Change and entrepreneurship

Among agents and transformers

New theory on the roles of individuals for transformative change

Story highlights

  • New study further develops theory around on the role of agents in transformations in complex systems
  • Agents involved in transformation will go through similar phases, but differ will depending on the context
  • Study presents new analytical framework work for addressing the role of agency in a transformation process

That individuals play a key role in bringing about transformations for sustainability might not come as a surprise. Individual agency is indeed often highlighted as one of the key factors behind shifts to more sustainable practices such as ecosystem-based and adaptive management. However, a coherent theory of the role of agents in these transformations is still lacking, according to a recently published article in Ecology and Society.

"We need a better understanding of the relationship between the different strategies and techniques actors utilize, and the broader system dynamics that shape the context in which they are working," writes centre board member Frances Westley, lead author of the article.

The article is published in collaboration with no less than five centre researchers (Lisen Schultz, Per Olsson, Carl Folke, Beatrice Crona and Örjan Bodin) along with Ola Tjornbo from Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience.

Institutional entrepreneurs
Westley and her colleagues combine social-ecological research with literature on entrepreneurship and prefer to use the concept 'institutional entrepreneurship' instead of 'leadership' when explaining effective agency in complex systems. This is because institutional entrepreneurs tend to be more sensitive to the context in which they work and seek to guide, rather than command, transformation.

"This distinction is important since agency in social-ecological transformations must act in concert with the evolving context of the system in question," says Per Olsson.

The study departs from the so-called adaptive cycle, introduced by Buzz Holling in the 1980s. It is a model used to map and explore the changes and development of a system over time as it moves through four different phases: exploitation, conservation, release (destruction) and reorganisation (renewal), characterized in terms of the connectivity of the system and the amount of available resources.

Based on the understanding that social-ecological systems experience such phase changes, the new study concludes that the opportunity context experienced by agents goes through similarly familiar stages. The key to transformations seems to be the timing of the two.

"Certain types of strategies will be particularly appropriate to certain phases of change, and not to others"

Lisen Schultz, co-author

In the conservation (or "mature") phase, for example, most actors are likely to actively resist change. In this phase, which has also been labelled “opaque opportunity context” by social scientists, it seems most appropriate to pursue strategies that anticipate, prepare for, and actually help to create disturbances that free up resources and break down established institutions. Following an internal or external shock, on the other hand, sensemaking strategies, visions, and goals that provide the platform and focal point for collective action and the flow of resources, should be encouraged. This phase following a shock, whether ecological, political, economic, or social, is labelled "hazy opportunity context" in the new study.

Case studies
The new study is based on a thorough review of the literature, and special emphasis on three case studies from an urban wetland area in Sweden, a Canadian rainforest system and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  

For example, on Canada’s west coast, a regional transformation to ecosystem-based forest management began with a created disturbance. Initially, the scientific argument for conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest (GBRF) did not gain much traction among the governing authorities (an "opaque opportunity context" following the reasoning above). Instead, environmental organisations initiated a marketing campaign that targeted international buyers of GBRF wood. Amid strong media attention and a nervous market, large timber companies reached out to seek collaborative solutions. Even the premier of British Columbia, who previously had called the environmentalist enemies of the state, took a more conciliatory approach.

Similarly, experiences from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park show that institutional entrepreneurs often work in the background, preparing alternative strategies that can serve as a starting point when the opportunity comes knocking. A small group of scientists were alarmed by reoccurring outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish (a coral eating starfish) and started to gather information from the 1970s and onward. This revealed that despite the marine park the reef was under increasing pressure from terrestrial runoff, overharvesting, and global warming. By anticipating and preparing for a shock these scientists and a group of managers decided to quickly take advantage of the pending coral bleaching crisis in the summer of 1997/1998, to convince the park executives to move toward an ecosystem-based management and a large-scale rezoning of the whole national park.

Resources and power
Based on these cases and the literature the authors present an analytical framework designed to help highlight and clarify the role of agency in a transformation process. However, the authors also stress that their theory is definitely up for scrutiny.  

"Our suggestions about the way certain types of activities parallel different stages of a transformation process need to be further tested by empirical investigation, but they provide an agenda for further research on the role of agency in social-ecological transformation," they write.

Discussing the need for such further studies the authors conclude that questions should also be asked about which actors in the system are likely to be best positioned to pursue particular strategies, based on factors such as their access to resources, their position in social networks, and their access to power.

"Our aim is to encourage work of this sort that draws on insights from different fields about the role of agency in social-ecological transformation, and our understanding of the vital impact that individuals can have in these processes," Per Olsson concludes.

Published: 2013-11-28



Westley, F. R., O. Tjornbo, L. Schultz, P. Olsson, C. Folke, B. Crona and Ö. Bodin. 2013. A theory of transformative agency in linked social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society18(3): 27.

Per Olsson's research interest in global sustainability transformations and how to reverse current trends of crossing critical thresholds and tipping points in the Earth system.

Lisen Schultz's work focuses on the role of bridging actors, who catalyze collaboration and learning across levels and sectors in adaptive co-management.

Carl Folke is Science Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and has done extensive research on the social and economic dimension of ecosystem management and proactive measures to manage resilience.

Beatrice Crona has conducted extensive research on the role of social networks in natural resource governance and the role of boundary-bridging organizations for adaptive governance.

Örjan Bodin's main research focus is on the complex and intricate webs of interactions between, and among, different ecological and/or social components.

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