BLOG 2: The Transformative Outcomes: Does the Theory Stick? Practitioners’ View from South Africa

Blog

By Geraldine Bloomfield

Interview with Tanya Layne and Nontutuzelo Pearl Gola from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)

This is blog No. 2 in the South Africa Water Experiment Blog Series. For reference the first in the series is here

 

“There was a lot of learning within learning! The process said a lot about ourselves, and our own learning and unlearning.

For me it’s been a fascinating journey…At the end of the day, it’s not the piece of paper doing the work…”

In this second blog in our South Africa water experiment series, we put under the spotlight the Transformative Outcomes, the compass at centre of the TIPC Methodology, to examine the interaction at the ‘live’ theory-practise interface to learn what impact the Transformative Outcomes (TOs) have had on the South African project ‘prototyping’ the TIPC Methodology. How did the project team feel about the concept of the TOs? How did the theory play within the project?  And most importantly did it stick?

 

To find out, we met Tanya Layne, Deputy Director for Social and Organisational Learning and Nontutuzelo Pearl Gola, Ecological Infrastructure Coordinator for one of the areas involved in the project – the Living Catchments water project.’ Both are from the central coordinating partner for the project – the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). The project is working towards provision and security of this essential resource for the whole country. This aim is encapsulated in Sustainable Development Goals – Goal 6 – and is fundamental to all others.

In gleaning their reaction, we will recap too on the cornerstone of TIPC theory – the Transformative Outcomes[1].

 

Transformative Outcomes as a Compass

Firstly, what are the aims of the TOs within policy experiments? Why interweave the TIPC Methodology through a live project? What’s the purpose for participants and partners of identifying TOs across each stream of transformation? Briefly, the aims are to:

  • Act as a compass towards a desired direction to highlight activities for transformation
  • Provide articulation and give a shared language
  • Improve policy coordination towards those Transformative Outcomes
  • Give space and time for reflection to better reach the outcome

As Johan Schot, Professor of Global History & Sustainability Transitions, Academic Director and Founder of TIPC puts it:

The world seems to agree that to address the Sustainable Development Goals we need to focus on transformative change. The big question is how? The Transformative Outcomes, while academically grounded, are also a useful compass for practitioners. They help to navigate transformations in their projects and programs”

By articulating TOs through discussion and agreement within the live experiments, the TIPC methodology helps give the opportunity to establish a clear direction towards the transformative aims.

The space and time for reflection has proven to be very valuable for the Living Catchments Project. As Deputy Director for Social and Organisational Learning at SANBI, Tanya Layne says:

“What this process has given us as a team is the structured space to go back through the project development which is gold! It’s demanded a lot of us, but the truth is, the pace of our work usually means that we don’t take the time that good processes need, and that’s the link with organisational learning – I do think there has been value in the process.”

 

Streams to Transformation

The TIPC methodology shines a transformative spotlight on activities to guide the experiment and support change to a new sustainable behaviour and approach. These streams of implementation are defined as:

  • Building, protecting and nurturing sustainable alternatives (known as niches)

First up, is your start-up or ‘niche’. This is the new kid of the block; doing things differently; shaking things up. As part of this stage, policymakers can create barriers and protections around the niche to give it a fighting chance. It is about identifying where these alternatives are happening and who is approaching problems differently and innovatively.

  • Expanding and taking into the mainstream the fresh approach with its new rules of behaviour and attitudes

Once the sustainable niche has taken solid root, practitioners can look at what policies and activities will help these new rules, behaviours and processes that were learnt in the niche, expand them into mainstream thinking. Across many projects, including SANBI, this is referenced as ‘mainstreaming’. It’s a verb, a doing word. This focus on new action and process is the key for achieving TOs.

As Dr Nontutuzelo Pearl Gola, so strikingly puts it:

“It’s not the piece of paper doing the work.”

It is the action of people that does the work. With a research background, before moving into policy, via the NGO sector, Dr Gola is well-placed to make this important observation.  This echoes the TIPC philosophy that conceptualising ideas in research papers is done, to give rise to policy work that learns, creates and changes behaviours. For individuals, communities, nations, continents, the world.  It is important to understand that transformation happens through changes in ‘the rules’ of why, how and what people think – then crucially and most importantly – what they do.

  • Replacing the old unsustainable way of doing things (known as the regime) with the now upscaled, mainstreamed alternative(s)

As the niche grows, with the associated sustainable rules and behaviours becoming mainstream, another element comes into play – loosening the unsustainable, the old-way-of-doing-it grip on behaviour. This is the unlearning part for society.

