The diverse roles citizens play in change

Sensemaking / The diverse roles citizens play in change

How could citizens have changed the world for sustainability by 2050?

By Gemma Adams / 23 Jan 2017

When you take a peek at what the future might hold and the changing hands of power and influence that could shape our society, it’s likely that one actor will stand out beyond all others as a remarkable agent of change. This actor - perhaps surprisingly - is the citizen.  That’s you and me.  

Individuals as agents of system change

Believe it or not, we could have an enormous impact on systemic change towards a sustainable society; not necessarily in scale - though this can be the case - rather, by acting against the grain of conventional thought and ‘the done thing’ to create radical new narratives and ways of doing things. More than policy-makers, government institutions, established business, small entrepreneurs or media outfits, for example - citizens and civil society organisations have the motivation and means to break with the norms that keep society locked in unsustainable patterns. The key question is how we’ll embrace this new power and the purposes we’ll pursue with it.

Shift from passive consumers to citizens innovating for themselves and beyond

The idea of citizens acting to solve issues we care about or to improve our lifestyles or their context  isn’t new.  Nor is it new that we’d do it without expectation of a commercial return or being compelled by rules and regulations.  What’s different is that this active, creative, empowered role explodes into whole new realms as individuals are liberated by fresh stories about their identity and agency to participate in society beyond being a ‘consumer’, enabled by digital technologies to create whatever and whenever we want, and supported to act in more informed and sophisticated ways through new forms of learning and organising -  sometimes alone, sometimes as part of formal and informal networks and as part of civil society organisations.  

Change starts with ourselves: our own motivations will determine the role we play in change

In a fast-changing world that’s impossible to predict, our motivations, beliefs and philosophies are something that citizens and communities can exercise some influence over and use to navigate by.

What’s more, the values, mindset and ethos that guide individuals’ creative experiences have a strong bearing on the role they play in change and the impact they have over their lifetimes.  The most systemic shifts needed for a sustainable society are cultural rather than technological - for example, we need more sophisticated decision-making processes for picking up and responding to the state of living systems and new forms of leadership and ways of organising to make that response happen.  As these are formed by social processes that generate new ideas, meanings and modes of operating,  rather than through invention, this puts a lot of emphasis on the purpose and qualities of the people doing the innovating - embodying the change we want to see in the world in order to bring it to reality.

Some of us will resist and subvert change while others will contribute and advocate for it. In the midst of all this, it’s who we are - and how we are - that will shape the innovations we’re part of.

With new power and possibilities citizens innovate against a much wider canvas

The potential for what can be innovated, and by whom, diversifies enormously into the future and this calls for a new set of understandings and a new language to describe how and what we innovate.

Digital data, platforms and services mean everyone has the tools to communicate their ideas, forge collaborations, build prototypes and develop them – and can use them to create not just new services and new ways of organising, living, producing and consuming, but new patterns of beliefs.  This means that while markets concentrate on intellectual property and technological innovation and while public offices work towards political consensus, citizens are increasingly free and innovate in the gaps above and between to respond to the sustainability challenges that are affecting their lives.

What are the innovations that maverick citizens bring to reality on the pathway to the 2050 scenarios - and why do they have a big effect on society?  Citizens introduce four, broad types of innovation along the scenario pathways.  These innovations often don’t have an impact until a wider change of circumstances creates the conditions to enter - and alter - the mainstream.  The significance of these types of innovation in influencing change along the four scenario pathways varies a lot; according to what else is going on in society and the evolution of events over time.  

These different types of innovation are not discrete.  They can blur and/or lead on to one another. So, for example, a community that initially embarks on an energy-related service innovation to serve a need in their locality might, through working together on an initiative that develops a different business model, inadvertently forge new narratives about the role of communities in the future of the energy system, that have a knock on effect to other communities and, ultimately, to policy.

Type of innovation

What is it and how does it contribute to systemic change?

Example of this type of innovation led by citizens in the scenarios

Product and service innovations



New products, services and virtual and real experiences that de-materialise systems of production and consumption, improving resource efficiency and the social and environmental impacts of the economy, while enabling growth. 



In the Governing the Commons scenario, households’ enthusiasm for distributed, digital fabrication introduces radical new processes for product-service design, consumption and production that disrupt supply chains.  Against a backdrop of commodity price volatility, consumers start experimenting with reclaiming and remanufacturing waste and this drives a rapid shift to a circular materials economy.

