The Highs and Lows of Leveraging Change – Part 1

“Where’s the action?” and “Getting to know your ‘tribe.’” 

From 6th to 8th February 2019, 500 people gathered together at Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg, Germany, for the Leverage Points conference.  The conference was focused on sustainability science and framed around the Donella Meadows concept of Leverage Points.  The conference aimed to inspire us to identifying the critical leverage points at which we need to put our efforts to trigger and catalyse the change needed to deliver a sustainable future.

Taking a vibrant, creative and dynamic format the conference was a really exciting and stimulating experience and one that had quite a significant impact on me in a number of ways, both positive and negatively.  This blog posts presents a set of reflections about the key challenges and weaknesses of this sustainability science movement, as revealed to me through my engagement in the conference, as well as some of the exciting opportunities and inspirations that I drew from it.


Theory. Theory. Theory.  Where’s the action?

The conference gave a lot of opportunities to meet different people and discuss and reflect collectively, and one thing that struck me after day one, was some of the feelings of frustration expressed by the younger students of the conference.  To paraphrase – ‘This is just a whole bunch of people that know each other, and have been having the same conversation for years, and it’s all theory, there’s no action here, no-one is actually creating any action or change.’  This really struck me at the time, because I’d had a really great day, including a number of personal revelations, and a feeling that it was great to find a whole community of professionals who were working in the same area and tackling the same problems as me.  But their comments reminded me of how I felt engaging with the ecosystem services community when I was an undergraduate; exacerbated at the lack of solutions, hearing the same conversations and debates every time, with a seeming lack of progress for moving beyond those, and no sign of action!  And suddenly I was stood in the shoes of the undergraduate again, passionate, driven, enthusiastic and empowered to make change and create a positive future, and wondering why decades of sustainability research hadn’t helped us make significant paradigm shifts in society yet.  Why were we still discussing the same issues, and splitting the same hairs and still theorising every little minutiae of the subject?  Why weren’t we all taking action and creating change? Why wasn’t there more ‘how to’ knowledge represented? And how had I become one of the academics obsessed with theorising to try to find an ultimate solution?

I’ve been running this through the back of my mind for the last week and a number of thoughts have emerged.  Firstly research is a predominantly a place for knowledge creation, not action.  Research at it’s most fundamental is intended to create new understanding and not to create change.  We need to recognise and honour the role that research plays in society.  That being said as researchers we want to have impact and we should be stepping back more regularly to gain a greater perspective of our work in the context of these global challenges, to critically ask ourselves whether our work is really delivering the impact we want and intend it to have.  We need to ask ourselves “Is my work delivering action and change?”

Secondly, building on from that point, we need to also ask ourselves “Should my work be delivering action and change?”  Ioan Fazey made a really important point in his keynote speech on day 1 describing how people often talk about the knowledge: action gap, and criticise and push the sciences to work harder to reduce this gap, but actually this is misdirected thinking, because action itself needs a different type of knowledge, not produced in the sciences, a more experiential, practical and intuitive knowledge that comes from a place of practice not research.  We need to consider whether research really has a place in delivering action, and if it does whether there is a limit to the amount and types of action that research can deliver.  Where there are limits we need to acknowledge and accept them and not try to make research deliver things that a very different type of practice is better able to deliver.  Many of us at the conference were talking about research processes that are intended and designed to create action, but equally we need to continue to take a critical view regarding the extent to which we are actually managing to achieve this and where.

Thirdly, it is important for me to mention that I am not suggesting that research has no role to play in supporting practice, of course there are many examples where it does, particularly in feeding into the theories that practitioners can use in their work.  But there was a general sense at the conference that practitioners weren’t widely represented.  We need to support and encourage practitioners to attend these conferences so that we can create opportunities for mutual learning, creating a more reflexive culture of learning and action.  Isabel Carlisle, an activist from the UK, read a letter to the conference on 8th February imploring researchers to take their knowledge into the place of practice (see blog post of letter here).  To bring their knowledge to the activists and the practitioners so that it can be used and implemented and benefited from.  Isabel also challenged comments that we should invite practitioners and grassroots movements to the conference, by explaining that they can’t attend conferences because they are working.  Let’s hold conferences at time, locations and prices that make them accessible to a broader range of people.


‘You feel like you’ve found your tribe!’

One of the interesting things that emerged over the three days was the realisation that whilst there was a sort of sense within the room that we were all one community, on the same page, heading in the same direction, with the same politics and the same professions, this wasn’t actually the case.  This poses three important problems.

