Dancing with Paradigms of Transformative Public Sector Innovation


By Lindsay Cole, Lily Raphael, Maggie Low, Mumbi Maina, and Kyla Pascal


Innovations that aim to work at the root causes of complex challenges must look beyond the dominant paradigms, systems, and structures (e.g. New Public Management, colonialism, capitalism, racism) that created and hold these challenges in place. This is true in all sectors and when working on a variety of complex challenges — however, our focus and interest here is on public sector innovation initiatives that are (or perhaps should be) working toward social and ecological justice and wellbeing.

There is now decades of evidence that working on complex and pressing challenges of social inequities, climate change, and many others from within these dominant paradigms is not leading to change at the scale or speed required. The work of Donella Meadows tells us that working to change and transcend paradigms is necessary if we are to get beyond surface level, technical, and siloed improvements and instead into deeper, systemic transformation. By attending to these deeper points of intervention, and particularly paradigms, Meadows tells us that the impacts of systems change efforts are likely to be much more significant and impactful, and that we need to “keep speaking and acting, loudly and with assurance, from the new [paradigm]” (2008, p. 164, *reference at the end of the article).

So what might this new, or perhaps more accurately old/resurgent, paradigm be in this context of complex public sector innovation challenges?

This article shares a paradigm of transformative, emergent, and resurgent innovation, with specific facets that we need to move away from and move toward, in order to move in a direction of sustainability, social justice, ecosystem health, mutual flourishing, and the like. In the tradition of Donella Meadows, we then identify potential leverage points to dance with complex systems in ways that move us in this direction, based on our experiences as public sector and social innovators, innovation lab leaders, sustainability and social policy practitioners, equity and reconciliation experts, transformative adult educators, and applied and action researchers.

You may be interested in this article if…

  • You are a public sector innovator that uses systems thinking and practice to inform your work.
  • You are trying to find ways to move stuck public sector (and other) systems toward social and ecological wellbeing, justice, and liberation.
  • You enjoy learning about and experimenting with different frameworks in your public sector and/or social innovation learning, research, and/or practice.

And an invitation…

If you are a someone who is working within/directly alongside a public sector organization, and if the thinking that we are sharing here is really interesting, provocative, and/or helpful for you and you’d like to be a part of an upcoming community of practice and applied research project that is exploring the radical and transformative edges of public sector innovation practice that is working toward social and ecological justice, please be in touch with Lindsay through LinkedIn.

But first… What might transformative, emergent, resurgent innovation mean?

Making distinctions between paradigms of change and paradigms of transformation is an important starting point before diving into the paradigm and leverage points. (With love to our teachers here, some of whom include: adrienne maree brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Melanie Goodchild, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Robyn Maynard, Margaret Kovach, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Donella Meadows, Resmaa Menakem, Benjamin Lichtenstein, Margaret Wheatley, John Kania, Otto Scharmer, and Bill Sharpe, to name but a few in this weaving of lineages).

Change happens through incremental adaptations. In change processes, the foundations and frames of the current system remain unquestioned and unchanged, and the focus is on making things work better through small or incremental improvements. Transformation is a more significant shift in people, structures, processes, and systems. It is often triggered by a growing problem, challenge, or crisis, and this pressure is what is required in order to shift or dislodge a stable or stuck approach into a different state. Both change and transformation tend to modify, respond to, and/or adapt the existing constraints of elements, processes, structures, behaviours, power dynamics, and routines, or the lower leverage points of intervention according to Meadows’ framework. They are path dependent, meaning that the change or transformation is dependent on the history of what has come before, on the force that triggered it, and on the paradigm within which the understanding of transforming from what/toward what is shaped. The result of the change or transformation tends to be predetermined or bounded by the existing paradigm or frame of the person, organization, or system setting the stage for the work.

Transformation processes sometimes hold a more paradigm-shifting frame and intent even if this same word is being used to describe the thinking and processes at work. Emergence is a helpful concept in understanding and nuancing this paradigm-shifting frame of transformation, and it draws on systems and complexity theories. Emergence breaks free of previous constraints and enters into a field with a distinct shape, or dissimilarity. Emergence is creation sparked by aspiration, the ‘becoming’ of a vision for a new opportunity that was not there or not seen before. Because emergence is catalyzed by aspiration rather than crisis, it invokes an entirely different set of behaviours and practices, and holds an orientation toward creatively imagining and generating possible futures. Emergence tends to significantly expand the available potential, capacity, and capability of people, organizations, and systems to work on the challenges that they face. Boundaries of possibility are expanded beyond what is visible when looking through the lenses of the existing paradigm.

