In November 2022, I went to Sharm El-Sheikh to participate in the 27th annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Although everyone is threatened by climate change and so everyone has a general common interest in contributing to these system transformations, different people, organisations, and countries have different specific interests, capacities, understandings, and ambitions. To effect the necessary transformations, these stakeholders must find ways to collaborate—but this is not easy or straightforward.
In Sharm El-Sheikh, 35,000 people—government representatives, NGO leaders, businesspeople, activists, scientists, journalists—had come together from all over the world to advance these transformations. Everyone knew that they could not do much by themselves and that they therefore had to work with others—including with people they didn’t agree with or like or trust. Every day for two weeks they met intensely in hundreds of parallel meetings—panels, protests, workshops, negotiations, coffees, meals—to search for ways to move forward together. The central open area for accredited delegates consisted of three enormous single-story prefab buildings, each containing long hallways of open-sided pavilions where meetings of all sorts ran all at the same time all day long, and so COP was also a sprawling, cacophonous, societal transformation bazaar.
I found this experience of being a tiny part of such a super-charged global collaboration to be both uplifting and overwhelming. After I had left the conference and had the space to reflect on it, I realised that it had enabled me to get clearer on a few simple things. The collaborations at the conference had produced progress—although not enough for us to be on track to prevent the worsening of the crisis. It is not probable that over the coming years we will succeed in getting on track—but if we can make wiser choices today, we can produce less suffering and more sustainability. Getting onto such a better track will require much more and much better collaboration—and such collaboration is possible.
Collaboration is becoming both increasingly necessary and increasingly difficult. This is because the challenges we face involve more stakeholders who need and want to be involved in addressing these challenges, including because they are more interconnected and interdependent and because they are less willing to defer to experts and elites. Division, fragmentation, polarisation, demonisation, and violence are also increasing.
In this complex and contradictory context, the conventional approach to collaborating is becoming increasingly ineffective. To address our challenges effectively, we therefore need an unconventional approach that my colleagues and I call “radical collaboration.”
Figure 1. Seven practices for radical collaboration.
Radical collaboration is a way of working together with diverse others from across a given system that fundamentally transforms—rather than only superficially reforms—that system, and does so with the requisite speed, scale, and justice. Radical collaboration differs from conventional collaboration in that it involves not only focusing on the good and harmony of the whole, but also embraces conflict; not only on agreeing the problem, the solution, and the plan to implement the solution, but also on experimenting a way forward; and not only on getting other people to implement the plan, but also on recognising and stepping into one’s own role in the system. This approach is “radical” (from the Latin radix or root) in that it attends to the root of how we are and act as we work together.
Figure 2. A model of social transformation: the drives of love, power, and justice produce movement along the dimensions of partness, wholeness, and relatedness
When we are employing these practices to enact radical collaboration to address such challenges, what is the root that we are tapping into? My theory is that we are tapping into three universal human drives: love, power, justice. We enact radical collaboration through working with these three drives along three dimensions of social space. This theory doesn’t give us a recipe for social transformation: it gives us a map of the social territory we are in so that we can understand what is happening, and a basis for a set of practices for moving through this territory to transform what is happening.
The first force that was driving what was happening at COP27 was the obvious one: most of the 35,000 people who participated (and the organisations and countries they represented) did so because they were concerned about the climate crisis and wanted to contribute to addressing it. Their shared concern was summarised in the slogan: “keep 1.5 alive,” meaning working together to limit the increase in the global average temperature of the Earth’s surface to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Most of the participants understood that they are part of a global social-economic-political-technological-environmental-cultural system that is producing a dangerous set of behaviours and that they need to collaborate with diverse others to change these behaviours.
I call this first drive love. I am using this word as it was defined by theologian Paul Tillich, who wrote: “Love is the drive towards the unity of the separated.” Everyone is driven by such love–although they have different understandings of what it is that needs to be reunited (often they’re focussed on reuniting the smaller circles of their family or organisation or community). As fragmentation increases across many social systems, re-uniting the separated becomes both more difficult and more important. The participants in COP27, for example, had come together to heal the separations—to bridge the differences—between people and planet, between the Global North and South, between the U.S. and China, and between governments, civil society, and business. Love arises from the reality of interconnection and interdependence: that we are part of larger wholes.