In the Singular Super Champions scenario, innovative consumers work with well-known brands to develop service experiences that are so personalised, empathetic and desirable that they diffuse quickly into the mainstream. This is a turning point in the materials intensity of the economy, and in citizens’ trust in business.

Place and network-related innovation

A diverse range of activities shaping how whole places develop and behave, and affecting people and organisations within them. They might reconfigure the design of energy, food, mobility, housing and materials systems in a geography - offering comprehensive responses to systemic challenges, such as resource shortages and climate change.

In the Local Loops scenario, a long period of economic stagnation in Europe and supply disruptions in resources leads pioneering artisans to forge new associations for living and working to enable them to better-compete with global corporations in their area. Called ‘Modern Guilds’, they become thriving hubs of inter-regional trade; making use of locally-available materials. They re-energise local pride and identity, rebuild social capital and final informal ways of servicing Guilds’ interests in the absence of public funds. Over time, the Guild model is picked up by policy-makers looking for ways of reigniting domestic economies and protecting the EU from growing global resource insecurity.  They are the catalyst for an EU  ‘Local Loops’ policy framework and lead to hyper-local lifestyles and carefully managed, circular, regional bio-economies. 


In the Empathetic Communities scenario network-related innovation is chaotic: a reaction a second financial crisis that society can’t seem to bounce back from. City- neighbourhoods form cooperatives to secure their access to food, energy and other basic resources.  Over time, digitally-enabled cooperative platforms, urban farming and local microgrids allow people to find alternative ways of subsisting that offer stability amidst economic uncertainty. This stops consumerism in its tracks and produces a massive drop in resource use and climate change impacts.

Governance, decision-making and participation in society



A diverse range of activities affecting the overall governance or management of society: its constitution, legislature, executive and judiciary functions. They affect decision-making, accountability and all forms of social relations. 

In the Governing the Commons scenario, government institutions’ inability to usher nation states through the uncertainty of the twenty-first century leaves individuals so disillusioned with democracy that they create new, platforms for dialogue and processes for community building, conflict resolution and decision making for themselves.  These new forms of citizen-to-citizen democracy implement a comprehensive and globally accountable approach to managing carbon emissions that succeeds where all other attempts had failed. Individuals’ identities shift from being attached to national borders to being attached to personal values and interests.  These more fluid and global identities lead to forms of democracy that transcend traditional borders and geographies of trust; improving the speed and agility with which society can respond to planetary scale issues.


In the Singular Super Champions scenario the need to compete on the global stage gives rise to a new education system that identifies and nurtures individuals to realise their greatest potential as productive participants in the economy.  People follow development tracks that match their aptitudes with economic priorities. While, in 2050, the entrenched inequalities of this system are straining social relations, it plays a vital role in creating reducing resource consumption.  It instills a civic duty in people to optimise their personal performance and entrust their data to smart devices to allow the government to make the materials economy ever more efficiently. 

Paradigm innovation

Activities that affect culture: everything we do and how we do it. These activities reform our most fundamental beliefs, our accepted wisdoms and assumptions and the language we use to understand the world - including our perception of ‘self’, of humanity and our attitudes towards the future.

In the Empathetic Communities scenario an extended period of social and economic turmoil follows a second financial collapse in which millions of people lost their life savings. This brings capitalism into question and, in response, Transhumanism enters the mainstream.  Citizens embark on a project of self-transformation as a route to transforming the human condition and reaching for a better way of living and being. With help from advanced technologies, they experiment with how to find empathy with each other.  


In the Local Loops scenario, there’s a gradual, less profound paradigm change, but it plays just as important a role in realising the eventual 2050 scenario and its dramatic reductions in resource use. Spurred by the need to build local resilience, the first ‘Modern Guilds’ were intrinsically embedded with regional bio-economies in order to manage access to resources and adaptation to compete with global conglomerates. As Guilds scale across Europe, their story of local resilience and needing to better attune human systems with living systems spreads with them. Instituted by an EU-wide framework, a guiding philosophy of renewal, and equilibrium eventually replaces that of economic growth.


