As is apparent in Table 3, across this set of cases we explore multiple interpretations of what a transformative space actually is and how that translates into practice. We explore a variety of settings and scales: from a small village, to a city municipality through to international organisations. We use the five phases outlined in Table 2 as starting points to identify more generalizable patterns and processes that shape transformative space-making in practice and can also guide the future research of such spaces. The phases we identified are modular and iterative, which is fundamental to ensure a more experimental approach in co-producing impact in social–ecological systems (Fig. 1).
Table 3 presents a full overview of the nine cases, their contexts and design phases. Key insights from each of the phases, with reference to the case studies, are presented in the following sections, followed by concluding remarks on future work on transformative spaces.
Problem definition phase
In this phase, the transformative space opens questions on scope and the need for new understandings of existing, persistent problems. In a transformative space, opportunities to reframe problems are essential given contexts where populations have inequitable access to information, feel their voices are not heard, and where some forms of knowledge are heavily weighted in comparison to others (Dyer 2018). The convenors of the transformative space, whether a research team or differently configured group, consider design questions such as: What are the goals of the project? What is the problem to be addressed and by whom? Why is it a problem and for whom? With these guiding questions, the design thinking of this phase requires knowledge on the historicity of the problem, the drivers and barriers for resolving the problem and the evidence of maladaptive or unsustainable system states. There is a need from the start to establish that there may be multiple perspectives on understanding why and how the system in question is “locked-in” to the problems, or in a potentially intransient state (Carpenter et al. 2019).
Across the nine cases, most common was an iterative problem definition approach: while the research teams defined a broader problem setting- driven by a project or research discipline- this was followed by inviting local co-conveners or their participants to refine this problem statement. In many cases this phase was intimately tied to the second phase, the operationalisation phase, which focused on the selection of participants and partnering with suitable co-convenors. The Xochimilco Wetland case took a different approach by not imposing any broad frame. Instead, they allowed the workshop’s problem scope to emerge based on the concerns of participants. While a focus on the urbanization of wetlands was expected, participants instead saw a growing lack of self-esteem and social cohesion as a major issue. In contrast, the Transdisciplinary Research case, developed an approach based on building the legitimacy of knowledge developed through the lived experiences of environmental health challenges. Based on exploratory research, the research team first unpacked marginalised voices and views that were critical to co-creating solutions and defined the problem accordingly. They thus aimed to break through dominant political dynamics that otherwise would have strongly influenced the problem setting.
Various approaches for defining the actual systemic problem, with a varying extent of influence of local actors, can be utilised in the making of a transformative space. As shown across the nine cases, this depends entirely on the context and dynamics between stakeholders. Processes of problem setting inevitably invoke conflict and emotions about understandings of the problem and its impacts on present and future generations. Therefore, conveners must attempt to understand the human dimensions of social–ecological experimentations and recognise the emotions, perceptions and conflicts that are often ignored or understudied in such research. Based on this heightened awareness, an appropriate approach to defining a problem can be selected.
Issues of diversity (in terms of sectors, perspectives, genders and so on) and processes of inclusion must be considered during the operationalisation phase. Co-production processes inevitably include a process of decision-making whereby conveners select those who will be invited to the space. Ideally, convenors attempt to select and mobilize a representative group of actors, while balancing power dynamics that might exist among actors. However, this selection process, regardless of the intentions, comes with its own dimensions of power and consequence. Not only does this impact the subsequent process, but it also demonstrates the inevitable asymmetries that surface in the co-production process (Cornwall 2008). Even when no explicit selection of participants appears to take place, underlying social power dynamics result in a pre-selection of some at the expense of others (Dyer 2018). It becomes crucial for conveners to get a balance in ‘types of participants’ and ‘quality of participation’ (Hebinck and Page 2017) amidst these sometimes hidden social dynamics.Footnote 1 Also important is who the conveners themselves are. Although there are real challenges for convenors that are not directly within the system themselves, “outsider” status of conveners can sometimes be advantageous as the participation of “insiders” in shaping the participants of the process might encourage or even discourage participation of certain actors.
Given the majority of the nine cases focused on place-based problems, their operationalisation phase entailed the selection and mobilisation of place-based actors. Along with local co-conveners, research teams mapped out and invited suitable actors that were in various ways connected to the issue at stake while attempting to maintain diversity and look beyond power-structures. In the Southern African Food Lab special attention was given to the selection of participants, as the main selection criteria was a leadership role in their sector (Drimie et al. 2018). This was essential for their aim to instigate new actions and creation of commitments to support smallholder farmers in ensuring community food security within a historical legacy of land dispossessions and concentrated poverty. In their selection of actors from across private sector, civil society, government and academia, their focus was on the participants’ ability to ensure representation across sectors and influence on and experience with the system. As such, power dynamics, of actors over the system and of entrenched power inequities, were a major consideration in the operationalisation of this case. In contrast, the aims and objectives of the Global Fellowship case led to a selection approach that focused on diversity that was not explicitly focused on one place, although participants worked on place-based issues. Seeking to strengthen system entrepreneurship, the convenors recognized that systems change requires that agency is distributed across a networked set of actors. To support systems rather than individual entrepreneurship, and to strengthen transformative capacities in a learning space, the design focused on a diverse group of fellows, connected to different networks, embedded in different regions and systems, and with different perspectives. This creates certain power asymmetries as every participant is confronted with a diversity of views about transformations in their environment.