Radical collaboration must work with love. To avoid working with love is to ignore the reality of interdependence. Collaboration that does not tap into love will not transform social systems. But working with love is not straightforward. If love is “the drive towards the unity of the separated,” then what is the whole that is being reunited? There is no such thing as “the whole,” except in some irrelevant cosmic sense: poet Leonard Cohen wrote “Though it all may be one in the higher eye, down here where we live it is two.” One of the reasons it is not straightforward to address climate change is that the drive towards the unity of the separated is taking place in contradictory ways in many different wholes at the same time: not only the wholes of all life on Earth or all humanity, but also those of individual countries, alliances, and organisations. We need to work with love, but this is not easy.
And working only with love is not enough to be able to transform social systems. The Beatles were incorrect when they sang, “All You Need is Love.” I was missing power. Radical collaboration depends on the individual and collective power of the participating stakeholders who want to transform a system to prevail over those who want to maintain the status quo. Collaboration that does not harness power can not transform social systems. Tillich defined power as “the drive of everything living to realise itself, with increasing intensity and extensity.”
At COP27, power was the second driving force. The bazaar-like cacophony I experienced was the sound of thousands of individuals, organisations, and countries each expressing their power through presenting, proposing, pushing, pitching, and protesting, and through doing this making agreements and deals with others to be able to make larger contributions collectively than they could separately.
Everyone is driven by power—although they have different understandings of what power needs to be used to do (often they’re focussed on their own power-to or that of their family or organisation or community). Power arises from the reality of the identity, purpose, autonomy, ambition, and agency of each and every whole. Radical collaboration employs power when stakeholders are each able to assert their own animated and agential wholeness.
Radical collaboration must tap into power. To avoid working with power is to ignore the obviously important reality of self-realisation, self-centredness, and self-interest. Systems change efforts must acknowledge and engage with—not deny or shy away from—this reality.
Watch my speech – Radical Collaboration to Transform Social Systems: Moving Forward Together with Love, Power, and Justice.
But working with power is not straightforward. When different people and organisations, each with their own purpose and perspective, try to collaborate, they usually—not exceptionally—produce competition and conflict. This is true in all social systems, including families, communities, nations, and globally. We need to work with power, but this is not easy.
And working with love and power are also not enough to be able to transform social systems. I was missing justice. Philosopher Nancy Fraser says: “Justice is never actually encountered directly. By contrast, we do experience injustice and it is through this that we form an idea of justice.” Justice, then, is the drive to reduce injustice: to increase fairness.
At COP27, justice was the third driving force. The people who are suffering and will suffer most from climate change—especially in the Global South, as well as marginalised and young people everywhere—are not the people who caused most of the change and have the greatest capacity to adapt to the change. This injustice has been at the centre of climate negotiations since the 1992 signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which recognised the “common but differentiated responsibilities” of different countries. Many stakeholders in the South are unwilling to collaborate with those in the North unless this injustice is properly addressed. The most difficult negotiations and the most important breakthroughs at COP27 were the agreements to bridge this gap by providing funds from the North to the South to compensate for historical loss and damage due to climate change, and to enable “just transitions” away from fossil fuels to mitigate additional climate change.
Justice is required for collaboration to be able to transform social systems. Transforming systems effectively requires key stakeholders to be comfortable with both the how and the direction of the collaboration. Stakeholders who think that they are being treated unfairly will not participate: they will not contribute their power to effecting transformation, or they will use their power to try to block transformation. Collaboration that does not tap into justice will not transform social systems.
Justice arises from the reality that an unfair social system prevents people from participating as peers and that such unfairness produces a drive to transform that system. Radical collaboration must work with justice. To avoid working with justice is to ignore the reality and consequences of injustice. But working with justice is not straightforward. Different people often have incommensurately different ideas of how to assess fairness and who is being treated unfairly. And it is difficult to transform social structures when the people who are benefiting from the status quo fight to maintain their power, positions, and privileges. We need to work with justice, but this is not easy.
Integrating love, power, and justice
Transforming social systems collaboratively, therefore, requires working with love and power and justice. All three of these drives are present in all social systems: they are ubiquitous, not rare or rarefied. If we’re trying to transform a social system and aren’t able to tap into and work with all of these drives, then we will find ourselves confused and frustrated. To be effective, systems change efforts, therefore must include both the awareness of and the ability to work with love, power, and justice.
Working with love, power, and justice together is never easy because these three drives are in permanent tension. We can work towards greater love, power, and justice, but need to recognise that no neat, agreed, stable, ideal state is possible; in the best of all possible worlds, we have to live with plurality, volatility, conflict, and compromise.
It is possible to transform social systems through radical collaboration. Making progress in this way is not straightforward, neat, or easy, but it can be done. And it must be done: this is what it takes to address the daunting challenges of our time.