Our globalised world is becoming increasingly more complex and difficult to predict. The common term to describe this situation is VUCA, an acronym that characterises the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of today’s ecological, social, political and economic systems.
Most common strategy that communities have implemented to overcome difficult situations is to oppose and resist any challenges and obstacles and to maintain and grow their existing structures and institutions. However, this strategy is no longer viable for communities in a VUCA world. Instead, what ensures the future of rural communities as well as urban ones is our ability to respond and adapt to changes, and in doing so to become more resilient and sustainable.
There are many common characteristics that determine why some urban and rural municipalities are able to respond and adapt better to change than others. However, this can be summarised into two concepts: participation and responsibility.
There are many theories of social and ecological change, however, the explanation will be followed by a discussion on how it connects to the concept of resilient sustainability, VUCA and the related concept of leverage points.
According to Reeler (2010), there are three types of social change. Emergent change, which refers to the slow day-to-day changes that happen when a society learns from and adapts to complex and/or dynamic environments. Transformative change occurs when a society experiences a crisis or an extended period of stagnation. The result of this change process means that the society is forced to find a new balance, either losing, restoring or improving upon their previous quality of life. Lastly, Projectable change is one that is brought about by defining goals and planning corresponding actions in order to achieve positive social change.
These three facets of social change can also be understood in eco-social terms using the resiliency cycle. Projectable change corresponds to the phases of growth and conservation, which are generally more predictable phases in which social and environmental plans can be carried out with expected results. Transformative change occurs during the release phase, just after a period of crisis or “stuckness”. Finally, emergent change comes through community reflection and learning as well as ecological rebalancing, which are typical features of the reorganisation phase.
Given the current VUCA context with its rapid and dynamic social, economic and political changes, it is important to understand that all three types of change processes are relevant in effecting positive and lasting social and ecological sustainability.
The crux of the question lies in where and how rural communities can effect lasting positive social and ecological change in order to reach greater resilience and sustainability. To this end, Donella Meadows, organic farmer and systems theorist, proposed a theory in 1993 on the concept of leverage points. Leverage points refer to how effective and efficient an action is in relation to its overall impact.
It is clear that our rural communities will experience many major changes in the years to come, even in the best of cases. This is why it is important that we create our own theories of change, endogenous to our rural communities, so that we can respond to our VUCA world with flexibility and without resistance.
Òscar Gussinyer Galcerán