Even with careful selection processes that pay attention to these complex social dynamics, some form of power will inevitably enter into the convened space, including potential conflicts arising from pre-existing tensions or prejudices. Likewise, it is critical to acknowledge that transformative spaces do not occur in a vacuum, and participants have a history of engagement with other convened processes and may possibly feel some form of research or engagement fatigue (see Lemos et al. 2018). Knowing such dynamics can affect the ‘quality of participation’ during a process, given that these can affect the quality of a ‘safe space’ for certain actors (Gaventa and Cornwall 2008). Lessons learned from these cases demonstrate that such sensitivities can be mediated to some extent through the choice of methods (see next section). Open reflexivity and transparency in terms of selection is vital to convening a transformative space. Over time, who is included in the transformative space may also shift and this reflexivity is important to be able to ensure that the space allows for this fluidity as interests change.
The tactical phase: the methods and toolbox for transformative spaces
The tactical phase is focused on the choice, development and application of methodologies to enable a transformative space, and to support the work that will be done in that space, by the conveners, independently or together with participants. In most cases, conveners decided upon developing a toolbox: a range of facilitation and data collection methods that work towards meeting the objective of the transformative space and scientifically record the process. The choice of facilitation tools depends on the earlier phases of problem defining and operationalisation since certain methods are aimed towards understanding the current system, while others focus on working towards catalysing system change, and some on both. The social innovation lab guide (Westley and Laban 2012), outlines one way through which to ensure that different tools are used in certain sequences so as to increase the likelihood that the goals and outcomes are achieved at each stage of the process. Since there is no perfect approach, and always many optional pathways to undertake these kinds of processes, choosing the “right” tools for each group can be a tricky process, and it is also important to recognise when a particular method is not working with a group and to shift to something else (Zgambo 2018).
The conveners employed different types of participatory methodologies, such as participant observation, narrative enquiry, participatory scenario mapping and participatory impact pathways analysis. In some spaces, mixed quantitative–qualitative approaches were used to facilitate system understanding, such as Agency Network Analysis and Q-Methodology (Table 3). The case Stories for co-creation applied an approach that engaged actively and purposefully with the emotional intelligence of participants through the use of arts. Here, the application of performative arts and its ability to contribute to opening up different perspectives to the transformations needed to tackle climate change was explored. The case shows how the use of artistic interventions allowed for a move from a mere cognitive understanding of facts to a process of revealing perceptions and underlying worldviews that mediated that understanding. The research team captured these shifts of perceptions and mind-sets through narratives, interviews and, in-depth process observation.
Creativity was used in the case of Food System Futures as a way to think about what a desired food system could look like. Through the use of participatory foresight methods, participants were encouraged to think imaginatively while within the bounds of system-logics, resulting in four plausible future food systems. In this case, the use of system thinking contributed to increased understanding of the food system, the different actors and their activities, and (un)desired system outcomes. By combining this system-understanding with a futures lens, participants were able to step out of the today’s dominant power-structures and challenge currently dominant trade-offs. Moreover, the research team took an iterative approach to this tactical phase, allowing for swift adjustment in case the process took an unexpected turn or did not meet objectives.
As the cases highlight, while the methods themselves may not be unique and could be used in other types of processes, it is the choice of methods for designing and facilitating work within the space that is crucial for the establishment of a transformative space. It is thus critical to match the methods and tools employed in the process with the key outcomes that it seeks to achieve and ensure that they are meaningful to the contextual dynamics. The combination of methods (see Table 3) gives structure to the participants and to the facilitation of the transformative space, and is tailored to the contexts in which the transformative spaces are embedded. In this way, the transformative space can start to model (and even exemplify) different ways of working, which may be essential to the future transformative efforts in this space.
Outcomes phase: understanding and measuring impacts for transformative change
In this phase, the authors work towards understanding what the key outcomes for transformative change are. It takes stock of the impacts of the transformative space at the individual, the collective and system level and reflects on the efforts of researchers to track and understand changes that emerge. Detecting change that can be attributed directly to the transformative space is challenging, particularly in relation to a ‘live’ and open process, where there are multiple influencing processes and events outside the domain of the transformative space. While some notable changes may occur during or immediately following the implementation of an experimental process, other changes may emerge later—possibly associated with individual change and relationships initiated during the transformative space.
