready to go!  As I think about the crisis of global biodiversity, wealth inequality, climate disruptions, growth at all costs and rapidly increasing social, ecological and economic debt being transferred to future generations, I wonder why don’t we have the same collective response.

A form of community architecture has recently sprung up. The SDG Transformation Forum is a platform designed for action – not just thinking about the issues but doing something about them. It comes at a time when we know, without question, that our species is shaping the future of life support systems we depend upon. The SDG’s are probably the best expression of global governance we have, now codified as collective response to the mess we have been making. The Forum both appreciates and celebrates the SGD’s but also identifies that their pursuit needs a new mindset, different from that which created the current situation. In the name of goal attainment, the devil is in the details of how we do it. Attainment of all the laudable social and economic goals (SD Goals 1-11) without transforming the short-term focus of economic growth as the ultimate objective will prevent attainment of ecosystem goals of climate and life on land and below the water (SD Goals 13-15). "We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims. [The challenge is] to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time, with spontaneous cooperation and without ecological damage or disadvantage of anyone." –R. Buckminster Fuller

Following this edict from Bucky Fuller won’t be easy. For starters, we need to make sure our measurement of progress does not fall into the trap of quantitative analysis left only to the statisticians and methodologists. We envision a more inclusive and intuitive approach rooted in integration and synthesis across the goals, high degree of participation with holistic thinking that respects the non-linear, interrelated and complex realities that exist across scales.  This is messy work! Pushing us further, we need to ground thinking in values that undergird the SDG’s in the first place: to be architects of a transformative future! As Robert Picciotto wrote in a 2015 article on Development Evaluation in Transition: “in an uncertain world, where uncertainty prevails and change is the only constant, ethical values, more than pre-determined outcomes drives decision-making.”

Thus, we believe that evaluation and assessment itself must be transformed. That is an overarching philosophy that is guiding one of the working groups within the SDG Transformation Forum. The Assessment and Evaluation working group is gaining some real interest from folks who have developed stellar careers in the field of systems thinking, complexity theory and evaluation. Together we are recognizing major challenges if linear logic and the illusion of control dominates assessment and evaluation of SDG’s. Pathways to both sustainable growth and poverty reduction is not linear and context free, it depends on many factors. Notably surprises, unintended consequences, butterfly effects and disruptions all which requires paying attention to patters through feedback and adaptive learning.  This opens a window for scaling up the relatively recent growth of developmental evaluation and principles-focused evaluation to address issues of global systems change. As Picciotto notes in the article mentioned above, “this will require a more adventurous approach… well beyond the programme evaluation approach that has dominated it.” Zenda Ofir agrees! Zenda, a gifted writer, independent evaluator and former president of the African Evaluation Association and a member of this working group believes we need to evolve the profession, and in countries still known as the “Global South” may be fertile ground to jump start the process. There is a growing awareness of the need to think differently about sustainable development and its evaluation; the challenges are intensive and visible, and in need of drastic and urgent action and innovative solutions; and patterns of thinking and doing are les constrained. Think leap-frogging to cellphones; we need to seek the evaluation equivalent.

What started with a face-to-face meeting in early October in Scotland, our SDG Transformations working group has generated a DRAFT manifesto and two webinars and the early stages of an action agenda. What began as a small group of five people, has now engaged over a hundred people who are interested in what is needed to transform the nature of assessment and measurement to better respond to global systems change. And we believe this is only the beginning!

This work comes at a time when the field of evaluation is rapidly evolving. One of the working group members is Michael Quinn Patton who has built a distinguished career as a forefather in the field of evaluation pushing its envelope towards usefulness. Just now, if you are in a remote corner of the winter woods of Minnesota and you listen closely, you may just hear his keyboard chattering away as he writes the “Blue Marble” perspective. This book is not like the others as it is as much for global leaders as it is for evaluators. It’s as much about the design of our response to large-scale systems change as it is about measurement strategies. He is offering a systematic approach, rooted in evaluative thinking, principles focused evaluation and developmental evaluation. It’s about adaptive learning and collective response that requires both individual chops and collective competencies.

