The Tragedy of the Form

Here is something we rarely talk about: the “form” in “transformation”. We pursue systemic change from forms designed for the industrial era. How can we transform societies if we don’t challenge our forms first?

By Juha Leppänen


Transformation: why hasn’t it happened yet?

The need for systemic change is reaching mainstream status. Most recently, the IPCC Sixth Assessment report showed appreciation for what many have been saying for years: tackling the climate crisis requires changing vital societal systems — how the economic system works; how the global food system is structured; how we live, move, and eat. Yet, despite growing recognition of this imperative, it still feels like we’re not making the necessary steps.

One not-so-apparent reason for slow or insufficient transformation is how our current forms dictate what we are and aren’t capable of doing. We know collective action is essential to systemic change, yet we have not optimized our forms for collective action. Instead, we all operate in forms designed primarily in the industrial era. These forms come with premises that may or may not support changing systems. This “tragedy of the form” means that we face challenges beyond the scope of our capacities that are almost always dictated by choices we have not made.

The tragedy of the form goes beyond institutional or organizational design. It is not only the constraint of what has yet to exist; what already exists presents an active obstacle to the ultimate goal. For example, we are still trying to resolve global crises, such as the climate crisis or the pandemic, with vehicles primarily designed for the industrial era such as nation states or markets. Our existing forms become an obstacle to collective action, even for the most urgent existential crisis.


“We all operate through forms designed for the industrial era whose premises may not support changing systems.”


The tragedy of the form imposes a solidification of the status quo through structures that perpetuate it. And this tragedy is present in every aspect of society. But it becomes especially important when we are trying to solve collective problems that escape current modalities of governance such as nation-states. To change societal systems we need to transcend the premises of current forms and explore new ones. We need to consciously explore what a new set up of forms for collective action would look like — new structures, new modalities, and new institutions that grant us the opportunity to change societal systems.

I would argue, that partial paralysis of collective action born out of our incapacity to innovate on new forms is one of the biggest reasons why we aren’t successful in dealing with the climate crisis. Similarly, there’s wide recognition of economic inequality both nationally and globally, which has translated into growing political disempowerment and de facto accumulation of political power to the elites, yet few seem to take accountability for it. From this perspective, the declining trust and legitimacy in governments and institutions feel like a logical symptom.


Creating new forms is possible

If anything, history has repeatedly shown that we can design new forms fitting the needs of the time.

Take political parties, for example. It’s hard to imagine life without them, but they emerged relatively recently. They started forming in the late 18th century as a new structure fitting the needs of the newly born representative democracies. They were a social innovation of the time that provided a medium for political agendas to formulate and mobilize. Some may call parties a banal symptom of representative democracies, but they did have a role in the context from which they emerged.

Similarly, the limited liability company was codified in the legal code in early 19th-century America as a mechanism to ensure sufficient investments in new means of production. We perceive it as a normal state of affairs, but today, the idea of limiting liability in the context of the climate crisis is conceptually absurd. Yet, it is understandable from the context of trying to secure enough capital to create infrastructure and production capabilities as the industrial era was emerging.

Today, hypotheses for a new form — new vehicles for collective action — are emerging. These range from distributed ledger technologies to social movements operating in a decentralized, yet codified manner. In the current digital context, a single meme or a powerful image can spark change. These individual examples are already inspiring both theoretical and practical work on how social movements can operate today and in the future.

There are many ongoing experiments with new vehicles for coordinating collective action towards systemic change. They often exist masked in more familiar forms such as foundations or NGOs. They struggle to transcend the premises of these forms, yet, still make substantial interventions. A single form for changing systems hardly exists and we need to explore options more consciously. We have a lot to learn not just about interventions, but also about the forms through which they’ve been operationalised as this can be the key to unlocking more transformative capacities.


“The tragedy of the form imposes a solidification of the status quo through structures that perpetuate it.”


One promising experiment is emerging from the European Commission: the NetZeroCities consortium, a Horizon-funded program under the mission framework of the Commission. NetZeroCities is a mission to achieve 100 climate-neutral cities in Europe by 2030. Structured as a consortium program, NetZeroCities can also be seen as an exercise to map mandates, accountabilities, and functions needed to achieve these 100 net-zero cities. In practice, this can mean mapping new ways to bring cities together to steer necessary industries towards decarbonisation in ways that single cities, nor the Commission alone, could not achieve. This is one illustration of a new form of collective action cloaked as a mission to achieve what our previous forms alone have not.

The examples should serve as catalysts for imagining what collective action in our century should look like and which would be the needed forms through which it would be best operationalised. These new forms would not only make the orchestration of action more meaningful in the context of the transformation needed but also open an opportunity to embed, for instance, new ways for participation and deliberation — ways for distributing power in our societies.

