In Wayfinder, the practical challenge of navigating towards sustainability is conceptualized as either adaptive or transformative change of a social-ecological system, while simultaneously maintaining what we call “ option space”. This reflects the system’s long-term capacity to deal with unexpected change. Below we explain how adaptation, transformation and option space relate to each other. We also introduce the concepts “ leverage points” “ agency” and “ opportunity context”, which are key to understanding our ability to navigate towards more sustainable futures.

Managing for adaptive or transformative change

Social-ecological systems can develop in many different ways, depending on their internal dynamics, how we manage them, and the external driving forces in play (e.g. trends in climate, economy and politics). For example, an agricultural system might develop towards organic farming or towards high-input farming, or somewhere in between. Social-ecological systems can therefore be thought of as having many possible future development trajectories. The different trajectories are characterized by different types of system interactions and feedbacks, and by the benefits they provide people with. Continuing with the agricultural example, in an organic system, on-farm soil quality and crop yields interact in a different way than they do in a high-input system, and the two systems will produce different quantity and quality of crops.

Among the multiple future trajectories that is possible for a system, some will be unsustainable – i.e. pushing the system outside social or ecological boundaries – and others will be sustainable to varying degrees and in varying timeframes. Wayfinder is about identifying and navigating towards the more sustainable options. This will require different levels of change, at different points in time, and across different organizational scales. We distinguish between persistence, adaptation and transformation1.

Persistence refers to the capacity of a system to conserve what it has and to recover to what it was, in the face of primarily known types of shocks, stresses, and change. However, this concept is of limited use to tackle the sustainable development challenge we face today, where change is required in most systems.

Adaptation reflects a system’s capacity to sustain, innovate and improve its performance on the current development trajectory, which is required when conditions are changing, for example in the face of climate change. However, in many cases the development challenges that we face are so severe, and external changes so great, that adaptation will not be sufficient to maintain development trajectories that are both safe and just.

Transformation reflects a more radical form of change, whereby a the system embarks on substantively different trajectory of development. For example, in a food insecure community faced with increasing dry spells and droughts, improved irrigation (an adaptation strategy) may not be enough to solve the problem. Instead transformative change might be needed, through new robust livelihood options and sources of income that can improve well-being over the long term. This would fundamentally change the way people in that system relate to the environment around them. Thus, transformation is not just ‘a bit more more’ adaptation, but reflects a different type of change process, whereby the system dynamics change so much that new types feedbacks become dominating and start to steer the system’s development2,3.

The concepts of persistence, adaptation and transformation are still closely related though. When a system undergoes a transformation, certain parts of the system may still persist or adapt. It may also be that transformative change at smaller scales are needed to allow for adaptive change at larger scales.

Click here to learn more about the difference between adaptation and transformation by Per Olsson, Researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Maintaining option space

It is important to understand that neither adaptation, nor transformation, has an endpoint. Trying to solve immediate problems while navigating towards a more sustainable future, requires managing the system in a way that keeps options open and creates new options when old ones close (figure 4). In Wayfinder we refer to this as maintaining or increasing option space, or the range of future possible choices that are still available. In complex and dynamic systems with large uncertainties about the future, this is critical. Conditions change, and so does our understanding of what sustainable development entails. What was a safe and just trajectory yesterday may no longer be so tomorrow, and although we thought we had a suitable solution to a problem it may no longer be so tomorrow because we realize that we were actually focusing on the wrong problem. Maintaining option space is a way to avoid locking into trajectories that limit our choices for the future. Wayfinder strives to enable adaptive or transformative change now, in a way that maintains or even enhances the capacity for future adaptations and transformations. The option space concept is operationalized by a set of resilience principles4, described in detail in Phase 3 of this guide.

Figure 4. The difference between a narrow and a wide options space. While navigating a system towards sustainability through adaptive of transformative change, we simultaneously need to maintain a wide option space, or the range of future choices that are still possible since conditions inevitably will change. This is necessary to avoid locking us into a particular trajectory of development, which over time may become undesirable, pushing us outside planetary or social boundaries. Illustration: E.Wikander/Azote

Focusing on leverage points, agency and opportunity

To navigate a system towards adaptive or transformative change while maintaining options open for the future, Wayfinder focuses in on three key issues: leverage points for systemic change, the agency to influence to leverage points, and the overall opportunity context for making change happen in the system at a given point in time. Leverage points represent places in the system where a relatively small or strategic intervention has the potential to produce a significant outcome in terms of shaping the trajectory of development5. We recognize that leverage points span from those that are easy, relatively rapid to influence, but usually less systemically powerful, through to those that are challenging to undertake, slow to achieve but can be powerful in terms of affecting system change. These often lie in the personal sphere, relating to our world views and values6.

To deliberately change a system, we argue that actions and interventions should target leverage points for systemic change. Influencing system dynamics is, however, not something that happens automatically, or in a vacuum, even if leverage points have been identified. To tackle the sustainability challenge that we face, a deeper understanding of how humans behave, how change happens and society works is central. Wayfinder focuses on the concepts of agency and opportunity context to approach this enormously complex field7. More specifically, Wayfinder looks at the interaction between human agency and the overall opportunity context, which is sometimes referred to as situated agency, to better understand our capacity to influence the development trajectory of social-ecological systems. Situated agency reflects the potential for people, or groups of people, to make change happen given existing institutional and social structures, such as rules and regulations, norms and values. This perspective acknowledges the interplay between structure and agency, and accounts for institutions and social relations as constraining and enabling, but not determining, for the choices that individual actors make.

In Wayfinder the practical sustainability challenge is thus conceptualized as navigating a social-ecological system towards development trajectories that are sustainable, safe and just through adaptive or transformative change, while keeping the option space open for the future. This complex task is approached through a triple focus on leverage points for systemic change, the agency to influence those points, and the overall opportunity context for making that type of change happen at a given point in time. This framing reflects a substantial step forward in resilience practice. While this text gives a first introduction the theoretical underpinnings of Wayfinder, admittedly, these are complex issues that are difficult to grasp at first, and we will come back to this with a lot more detail further on in the Wayfinder process.

Click here to learn more about agency and transformative change by Michele-Lee Moore, Deputy Director of the GRAID programme at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Key references

1. Folke, C., et al. 2010 “ Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability.” Ecology and society 15.4 (2010).

2. Olsson, P. et al. 2014. “Sustainability transformations: a resilience perspective”. Ecology and society: 19(4):1

3. Moore, M.-L., et al. 2014. “Studying the complexity of change: toward an analytical framework for understanding deliberate social-ecological transformations”. Ecology and Society 19(4): 54.

4. Biggs, R., Schlüter, M. & Schoon, M. (eds.) (2015) “Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems”. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

5. Meadows, Donella. 1999. “Leverage points – Places to Intervene in a System”. The sustainability institute.

6. O’Brien, K and Sygna, L. “Responding to climate change, three spheres of transformations”. Proceedings of Transformation in a Changing Climate, 19- 21 June 2013, Oslo, Norway. University of Oslo (pp.16-23).

7. Westley, F., et al. “A theory of transformative agency in linked social-ecological systems.” Ecology and Society 18.3 (2013).