This is the actual transformation, when the sustainable rules, behaviours and systems have become the norm. Or in Sustainability Transitions academic-speak, the undesirable, unsustainable ‘regime’ is mostly dead and ‘hollowed-out’. That new kid on the block, with all the fresh sense, now rules ‘the regime’ roost.

 

It’s not a Clearly Marked Path and there is No Finish Line

These are not given as a clear, set, sequential, singular path with a defined way, aka a blueprint to transformation.

What the crafting of TOs does for a project is to make some ‘this-way’ arrows, some ‘you’re doing great’ and ‘we’ve hit a dead-end and need to turn back’ signs. The TOs give a project – as well as an organisation, a society, a globe – a large, visible compass to align by and to read frequently along the winding, transformative journey.

 

It’s the Journey that Counts

The actual process will sometimes be roundabout, sometimes overlapping, sometimes complex, sometimes concurrent, sometimes disparate, sometimes harmonised, sometimes fractious, with starts and spurts; flails and falls. It will, in a word, be human.

There is no real finish line as such, it is the getting fit along the way that counts. Fit-for-real-purpose. Fit for a sustainable, 21stcentury-ready future.  The outcome is the journey, the learning and the new behaviours that come from it.

As Tanya Layne – Deputy Director for Social and Organisational Learning at SANBI – believes, the process is where the magic lies. She articulates this cocreation of meaning and purpose:

“Are the TOs useful because of what they say, or do the TOs embody a whole lot of learning from within the TIPC team, which then allows a whole lot of questions to be asked that then generates learning in the project team?”

This sums up the intention of the TOs. They are a compass for a journey around and towards transformation. The TOs keep the questions, the reflections, the learnings, the relationships and the activities going in the directions they need.

 

‘Outcoming’ the Transformation

Within each strand to sustainability, four TOs are described that represent the questions, the activities, the unlearning, and the learning that needs to be done. These are highlighted below.

Nurture Alternatives –
  • Protect & shield
  • Learn
  • Network
  • Navigate expectations
Expand & Mainstream the Alternatives –
  • Upscale
  • Replicate
  • Circulate
  • Institutionalise
Replace the Unsustainable Behaviours –
  • De-align & destabilise
  • Unlearn & deep learn
  • Strengthen interactions between old & new
  • Change perceptions & ultimately behaviours

 

Asking the Right Questions

For example, for practitioners in projects at the first strand, they need to ask – what activities can we identify as alternatives? What should be strengthened? What should be protected? What needs evaluating and changing? What needs more support or attention? Who needs to be brought into the process? Communicated with? Informed?

Through each strand, the TOs are a sculpting tool to shape a project and reduce the risk of the transformative aim becoming lost or forgotten. They give the vision and guide the way. Although there are twelve TOs defined at present, this is expected to grow as projects use the theory and create others.

 

They’re not all at the Party

Do all the outcomes feature in each project? No, this isn’t the intention. It is not prescriptive. Projects choose, through the methodology, which outcomes they want to concentrate on as part of their journey to transformation.

To summarise, through steering to new behaviours, TOs are an articulation of that change process. TOs help give understanding to policy activities. On identifying the transformative potential, as marked by the TOs, policymakers may want to focus further on certain activities, to accelerate or to give more resources to strengthen and grow.

In the South Africa project team, musing on the TOs has helped create form around already existing activities to see them with a fresh rationale. It has helped the team learn together what to do more of. It has strengthened their belief in where they are going – the compass is better pointing in the direction of transformation.

Holding the TOs up for examination as a project team, has made the team get down to a gradual level which helps with the reflective, detailed evaluation.  This promotes deep-seated learning through probing the right questions around attitudes, behaviours and rules that are individual, organisational and societal, which need to change to shift to different ones.

Layne articulates what the examination and overlaying of the TOs did for the team:

“It demanded a lot of us, but the truth is, the pace of our work is so fast pace, it usually means that we don’t take the time that good process needs, and that’s the link with organisational learning…To pay attention to everything that is happening. I do think there has been a value in the process. What is transformative is getting to good questions! To be able to always be going deeper, and deeper and deeper. There has been space in the process to explore this.

