By Laurel Patterson, Head, SDG Integration, UNDP and Sophia Robele, UNDP
‘A call for action to change our world.’ This is how the 2030 Agenda establishes our collective ambition in 2015. It remains all the more relevant today, as a globally agreed agenda for systems transformation (the sub-title itself:Transforming Our World), and one which puts as much emphasis on interdependencies as the 17 goals themselves.
But as we near the mid-point, fast-moving and intersecting global crises have taken root in a context of complex social, political and economic systems, and slower, but no less powerful climate and demographic change. While the impacts affect us all, their toll is not equally felt – at least not yet.
One striking feature of the COVID-19 pandemic is that inequalities within countries are now greater than those observed between countries. Vulnerable and marginalized groups have been left further behind because of the socio-economic effects of the pandemic: our analysis suggests government response to COVID-19 too often is gender blind, and too few have access to vaccines.
And yet, if crises on the scale of COVID-19 hold the potential for transformative shifts, how do we harness the realities we experience today to move collectively towards a better future? What remains relatively unexplored in the many connections which dot the landscape of the SDGs is the conscious connection with ourselves, with each other and fundamentally with the planet as the driver of the futures we want to shape.
In the first post in this series we shared the impetus for our exploration of awareness-based collective action and the fundamental need to shift mindsets in order to shift systems. In this post, we focus on our approaches and insights from different experiments to build spaces intentionally to culture the conditions for alternative futures to be realized.
While we don’t suggest that these spaces and capacities alone can solve the development challenges we face, without a willingness to change ourselves, the systemic shifts we need to advance will elude us.
PIECING TOGETHER POSSIBILITY
For systems transformation – not only addressing the symptoms of inequity but reimagining the social, economic, and governance structures that produce it – we are grappling with complex issues that defy a clear articulation, for which there is no roadmap nor reassuring multi-step process to follow.
We often treat this kind of uncertainty as a roadblock, but in our work, we’ve found that it’s possible to create spaces and processes that empower individual and collective shifts that capitalize on the uncertainty. In such spaces, we have an opportunity to focus on fundamental questions about our relationship to, and agency within, pressing development challenges.
The disruptions and uncertainty of COVID-19 provided an impetus for us to explore what it might mean to move beyond fixing what is broken in our current social systems and co-create the conditions and relationships for alternative systems to be born. We started with dialogue.
One defining feature in our first initiative – a global dialogue series to explore the potential of awareness-based collective action to improve development outcomes – was an intentional openness to anyone in the UN system: at any level, with any contract modality, in any location. This might not seem especially radical, but in institutions where leadership is often defined by rank, we wanted to connect and activate a next generation of transformative leaders in spaces we were all equal: equally vulnerable, equally searching, even if differently impacted by COVID-19 at the time we got started.
We were overwhelmed by the response: from every region, from long-serving administrative staff to new hires, from those with experience in awareness-based systems change to those ready to explore something brand new. We did our best to pay attention: What did people respond to? Where was the energy? What was uncomfortable but important? What was the value of this space, different from the ways we normally measure value or efficiency? A collaboration with the Presencing Institute and Theory U as a social change methodology offered a powerful grounding for this shift.
We’ve tried to incorporate the learning into our design and to evolve our approaches to systems transformation, benefitting tremendously from the candid feedback, evaluations, and application of participants. We’ve found along the way that:
- Development practitioners recognize the significance of spaces to slow down, reflect, and sit with the uncertainty and vulnerability inherent in our work. While this was a common thread among much of the feedback we received, these spaces are rare in most of our work contexts.
- Human connection is a key resource for transformation. From senior managers leading portfolios to technical specialists focused on a particular challenge, all echoed the value of being able to build deeper relationships with peers across roles, areas of work, and geographies.
- Leaving no one behind takes on new meaning when the starting point is ourselves. Many reflected that they felt a more personal connection with this central principle of the 2030 Agenda, and others began to ask themselves and each other, “in what ways are we moving forward, together?”
