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.

‘Empowering Civil Society through Participatory Investigation’ – Workshop, Paris, 1-2 February 2019

Which types of knowledge empower civil society? Does empowerment of one person, require another to relinquish some of their power? Are participatory processes a means or an ends? These are some of the challenging and most poignant questions that emerged out of the discussions and debate that took place at the ‘Empowering Civil Society through Participatory Investigation’ workshop, in Paris, over 1 & 2 February, 2019.

Around 35 people from across Europe gathered together for a two-day workshop entitled ‘Empowering Civil Society through Participatory Investigation’, organised by the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) , Doing It Together Science (DITOs), Institut francilien rechereche, innovation, société (IFRIS), Pour une alliance science sociétés (ALLISS), Laboratoire interdisciplinaire sciences innovations sociétés (LISIS) and Living Knowledge Network (LKN).  The workshop brought together a very diverse range of professionals from NGOs, universities and freelancers, working in participatory research, citizen science, science participatives and social innovation.  The purpose of the workshop was to explore what role NGOs played in these participatory investigative processes, and how their involvement in these processes could help deliver empowerment.  The workshop was organised around keynote speeches, panel discussions and three parallel workshops that ran across the two days, addressing different aspects of the empowerment question; ‘Governance of spaces and places’, ‘Trajectories of participatory investigation’, and ‘Empowerment of civil society through research cooperation.’

Discussions over the course of the two days raised a number of important questions and debates, which I share here for you to raise as discussion points with other colleagues and peers working around these issues.


They say “Knowledge is power”, but are all types of knowledge powerful?

There are a growing number of examples, certainly within citizen science, which are demonstrating the empowering impact that enabling citizens to collect their own data can have on addressing issues that matter to them.  The case of lead water poisoning in Flint, Michigan, is one of those examples, where scientists supported citizens in collecting data that they could then use as evidence against government, regarding the quality and safety of their water supplies.  In the case of Flint, Michigan, this data collected from across the community, by citizens and scientists alike, provided evidence in court, that led to legal rulings that the water supply and infrastructure should be changed. But the reason that this data was empowering was because it was collected to standards that were considered scientifically legitimate, and because the involvement of professional scientists in the process created a sense of credibility around the data.

This is a curious point when we consider the interest of including and valuing different types of knowledge through participatory research processes.  They say “Knowledge is power” but traditional knowledge, local knowledge, lay knowledge, intuitive knowledge, experiential knowledge (and many others), are not considered to be legitimate forms of knowledge within the very public forums that communities need to be influencing to create change.  So whilst empowering communities through the generation and access of knowledge is something that citizen science and participatory research processes can offer, unfortunately this is largely limited to empirical knowledge.

And because empirical knowledge has the most power and recognition in westernised societies, currently, we should be careful when we work to try to increase the value and legitimacy of these other types of knowledge not to lean towards using empirical knowledge to validate these other forms of knowledge.  By doing so (I would suggest) we will simply perpetuate the hierarchy of empirical knowledge as the ultimate and superior form.  I can’t however, right now, offer examples of how to validate and increase the value of these other types of knowledge – comments and suggestions from yourselves are welcome below.

But we must also recognise that in some circumstances (some people might argue, many circumstances) scientific knowledge has limited power.  It won’t take you long to think of an example of a situation where scientific evidence collected and verified in a scientifically legitimate way has been ignored or disregarded within the policy-making process, in order to fulfil other economic or political agendas.  This means that whilst citizens can gain some power through access to empirical evidence, giving them the power to engage in dialogue with policy-makers, there is not guarantee that that knowledge and power will be transformed into action and change that the citizens may be looking for.  The action and change part of the process is something much more social rather than empirical, and requires a complex negotiation of motivations, drivers, resources, politics, time and place and many other social factors.


Does empowerment of people, require other people to give up their power?