The name “Blue Marble” comes from a famous photo that was shot in 1972 during a formative time in our relationship with our home planet. The Cold War was red hot and the race to outer space was a critical symbol of success. During one of the Apollo missions, an unintended consequence occurred! A photo was taken of the earth itself, described as blue and white marble floating in the darkness of space that changed known as the “Blue Marble” shot that enabled all humans on earth to see our collective home as an integrated whole. It’s worth noting that several astronauts who saw the earth in this way have described it as a profound spiritual experience that forever changed their relationship with the earth (see The Home Planet published in 1988 by Addison-Wesley in New York and edited by Kevin Kelley).

We believe that the Blue Marble perspective is something we need for marking progress with SDG’s. Our working group is now at the earliest stages of developing an action strategy to define what may be needed to transform the process of assessment and measurement for SDGs. We believe that if the “evaluation system” is better understood, we can more effectively engage with it to understand major gaps, discrepancies, inefficiencies, hindrances and enablers to effectiveness. This is ambitious! One estimate puts the number of evaluators world-wide at 32,000. This number is dwarfed by the total number of accountants, auditors, management consultants and statisticians. The opportunity for high quality Blue Marble-type evaluation as a leadership function is upon us. This is consistent with the clarion call of Global Evaluation Agenda, drawn up in 2015 by EvalPartners and International Organization for Collaboration in Evaluation (IOCE) accepted in Bangkok, Thailand.  It will require transformative education of evaluation professionals, guiding principles rooted in competencies for the individual and for collective action. It will require serious rethinking of the role, promise and limitations of evaluation as practice in service of the world.  

Ultimately, if the global evaluation system is to serve the needs of people, ecosystems and the planet, we need to understand and help enable its evolution. A focus on SGD’s is a major starting point. We are all receiving “wake-up” calls every day.  For me, the real wake-up is not from a call from my son’s cell phone but from a world with a perfect storm of challenges and the slow the pace of collaborating across borders, across sectors, across disciplines toward shared global goals! The question remains: how are we responding?  If you are interested in transforming how we mark progress with SDG’s - come join us. 

Blog #11: Ecosystem governance: What’s wrong with the current practice?

This blog has laid out some of the stepping stones that I believe can help us collectively get from where we are to where we need to be in the practice of the ecosystem approach (aka ecosystem governance and ecosystem-based management). Our collective progress towards more equitable and sustainable governance of the primary human habitat - coastal lands and coastal waters - is more halting, fragmented, inefficient and ineffective than it should be. This entry gets at why I believe this to be case. This is a big topic and one that I have been pondering for many years. I am going to limit this discussion to three points: (1) the scant recognition of the knowledge, skills and attitudes that the practice of ecosystem governance requires, (2) the lack of awareness of challenges of achieving an understanding of the “ecology of governance in a given place” and (3) the consequences of disconnected short term projects as the principle mechanism by which investments in coastal and marine governance are made in the countries where they are most needed.

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Blog #10: Switzerland’s Governance System

I am in Switzerland, awaiting open heart surgery on my three month old grandson.  He and his father are Swiss and I am getting a taste of what that means.  Switzerland has the highest per capita GDP and last month a referendum that would have provided every Swiss citizen with a minimum income of 4000 francs per month (about US $4600) lost by a small margin. Why is Switzerland so wealthy, so seemingly insulated from the turmoil swirling about those of us that carry other passports?  The answer, of course, lies in its traditions of governance and that fact that this mountainous region has in the past been militarily defensible.  The first three cantons came together as a confederation in 1291.  As independent-minded mountaineer communities they recognized that the benefits flowing from the trade routes through their mountain passes were highest when they cooperated with each other.  When their main export became mercenary soldiers, they ruthlessly enforced the Swiss brand - mercenaries that could not be bought once a contract had been signed.  One result is that the now largely ornamental Vatican Guards are still Swiss.  The Confederation, with its standing army composed of every able bodied man, managed to stay out of both World War I and II.  Switzerland is not a member of the European Union and only joined the United Nations in 2002.

