Adapting the Transformative Theory of Change tool through time and space

Thinking & Analysis

The Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) in collaboration with Tricolor Coalition (Mexico City’s Doughnut Economics Open Network), recently held an engaging Open Learning Session exploring how to adapt and apply systems-thinking tools, using the case of the Transformative Theory of Change (TToC) – across diverse contexts in a responsible and reflective manner. The purpose of this session was to exchange knowledge and experience with the TIPC community on what is required to adapt and apply this tool so it responds to different needs and challenges through time and space.

Introducing the Motion Transformative Theory of Change Tool

A transition involves a fundamental change to a socio-technical system such as energy or mobility – driven by intersecting technological, regulatory, infrastructural, and cultural shifts. The Multi-Level Perspective (MLP) view this as a co-evolutionary process between niches (where radical innovations emerge), regimes (the dominant mainstream system), and the broader socio-technical landscape. A Theory of Change (ToC) maps out the building blocks for an intervention (e.g. project, program or portfolios thereof) to transition from the current regime to a desired alternative regime state.

In the MOTION Transformative Theory of Change (TToC) approach, the first step is analysing an existing socio-technical regime that needs to transform. Secondly, a ToC is developed outlining the specific inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes and intended transformative impacts for niche intervention projects and policies to enable a broader regime shift over time.

Figure 1: Elements of a Theory of Change.

The Motion Theory of Change tool is a Miro tool from the MOTION Handbook: Developing a Transformative Theory of Change. It can be used to help develop and/or revise a transformative system change strategy for a project, program, or organization.

The tool helps uses to develop a Transformative Theory of Change drawing on established concepts and approaches in the sustainability transition field. It prompts users to continually question assumptions and reflect on the real-world outcomes that they are seeking to achieve. It enables broad participatory processes to incorporate diverse perspectives and enhanced legitimacy for change. And it positions TToCs as formative, evolving over iterative cycles of planning, action, evaluation, and adaptation to systematically steer and learn from transformation efforts responsibly.

Adapting the Tool through a Responsible Innovation Framework

While powerful for mapping how interventions contribute to change, TToCs need to be applied responsibly to account for the dynamic complexities of socio-technical systems evolving across time and space. Rather than thinking only about outputs or deliverables, the power of the TToC tool lies in prompting a more comprehensive focus on desired outcomes as leverage points for transformations. However, as this methodology is applied in diverse contexts, we must adapt it judiciously to meet the unique situational needs. Thus, in this session we exchanged learnings using the Responsible Innovation Framework questions, to assess in which ways we could adapt and effectively employ this important TToC tool, and potentially other system thinking tools, to meet these needs. The Responsible Innovation framework developed by Stilgoe et al., 2013 offers a valuable lens to guide contextually responsive adaptations of the TToC through four key principles:

  • Anticipation – Looking ahead to consider potential impacts, risks, blind spots, and alternative scenarios that could unfold from employing the tools.
  • Reflexivity – Continually questioning our own knowledge frameworks, contexts, and limitations to evolve thetools   through reflective practice.
  • Inclusion – Meaningfully involving diverse stakeholders and considering their divergent perspectives and situated knowledges through participatory co-creation.
  • Responsiveness – Having mechanisms to monitor whether expected outcomes materialize and make course corrections to the theory based on new evidence.

Integrating these responsible innovation principles enhances TToC’s relevance and robustness when applied in different contexts. It assists in embracing the complexity of socio-technical transitions.

Embodying Responsible Innovation in Practice

To embody the Responsible Innovation framing, participants engaged in an interactive group exercise during the event. They explored how the TToC tool could be adapted and applied responsibly across their diverse contexts and spheres of work. The rich group discussions surfaced several key themes around opportunities and potential pitfalls when working with the MOTION TToC:

On Anticipation:

  • Participants discussed carefully scoping the TToC’s applicability, relevant time horizons, geographic boundaries, and socio-political contexts from the outset. It is important to understand whether it analyses past dynamics to derive insights or anticipates future scenarios.