Language for the work comes with the learning. All our work in the division is relational, I wouldn’t have been able to say that 5 years ago. At the institute, we are grounded in the bio-physical sciences. The ‘content’ of our work is often seen as primary. The relational aspects as secondary. So often the ‘socio’ part of the equation, it’s called ‘soft’. The relational aspect has become more important. So strong content knowledge of science is key and then the capacity too for good social engagement. This helps that.”

Here, Layne sums up the intention of the TOs – to be a conduit and a compass for policy teams to reach the learnings they need, to be transformative, based on their understandings and contexts. Deep, continuous learning is the heartbeat of Transformative Innovation Policy (TIP).  As this has shown it is the journey around, and to the TOs, that gets the team and the approach fit-for-transformation.

 

What Overlaying the TIPC Methodology Does in a Project Team

A snapshot of the process involved in overlaying the TOs is demonstrated below. This gives the process in a highly processed nutshell!

 

Translating and Connecting with the TOs

Gola illustrates further the need for language, like the TOs, that gives translation for the doing. She mirrors the evolutionary thinking and perspective of the TOs. She explains how during her PhD she thought:

“I’m going to draw up these water distribution curbs and they are going to translate straight into practise. But no, I discovered there is generally a step missing between content and translating that content into something usable. But there is no one-size-fits all. Everybody is different and every context is different so it is evolutionary.”

 The SANBI interviewees stressed that while the science and policy interface was sharpening up and evolving there was a whole other arena of policy implementation that needed a lot of work. This came into sharp focus after reflecting on the project’s TOs. Gola notes:

“There are a lot of in-betweens! It really does require a lot of social practice.”

 This demonstrates how essential translation and communication from intermediaries is in the process of changing behaviours. Gola goes on to explain that the work around the TOs has shown the project areas where further engagement is required and work needs to be done. As she outlines:

“Another (emerging) dynamic for me (through this) has been the need to know the water policy sector space. I do feel that most of this stuff especially the project we are basing it on is skewed to the biodiversity sector. We are talking about influencing water so this has shown that we need further engagement with the water policy space as part of the project (transformative) outcomes. This process (the TIPC Methodology) has helped me pick this up with the time to look deeply into the polices.

As people and organisations you’re always going to gravitate towards what you ‘know’, and biodiversity is what we ‘know’. There’s a lot of dynamics within the water sector and the ‘institutionality’ of the water sector…There is a lot happening in that space, and if we are going to influence that sector in any meaningful way, we do need to be engaging with it.”

This has come from examining the Transformative Outcomes associated with networking and connecting.  The time given to digging into the project has unearthed for them that there is a need to engage further with the water policy sector to be able to work better towards achieving transformation of the water system.

 

From Paper to Project

One of the central principles of TIP theory is that there is a cocreation of meaning around the theory between the practitioner ‘using’ the concepts and the researcher. The theory after all is the process. Reflecting on what they individually thought on first hearing the TIP theory, Layne and Gola show the perceived divide between research, policy and practice. Layne describes:

“My training leaves me very sceptical of any theory. Although I am aware of the need to have a bridge between the way I work and the way the institutions I work in, and with, how they work. I saw it as a bridge especially as the Transformative Outcomes have been developed through deep and careful observation of transformation processes. They are not abstract, as in they are plucked from somebody’s head! They are grounded in observation which is one of the foundations of my practice. I saw that that could be helpful. (Being based in empirical data) is really important to me.”

Gola expands:

“I’m a practical person and have become more so over recent years, although I am an academic at heart so I do believe in things being grounded in theory. And then testing the theory – that’s the fun part! Then being able to disagree with the theory too. The first time I read the TIPC theory, my first look at in was from a national perspective. As I was at the National Research Foundation, this is where a lot of this stuff plays out. I then had more difficulty moving from this level to the Living Catchments project level. At first, I was still carrying the national perspective and the way that DSI has a way of looking at things. I’ve worked in that space. I’ve seen how they look at things. Sometimes the technologies don’t translate. So, yes, it’s been a dynamic journey for me.”

 

The Challenge of the Transformative Outcomes

Like all worthwhile endeavours, the process of the TOs is challenging. It takes time and thought to reap the benefits which is something TIPC hears across all our members’ experiments from Sweden, Colombia, and here, in South Africa. Gola describes her first introductions and reactions:

“The first two sessions, where it was very academic, thought ‘this is not going to work with this crowd! It was so intense (for the team). Each week something new was unearthed. It demanded a lot of pulling apart of your work. Going back to the basics and interrogating. It (was) really difficult to go back and pull things apart. I was excited to see how people were thinking about stuff very deeply. There was a lot of learning within learning! Not just the getting to the TOs but the how do we reach them? The frustrations counted, the getting better with those frustrations counted. It also says a lot about ourselves and our own learning and unlearning. For me it’s been a fascinating journey.

