Private foundations and other organizations concerned with improving society these days frequently ask grantees to articulate their “theory of change.” By this they usually mean their strategy for accomplishing the stated goals of the project, rather than a real, general theory of how social change happens (Anderson 2005). For example, the Center for Theory of Change defines it this way: “A Theory of Change provides a roadmap to get you from here to there. (http://www.theoryofchange.org/what-is-theory-of-change/#4)
. While it is certainly good to have a well thought out strategy for accomplishing complex social goals, a true theory of social change is a very different thing. Such a theory is what Elinor Ostrom was reaching for in her target article (Ostrom 2013). Such a theory must, Lin believed, be grounded in an expanded evolutionary paradigm that is capable of explaining not only how organisms evolve and change, but also how rules, norms, institutions, and cultures evolve and change.
This commentary builds on some of the ideas in Lin’s article to develop a broader theory of how complex systems from organisms to ecosystems, communities, states, nations, and the planet as a whole evolve and change, and how we can use this theory to design strategies to get from here to a desired there.