- There is a wealth of untapped wisdom across UN personnel, expressed in different cultures and ways of thinking, but we often don’t make space for these diverse experiences as part of our approaches to systemic challenges.
- Generative dialogue sets the foundation for collective action. Action starts in our minds, and how we make sense of the world conditions the choices we make. Holding spaces for introspection and facilitating connection between ideas and people creates new possibilities and informs action that is purpose-led.
FRAME AND REFRAME, BUILDING BOTH LEARNING AND RELATIONSHIPS
While we saw the global dialogues had value on their own, we saw that it wasn’t always clear for practitioners where and how the insights and learning fit into or helped to reshape their work. And so we asked ourselves how we might take the tools, ideas, vision, and energy generated from the global dialogues and co-design a space that brings it directly into practitioners’ specific contexts and the questions they were sitting with.
These reflections led us to take a next step: to co-create the Action Learning Lab for Systems Transformation. Our Action Learning Lab spanned a four-month period and invited 400 staff from 7 UN entities working across diverse development contexts, either as individuals or teams, to explore their development challenges or questions in depth through an awareness-driven lens. Our challenge was also to co-create this space for learning that could be readily applied, but without defining success by the tangibility of immediate outcomes.
We designed the journey with the aim to foster deeper relationships – with the self, with community, and with untapped future possibility, because these relationships are key to addressing complex challenges. Its structure involved immersive workshops with space to engage with mindfulness-based tools and principles. This included practices to understand personal and professional challenges with open hearts and minds, cultivate deep listening, and learn from the emerging future through experimental action and reflection.
Participants tested new approaches in their real-life development contexts, with the support of the lab and peer network to lean on for shared insight and courage. Beyond the workshops, structured spaces for small-group peer coaching enabled practitioners to serve as mirrors and guides for each other in navigating complex challenges.
Insights from the Action Learning Lab for our current work include:
- The action-confidence required to lead amidst complexity and uncertainty is powered by psychological safety and emotional awareness. 
- Peer support architectures and deep listening build agency for practitioners to embody many versions of systems leadership.
- ‘Sensemaking’ (how we draw meaning from data) for development policy relies on how we think. We’ve found there are clear blind spots when we disconnect from heart-driven or embodied sources of knowing. This myth of separateness, brilliantly captured in the recent report on tackling the climate crisis from the inside out, wreaks havoc on our social and planetary systems.
- Moving from reactive problem solving to perceiving and addressing root causes of systemic issues requires collective leadership.
Our insights are consistent with growing thinking among development on how to successfully engage in complex social and environmental challenges as noted in the Inner Development Goals.
CREATING SPACE WITH THE POTENTIAL TO SHIFT SYSTEMS
Our exploration advanced in 2022 with a challenge to design one of UNDP’s foundational leadership certificate programmes. Our intention remains to shape democratized spaces where ‘leaders’ are understood to be all of us, activating “power with” rather than “power over.”
What continues to echo most loudly in the feedback from participants is that transformation necessitates space to slow down, reflect, and most critically, connect in more profound ways with peers. New methods and tools, while helpful, are not what create systems transformation. Gathering diverse views in one room doesn’t create integration.
To realize change at the level of systems, we need groups of people who have learned to trust, bear witness to and be transformed by each other. This can activate different choices and decisions and contributes to both a reimagination and reorganization of our social and economic systems.
Among the leadership capabilities needed for 21st-century development challenges is the ability to create space for care and connection, because this leads to the level of trust, authenticity, and resilience that’s needed to navigate a complex context. Our experience to date suggests that without consideration of the inner dimensions of development challenges, with dedicated spaces and approaches to attend to them, the solutions we seek will likely continue to elude us.
Our next post will share the direction for our next phase of work, focusing on building the infrastructures and movements to connect our experiences and development challenges at scale.
 Psychological Safety has been gaining momentum through the work of Amy Edmonson at the Harvard Business School: Edmondson, Amy C. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018.