This came at a good time for SANBI. We’ve been through iterations of social process learnings – convening courses, transformation journeys, social process facilitation, so it came at the right time where we are feeling empowered and more confident. We felt able to voice our concern, and the TIPC team was very receptive to those concerns, and for me, that was a good start. This made us able to engage well and that in itself was a particular learning and it moved us forward into being comfortable together. We could more easily say if we were confused. As we interacted that familiarity, and being able to voice out when necessary, grew.”

Layne reflects back:

“I didn’t know what to expect at all. At the beginning, I was very frustrated…around people coming into our organisation and ‘teaching’ us concepts that our work embodies. For me it’s the antithesis of how I normally approach work which is making meaning out of practice. It was very hard for me. In South Africa we have a whole discourse around decoloniality which rubs up against doing this. But  we thought, we’ve signed up for it so let’s do it! Our institutional lives are governed by ‘logic’ frameworks and again it’s not in my practice. I intentionally ‘unlearn’ frameworks to stop myself thinking like that and to grow in an alternative way of thinking. I accepted though that this is what I thought it was, and I thought, maybe there is something in here for me to learn in bridging those different ways. 

I had to adapt my expectation then I could go through it all. Sometimes in the sessions I was lost and the value for me was outside of the sessions when I was grappling with my colleagues, and my relationship with my colleagues has grown through this process. How much is to do with the theory or how much is to do with being pushed through the process to pay attention to project development? I would like to talk more on this to the TIPC team. I would like to discuss more – what does TIPC mean by co-learning? It’s almost like we’ve been engaged in ‘parallel play’. The learning is what is happening in those conversations on the side.”

 

The Next Steps

As we can see from the reflections, the ‘Living Catchments’ Project team has gained from overlaying the TIPC methodology across their project and they have gleaned benefits as a team. More work is needed on closing the gaps, making the connections with other areas of policy they are not familiar with and looking at how the TOs can drive their next steps.

Gola concludes:

 “I can see growth already but for me there is something still that is missing for us, and we need to work on this as a project group. At the moment, there are three compliments of work – the policy compliment, the convening compliment and the learning compliment of work. For me they are not distinct and we need to find a way to weave which pulls them together, and this process has provided an opportunity to start and a baseline to work through that. I can see how the TOs weave into each other but we need conversations on how that works for ourselves.”

The learning, unlearning, and learning again, are continuous and perpetual on the journey to making the transformations we need as a World. The South Africa project team, working on the provision and security of the all-essential water for their country, have taken the first bold, challenging, yet rewarding steps to making this Transformative Outcome and reaching the Sustainable Development Goal.

________________________________________________________________________________

Biographies of the Interviewees

Tanya Layne, Deputy Director: Social and Organisational Learning, South African National Biodiversity Institute. She is responsible for transformative learning in SANBI’s Policy Advice Division. She has 27 years of experience in applied social research, project implementation, and learning facilitation in diverse contexts. Much of this has been in the biodiversity sector where her focus is on growing citizenship for a nature that is inclusive of all people in a way that contributes to growing a just society. Tanya has a masters degree in Reflective Social Practice.

Dr Nontutuzelo Pearl Gola, South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)

Pearl Gola is the Ecological Infrastructure Coordinator for the Greater uMngeni catchment under the Ecological Infrastructure for Water Security Project at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). She holds a PhD in Water Resource Science from Rhodes University and has worked in the water sector for over 15 years. One of her key responsibilities is to support the continued functioning of the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership (UEIP). The UEIP is a multi-sectoral stakeholder partnership of various institutions; comprising government, business, academia, and civil society; committed to finding ways of better integrating nature-based solutions into water resource management in the Greater uMngeni catchment.

 

References

[1] Ghosh, B., Kivimaa, P., Ramirez, M., Schot, J., Torrens, J., 2020. Transformative Outcomes:
Assessing and reorienting experimentation with transformative innovation policy Transformative outcomes, TIPC Working Paper, TIPCWP 2020-02. Online access: http://www.tipconsortium.net/ wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Transformation-outcomes-TIPC-working-paper.pdf