On Reflexivity:

  • Groups highlighted the need for the TToC to use accessible, jargon-free language to translate academic concepts.
  • There were suggestions to clearly articulate and continually revisit key assumptions to counteract tendencies towards becoming overly rigid or optimistic when using the tool.
  • To fully understand the unfolding of patterns of change across the Theory of Change (TToC), spanning from inputs through activities, outputs, outcomes, and ultimately impact, it’s helpful to complement the TToC with additional transition tools. These tools can provide valuable insights into patterns of change and the complex interactions among its various elements.
  • Additionally, groups emphasized the importance of being intentional about which stakeholders are involved in co-creating the TToC and whose perspectives may be privileged or marginalized based on power dynamics and conflicts of interest.

On Inclusion:

  • Participatory processes with decision-makers from different disciplines and even opposing views were seen as critical to legitimate TToCs. In this way, the discussions would give space for agreements “inside the room”.
  • While inclusive, there were questions around finding the appropriate breadth and depth of inclusion. Too few voices can miss vital perspectives, but too many can become unmanageable or reinforce existing power imbalances.
  • Moreover, practically speaking there are time constraints and language constraints for stakeholders’ participation that should be managed.

On Responsiveness:

  • Groups saw value in highlighting the aspects of tools which are most relevant for their challenges, as well as combining TToCs with other systems mapping tools and empirical data analyses. This can help ground the theories in richer contextual details about drivers, barriers, and path dependencies.
  • The assessment of both the potential positive and negative trade-offs of the project during the use of the toolwould allow to increase the mitigation of risks of the project.
  • Moreover, there was also emphasis on having processes to monitor whether expected transformative outcomes and impacts materialize as predicted against the TToC mapping. If outcomes systematically diverge, it signals a need to re-evaluate and adjust the Theory of Change and its assumptions.

Overall, the discussions highlighted key considerations for adapting the MOTION TToC responsibly across contexts through reflexivity considerations that define the opportunities but also limitations of the tool, inclusion of diverse but manageable perspectives, careful scoping based on purpose, integrating complementary methods, and revisiting based on unfolding realities.

Key Takeaways

While the specific insights spanned diverse sectors, regions and levels of focus, some common threads emerged:

  • Systems thinking tools like TToCs provide valuable frameworks for mapping and guiding interventions that aim to contribute to sustainability transitions but cannot be blindly applied. They need conscious shaping and contextualization to fit the specific problem, geography, and socio-cultural context.
  • Involving diverse stakeholders and perspectives from the outset is critical, not an afterthought. Their situated knowledges and insights can surface blind spots and enrich how systemic challenges are understood and approached. Furthermore, considering how new users without an academic background can engage with the tool is crucial for expanding its usage.
  • Transformations are non-linear, unpredictable processes. TToC models must allow for iterative learning, experimentation and adjustment as on-the-ground realities change over time.
  • Responsible innovation principles push us to anticipate ripple effects and alternative scenarios, be reflexive about our own biases and worldviews, and respond dynamically to risks, negative consequences or divergences from expectations that may arise.
  • The process of developing TToCs is important – who is involved, how debates and assumptions are surfaced and facilitated matters for the legitimacy of an intervention.
  • Combining TToCs with other participatory systems mapping tools and empirical analysis methodologies can enhance their contextual grounding and richness.

As we continue to explore ways to foster sustainable socio-technical systems transitions across sectors and regions, adapting core methodologies like Transformative Theories of Change through an inclusive, context-sensitive responsible innovation lens will be essential. This Open Learning Series Event represented a key step in that ongoing journey of co-creation and shared learning. Transformative Theories of Change offer a promising approach; however, it must be applied judiciously and reflexively to stretch their value as flexible tools for steering and learning from transformation processes.

  • TIPC and UGLOBE. 2022. Motion Handbook: Developing a Transformative Theory of Change. Transformative Innovative Policy Consortium (TIPC) and Utrecht University Centre for Global Challenges.
  • Stilgoe, Jack; Owen, Richard, Macnaghten, Phil. 2013. Developing a framework for responsible innovation. Research Policy. Volume 42. pp. 1568-1580.

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