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Blog #9 Timelines Tracing the Trajectory of Change

Blog #1 declared that ecosystem governance is, above all, a social and political challenge and process that shapes how groups of people and institutions relate to, and modify, each other’s behavior and the environments of which they are part. I came to this conclusion long ago when my colleague Lynne Hale and I prepared a paper for the first US national conference on coastal zone management (CZM) held in California in the late 1970s. Lynne and I compared the five-year experience of drafting Rhode Island’s CZM program, and winning its approval by the federal Office of CZM, to a political campaign. And indeed to us this was the best metaphor. For a difficult ten months the Rhode Island program had been the test case for determining whether the federal CZM approval standards would be weak - as desired by the American Petroleum Institute - or a rigorous expression of the environmental movement as argued by the Natural Resources Defense Council. At the next scale down, convincing skeptical state and federal agencies that another regulatory program would indeed make a difference brought other challenges. Findings our way through this thicket of often conflicting local and national interests felt very much like a protracted political campaign. Our candidate, however, was not a political figure, but a fresh approach to a set of complex and varied problems such as guiding residential development on shorefronts periodically impacted by hurricanes, protecting remaining wetlands, reviving the moribund industrial waterfront and positioning our fishing industry to take advantage of the newly expanded 200 mile territorial limit. For all these and other topics we based our CZM policies and regulations on a historical perspective that considers how each issue had evolved before setting forth what the Rhode Island CZM program would work to achieve in the future. This approach worked well in public workshops and helped catalyze the support of the Providence Journal, the state’s influential newspaper.

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Blog #8 The Ethics of Ecosystem Governance

Many years ago, when I was deeply immersed in leading a particularly difficult attempt to establish a national coastal management program in Thailand, a colleague observed “Steve, one of things that is unusual about you is that you care more about the process of what we are doing than the outcomes.”  I agreed that this was the case.  To me how we defined and prioritized the issues a coastal management program would address; how we outsiders and our Thai partners would select the places in which we would initially engage; how we designed the process of engagement in those places; how we interacted with our senior policy committee – these were my key concerns.  What we might realistically achieve in a five year period, be it to reduce the proliferation of development “mistakes” so obvious along many stretches of Thailand’s coastline, reduce bomb fishing, or stem the flows of pollutants into estuaries, would all be shaped by how we conveyed our purpose and engaged with our allies and our detractors.  If the purposes of our program were misinterpreted, or if the process of engagement and trust-building misfired, we would accomplish very little in our five year window - no matter how lavish the funding and how strong the support in the high level governmental agency to which our project had been assigned.  Our ability to build interest, credibility and win the trust of our partners would determine whether we would together be able to make tangible progress on such complex issues.  This would determine the ultimate impacts and significance of our program.  Yes, without a doubt, communicating and expressing our intentions and engaging in a coastal management process were my top concerns at this initial stage of our program.  

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Blog # 7: The Orders of Outcomes

 Blog # 7: The Orders of Outcomes

This post addresses the Orders of Outcomes, the second of the simplifying frameworks put forward in blog #4. 

As the 1990s drew to a close I became increasingly concerned that the swelling number of coastal and marine management projects and programs - particularly in the developing world - were having little lasting impact.  Few could make the transition from studies, plans and proposed policies to sustained implementation of a plan of action.  It was the familiar problem of the transition from Phases 1 -3 of the Management Cycle to Phase 4.  Many initiatives were doing a fine job of completing the actions identified by the initial planning stages of the management cycle but they were not creating the conditions within their focal area that implementing a plan of action requires.  Could I put forward another simplifying heuristic that would define the sequence of outcomes of ecosystem governance to complement the processes described by the management cycle? 

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Blog #6 The Management Cycle

This installment addresses the first of the simplifying frameworks - the Management Cycle.  The cycle was developed by the Coastal Resources Center (CRC) as the conceptual framework for what evolved into the Center’s four-week international training courses on the “theory and practice of coastal management.”  After fifteen years of engagement in US-style coastal zone management and four years working in Latin America and Southeast Asia we felt ready to share what we were learning.  We had many ideas, sackfuls of experience, but no unifying conceptual framework.  Many elements of the US CZM program were relevant but certainly not the model to be replicated anywhere.  This was in 1989, four years before the UN Rio “Earth Summit” Conference gave currency to the term Integrated Coastal Management in 1993.