Resurgence is also vital framing for this type of transformation, as it reminds us that many things that we may want to move toward are not novel or new, but rather they are ancient, already present, and often marginalized. Resurgence is focused on work to recover, revitalize, and renew possibilities of being and relationships that have been suppressed and marginalized by the dominant systems and paradigms. Resurgence is often associated with Indigenous cultures, and reflects integrated spiritual, cultural, economic, social, and political dimensions of these processes.

Facets of Transformative, Emergent, Resurgent Innovation Paradigm

Facets of transformative, emergent, resurgent innovation paradigm (Cole, L., Raphael, L., Low, M., Maina, M. & Pascal, K. 2023, forthcoming).

On the left are facets to move away from in complex innovation work as they remain constrained by the dominant paradigms. On the right are facets of paradigm to move toward, and the middle provides guidance when navigating the tensions created in this space. These moving away/toward patterns are intentionally shaped as spectra rather than binaries to reinforce the idea that these are movements and not distinct locations, and that they are entangled yet also discrete. They are presented this way to facilitate engagement with the tensions that these spectra create, and — as Meadows might say — to encourage us to keep dancing with the system.

Leverage Points for Dancing With + Shifting Paradigms

These leverage points provide examples of how a transformation, emergence, and resurgence orientation to innovation reveals a systemic set of potential intervention points that we hope will offer some new insights, ideas, and sparks of inspiration for people working in innovation spaces and toward social and ecological justice and wellbeing. The descriptions of these leverage points are meant to invite engagement and entanglement with these systemic interventions as processes of imagining and enacting other possible futures. They are intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive, and as invitational entry points for developing your own dance moves. All of them are intended to be accessible push-pull-pause motions, and have different levels of skill, risk, accountability, experience, and care required.

The facets, tensions, and leverage points are interrelated and entangled rather than being discrete, and the moving away/toward can be blurry and feel/look different for different people and in different contexts. We have attempted some untangling here to find distinctions and nuance and aid in developing these ideas and interventions, and we invite you to stay with the inevitable ambiguities and messiness inherent in this attempt.

Facet: Nature as Object → Nature as Subject, as Kin

Description: …holds an All My Relations understanding, and an ethic of relationality and care.

Leverage points to aid in moving away from:

  • Remember where you are, in the long arc of time and in the vastness of space, and all of the beings that have made this possible.
  • Notice whose needs to live healthy, thriving lives are prioritized or centered in the work that you do.
  • Pay attention to the language that is used when talking and writing about the non-human worlds (e.g. “natural resources” and “nature-based solutions”) and what meanings and values this assigns.

Leverage points to aid in moving toward:

  • Consider the needs of the more-than-human to thrive, in both present and future generations, and integrate this into public sector innovation (e.g. trees need soil and space, fish need healthy and productive waterways and shorelines).
  • Reframe humans as interconnected, in relationships, and embedded within nature and entirely reliant on the health and thriving of living systems for human health and thriving.
  • Imagine your context as a living, interconnected ecosystem of multiple generations of beings who each has a home there. What would that be like?
  • Include love, relationality, reciprocity, and care as principles of public sector innovation work, and carry that all the way through into how impacts and outcomes are measured.

Facet: White Dominant → Multiplicitous and Just

Description: …reimagines possibilities and accountabilities through lenses of equity, anti-oppression, anti-racism, and decolonization and celebrates different ways of knowing and being.

Leverage points to aid in moving away from:

  • Name, make visible, question, and de-centre the dominant paradigms (e.g. colonization, capitalism, white supremacy).
  • Describe how the dominant paradigms shape the ways that public sector innovation work is framed and understood. Notice who is represented and considered in power and decision-making structures and who is left out, which perspectives are valued and which are marginalized, and why this is the case.
  • Make explicit the (un)intended consequences of the ongoing reenactment and reinforcement of these paradigms in processes and outcomes.
  • Demonstrate and account for who benefits from, and who continues to be excluded and oppressed by, public sector innovation work when it does not embed equity and decolonization.
  • Acknowledge the ways that those who benefit most from the current system tend to be those that are in power within it, and that they/we often cling to this system and perpetuate it in many (in)direct ways to protect their/our interests and positions.
  • Go beyond goals of ‘inclusion’ that might continue to uphold a white-dominant paradigm.

