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A theory of socio-ecological system change

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Costanza, R., 2014. A theory of socio-ecological system change. J Bioecon 16, 39–44.
Thematic Area
Development studies
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. ( 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.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
The article sets out to understand what a "true" theory of social change is, departing from Ellinor Ostrom's question if institutions for collective action evolve and from Donella Meadows' 12 leverage points. Putting evolution of complex at the center them main idea is that evolutionary selection occurs at many levels, and that selection processes beyond the group are rarely considered. Arguing for a perspective where selection occur between and beyond groups, the article sets out to explain selection at the cultural level.

The multi-level approach to selection introduces the concept of "symbiotypes" in addition to the "genotypes" as fundamental to evolutionary changes. The article quotes worldview surveys identifying three broad symbotypes in American Society:

Modernists (M)—the dominant worldview of markets and economic growth—46%of the population in 2000;
Traditionalists (T)—a nostalgic appeal to earlier (often more religious) times—26 % of the population in 2000; and
Cultural Creatives (CC)—a worldview based on sustainability, equity, and sufficiency—28 % of the population in 2000.

These percentages have been changing rapidly. In 1965 CC’s were a mere 3 %,
M’s 50 %, and T’s 47 % of the population. A possible forecast, according to the author is that if current rates of change of cultural symbotypes continue, at some point in the not too distant future the fraction of the population that is motivated by the CC worldview will come to dominate and (assuming a democracy) will begin to change goals, rules, policies and
all the levels shown in Meadow’s list.

One might call this combination of worldview, institutions, and technologies at multiple levels of organization a “socio-ecological regime” and that a useful theory of change would need to explain the growth, development, decline and transformation of alternative regimes. This theory hypothesizes that socio-ecological regimes change when “tipping points” are reached, often requiring a crisis as a trigger.

Like other evolutionary processes, cultural evolution is prone to path dependence, multiple equilibria, lock-in, and traps. On the other hand, one unique feature of cultural evolution compared to biological evolution is that it is “reflexive” in the sense that goals and foresight can affect the process. Biological evolution has no foresight and can only act on and select from the alternatives in place at any point in time. Humans are rapidly improving their ability to build complex models and simulations of future possibilities and, in a sense, the ability to pre-select the preferred alternatives from a much wider range of possibilities.

Scenario planning is one technique that can be used to accomplish this task at larger
community, national, and even global scales. Scenario planning creates an ability to
discuss and develop consensus about what social groups want. Scenario planning differs from forecasting, projections, and predictions, in that it explores plausible rather than probable future, and lays out the choices facing society in whole systems terms. One can think of these in evolutionary terms as alternative symbotypes for selection, but in hypothetical rather than real versions.

While multiple futures are possible and plausible, the goal of a “sociotecture” of
intentional change would be to design futures that are both sustainable and desirable,
recognizing evolutionary dynamics.

The goal of a theory of intentional change is
to bring to bear an integrated understanding of cultural and biological evolution to
allow the transitions to pre-selected desired ends to be made as smoothly as possible.

A cultural evolutionary theory of change is to the design of intentional futures as a
theory of structural statics is to architecture—a necessary understanding that allows
the construction of viable alternatives.

So, we need not only a science and theory of intentional change, but also a sociotecture
integrated with it to develop and test alternative models and visions of the world
we want and to help us get there.
Point of Strength
In its endevaour to find a theory of intentional change of systems, the strength of this article is that it introduces the concept of symbotypes that makes it possible to analyze social system evolution from a multilevel selection perspective. It also introduce the praxis of scenario planning  as a tool for cultural "pre-selection" of plausible and possible future avenues. As it is reffering to other works it could be a good introduction for a reading course featuring some of the articles referred.