Firstly, by generally assuming we were all ‘of the same tribe’ and a generally homogeneous group, a number of delegates who didn’t identify with ‘the tribe’ felt excluded, isolated, and like they weren’t able to honestly express their opinions. For some delegates the extent to which they didn’t feel a part of ‘the tribe’ meant they actually felt like ‘the tribe’ were ‘out of touch with reality’ and in a ‘crazy bubble’.  Part of the irony of some of this is that a strong theme in discussions throughout the conference was that differing opinions and perspectives and conflict actually are fertile places for creativity and innovation.

Secondly, the culture of ‘the tribe’ appeared to be strongly “Left wing”.  It was a culture that speaks in terms of ‘ethics of care’, ‘love and compassion’ and one that directly and explicitly challenges discourses of militarisation, mechanisation and concepts of oppression.  This particular strain of politics and ethics means that it would discourage a wider group of people, with different perspectives from engaging and participating it the movement towards sustainability that we are trying to create.  I certainly felt that the conversations we were having were heavily politicised in a particular frame of what’s right and what’s wrong.  Now some people may argue that we don’t want to engage with people who do support ideas of militarisation, competition and capitalist progress, because these ideas are damaging and wrong (not my point of view, but the view of some).  But to deliver a sustainable future we need to have everyone involved and so engaging with the whole patchwork of politics, values, views and opinions is essential for uniting to create the change that’s needed.

What is particularly ironic about the two points that I have just made is that much of the discussions we were having during the conference were about being able and willing to bring a much wider and greater range of perspectives into the conversation.  But by assuming we were all cut from the same cloth and by being so strongly politicised in our comments and the way we spoke to one another, we actually isolated those within the delegates who did not identify themselves with the mass.  And we certainly make it hard for other people to come and get involved and join the conversation.  We need to be much more careful about the types of language we use and the way we present ourselves when discussing our work and engaging with other groups of people, if we do indeed want to draw together a broader and more diverse network of people.

A final point on the matter of being ‘part of a tribe’.  Kathryn Andrews made the point that we need as a community to have a really explicit conversation about where we think we are heading, when we talk about delivering a sustainable future.  This struck me as a really important point because we are not a homogeneous group of people and so we inevitably have a whole range of ideas about what a sustainable future looks like, and it’s very likely that we don’t all agree with each other’s dreams of the future.  This creates a really difficult tension when we know that we need to be united in delivering a sustainable future, but we may not agree on the ‘Where to’ and ‘How’ questions behind that move.  Do we need to work to build a consensus to work together?  Do we have time for that?  Or is it okay if we all work in our own way and in our own direction?  Can the delivery of a nuanced range of sustainable futures, still bring a safer, more equitable planet for future generations?


The above reflections are just an emerging brain dump of my considerations and challenges to what I experienced and witnessed at the Leverage Points conference.  The comments are not water tight arguments and reflect a lot of personal experience I had at the conference.  They are therefore open to debate and I welcome further challenges and critique in the comments below.

Welcome to the Food Growing Hub – Dundee Botanic Garden


Celebrating 2017

“We all have a passion for growing our own food, whether this is to save money, have a healthier diet, because we love being outside and caring for plants, or because we want to ‘save the world’.  As a Food Growing Hub, we are a community food growing space based at the University of Dundee Botanic Garden, in Dundee, Scotland.”

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Bumble bees busy away on the thyme

“This food growing space is comprised of raised beds and ground level food growing spaces – comprising 14 plots in total! There is also a seating area, a shed, and an orchard of apples, plums, pears and cherries planted by the Dundee Urban Orchard project.”

“We, the individuals at The Food Growing Hub, are a wide mix of local residents. We are aged from the 20s to the 70s; some of us are retired, and some working or studying. The Hub is also enjoyed by garden visitors who come to explore, enjoy, and be inspired by the food that is being grown.  Garden staff also take an interest in what is being grown, offering us some of their spare plants and knowledge, as well as sharing in some of the produce.”

“In the Spring of 2017, Jade Cawthray-Syms approached the garden with the offer of co-ordinating some community activities, including starting to run some food growing experiments in the Hub as part of the GROW Observatory. Very soon Jade was joined by a GROW staff member Alice Ambler and the two forged forward in a bid to bring us all together to share knowledge, skills, experiences, resources, and fun.”

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Alice weeding in Summer 2017

“Looking back on 2017 we have been amazed and delighted to see how much we have achieved together in just a 6 month period.  Here are our highlights:”

We Got New Members

“Interest in the Food Growing Hub and the demand for spaces has been consistent throughout the year, leading to two new members joining the Hub and growing our community to 11 individuals.”

Food, Glorious Food

“We have grown sooo much wonderful, fresh, and incredibly tasty food this year:  Potatoes, carrots, parsnips, squash, peas, beans, courgettes, beetroot, cabbages, broccoli, pak choi, spinach, salads, radishes, onions, herbs, strawberries, and raspberries!  It’s been an absolute delight.”

