Transformative Processes

Systemic transformation of small-scale agriculture, as with tackling the many other challenges for human and environmental wellbeing, will require new processes of how stakeholders engage; science, policy and society connect; and decisions are made. We know that our current systems of governance are often stuck and failing to deliver on complex longer-term sustainability challenges. Nevertheless, governance is critical in determining the robustness of a region’s transformation (Jayne, Meyer, and Traub 2014. It is also well understood that data and scientific evidence alone does not necessarily sway public opinion and policy thinking. Never-the-less good data and science still needs to be a foundation for sound policy and political decisions.

Our main point here is that there must be a focus on the process of change itself. Focussing on the issues of small-scale agriculture, what is desired in the future or policy instruments is unlikely to bring about transformation if it is not coupled with innovation in how decisions that affect the wider public good and the longer-term are made. This is a challenge the entire sustainable development agenda, not just for the transformation of small-scale agriculture. As such we limit ourselves in this document to outlining some key principles and directions.

Let us work backwards. Ultimately, what is it that will drive transformational change? It might be a major crisis; it can be decisions by those who have sufficient power to impose their will; or it may be the consequences (often unintended) of technological innovation. Alternatively, change requires sufficiently strong coalitions and alliances across government, business and civil society. The transformation of small-scale agriculture is a “slow burn” issue, there is unlikely to be a short-term crisis sufficiently severe to radically change the status quo. No individual powerful actor has the interests or power to upend the current situation, and there are no “silver bullet” technological transformations. This makes alliances for change the only real option for driving the transformation of small-scale agriculture.

Alliances for change, in turn, hinge on being able to engage society and stakeholders in informed and meaningful dialogue that connects with people’s hearts, minds, values and interests. This requires convening multi-stakeholder forums where in open and safe spaces people can explore issues. It also requires public awareness raising, respected champions speaking out, advocacy campaigns and in today’s world strong social media engagement. Alliances for change are not necessarily about large-scale “agreement” but about creating enough profile for an issue that the system begins to change and adapt.

The more that stakeholder engagement and dialogue can be well informed the better. This does require good data, it requires good synthesis science that can help to make system-wide implications clear and it requires good visual easily understood communication of data and scientific understanding.

Structured foresight and scenario analysis is a way of helping to connect all these elements. It brings people together into informed dialogue, can help to create alliances for change and focuses on using data, science and modelling in ways that can help communities of actors explore the possible future consequences of taking action or taking no action.

Underpinning such processes of transformational change needs to be a deeper appreciation of the principles of how complex (human) systems change. Again, a fuller explanation is behind our scope here. However, three ideas are important.  One, change happens because of the individual actions of many different actors, so the question is how to create system wide incentives that nudge behaviours. Two, feedback systems that enable adaptation are critical – stakeholder engagement and foresight and scenario processes are all about strengthening feedback mechanisms are helping to create criteria against which to adapt. Three, interventions to change systems need to involve numerous adaptive experiments, where failure is expected but where adaptation can be quick. This is very different to how most policy processes currently function.

This might all sound difficult, complex and even too idealistic. The question then is what is the alternative for driving change?  However, we already see emerging examples of the type of transformation process outlined here, such as the Food Systems Dialogues.