Leverage points to aid in moving toward:

  • Unlearn and let go of white dominance in personal, organizational, and systems level work.
  • Practice openness, humility, curiosity, and a learning orientation and continue to come together and practice being fully human.
  • Centre and respect Indigenous, Black, anti-oppressive, anti-racist, feminist, and queer ways of knowing and being.
  • Diversify public sector innovation teams, and create the conditions for welcoming, safe, healing, and inclusive spaces where Indigenous, Black, racialized, and other diverse colleagues can lead the work, thrive and innovate.
  • Examine how paradigm and values shape attachments to what “quality work”, “expertise” and “successful outcomes” means.
  • Formulate problems and challenges differently from the very beginning, and consider and learn from a multitude of perspectives in this framing.
  • Unlock new/resurgent ways of knowing, doing, and being and use this to renew constructs of what public sector innovation (might) mean(s).

Facet: Reactive and Siloed → Systemic and Interconnected

Description: …embraces the complexity of a whole- and living systems perspective, and embeds this at personal, project-based, organizational, and systems levels.

Leverage points to aid in moving away from:

  • Notice all of the ways that the current organizational and system structures prevent and inhibit transformation, emergence, and resurgence. Name and describe these structures and the ways that they are working to prevent desired and necessary actions.
  • Build formal and informal pathways between activities, plans, strategies, resources, and informational siloes.
  • Notice and make visible when, where, and why silos are upheld, who is responsible for that, and what is motivating those moves and choices.
  • Pay attention to when work is happening as a reaction to urgency, crisis, or due to well-honed and comfortable pathways of the ‘usual ways of working.’ Slow down and question why reactive energies are arising, and whether or not different responses may be possible, feasible, and desirable based on the nature of the challenge being faced.

Leverage points to aid in moving toward:

  • Catalyse change from deeper/est leverage points in the system, work on transforming what seems to be unchangeable.
  • Ensure ongoing strong, systemic analysis of challenges to surface interconnections, relationships, feedback loops, and interdependencies and work from this place to identify potential responses. Take time to frame, and also to iterate/reframe, the challenge spaces that you are working within as understanding shifts and deepens.
  • Align processes, structures, strategies, systems, communications, and social infrastructures around shared vision and goals while leaving room for flexibility, non-linearity, cross-pollination, and the emergent nature of this work.
  • Look outwards for ideas, inspiration, collaborators, and possible futures.

Facet: Emotionless → Emotion-full and Authentic

Description: …invites the whole-selves of people, and expresses and embodies feelings of vulnerability, grief, loss, hope, joy, love and more as central to this work.

Leverage points to aid in moving away from:

  • Notice the invitations that our individual and collective emotions draw us towards, and lean into these invitations and insights to explore what reflections and learning that this sparks.
  • Design all gatherings of people, virtually and in person, such that expressions of full-selfness are wholeheartedly welcomed.
  • Normalize the fact that humans all have bodies, and we are not machine-like brains. Ensure that bodies have rest, movement, nourishment, and other needs met in order to be healthy and well. This is part of doing public sector innovation work.
  • Surface and describe all of the ways that the dominant paradigms that shape what professionalism, effectiveness, efficiency, perfectionism behave and look like are constructs generated by white dominant culture. Shift these where/when you have the agency to do so.

Leverage points to aid in moving toward:

  • Slow down and ask deeper questions of self, organization, and system to reveal assumptions, biases, and privileges and how this is shaping the paradigms at work in deciding approaches.
  • Regularly name how traumatic it is to be doing public sector innovation work at this time in the worlds’ history. It is filled with fear, grief, and losses that happen every day. It is impossible to ever feel like we are doing enough given the scale, extent, and rate of changes. With great care and skill, and with an orientation towards healing, make room for these feelings to be felt in individual and collective ways rather than pretending or avoiding integration of these feelings into the work.
  • Celebrate the good things, small and large, whenever possible. Cultivate joyfulness as a transformative, emergent, and resurgent choice.

Facet: Generic and Scalable → Place-based and Contextual

Description: …understands that the most appropriate, respectful, and creative solutions emerge from the uniqueness of each place, context, history, culture, land, water, and people.

