What would it take to reimagine the future of collaborative governance? Research into transformation ecosystems

Part 1 of a 4-part series – Understanding the actors, roles and conditions required for transformation.

I set out at the beginning of this year on what I thought would be a straightforward research fellowship with Arantzazulab. Our idea was simple – find examples of where transformation has happened, on the ground, where said transformation was led by communities or used some form of collaborative governance. Arantzazulab, as a leader in governance innovation across institutional ecosystems in the Basque Country, aims to connect international knowledge and practice of collaborative governance with local initiatives and share its experiences and insight.

I started by connecting to my existing network – excitedly telling people about the work and what I was hoping to find. I was expecting my network to know of exceptional transformation examples and to make referrals to people I could interview. What happened instead was surge of questions…

“What do you mean by transformation? Do you also mean transition? Does it matter if the idea came from the community, or can it be government initiated but community adopted? Can the transformation be in progress, or does it have to be completed? What would a completed transformation look like anyway? What scale, size, timeframe are you interested in? By governance, do you only mean within public institutions?”

Even the seemingly solid ground of ‘on the ground’ didn’t hold. From the earliest stages of the research, it was clear that learning from virtual based examples would be just as important as place-based initiatives.


This image shows the original research proposal verbatim, and a visual representation of the questions that arose within the first weeks of starting the research. Click here to zoom in and read more closely.


It became very clear from the outset, that the research question needed to be interrogated more closely and potentially re-conceived if we wanted to find and share anything valuable. It was a learning journey for all of us, and we aim to share that experience with you, the inner workings of how we did the research and of course the insights of the research itself. 


Summary of the research approach 

The purpose of this research was to explore where transformation has happened to understand what made it possible. We had two key areas of focus: 

  1. Understanding the transformation landscape – by understanding the different types of actors, roles, and conditions necessary for transformation to occur.
  2. Deep dives into specific examples – by capturing information about the governance, management, financial and other organisational models, and ways used to operationalise the transformation activities.  

The research consists of interviews with individuals who work inside of organisations wanting to create systems change through ecosystems approaches. This work was complemented by desktop research across a wide range of mediums. Full details of the research approach, and the research questions can be found here

One critical choice in the research approach was to seek some examples that were deliberately non-traditional. We wanted to build knowledge that complemented much of the existing information about exemplar place-based transformations. Therefore, the examples we looked at included digital communities, new age movements, stories from the Syrian revolution, using music as transformation, and more. There are also of course, many examples that you would expect to see in this type of work like the Conference on the Future of Europe, disability rights and support in Australia, the Participatory City Canada and many others. 

This work is still ongoing and will continue into the summer. Analysis of the research to date is found here. The links take you to live documents and therefore the content will be updated and change until the conclusion of this project. 


What we hope to share  

The approach to this blog, and the research underpinning it, arises from working on and being practitioners of systems change. It’s informed by the experiences that Naira and Ione (Arantzazulab) have each and every day, and learnings that I have made particularly in the last five years.  

Trying to distil all of this, and research findings from leading thinkers across the world, into a single blog proved impossible. Instead, we decided to break this work into a series of blogs with four parts –  

1. Insights from the research about the transformation landscape.  What we learnt, how it is informing our current thinking and to share our working hypothesis. THIS BLOG. 

This part of the research was most interested in the experience of the people working on transformation or system wide initiatives. We searched for insights about how they brought these initiatives to life. As one interviewee said “institutions don’t have imagination, people do. It’s the people who have the high motivation to change things”. We were looking for patterns, stemming from the experience of standing up and operating transformation initiatives, that might shed light onto what we need to change in the future and how we might re-imagine governance in the future. 

2. Insights from the deep dive research into specific examples of transformation. COMING SOON.

Information about the governance, management, financial and other organisational models, and ways used to operationalise the transformation activities can be beneficial for any local and global ecosystems seeking to create change.  We explored similarities, differences, and looked for other patterns between approximately 15 different examples. 

3. What we learnt about systems convenors and how that might help us to re-imagine future-fit organisations and governance structures. COMING SOON.

During this research we found that systems convenors (also known by many other names) were playing a key role in many transformations. We discovered a series of insights about these entities and their roles, including some potential gaps in the literature and thinking. We believe that by exploring the roles, structures, and challenges of systems convenors we can learn many applicable lessons for future-fit institutional and governance structures. 

4. The experience of what doing this research felt like, how we did the work, and where the ah-ha moments were. COMING SOON. 

 One of the many things I have learnt from being a leader in the “change making space” is that people who work in this space are very often overworked and burnt out. I am now deeply motivated by the idea that shedding light onto what goes on behind-the-scenes when leading large scale, or ecosystem wide innovative social change initiatives is actually a critical part of making change. I hope that by showing some of the less commonly seen dimensions of this type of work – the personal impact it has, the drudgery, frustrations, and the excitement – we might actually be able to do it better, whilst also taking better care of the people working to make change.  