The difficulty with trying to identify, undertake and assess transformative change can be identified across the cases, as most conclude that the transformative spaces are actually starting points of change, rather than endpoints (see Fig. 1 for a visual representation). Instead, the cases give insights into how change has been effected at individual, collective and system levels and how these change processes might be further catalysed. In the Argentinian Seeds case, a key outcome of the transformative space was the creation of ‘unconventional’ alliances between researchers, NGO practitioners and social actors that are systematically marginalised within formal policy dialogues, such as around agricultural seed markets. Through the creation of novel alliances of actors, the transformative space helped to open up new opportunities for intervention. These new alliances enabled a pooling of different kinds of resources, such as of knowledge, legitimacy and organizational capacity, to help overcome some of the difficulties of trying to galvanise action for building more sustainable pathways of change in the context of pervasive ‘locked-in’ agricultural systems.
Echoing through the cases is the contribution of transformative spaces in the development of connections between actors that are normally fragmented and how their improved understanding of system dynamics can be catalytic to effecting larger change and help to re-organise these systems. To analyse and track progress towards more systemic change as an outcome of transformative spaces, research teams need to be more creative and reflexive about monitoring and evaluation. While this is often overlooked, it could contribute to the identification of both qualitative and even quantitative signs of change. More work to be able to track the real impact of these spaces, the reconfigured relationships and changes in mind-sets is critical for furthering the work on understanding and instigating transformative change (see O’Brien and Synga 2013 with reference to responding to climate change).
Concluding the design phases, reflection is important to explore and understand what worked and what did not. Reflecting includes debriefing on whether expectations aligned, objectives were met, and how power-dynamics in the space enabled or disabled transformative change. Powerful actors that command resources and influence can often pose an important barrier to change. These issues mean that a transformative space is often not a transformation in itself, but rather a form of preparedness for transformation that entails unlocking constructive ways of working with power dynamics that are undeniably constitutive of any social–ecological system (Moore et al. 2018). In transformations, a single intervention is insufficient as the system has been locked into unsustainable and unjust trajectories due to historical path dependencies and requires a much longer-term engagement. Moreover, the larger the scale of transformation desired; the longer the time required to observe impact and change. For these larger higher-level transformative changes, new methods and longer time commitments are needed.
Transformative spaces must be crafted so as to allow for conflict to be a productive process of contestation, of unmasking interests and rethinking perceptions. In this way, these spaces move away from the consensus model (Mostert 2015) that informs many efforts at transdisciplinary engagement. Consequently, they can facilitate the development of social interactions between actors that previously did not come into dialogue. In the Gendered Meetings case, the ethnographic approach used to understand underlying gendered dynamics of communication in Solomon Islands villages revealed that prima facie assessments of participation can be misleading. It concludes that without recognition of how some communicative practices gain dominance, and thus voice, over others, real transformation is unlikely to take place. This is one way that transformative spaces are distinct from other experimental settings and participatory processes, as they are deliberate in inviting conversations about conflict and its causes and are thereby open to the human dimensions of deliberations about future pathways. The Good Anthropocenes case shows how transformative spaces allow for a shift in personal perspectives in terms of reframing and re-thinking initially negative images (the Anthropocene) by explicating positive changes and enriching the dialogue with transformative visions. This case shows how alternative approaches can be a useful approach to foster dynamics of change. In this instance, a focus on positive futures allowed participants better to link current practices to transformative change, contributing a set of approaches that enabled societal actors to deal with changes needed for transformation and to see their individual contributions to the larger vision.
The other cases also illustrated ways of doing this reflecting, such as identifying and focusing on mutual concerns between both powerful and less powerful players, and to use these as a basis to think about ways forward. Critical to developing transformative spaces is a serious and open engagement with how knowledge is being created and utilised, not just in terms of bringing diverse actors together to co-produce new knowledge in a particular setting, but with a mutual recognition that context, culture and power will shape the form of understandings of all involved (Stirling and Mitchell 2018). Another implication is how this understanding plays out in wider knowledge systems with the structural injustices that they encompass (Marshall et al. 2018). As such, transformative spaces have the potential to transform the value of knowledge, heightening it to a common resource and public good rather than a power tool for the selected or privileged few.
Researchers are key actors in transformative spaces and as a result can do a great deal in helping to turn power from a disabler into an enabler for transformation. However, they are also bound by their own rhythms of work and institutional commitments. In retrospect, this can pose barriers towards realising their full potential as transformative space-makers (Hebinck et al. 2018; Marshall et al. 2018). The limited time available in projects and the results-driven frameworks sometimes mean that they have less time to spend in the transformative space or cannot meet expanding and ongoing expectations. In turn, this may limit the information and knowledge researchers gain on the multiple outcomes of these spaces, creating in this way a knowledge gap. This is particularly true in the Global South were structural injustices may be more pervasive.