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Blog #5: A Heck of a Way to Measure "Progress"

Recently, in this space, Stephen introduced us to the concept of the Anthropocene – the emerging geologic epoch that is replacing the Holocene, the epoch that we all learned about in school as the “current one.”  While the Holocene is defined as the period following the end of the last ice age starting about 11,700 years ago, the Anthropocene is characterized as the time on our planet when the cumulative actions of our species, not astronomical cycles, volcanism, plate tectonics or the like, are the dominant driver of Earth’s systems: its climate, bio-geochemical cycles and material flows. 

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Blog #4 Simplifying Frameworks to Guide the Practice

Practicing ecosystem governance is difficult.  It’s easy to lose your way.  As in medicine, broadly applicable principles and good practices will take you some distance, but in places where the problems are both multiple and significant, a thorough diagnosis followed by the skillful execution of a plan of action over the long term are necessary.  Rarely is the practice a “paint by the numbers” rote process.  For example, if overfishing is an issue, we can confidently say that fishing pressure should be reduced. Good, this most probably is correct.  But how?  What mixture of actions will be effective in reducing fishing pressure: greater involvement of the fishers in shaping the rules?  Targeted enforcement?  Education of the judges that mete out punishments to those who break the rules?  These are some of the many options.  Since we are engaged in ecosystem governance, choosing which approach to take will have to be made while simultaneously acting on other goals -  perhaps to reduce poverty, conserve biodiversity, create new sources of livelihood or integrate a wind farm in a focal area already crowded with human activities.  Traditional sector-by-sector management can and should be applied to address the individual goals for a focal area.  The additional layer of ecosystem governance will address the interactions and interdependencies among these various sectors and will work to integrate their more narrowly focused actions into a coherent whole.

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Blog #3: Ecosystem Governance Challenges in Galicia

In October of this year I spent three weeks in Galicia, the green and mountainous province of northwestern Spain where Celtic traditions are strong and thousands of hikers as modern day pilgrims pour into Santiago de Campostela, the end point of the famouscamino.  I gave a short course for the Campus do Mar on the fundamentals of coastal governance.  Another objective of the visit was to explore how the contents of the short course might be applied to Galicia.

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Blog #2 Phase Three of The Anthropocene

At a conference several years ago I heard Will Steffen give a keynote address on the Anthropocene.  This was a term I had not heard before and that twenty-minute talk changed me!  Suddenly four decades of working on coastlines in the US, in Latin America, in Southeast Asia, in Europe, in Africa, came together like a 500 piece puzzle.  The bigger picture in all its detail snapped into focus.  The years spent piecing together scattered information on trends, the shifts in the condition of the people of a place, how they relate to their resources and environment, the sorting of issues raised by urgent needs for both development and conservation, for mediation, for restructuring institutions, for public education all fitted into a single unifying narrative.  I understood what I had been seeing and what I had been trying to do with a new and wonderful clarity.

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Blog #1 Ecosystem Governance is an Emerging Profession

Four decades ago I was drawn into what I have come to believe is an emerging discipline that is best described as ecosystem governance.  I came in through Coastal Zone Management (CZM) as it took in shape in Rhode Island, the smallest of US states.  Fifteen years later, in international circles, the term for about the same thing was Integrated Coastal Management (ICM). A host of other variants followed that emphasized the connection between the land and the sea, or upon one attribute or problem - such as biodiversity loss or over fishing or protected areas.  Most recently an overarching umbrella for initiatives that addresses both the environment and people has been termed Ecosystem Based Management (EBM) or, more simply, the ecosystem approach.   As defined by one often quoted source,  EBM calls for analysis, planning and decision making that considers the entire ecosystem, including humans, and evaluates the cumulative impacts of diverse human activities in order to regulate human activities in a manner that maintains or restores an ecosystem to a healthy, productive and resilient condition that provides the services that humans want and need (McLeod et al, 2005).  The practice of EBM therefore addresses the interplay between people and the living systems of which they are a part in specific places.  The area of focus may be as small as a village or it may be a province (or state), a watershed, a nation or the planet as a whole.

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