Leverage points to aid in moving away from:

  • Stop implementing prescriptive, formulaic ways to replicate/scale (out) public sector innovation “best practices” that are not rooted in context.
  • Stop spending time, resources, and social and political capital on shiny innovation one-off’s that do not have any potential pathways toward significant, meaningful, and durable impact.
  • Recognize when public sector innovation work is inadvertently or explicitly reinforcing marginal, performative, quick, palatable, or easily feasible work at the expense of more transformative work. Pay particular attention to when this is happening under the guise of innovations that are contributing to equity, justice, anti-oppression, reconciliation, and related outcomes.

Leverage points to aid in moving toward:

  • Explore the unique histories, cultures, stories, landscapes, and past transformations of each place. Deeply root present thinking and practice about innovation in this context.
  • Respect and acknowledge those that have come before, whose shoulders the present work stands upon, and all the things that have been learned. Name these lineages with respect and humility.
  • Look to concepts and ideas about innovation that have long been present in place, and that the dominant system has excluded, oppressed, or marginalized, as particular sources of information and inspiration.
  • Create opportunities for mutual learning where practices and solutions from marginalized communities and perspectives can inspire new and creative ways of addressing public sector innovation challenges.

Facet: Scarcity, Urgency, and Efficiency → Abundance and Generosity

Description: …knows that we have everything that we need in order to create conditions for mutual flourishing.

Leverage points to aid in moving away from:

  • Notice the ways that framing and evaluating public sector innovation in terms of trade-offs and cost-benefit analyses exclude and limit thinking about all of the possible ways for “both-and” solutions to arise.
  • Recognize the limitations and constraints of framing public sector innovation challenges as urgent emergencies and how this results in reactive, short-term, reductionist, and piecemeal solutions.
  • Stop rewarding, incentivizing, encouraging, and/or requiring “quick fixes.”
  • Stop tolerating operating deficiencies, squeezing more and more out of people, enabling burnout and machine-like work loads and styles, and internalizing all of this as a source of pride and achievement.

Leverage points to aid in moving toward:

  • Create spaciousness of resources, time, and enabling conditions required to do the best work, and commensurate with the actual scope of the challenge. Take time to think, act, reflect, and learn in deep relationships with others.
  • Take the time that is needed to establish strategic and shared clarity to properly (re)frame the challenges that we are trying to solve before jumping quickly into action.
  • Prioritize the development and nurturance of people, skills, talent, knowledge, relationships, and commitment.
  • Acknowledge that the resources required for public sector transformation are available, and the challenge is that we’re not yet collaboratively directing them where they need to go.
  • Make visible the positive outcomes and impacts of slowing down and doing the deep work needed to tackle public sector innovation challenges, through quantitative key performance indicators, relational and qualitative storytelling, and everything else in between.

Facet: Fearful and Pragmatic → Courageous and Visionary

Description: …roots in creativity and risk-taking to develop and try new possibilities, ideas, and solutions

Leverage points to aid in moving away from:

  • Stop blaming, shaming, and/or punishing when there are “failures” or “screw-up’s.”
  • Demonstrate understanding that positional power and (in)formal authority impacts whether or not people feel empowered and safe in taking risks, and develop processes, structures, roles, and responsibilities to account for these differences.
  • Recognize and name all of the ways that staying the course, following the status quo, and using the standard methods and approaches are limiting transformation and underperforming, yet are followed anyway because they are known and predictable.
  • Explore how the dominant ways of working on public sector innovation may actually be resulting in failures to avoid significant negative consequences because of our individual and collective unwillingness to acknowledge the limitations of these dominant approaches.

Leverage points to aid in moving toward:

  • Cultivate readiness to take the big leaps and make systemic, durable transformation. Regularly practice remembering that public sector innovation challenges are high stakes and have a profound impact on current and future generations.
  • Set truly ambitious and visionary goals appropriate to the nature of the social and ecological justice and wellbeing challenges that we are facing, even when we do not know if/how we might get there.
  • Co-create a culture where experimentation, and an attitude of trying out new approaches, is welcomed and encouraged. This culture ensures that everyone, regardless of positional power or authority, sees themselves as having the agency, potential, and capability to take bold and ambitious steps toward transformation.
  • Build strategic learning systems and integrate these into regular operations so that everyone is learning from each others’ experiences.

Facet: Closed, Controlling, and Competitive → Unleash Openness and Collaboration

Description: …shares power and leadership, builds movements, cultivates agency, and enables the work of others.

