Enabling social-systemic transformations

Can social scientists team up with other scientists and stakeholders, and transform (rather than only observe) the society? A stage for this academic transformation has just been set. Excellently organized by Karen O’Brien and Linda Sygna here at the University of Oslo last week, the Transformation in a Changing Climate conference brought together some 250 engaged participants from around the world.

The Transformations was conceived as an “unconference”. It began with “Extreme Dialog”, where participants from already struggling regions shared their stories; this is not an ‘academic’ problem, this is real. Feel it in your stomach! With this viceral motivation in place the question was asked: What will you do? Also politicians and business leaders were present in the panel. During the three days that followed the focus was on interaction and co-creation.

Two kinds of transformation were subsumed:

  • We need to transform our various societal systems (emergency handling, governance…) to be able to handle local and global crises that may occur as results of accelerating change
  • We need to transform our various societal systems (business, public informing, governance, finance, research, education…) so that the very roots of our various risks, of which the climate change is an example, may be eliminated.

My talk at the Transformation in a Changing Climate conference was titled “Enabling Social-Systemic Transformations.”  “By transforming our key societal systems (public informing, governance, research, education, finance…) we can enable them to solve our problems, and ourselveto begin a Renaissance-like cultural and social transformation,” I wrote in the abstract.

In my talk I outlined the strategy for enabling social-systemic transformations we were developing and applying in Knowledge Federation:

We are here at a university, so we may as well begin the global transformation here, in our own house.

The key to the academic transformation, as I see it, is  the way in which we perceive the meaning and purpose of our work. The technical word is ‘epistemology’, but I am going to introduce this idea here by telling you a parable.

On every university campus there is a Mirror...

On every university campus there is a Mirror…

On every university campus there is a Mirror. Busy with our papers and courses, we tend to walk right by it without noticing it.

When we look at this Mirror, we see the same world that we see around us. But we also see ourselves in the world. We instantly realize that we are not those disembodied spirits looking at the world objectively from above, as we believed we were; we are people living in this world, and responsible for it.

This academic Mirror is not an ordinary one; we can walk right through it. On the other side of the Mirror we find ourselves in another academic reality.

Since 1995 I have been working on the other side of the Mirror in the manner of a prospector: creating projects that illustrate the kind of academic transformations that are possible there, and the social and cultural transformations that may result from those academic ones.

For the past several years I have been doing this work within Knowledge Federation.

SandboxImagine it as a sandbox, where sociologists, ICT researchers and developers,  political scientists,  journalists, and any other experts can encode their ideas not only in printed text, but also in real-life social-systemic prototypes—and strategically bring them into real-world practice.

The sand in this sandbox is new information technology.

The projects we want to develop in this sandbox are systemic trimtabs—they are strategic interventions capable of inducing or facilitating sweeping systemic transformations.

In Knowledge Federation we have been developing not only systemic trimtabs, but also a general method for creating systemic trimtabs, and for enabling social-systemic transformations. Here is an intuitive description of how this method might work.


We begin by developing a clear vision, in the lower left corner of this picture. By taking a bit more careful look at perceived problems, such as the climate change,  we readily recognize that those problems are all related with one another; and that their root causes are systemic. We realize that we cannot really take care of our environment without doing something with our economy; and that we probably cannot change our economy without doing something with our governance and so on.

While the task of solving any of our perceived problems within our systems as they are may seem daunting, what we however can and need to do is learn how to transform our systems—so that those problems don’t even arise!

How can we transform social systems? Necessarily, the transformation must begin in our own midst, and we academic people have good reasons for undertaking such a transformation, as I already said.

Through the mechanism of the transdiscipline, of which the Knowledge Federation is both a prototype and a creator, we enable researchers from various disciplines and other stakeholders to combine their knowledge and skills, and create systemic insights and prototypes.

Our transformation strategy further combines transformed research with transformed entrepreneurship—as the creative power through which our social organism naturally changes and grows. This is really just the way innovation normally tends to happen—adapted and applied to social-systemic innovation.

Through the mechanism of The  Game-Changing Game, we enable the entrepreneurs from diverse branches and businesses to team up with researchers and other stakeholders to strategically induce  changes of practice in a domain—and by doing that to open up completely new niches and markets, just as Henry ford did in transportation a century ago.

In this way we bring the creativity and the knowledge of the academia and the power of business together, to bear upon social-systemic transformation.

My friend David said that this picture reminded him of the Native American Eagle—you see, it has a body and a head, and two wings.

So let’s make it fly!


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