Why are transformative approaches needed? Recover Forward implies moving onto development pathways that help future-proof sustainable development as suggested by the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement. The framing of Recover Forward is an indirect but clear statement that “building back” or “resetting” to “business as usual” may be less sustainable for several development questions. Wherever investments are made to recover from crisis, these are unique chances to set the course for fundamental sustainability transitions. 


Transformative change

Transformative change converts a current ecological, social, political, economic, scientific, or technological system or all systems together into a fundamentally new one that, from this point on, forms the new mainstream.


“Transformation”, “transition”, “paradigm/regime shift” in this context of societal change are increasingly used as synonyms, regardless the fact that they are rooted in different schools of thought and may emphasise different aspects.


Yet, for good reason, the sustainability agendas leave room for interpretation as to where exactly “business as usual” may be improved and where it may be phased out for the sake of new development pathways. A prevailing narrative in environmental, social and economic debates is that in theory and practice we would already have sufficient answers if only the will to implement them were there. This can be compared with the "there is no alternative” (TINA) paradigm coined by Margaret Thatcher. The latter kind of policy making tends to nurture disbelief in democracy and foster populism. TINA’s being applied by sustainability advocates may hence deepen this democratic crisis instead of leading to more ownership and action as desired. Therefore, “there are plenty of alternatives” (TAPAS), has become a fundamental approach for change agents today. A common appreciation for the existence of TAPAS on all sides by experts, policymakers, private sector representatives, and civil society is hence a crucial first step for opening up space and promising possibilities for recovering forward.


What is the objective of transforming forward?

A major task for recovering forward is hence to use any related policy and investment processes for boosting democratic deliberation and decision-making as pathways to strengthen recent and/or new ones. One challenge is to differentiate and grow a shared understanding of what kinds of change to support and why. When co-creating new development stimuli, it may hence help actors to jointly answer the following questions:

  • Is a sustainable recovery forward possible with more of the same? (incremental change, improving performance and scaling of same approach) and/or
  • Is a sustainable recovery forward possible with a reform? (structural change of the same approach, system, paradigm, etc., without questioning it in general) and/or
  • Will incremental changes and reforms not suffice, so that transformative change is needed to recover forward, meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ultimately achieve our shared future vision? (a new system, paradigm, narrative, socio-technical regime, etc.)


Answers to the three questions above should be as broad and diverse as possible, based on democratic participation. A representative multi-actor future council or similar structures may complete decision-making in parliaments, and this again may be complemented with representative and regular surveys within a society. This is crucial because transformative agendas tend to become seriously distorted by non-representative but influential groupings who benefit most from the status quo. Democratic governments however have the responsibility to facilitate decisions based on broad democratic legitimacy and development interventions. Instead of polarising, evoking trade-offs, winners and losers, etc. Recover Forward interventions can help integrating perspectives, search for co-benefits, and enable just transitions.


Action for such complex questions needs to be guided by shared values and principles, rather than ready-made “best practice” solutions. The 2030 Agenda emphasises five such principles. Development interventions should consider the universality of the sustainable development goals, applying to all countries: developing, emerging and industrialised countries. By an integrated approach they should foster synergies and prevent trade-offs between the equally valued SDGs and the social, economic, environmental dimensions of sustainable development, in general. Sustainable development should be driven by stakeholders from all societal areas, taking joint responsibility and jointly ensuring accountability. Leaving no one behind and reducing inequalities should further guide every development effort and will contribute to “Just Transitions”. The deeper the change anticipated for societies, the more important these principles get. For deep transformative change complementary design principles can be formulated that are especially relevant in this context. For instance, explicitly framing paradigm shifts, getting transformative ideas to the mainstream and working on their resilience becomes crucial.


Although every given system level (global, national, communal) and context may have its own problem acceptance, definitions and manifestations of transformative change, an increasing number and salience of transformation fields are anticipated. The deliberate transformations differ from inadvertent transformations like industrialisation and digitalisation. The sustainability perspective for the latter ones is: “These changes are going to happen no matter what, but we can make them as sustainable as possible”. Anticipated deliberate transformations do not necessarily happen without enormous top-down and bottom-up effort, or they occur too late, as is the fear for climate-neutral societies.