One interesting debate that emerged in the workshop was whether the empowerment of citizens requires scientists and policy-makers to relinquish some of their own power.  Some delegates argued that empowerment only came from the powerful relinquishing their power over situations, giving some of their power to the less-powerful.  This case is argued on the basis that the powerful hold access and control over decision-making processes and are therefore in the position of deciding not only what people can and can’t do, but also who can and can’t influence decision-making processes.  Those powerful individuals are the ones that get to make the decisions and choose who to let in and who to exclude from policy-processes.  The argument goes that in these scenarios the only way in which the dis-empowered can engage in these processes is if the powerful, firstly allow the dis-empowered to participate and secondly, give up their sole control over the decision-making processes, giving some of their control and influence to those who are dis-empowered.  The matter or empowerment is therefore in the hands of the powerful.

However, other delegates argued against this case, discussing power in terms of an infinite resource where more and more can be generated, and where the powerful don’t need to give up their power, but the dis-empowered can gain more power.  In this case the dis-empowered gain power through education, the development of infrastructures and resources, and the building of social networks, through which they can start to have influence.  This empowerment therefore comes from the structure of society and the individual citizens and communities capacities to galvanise and build social structures that enable them to influence processes.

Where do your thoughts lie in relation to this two sides of the argument and what influence does this have on the way in which you work in participatory processes and in civil empowerment?


Are participatory processes a means or an ends?

Another interesting idea that emerged, which is worth raising, is the matter of whether a participatory process should be considered as a means or an ends?  One delegate raised the point that whilst participatory processes are really valuable, we don’t want to be ‘just having nice experiences’, what we actually want is to be able to create change.  And that the value and purpose of these processes should be to create change and positive action in the world.

Of course being able to deliver action and change through these processes is a brilliant achievement, but it’s also worth considering the value of participatory processes as an ends in its own right.  Because by simply working to see more participatory processes taking place, you work to create a scenario where participatory processes are a more normalised form of social organisation and dialogue. By achieving this goal you have ultimately created action and change by creating a more citizen engaged and democratic culture, which is a significant achievement in itself.  A caveat here, however, is that this is only really of value if the processes are genuinely participatory and that all actors that are involved have an influence on the process and the dialogue.

We need to be clear when working in participatory processes whether that process is a means or an ends, and be clear to those who we are engaging what we intend the outcomes of the processes to be.


These represent just a couple of the tensions and challenges that were raised in the workshop on ‘Civil empowerment through participatory investigation,’ and demonstrate that even as a professional community engaged in this type of work there is not one agreed mindset or approach to this type of work.  But I don’t think that we necessarily need to ‘resolve’ these tensions and come to an ultimate and ‘correct’ conclusion on any of these matters.  This diversity of perspectives leads to a heterogeneity of practices which brings strength and resilience to the way in which we work and the impacts that we can have as a collective.  But also this diversity of perspectives leads to tensions and debate within the community which ensures that we don’t become complacent and dogmatic in our thinking, but also creates a fertile forum for creativity and innovation.


I’d like to a say a big thank you to all the partner organisations for organising this workshop and providing the opportunity to engage in very rich and thought-provoking discussions, with such a diverse group of people.

Engaging Scientists in Citizen Science

Much of the conversation and focus of research in the field of citizen science is about:

  • How do we engage more citizens in science research?
  • How do we motivate them to participate?
  • How do we retain their engagement throughout the whole lifecycle of a project and beyond?

These are really critical questions of central importance to the development of the field and for which much attention must to be continuously paid, particularly as the concept increases in popularity and the types of participants diversify in their character.  But after attending the Australian Citizen Science Conference in Adelaide, in February of this year (2018), I found myself asking whether, in focusing on the how to engage citizens we had neglected to pay attention to how we engage scientists?

Understanding what motivates, engages and retains citizens in citizen science projects is utterly essential to the practice of citizen science.  You can’t have citizen science, without citizens.  And the conference revealed and shared some effective and sometimes overlooked ideas such as:

  • Rather than asking potential participants to come to you, go to where they are already engaged and active.  K Mills & Simon Branigan (The Nature Conservancy, Australia) working with shell fish reefs, found that approaching dive clubs was the highly effective for them, as divers are already engaged and enthusiastic about the marine environment.
  • Operate at the time scale of your participants. Emilie Ens (Macquarie University) who works with indigenous communities in the Northern Territories of Australia, found that operating on indigenous time scales led to successful engagement with this group.
  • Make it a social opportunity. Erin Roger, Geetha Ortac (New South Wales Office of Environment & Heritage) & Ingrid Garland (EnviroComm Connections)  , both highlighted the power and importance of offering social opportunities, either by having BBQs and parties to reward, celebrate and bond as a group, or simply by holding meetings and engaging in social media communications.