They play diverse roles in processes of innovation that play to their own and others’ strengths

The more complex and uncertain the challenges we want to tackle, the more collaborative and creative our response must be. This calls for new understandings and a new language for innovation that replaces the idea of the lone hero battling the odds with a more holistic view of the contributions needed to bring ideas that challenge norms into reality, and to create impact at scale.   

Here are some of the roles that we identified through EU-Innovate.  They can be - and often are - held by different people and organisations working together.  Have you held or come across any of them?

  • Stimulator: Calls for ideas or offers initial funding to resolve a social or environmental challenge. Sets the process of innovation in motion; catalyses others to do it.
  • Initiator: Inspires and/or generates ideas for innovation. Likely to be active throughout the innovation process.
  • Broker/ mediator: Enables and facilitates meaningful collaboration between people and organisations in order to further the innovation. Involved in organising, negotiating and eliciting feedback.
  • Concept refiner: Contributes expertise to the process of testing and developing ideas to form viable, feasible and desirable concepts. Their input increases the likelihood of successful implementation.
  • Legitimator: Provides assistance by building credibility and trust in the process and in the innovation itself.
  • Educator: ‘Normalises’ new ways of thinking and being. Sensitises, educates and prepares key players so that they are able to respond positively to the innovation and the social and environmental issues it addresses.  
  • Context creator: Create an enabling context to bring innovations into reality. Includes, not limited to, changing policies and the regulatory context.
  • Scaling-up Impact: Promotes and enables adoption, engagement, growth, replication and the diffusion of innovation. Seeks to increase its sustainability impacts.  

Source: Aalto University

This month in our Citizen Innovation explorer we discuss "How could citizens have changed the world for sustainability by 2050?". Share your ideas in the comments box below. Together let’s make this a revolution. // #citizeninnovation

SPREAD Sustainable Lifestyles 2050 was a project funded by the European Commission, and the corresponding scenarios have been developed by Demos Helsinki (www.demoshelsinki.fi). For more information on the original scenarios, follow this link.

If you’d like to hear more, please get in touch with Corina ([email protected]) and Louise ([email protected]).

EU-InnovatE is a ground-breaking initiative funded by the European Commission aiming to accelerate the shift towards to a sustainable future.


Like this article? Don't forget to check out our other pieces on Citizen Innovation:

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

Great article. I especially liked the breakdown of the role different actors play in creating and enabling change. While the focus of this article is on citizens, these positions describe the facets of any team -- whether a project team at an office, a group of students working on an assignment, or like-minded people fighting for a cause. One of the conclusions from this article is the importance of working as a team and building a coalition for sustainability - whatever that may mean for you. Organizations, corporations, and government are all just different teams and groups of people working through various means to different identified ends. The skills required to hold these institutions together are the same glue that makes teams successful. If you find yourself playing the role of broker/mediator (or "interpreneur" - connecting people and ideas with one another) in your professional life, chances are you'd be great in a similar position when it comes to working with your fellow citizens!
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Great point Meaghan - ‘the glue’ that makes any group of actors successful is the connection people feel to each other and to their shared mission. I wonder what qualities help brokers/mediators generate and strengthen that glue? What qualities do you see in the brokers you know? Some that occur to me are enthusiasm for ideas, curiosity, interest in people… what else?
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One could create a discussion around the idea of Disruptive Innovation on the basis of this article. The idea of "paradigm innovation" in the article comes very close to Disruptive Innovation, but the idea that people might somehow be predisposed to innovation of that or any kind seems pretty off the mark. People are lucky if they live long enough to get productive at one paradigm, much less change them on a routine basis. The way an independent innovation practitioner (founder) gets around that is by making highly desirable/demanded capability available to those that (1) have no vested interest in (or benefit from) the existing paradigm or (2) are overserved by (and thus over-charged for) the benefits associated with the existing paradigm. Once a majority has adopted the benefits of the new paradigm, the growth needed to maintain the prior paradigm fades (and/or implodes) away. The process that I described is by no means the only way to achieve Disruptive Innovation (whether in the service of conservation or otherwise), but its one that if you have the imagination and tenacity to make work, is by far the most effective (and the most sustainable). Thoughts?
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Thanks for the insights Rick! What are the most effective initiatives you’ve seen to skill up those with no vested interest in existing paradigms? And is there also a need to build capabilities beyond those that are highly desirable in the existing paradigm?
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