Is civil society capable of realising system-wide solutions?

Reflections on action research for
the Transition Network Civil Society

Action research has confronted the Transition Network Civil Society with some challenges. Social movements and civil society organisations nowadays do not seem to have the power to realise coherent, system-wide solutions – for example to regain the grip of society on the banking system after the financial crisis – or to push the political and economic world into that direction.

In 2009, I was one of the initiators of the Transition Network Civil Society (TNM) in Flanders (Belgium) and I am still an active member. Next to working as an independent journalist at PALA.be (previously working for the public broadcaster VRT), I am an author of non-fiction books mainly on globalisation, most recently about transition, and before about cooperatives.

When I look back at how the network started in late 2009 early 2010 and why we invited Erik Paredis to participate, this was not with the intention to develop research for or about TNM. We asked him to cooperate in developing the network in his role as an academic with previous working experience in the NGO-sector and with knowledge of transitions.

Later on, in mid-2012, Erik saw an opportunity to set up action research with TNM. He presented this offer to the group with the question whether we were interested and what we expected from it. What persuaded us is that in network processes with civil society groups, reflexivity and a critical attitude towards formulated solutions and chosen strategies is seldom high on the agenda. It is then advantageous to have a critical insider-outsider who can analyse and confront you with your actions. Furthermore, we have the luck that members in the steering group of the network are open to such an approach and are willing to learn.

In spite of his research role, it did not feel like we were being observed. Everybody knew that a researcher was involved, but I do not think that this has at any moment influenced what people brought to the table or how they acted. In the relationship with the network members, he has always been considered as “one of the group”, even at certain moments one of the more important figures because he played a central role in defining the vision of the network. He cooperated in writing the vision texts and translated them into our mind map. That mind map is probably the most essential document of who and what we are as a network. It still functions as a reference framework in our discussions.

Civil society doesn’t seem to have the capacity
to realise coherent, system-wide solutions

Of course, action research confronts you with certain challenges. A lot of new and more sustainable practices are popping up everywhere, but social movements and civil society organisations do not seem to have the power and capacity to go beyond these practices and formulate and realise coherent, system-wide solutions, or to push the political and economic world into that direction. The financial system remains on the brink of collapse, but we are not capable of formulating an alternative and as a society reinforce our grip on the banking system.

In the decades after the Second World War, social movements had a much stronger network in academia, where parts of the brainwork was being done and where movements found support for the development of a broad vision for the industrial and the social welfare state. If we want to topple systems towards sustainability, sooner or later we will again have to build such a supportive knowledge base.

In my opinion, the best solutions for societal problems have in the past seldom come from the business world or even politics. So, civil society is obliged to keep on developing new ideas, formulating solutions and implementing new practices, from niche to stable new systems. This is where action research with its practice of cooperative knowledge creation can play a role.

Action research in TNM had an impact

Action research in TNM had an impact. I already mentioned the cooperation around the vision. The learning history helped to gain better insights in how the process has grown into where we are now, which hurdles we had to take, why we have taken certain decisions, what the meaning of a network is for us, and what different people thought about different episodes in our development.

It showed how we have grown into a network that does not want to institutionalise, but works with a group of people that gets some autonomy from their respective organisations, and simultaneously leaves freedom to its member organisations to develop their own initiatives through TNM.

It also shows that we have to be wary of focusing too much on information and awareness raising. You do not arrive at changes and transitions purely through such activities. We still have a long way to go in developing structural and viable alternatives practices.

If you look at some of the attempts to develop more structural initiatives in Belgium – such as a cooperative bank, real influence for alternative media in the media system, or buying land for sustainable agriculture – all these initiatives have so far reached only very moderate results.

There is some hope in the energy system where new ownership models are appearing, but the real challenge will lay in the next years: will we succeed in running energy distribution networks and energy production under a public-civil structure, or will it all be public–private or privately owned?

Action research can contribute in detecting how and why these kinds of practices remain stuck, and how workable models might be developed. In my opinion, a lot of the money that is now spent on consultants, also by civil society organisations, could be more productively used in interaction with an action researcher. In the TNM case, the researcher’s previous history in civil society organisations, his background in sustainability and transition research, and a social engagement, created added value: it delivered insights, opened up the horizon, confronted members with what remained under the radar, and identified processes that participants felt but could not name.

Dirk Barrez

Dirk Barrez wrote this reflection in collaboration with Erik Paredis. It was published in Action Research in Policy Analysis. Critical and Relational Approaches to Sustainability Transitions, 2018, Routledge, 266 p.


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