But at the beginning of Day 1 of the Conference in a workshop entitled ‘New Visions for Citizen Science and Public Policy in Australia’ a couple of little snapshots of conversations suddenly highlighted to me how little of my attention had considered the need to engage, motivate and retain scientists as much as the need to do so with citizens.

Whilst of course scientists are already engaged in citizen science (the majority of citizen science projects are run and/or developed by scientists), the extensive literature directly addressing the validity of citizen science as an approach shows there is still much work to be done to convince the wider scientific community of the legitimacy of such an approach.  Through my few years as a citizen science practitioner and researcher I have certainly met many scientists (and some citizens for that matter) who are sceptical about the idea that citizens should and can be involved in the scientific process, without undermining scientific rigour.

It was a statement from Lea Shanley (Co-Executive Director, US South Big Data Innovation Hub) that really brought to my mind the idea that we need to pay more attention to engaging scientists, when she explained that when her and her colleagues are trying to advocate the concept of citizen science to the scientists in their institution they often start by saying:

               “’If you could have a 100,000 people to help you with your science what would you do?”

What it made me realise was that in the same way that we look to generate ideas about new and powerful ways of advocating the concept to citizens and convincing them that citizen science might be something they’d like to participate in, we also need to think of new and powerful ways of advocating citizen science to scientists.

We often talk about the need to make citizen science relevant to citizens so that they are motivated to participate.  And what the statement that Lea offered us in Adelaide, cleverly does, is pose that relevance back to the scientists.  Instead of saying to them, citizen science will help you to collect more data distributed across a bigger area, which can often raise a number of questions around validity and quality from the scientists.  The statement presents the resource potential to the scientist and asks them to consider the relevance of that potential to them, on their terms – “What would you do?”  What is also very clever about the statement is that by being hypothetical it frames the concept of citizen science as an opportunity without limits.  It invites the scientist to dream and explore the potential for their research of having access to a huge human resource that their funding streams could never support.

It seems to me that by piquing the interest of scientists by framing citizen science as a human resource opportunity that they can approach within their own boundaries, you can then open up a conversation about a variety of different success stories already evidenced in the literature and practice, presenting scientists with a suite of tools and methods to use to suit their needs.  And from here open up a conversation about best practice, and what we so far know works and not.  Having framed the conversation around “what would you do?” dialogue may even draw out some new suggestions and innovations for practice, having brought a new perspective to the approach.  But what Lea also mentioned which seems highly important, is that these conversations were most effective when taking place between two scientists, particularly if the citizen science advocate in the conversation is a high-profile scientist.

So far, this is the first step for me in considering and exploring how we approach and discuss citizen science with other scientists, and in considering them as much an audience, as we consider citizens.  My work as a researcher and practitioner, so far, has been very much focused on citizens as an audience, and how we meet their needs.  And in my PhD research I am focused on collecting and expressing the voice of the citizens involved in projects, to address to what extent we are serving their needs as communities, when we practice citizen science.  On the flip side, we also need to consider these questions with regards to the scientists involved, to understand their motivations and barriers to adopting and participating in citizen science.  At the end of the day, which ever approach to citizen science that you take it is a partnership and collaboration between both citizens and scientists, and so we need to understand the experiences of both.

For anyone interested in reading a bit more on this topic, I’d recommend: RIESCH, H. & POTTER, C. 2014. Citizen science as seen by scientists: methodological, epistemological and ethical dimensions. Public Understanding of Science, 23, 107-120. ( Having interviewed scientists who participated in the OPAL citizen science programme, in the UK, the authors present the scientist’s perspectives on the methodological and ethical issues of such an approach.

My attendance at the conference was generously sponsored by three different organisations, the Australian Citizen Science Association who granted me a travel scholarship, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design with whom I am studying for my PhD, and finally the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) who fund my PhD.  I am sincerely grateful to all three parties for supporting me in this opportunity.