How can Civil Society Tap into the New Collective Consciousness to Spur Systemic Transformation?

By Bill Baue & Ralph Thurm

Civil society plays a vital role in promoting dynamic balance between environmental, social, and economic progress. As a non-governmental organization (NGO) ourselves, however, Reporting 3.0 readily acknowledges some of the pitfalls of our sector.

What’s the issue?

Here’s a sampling:

  • Competition: Cut-throat competition is not the sole provenance of the for-profit sector; non-profits often perceive themselves as competing for limited resources, whether it’s foundation funding or stakeholder support;
  • Silo-ing: NGOs specialize in specializing, focusing on specific issues, often at the expense of the kind of holistic analyses and action needed to solve intertwining problems;
  • Incremental Ambition: Many NGOs seek to create progress, measuring success against incremental yardsticks, instead of identifying the totality of a problem and targeting its overall solution — which often takes more than “progress in the right direction” but rather requires transformation at a specific pace and scale.

Why it’s important?

Thankfully, we at Reporting 3.0 have discerned what we call a “new collective consciousness” arising over the past year. We see a cohort of NGOs focused on transformative change who are moving beyond elbowing each other into more strategic collaboration. And we see established NGOs shifting from threatened to more receptive responses. We believe this is a key maturation for civil society, becoming more civil.

We believe it is vitally important for civil society to transition more comprehensively from supporting incremental progress to supporting the transformative change that’s necessary. The WWF / IUCN-Netherlands partnership on the One Planet Thinking (OPT) demonstrates this point particularly well. OPT calls explicitly for:

a fundamental transformation that involves a paradigm shift towards an economy that uses natural resources in an efficient and fair manner, in order to preserve the habitability and resilience of this planet for future generations. Unfortunately, even though we see many positive developments towards sustainable consumption and production, a crucial economic transition still awaits. One reason for this is that incremental changes made by many different actors cumulatively do not accomplish the changes needed to reverse the breach of our planetary boundaries. We need to measure success against the boundaries of our planet and transform the way we manage natural resources from what is workable to what is necessary (emphasis added).

Of course, even this level of ambition has room for maturation, adding the social foundations to ecological ceilings as the design imperatives of a truly sustainable economy, and hence representing a more holistic solution that integrates environmental and social elements.

How can you tackle this?

We at Reporting 3.0 advocate for a number of ways that civil society NGOs can fulfil their potential to exert outsized influence.

  • Collaborative Innovation: Current challenges defy isolated solutions; they require radical collaboration and radical innovation. So, NGOs need to set aside their turf wars and work with fellow NGOs who may be perceived as rivals; and NGOs also may need to collaborate with partners previously perceived as “bad actors” in order to help them transform (with sufficient accountability mechanisms to avoid greenwash);
  • Holistic Solutions: We encourage NGOs to adopt multicapital approaches that assess inter-capital impacts across the entire triple bottom line. Often, solutions for one capitals have cascading effects on other capitals that need to be addressed in designing effective solutions.
  • Transformative Ambition: NGOs must transcend incrementalist solutions and commit to the level of transformative change necessary. This requires a shift from “necessary but not sufficient” initiatives to “necessary and sufficient” initiatives.
  • Scalable Impact: NGOs must shift focus to impact that can readily scale up, aligning the level of solutions to the level of the problems. Solutions at the micro level that leave problems at the meso and macro level unresolved are no longer an option; impactful solutions must span the scales from nano to micro to meso to macro.

Reporting 3.0 has purposefully been designed to offer pre-competitive and market-making collaboration opportunities. We invite NGOs to join the Transformation Journey program, offering a platform for assessing your own position, developing maturation pathways from micro into meso and macro thinking and action. It spurs collaboration in supporting the necessary information infrastructure that serves all NGOs, for example through instigating collaboration around the Global Thresholds & Allocations Council, the need for that was described insubchapter 4.2. The aim is to help all NGOs involved to prosper in their own area while being connected to the ‘bigger whole’ in a much more coordinated and structured way.

What will you have achieved afterwards?

While many NGOs call for mindset shifts in their target constituents, it may be more important for NGOs themselves to shift mindsets into the emerging new collective consciousness that recognizes that inter-relationship amongst actors is intimately related to the interconnectedness of outcomes and impacts. Creating system value requires consciousness of disparate parts in systems, and of disparate players who contribute to systems solutions.

What will we discuss next time?

The grande finale of this series — a call to action to follow Reporting 3.0’s Transformation Journey Program. Please read part 24 here.

[Context of this series: This is part 23 of the Reporting 3.0 series that forms the basis of an Implementation Guide that summarizes the total value of Reporting 3.0 in implementing a future-ready sustainability strategy and disclosure approach, in line with the idea of a Green, Inclusive and Open Economy. By posting these articles here Reporting 3.0 seeks feedback in the writing process of the final document, to be released as Blueprint 5 at the 5th International Reporting 3.0 Conference in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, on June 12/13, hosted by KPMG, see www.2018.reporting.org]