What we learnt – insights about the transformation landscape 

This blog is ‘half-way through the research’ summary. It attempts to synthesise the research into a coherent(ish) set of early findings and to show how we arrived at our hypothesis.  


The “beneficial intermediary” 

When we explored the supporting roles, structures and conditions that were needed in the broader ecosystem, one type of actor was almost uniformly present in transformation endeavours. This actor is playing an organising, convening and co-creation hosting role across different stakeholders (between government, private organisations, organised society and citizens). What we found was this actor, unlike much of the literature suggests, did not simply emerge from a group of people within the existing ecosystem to take on leadership-like duties1. Whilst this can and does happen, there is another type of organiser and convenor who is more of an “beneficial intermediary”.  

They are an entity (usually formal) who comes into the ecosystem with the specific purpose of working on behalf of the ecosystem and connecting efforts to amplify the impact that each organisation will have in isolation. They are often considered by other participants of the system as ‘neutral’ or ‘independent’.  

How we conceptualise these entities and the language we use to describe them is as complex as the roles they play. Some literature calls them systems convenors, others ecosystem builders, space builders, weavers, connectors or network leaders. The more formalised versions, which are slightly different but overall playing quite a similar role, are labs, accelerators, hubs and incubators. People who work in these spaces describe themselves as social innovators, brokers, bridge builders, orchestrators, backbones. Even the space they operate in has many terms. Some examples include the meso (between the macro and micro), the messy middle and the middle ground.  

For simplicity, we will use the term systems convenor throughout this paper however as we continue to do more analysis of the research, we will revisit the use of this term and reconsider its appropriateness in relation to the more comprehensive findings. 


The role(s) of and challenges for systems convenors 

Our decision to focus on a wide range of disciplines, countries, and challenge areas made it possible to see some overarching patterns, trends and insights about (as one interviewee called it) the “global ecosystem of system convenors” 

“It seems that you are looking at systems convenors across all kinds of ecosystems but considering them as if they are all part of the same family or taxonomy. You’re extracting patterns and sharing this back so the system convenors can see themselves relative to others. Maybe this type of activity is how fields build before they take the next step of maturity and become a discipline?”.

Whilst the precise words people used differed from place to place, there were three common structural challenges articulated by each person interviewed. The point at which the three structural challenges seemed to be the most disruptive is following success! Where the system convenor had demonstrated that their approaches have started to create change, there is often a desire from others (within the ecosystem or other related ecosystems) to scale the initiative up, spread the initiative wider or disseminate learnings so others can have similar successes. What this often means is the workload for the system convenor grows exponentially. They are seen as a key part of the success, and as being neutral, therefore their approaches are considered transferable to other places and similar challenges. There is also often a desire for them to act as teachers for other parts of the ecosystem. This unfortunately often creates pathways that impact future successes.   

The three structural challenges are –  


1. Institution design and organisational structure 

More work means hiring more people and growing as an entity. In an ecosystem this can have the unwanted effect of concentrating skills and expertise, moving the system convenor into a more centralised role within the ecosystem. Instead of mobilising participants in the system, it creates a dependence on the system convenor. More people in a single entity also means more formal organisational structures and more processes for things like HR, procurement, management etc. These organisational structures, if not carefully designed, inadvertently create default ways of working that can directly inhibit the ability of the system convenor to operate in the ways that made it successful in the first place.  


2. Governance and decision making 

Interestingly, despite many systems convenors advocating for major structural reform, they have themselves predominantly traditional governance structures. This typically includes a governing board and some kind of advisory or supervisory board. The suitability of the decision making and governance becomes challenged as the systems convenors aim to work with a broader range of stakeholders, especially if this begins to occur in more locations each with their own culture, ambitions and jurisdictional rules. However, there is of course, a balance to be struck. In many cases, in order to be perceived as a trustworthy structure by existing organisations in the system, the systems convenor is expected to have many of these traditional structures in place.  

“It’s a dance and you must know the moves on both sides. One is a waltz, and the other is hip hop. Sometimes one leg is waltzing and the other leg is doing hip. But I think it’s a necessary tension, and it’s a brilliant place to innovate. You have to love it though; you can’t just rail against it” 


3. Funding 

Sustainable sources of funding for these entities becomes difficult the larger they grow. Most funding exists for project-based initiatives where funding is awarded against clearly defined milestones, stage-gates and preidentified outcomes. Since system convenors are often working in the in between spaces, the funding ask is far more difficult to articulate, it is harder to quantify the benefits and therefore funding is less easily attracted from traditional sources. This issue is exacerbated with scaling system convening activities that cross boundaries, sometimes within countries, but especially internationally. This is because it is unclear who or what type of funder should be responsible.  