Transformative Action Approach

Other than for predominantly “technical” problems, these kinds of interventions require a mutual iterative learning rationale because the outcomes cannot be projected (VUCA problem). For the sake of relevance, efficiency and effectiveness, it is vital to let go of planning the unplannable and find accountable frames and structures that allow for emergence and adaptiveness. One important built-in competence of such structures is to differentiate simple, complicated and VUCA problems to choose the most effective structure for different development aspects. This will not be mutually exclusive. On the contrary, overall progress with sustainability problems depends greatly on harmonizing more technical aspects (simple and complicated technology and knowledge) with VUCA aspects.


A number of questions (rather than answers) aim at facilitating a more adaptive, complexity-capable development approach and thus a transformative impact. A major difference from recent default “master planning” approaches is that these questions are not part of the analysis and consultation during project preparation. An (impractical) effect would be that one to three years later, when implementation can start, development agency and local transformation actors would have to repeat them more extensively in the actual decision-making process, with a high chance that answers would be revised or changed completely. In a VUCA setting, traditional project preparation hence loses much of its relevance. From the beginning, the following questions support joint sense-making, learning, decision-making and action amongst public and private decision-makers, stakeholders, local to global practitioners, donors, and development agencies:

  • Creating emerging partnerships for and of change: Where do relevant stakeholders see top-down and/or bottom-up energy for transformative change? How can we start small, trust in the process and co-create further despite high ambitions in our heads and hearts?
  • Establishing a safe, credible, and legitimate space for science, society, policy interfaces and advanced democracy to foster transformation: How can we institutionalise boundary organisations and citizen councils while advancing direct democracy?
  • Jointly defining transformation fields: Why can recent systems / paradigms not sufficiently serve sustainable development in our field? From where to where? Which system / paradigm must transform into which fundamentally different system? Why is a new paradigm more desirable even without being driven by problems? What positive vision for future living attracts us in this transformation field and beyond? Where do we stand with the diffusion of transformative innovation and how complex and wicked is the problem i.e., interdependencies (e.g., between SGDs), extent of conflicting values and extent of uncertainty of knowledge?
  • Identifying and taking transformative action: How can we identify and prioritize transformative intervention fields and actions? How can we co-create in flexible, fast, iterative, adaptive “action to knowledge” learning cycles?
  • Enabling new narrative and social change of values, norms, beliefs and behaviour: Which communication for social change interventions can be co-developed for distinct target groups who can make a difference for societal tipping points?
  • Letting ambitions and new mainstream emerge: How and where can we find early adopters and bridge the gap towards followers to catalyse exponential diffusion of transformative innovation? How can we support preparing fundamental, system-changing decisions and facilitate the redefinition and new allocation of public and private finance?

Working on resilience of new mainstream: How can we jointly find the most important factors that maintain resilience of recent system and could be redefined for increasing resilience and path dependency of new system? How can we serve social and environmental justice?


Deep impact with Recover Forward

Increasing attention is paid to “deep” economic transformation as a strong catalyst, potentially for all sustainability transformations. It relates to the roots of inequalities, poverty and environmental externalities, i.e., economic paradigms and the related narratives and structures. Most descriptions of the current near-globally dominant neoclassical economic paradigm emphasise the following aspects: Gross domestic product (market value of goods and services, GDP) as the primary measure of progress towards the common good; infinite GDP and private capital growth as necessary and serving the common good in the best way; self-regulation of markets and free trade; and competition.


Recover Forward interventions could hardly be more sustainable if they help reverse these recent economic rationales by defining and subordinating them as means (not ends) and defining the common good, wellbeing or similar framings as ends. Interventions can make high common-good performance cheaper than low performance and intrinsically more desirable for consumers, cooperations and policymakers. There are plenty of inspiring examples from companies, municipalities, universities applying a common-good matrixpurpose enterprisesdemocratic public banksethical bankscommons movementsnext economies communities, etc. Development interventions can facilitate further diffusion, translation, and co-creation of such ideas in partner contexts. This deep transformative mode of recovering forward would increase the chances of meeting the SDGs, enhance the resilience of economies and open doors for more broadly desired futures.