Leverage points to aid in moving away from:

  • Notice the ways that top-down, hierarchical approaches to “leadership” and “management” are limiting impacts and outcomes.
  • Notice the ways that control-oriented, low-trust, competitive, and paternalistic approaches inhibit and discourage collaboration.
  • Name all the subtle and explicit ways that building and strengthening relationships is de-prioritized.
  • Recognize that much relational and collaborative work exists inside echo chambers, often with people who look and act in ways that are recognizable and deemed legitimate within the dominant ways of working. Name who is left out because of working in this way.
  • Remove narrow definitions of who holds expertise in public sector innovation work to those with specific training, roles, experience, or skills.
  • Reflect on the ways that ego constructs and protects exclusionary spaces and practices.

Leverage points to aid in moving toward:

  • Re-frame transformation work as everyone’s work to do, and make it a leader-full space with many opportunities to lead in different ways using strengths-based approaches and the unique contributions that each person can make.
  • Co-create a culture of supporting people that cultivates excitement, possibility, and shared purpose.
  • Actively provide opportunities and resources for people to express and fulfill the agency that they hold.
  • Invest in what is required to create and nurture relationships, social infrastructures, collaborations, communities of practice, interconnections, and networks based in reciprocity, shared leadership, and trust. Long-term investments of funding, skilled staffing, leadership, and enabling conditions are required to support this work so that they can have the kinds of significant and long-lasting impacts that they are capable of.

Facet: Do Less Harm → Cultivate Healing

Description: …engages skillfully with tension, conflict, and contestation as a generative force and as a source of healing.

Leverage points to aid in moving away from:

  • Discontinue performative commitments and statements about the importance of transformation when this is known to be false or partially true, and/or when there is no real commitment, plan, and accountability to follow through.
  • Question and surface the ways that public sector innovation work may have become more of a brand, an identity, an expectation, or a narrative rather than an ongoing, deep commitment to transformative work.
  • Notice and name when disruptors and dissenters are considered problems that need to be ignored, repressed, or managed, and surface the values, paradigms, fears, and other things that may be causing this kind of response.
  • Explore how people, teams, and your organization respond to conflict and what this says about organizational culture, power, skills, and paradigms that factor into this response.
  • Recognize which innovation challenges are stuck, delayed, avoided, and/or worsening because of real or perceived conflict and the fears or uncertainties about how to skillfully navigate this. Explore the details, stories, and perspectives of how and why this situation came to be as a space of learning.

Leverage points to aid in moving toward:

  • Invite and encourage dissent, disruption, contestation, and different points of view into a loving, generative, curious, and creative container where these differences can be catalysts for new possibilities.
  • Hold space for skillful, brave, honest dialogue across difference.
  • Learn to work with discomfort and ambiguity as a place for learning and movement, and to reveal promising possibilities.
  • Explore connections between personal, team, organizational, and system-wide public sector innovation work, and practices of embodiment and somatics, and engage with these practices as pathways toward healing.

In Closing

Dancing with systems invites us to embrace the messiness of working skillfully with complexity, rather than attempt to bound and encase systems in neat frames or boxes to be planned and managed in linear, logic-oriented, piecemeal ways. This type of dancing requires skills and training based within different mindsets and approaches than the dominant systems, structures, and paradigms are rooted in if we are to individually and collectively find our way into more transformative, emergent, and resurgent impacts and outcomes. Diane Roussin, an Indigenous social innovator with the Winnipeg Boldness Project, says that if we are focused on ‘thinking outside of the box’, then the box is still orienting and shaping everything that we do, and that we need to imagine another move.

Making the facets of the dominant systems more visible and nuanced, and identifying specific leverage points to dance/move away from, helps us to see when and how dominant paradigms im/explicitly shape public sector innovation work. And even more importantly, by visualizing paradigmatic moves and leverage points grounded in purpose, values, and visions of social and ecological justice, wellbeing, and liberation we hope to incite and inspire our fellow public sector innovators to really dance up a storm!


This work is inspired by the land + sea + kin that we are privileged to live with, on the unceded and traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ / sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) nations, the swiya of the self-governing shíshálh Nation, Treaty 6 territory, and the homelands of the Métis Nation and the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh speaking peoples.

Special thanks to Marcia Higuchi for her incredible graphic design and visualization skills, and making the paradigms graphic the cosmic wonder that it is.

*Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. Abingdon, London: Taylor & Francis Group. Downloadable pdf available here.



Lindsay Cole (she/her)
Pushing the Boundaries of Public Sector Innovation

Lindsay Cole is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, exploring transformative public innovation at Emily Carr University and UBC.