Lots of Support from the Botanic Gardens staff

“We’re getting to know the Botanic Garden staff really well! They have been consistently open and generous, leading to a number of improvements at the Hub.”

New Composting Area

“Prior to this year, we used the Garden’s composting area, which was a fair walk from the Hub. We did have a composting container, but it was not fit for purpose. We now, thanks to Alasdair (the Garden curator) have our very own composting area, built by the garden staff.  The composting area has three spaces:  one for compostable material; one for compost brought from the gardens supply for our usage, and one for stony and woody rubbish that needs disposing of. Because we do not produce enough garden waste for composting, the garden staff remove our composting material, and add it to their composting piles.  Dan, one of the garden staff members, took the time to talk us through the composting system and what types of materials we should and shouldn’t be composting.”


“The shed at the Hub was well overdue a coat of paint and starting to look at bit shabby.  Alasdair agreed to buy us some wood stain and equipment. Ray, Mhairi and Jade spent a September afternoon painting the shed.  The colour is quite different and the coating not as thick as we’d hoped, but it looks a lot brighter than before and will keep the wood in good condition through the winter.  The next job is to get the inside of the shed tidied up.”

Building friendships

“Before Jade and Alice arrived the Hub members didn’t really know each other, but since then we’ve started to have regular meetings and friendships have started to blossom.  We’ve had three group meetings across the Summer and Autumn where we’ve got to know each other and discussed how we might work together.  Now when we bump into each other at the plots we stop to chat and share our stories of food growing experimental successes and failures.  Ann even started a Facebook page so that we can share photos from the allotments, and relevant events.”

Jade and Mhairi planning 2018 over tea and biscuits.

Developing our knowledge

“During this summer at the Hub many of us were challenged by Potato Blight. With the guidance of Dave B we took measures to protect our potato crop and prevent the spread of the disease. We then realised that, beyond it being bad, we didn’t really know what potato blight was, or if we had managed it correctly. With the James Hutton Institute on our doorstep, we decided to invite a Potato Blight expert to come and talk to us about what they know of the problem.  David Cooke joined us and gave an absolutely fascinating presentation on what potato blight was, and how it is managed at the industrial farming scale. He was fantastic at answering our persistent and eager questions. We discussed how the knowledge developed for large-scale farms could be applied to our own practices in the Hub.  Cutting off the infected shaws as early as possible and keeping the leaves of our potatoes dry during warm humid summer weather was the best option.”

Late Night Opening

“Throughout July, August and September we had late night opening. This meant that we could stay at the garden late on Wednesday evenings approximately every fortnight. This provided the group with a well needed opportunity to visit the Hub after work hours through the week. It was certainly a lovely way to spend the end of a Wednesday, especially with the long, sunny, Dundee evenings.”

Applying for Funding

“There are a few things the Hub would like to buy, to make life that little bit easier.  We would like to have a greenhouse so that members can start plants off earlier than the Dundee growing season allows.  We’d also like to get some equipment to support our members with physical challenges, to help them with gardening tasks.  We need new tools to replace old ones and books to help us improve our gardening practices.  The Hub discussed funding applications to raise a little bit of money for these ambitions. After a sadly unsuccessful application to a community fund, we’re keen to try again this year.”

Hosting other food growers

“At the end of the summer, the Food Growing Hub, along with the Garden, hosted a group of families from Discoverin’ Families – a Dundee based charitable project which helps families to improve their quality of life and be involved in the community. The group had decided to start food growing to provide their families with fresh, healthy, and low cost food.  They were visiting different food growing projects to see how they had set themselves up, and to try and learn some tips and tricks. Clare, from the Garden staff, showed the group the edible foods in the greenhouse. Jade and Ray showed them the Food Growing Hub, helping them to identify the vegetables, and even taste a few.  Lastly, the children planted radish, spring onion, and spinach seeds in pots to grow at home.”

Experimental Science

“The Food Growing Hub is supporting the GROW Observatory – a European Commission funded citizen science project.  This observatory spreads across the whole of Europe, working with food growers like us to conduct experiments that will help us to learn about and develop regenerative practices – practices that protect and enhance the soil, rather than degrade it. The Hub has been supporting the GROW Observatory in the development of informational materials that go to the project participants. As well as providing a space for filming and photography, we have been testing out their scientific protocols.”

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GROW Observatory volunteers harvesting veg at the Food Growing Hub


An even bigger, better 2018

“After a really successful 2017 for the Hub, we have now built some strong relationships and lots of enthusiasm and momentum to do more in 2018.  Watch this space for regular updates on all our veg and fruit growing antics.”

Jade and Alice