A Theory of Transformative Agency in Linked Social-Ecological Systems

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Authors: F. Westley, O. Tjornbo, L. Schultz, P. Olsson, C. Folke, B. Crona, O. Bodin

Publication Year: 2013

Source: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-05072-180327

Journal: Ecology and Society

Volume: 18

Issue: 3

Categories: Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Entrepreneurship


Sustainability is a major issue that concerns humanity, and it is therefore important to understand how the agency of individuals can contribute to a sustainable future. This paper reviewed literature on leadership in social-ecological systems and institutional entrepreneurship in complex adaptive systems and proposes a new theory of transformative agency in linked social-ecological systems. This new theory provides insight into strategic agency and the use of these strategies in innovation and transformation in the management and governance of social-ecological systems. Holling’s adaptive cycle model is used to explain phases of innovation and transformation in resilient social-ecological systems. The authors combine Holling’s model with Dorado’s opportunity context model to propose a more coherent theory of strategic agency. Using this theory, strategies of transformative agents can be linked to phases of system change. This theory is a starting point for further research into the role of agency in social-ecological systems transformations.

Critical Reflection

By using the models of Holling and Dorado, the authors have created a new theory that can be of use in both organizational- and social-ecological theories. Although the research was particularly aimed at ecology, the results can be of help to managers in organizations as well. The paper presents a set of skills that are important for change agents. Nine strategies are proposed for successful ecosystem stewardship, but these strategies could also be applied to organizations that want to become more innovative. In terms of the Adaptive Cycle, this could be helpful for organizations that are in the crisis or new combinations phase and want to move to the entrepreneurship phase. The results can be of use to identify the roles of individuals in strategy making policy in an organization that wants to change. However, because the strategies are aimed at individual managers, they are not necessarily helpful at an enterprise governance level. Furthermore, this paper enriches Holling’s Adaptive Cycle by adding aspects of Dorado’s research dealing with social innovation and opportunities. These opportunities specifically have to do with the likelihood that an organization will come up with new institutional combinations and the facilitation of the relocation of resources within an organization. The Adaptive Cycle gains depth with the addition of Dorado’s opportunity context. It is, for example, easier to see when and where resources should be allocated, because the model is based on multiplicity and diversity of organizational forms. The level of institutionalization is also a part of Dorado’s model, implying the extent to which organizations govern social behavior. The terms multiplicity and institutionalization of Dorado and homogeneity/heterogeneity and stored/released capital of Holling are related, and the combination of the two models is helpful in gaining a better understanding in the roles of agents in a changing organization, and especially the roles of agents in creating innovation and novelty. In summary, this paper provides an elaboration to the Adaptive Cycle model of Holling. The new model gives us a better understanding of the actors involved in organizations in a dynamic context. The paper also provides an overview of skills that are needed in successful ecosystem stewardship. Although this information is not directly applicable to businesses, much can still be learned about the strategies and skills that can are needed by leaders to accomplish change in organizations.