 The two other main pathways for funding are to sell the expertise in a consulting-like model or to create a membership model where fees are charged in exchange for being part of the ecosystem (which is then often termed a community). However, both create a path dependency where more success means typically hiring more people. Consulting models are linear – more success leading to more work can only be met by hiring more people to deliver the work. Providing benefits for a membership fee has slightly more scalability if digital services are provided. However, in my experience of working in and with membership-based communities, digital services are not valued highly and do not attract the types of funding that is needed for a systems convenor to be sustainable in the long term. 


Size and scale 

Scale and size are critical considerations of systems convenors because they impact the underpinning funding, organisational and governance structures and this research shows that this issue addressed in multiple ways. Some system convenors have specific mandates not to grow. Our very first funder made it a requirement that we remain small. Our budget and size have never changed”.  Others are interrogating the question “We have done a bunch of thinking as part of our strategy development for the next three years – what does scaling actually mean? It’s a big question”. And others have adopted a more iterative approach “You need to scale, then adapt. Sometimes that means a complete pivot in models”. 

I have been captivated for years by something I read by Peter Block on Communities – where he says the only unit of change is the small group. He provides great evidence and examples of why he thinks this, and I could not strongly enough recommend people who haven’t read this book to do so. I agree with the case he puts forward in the book, but it leaves me with a single, and as yet, unanswered question – what does it mean when change happens in small groups but most of the challenges we face today are of a planetary scale?  

We started this research knowing that whilst many systems convening initiatives and global networks have already been operational and successful for years, they have not yet been enough (alone) to create transformational change at a scale large enough to impact the challenges we face as an interconnected world. Whilst many perform exceedingly well at the scale they were created, they do not often move, spread or scale beyond the specific region or city in which the network or collaboration was created.  


Systems convenors have a lot more to teach us about  

We realised that the roles and challenges of systems convenors held many clues to help us with our hypothesis. Therefore, we undertook a deeper exploration of systems convenors specifically and will present those findings in an upcoming blog. This paper will be released early June. 


Insights from interviews 

These insights add the human and experiential dimension to the key takeaways section. 

1. The language people use (or don’t) is an excellent clue for understanding our inbuilt biases to transformation, organisation and governance. When undertaking the interviews, it appeared like many people were using different words but describing similar concepts or activities. This is not unexpected, and a phenomenon that one would expect given the long list of words and terminology I outlined earlier. However, there was something within this observation that I did find to be of interest. Where individuals had a preference for one word, terminology or description over another, many were quite critical of other expressions. They understood and were able to articulate in great detail why their preferred term was more appropriate for their approach or set of activities. Whilst I understood the nuance and could see why it felt important, as the interviewer of many different people, the birdseye view led me to believe that there was much more of a common essence. I got the sense that this precision gave people comfort and a sense of being able to locate and themselves within the ecosystem. But as one interviewee described “the larger the transformation the more difficult it is to verbalise”. Our human instinct to want to clearly define, describe and categorise may actually be prohibiting us from understanding the Gestalt of the challenges we were facing and therefore the way we are organising to solve them.

This seems related to another observation about language. Many people expressed that they felt many words were off-limits when speaking about change or transformation. Examples include terms related to spirituality and sacredness. Like many scientific or academic fields there is a strong bias toward understanding the space from rational, technical or abstracted perspectives. This does our ability to make change a huge disservice. In fact, when I look through my own bibliography and within the reports created by the examples of transformation, I am struck by just how many of the underpinning models are western, largely white and male in origin. Without question there is excellent work produced by this group, but we simply must push ourselves (as individuals leading change) to be more well-rounded in the content and mental models we use. I now explicitly request and seek referrals to and work from authors, thinkers and leaders who are outside this demographic, and would be delighted if you have suggestions you would like to share.  

2. Unlearning may be a necessary part of the re-imagining process. Linked to the point above about expanding the diversity of our models and perspectives, but also quite different, is the need for us to unlearn what we think we already know. The observation that led to this insight was the dramatic difference between the vision and ambition of many systems convenors and transformation initiatives, vs the actual programmes and activities they conduct in the day to day. As one interviewee stated “for things that claim to be ‘un’ for example un-conferences, in practice they look strikingly like a conference”. As we reimagine what future-fit institutions and governance, what can we let go of and unlearn that is no longer serving us?

3. Transformation occurs at three different scales, at least in our mental models. Almost all interviews articulated some version of the need for transformation to happen at three scales – the individual, the local or sometimes described as family or community level and the global level, sometimes articulated as society and the world.

4. People seem to be (subtly) redefining the type of leadership necessary for transformation. Throughout the vast majority of interviews there were a set of words used that I did not anticipate at the outset of this research. People described the need for humbleness, humility, stewardship and the need for finding new ways of relating. People articulated a rejection of ego-driven and individualist forms of leadership, approaches to working and to measuring the impact of initiatives. The almost ubiquitous nature of these articulations gives me confidence that this is an important design factor when imagining future-fit institutions and governance.

5. People were deeply passionate and ‘lit up’ when talking about the networks or ecosystems they had started. They could describe a wide range of benefits, many of which were intangible. However, when posed with the idea of a new global ecosystem or network, many were almost sceptical and demanded much clearer statements of purpose and wanted to know what the tangible outcomes would be. I did not have the time in the interviews to delve deeper into this topic, but the observation could be connected to a hunch I have – that overworked individuals inside of systems convenors are a barrier to scaling and spreading good ideas. This insight should serve as a prompt for more consideration and potentially an input for the design of challenge of new institutions and governance.

6. Having a common and shared vision is seen as important, but there are questions about how they are created. “We approached transformation with the principle of know what binds communities. It’s not about de-risking (the project) but about building a sense of purpose” However one interviewee pointed out that there is “a distinct lack of democratic debate on visions and questioning about why we are doing certain things”. What would future-fit institutions and governance require to have a democratic process for vision building?

7. A bold vision is essential, but so is the nitty gritty. The systems convenors we interviewed expressed a strong desire to learn from other systems convenors on highly specific elements that are at the pointy end of implementing change. “We would be really interested to know how others are dealing with the really detailed stuff – like what do the contracts look like, who owns the IP, what is the legal entity required for the work? For us this is where a lot of our initiatives succeed or fail.” A theme that came up consistently was how to work (especially learning from those who have already done this) within the creative commons frameworks and ethos. Learning from those who are already solving these challenges is likely to give us great input for reimagination.


Our hypothesis 

We hypothesise that for transformation to occur, at the scale needed to address the massive challenges associated with climate change, decreasing trust in governments and democracy, deep structural economic disparities and human inequalities, we need the following –  

1. New future-fit institutional and governance structures. These will need to maximise local cultures and connect through to planetary level ecosystems.

2. New funding mechanisms that move beyond project-based, consultancy-based or membership-based mindsets.

3. To learn from systems convenors, who are already acting in their local ecosystems to catalyse and amplify knowledge and capabilities, to inform the future-fit design. 

4. To identify any new roles that we may need to create in the future-fit design.

This will require us to reimagine “how we manage our co-existence and organise ourselves – with the aims of social and environmental justice for present and future generations”. This future needs to operate at planetary level with deep accountabilities and responsibilities across borders as if we were one world.  

“We need to construct future fit organisations that can cooperate at the planetary level, and interconnect with the local level”.  

When looking at many existing global initiatives, they often have a very bold ambition (e.g. Sustainable Development Goals or Mission-Led Innovation) which is intended to be interpreted, adopted and/or implemented by others at different scales. One specific provocation we would like to include in this hypothesis is – could we reimagine what global coordination looks like from multiple starting perspectives. This should include starting with the bold ambition, but not be limited to it. What would it look like if the future starts from the capabilities and imaginaries of people at local level, and connects up to the planetary level? Or what would it look like if a new way of organising and making decisions emerged from neither top down nor bottom up? This concept is strongly linked to the existing thinking about working in the “meso” or the “messy middle”. 

As one interviewee said, “We (need to) try to collaborate to create new democratic forms, grounded in public action and enlarging the type of actors who can participate in finding new ways to tackle large challenges”.  

We believe there is a lot to be learnt from systems convenors when it comes imagining and creating new and future fit institutions and governance. In particular we believe there is a cohort of systems convenors that have been successful in their own ecosystems, and who are currently grappling with the challenges of scaling (and therefore the underpinning institutional, organisational, governance and funding challenges) who are ideal candidates to work together to reimagine the future.  


Next steps 

Our hope is this research piques the interest of systems convenors who would be interesting in working together on this hypothesis. Arantzazulab is motivated by understanding how and where collaboration, especially around collaborative governance can enhance our global capacity for impact. Where can we learn from each other? Where can we generate knowledge together? When has the Basque region been a pioneer and how can we share that experience with others? What role could we play in establishing international cooperation and experimentation?  

We are interested in the appetite of other systems convenors to collaborate on the design of future-fit institution and governance to address planetary problems. We have a strong ethos about taking action, rather than just talking! Therefore, we also want to test the appetite of others to create collaborative experiments which help explore this future.  

In addition to being a reimaging exercise, we strongly believe that through this process individual systems convenors will be connected with those who are working through many of the same challenges. Through this research process we have already connected a number of people who are now learning from each other’s leading-edge practices. 

We ask people who are moved by this idea to reach out and connect with us! You can contact us Michelle, Ione or Naiara at info@arantzazulab.eus.  

Also, please stay tuned next blog in the series – published in the first week of June. 

Written by: Michelle Zucker, Naiara Goia and Ione Ardaiz.