This final point is important to emphasise as it also serves to highlight why the language is still rather abstract. There is a risk that we think of new forms of collective action only through existing ones and only imagine aggregation of, for instance, nation states as a means to achieve collective action to tackle the climate crisis. There are two reasons why we need to go beyond only imagining new forms based on the existing ones: The first one is practical: neither nation states nor the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process has yet been able to successfully deliver on climate policy and with the Russian attack war in Ukraine, there is even less to believe it would now. The second one is conceptual, as systemic change happens outside existing governance modalities, it can more likely be achieved by the orchestration of interventions, some on a local level, some on a national and some on a global. We can draw inspiration from the dynamics of systems change from the work of systems theorists like Donella Meadows, but we still lack the form through which to orchestrate the interventions. This quest for a form goes hand in hand with the creation of a new language.


What about organizations?

As people and organizations pushing for transformation, we constantly face this tragedy — both in what we are trying to achieve and in our day-to-day. Organizations are codified in the legal or social code of a specific (national) context. Initiatives pushing for systemic change usually operate as NGOs, governmental entities, foundations, or multilateral organizations. Organizing collective action through these forms comes with both general and particular premises. For instance, organizations often prioritize their growth and survival. I’ve said for years that the actual primary benefit of organizations is that they are moderately good at getting a group of people to spend time together. At its best, this can be an essential asset for systemic change. The tragedy is in the form’s contextual pitfalls.

For example, ambiguity is not a feature of a well-run organization. We thus employ assessment methods, KPIs, and incentive models. Assessments and KPIs help members of the organization feel good about themselves. Within the constraints of the premises built around us, people working in organizations expect to be assessed and guided; partners and clients expect results; we need signposts to feel like we’re moving. Yet, ambiguity is a fundamental element of societal transformation — the very thing we are trying to accomplish. So, our capacity for impact is constrained by the very design of work — at least what we know it to be. At worst, we end up believing in our own measurement system, which multiplies our discomfort with ambiguity; a vicious cycle caused by our own creation, a real tragedy of form.


“The question we haven’t been able to answer is a fundamental one. What are we?”


A moment of substitutes

This exploration is where 2021 found us at Demos Helsinki: it was time to renew a strategy. And it would be easy to call this a “renewed strategy”. Instead, we ended up challenging ourselves to think beyond what our form dictates.

Now we have an ethos and an impact model. These are also our operational model. Our ethos is the compass for all our actions: Only together can we fight for a fair, sustainable and joyful next era. We have our 50 people in four teams working on the four leverages of change identified in our impact model: agency, governance, infrastructure and economy. Annually, we work with roughly 20 countries through dozens of interventions ranging from big European research programs to very specific projects in order to understand how societal systems change. We try to imagine tactical routes through which these key systems can change and prioritize our actions based on what moves the systems. Together with our partners, we seek to push through systemic changes needed to make our ethos a reality for everyone.

It is an operational model that we’ve been building. It is an experiment of a new form in itself.


“As substitutes, our goal is not survival by all means. Our success signifies the end of our existence.”


As for our role, we recognise the need to take accountability for the crises we’re facing today and landed on a role of “leading societal transformations”. This sentence in all its awkwardness forces us to constantly reflect on why we work. I sometimes feel we’ve lost the verb “lead”. While inflated in the business literature, I feel we should make leadership in the societal context much more explicit. It’s so easy to use either passive or technocratic discourse and avoid reflection on very difficult questions of accountability, humility and legitimacy. I sometimes feel we (as actors aiming for societal change) have become incredibly talented in using euphemisms for leading; it’s easier to say our role is to convene, steward or orchestrate. We decided that it’s honest to be very explicit and with that, force ourselves to take all criticism and giggles. It helps us to reflect. And we hope it serves as a way to make it easier for others whether it’s in think tanks, civil service or politics to start to use more direct and proactive language.

The question we haven’t been able to answer is a fundamental one. What are we? We call ourselves a think tank mainly to have a definition that some people recognize. It hardly explains our work and, in many ways, is counterintuitive to what we do. Language — lack of words — is a constraint that hinders our ability to transcend the tragedy of the form.

Yet, language offers an option that, through its duplicity, can be cathartic. During a call with a dear friend, professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger, where we discussed the purpose of organizations like Demos Helsinki, he called us a substitute.

If there were other means to push for a fair, sustainable, and joyful future — or if such a future became the present — we have no raison d’ être. As substitutes, our goal is not survival by all means. Our success signifies the end of our existence. As such, we must employ a significant amount of reflection to not fall into the trap of hubris or believing one can have legitimacy where that is not possible.


“In the interregnum, we need vehicles pushing for societal transformation which we don’t yet have.”


On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, we are also substitutes because of absence. In the interregnum, we need vehicles pushing for societal transformation which we don’t yet have. Therefore, our job can be deemed completed and our purpose extinguished once we have been able to empower the very thing we “substituted”, i.e. the very thing that can restore our collective agency to achieve the transformations we seek.

For this to be possible, we need to transcend our current forms. We cannot primarily perceive ourselves as organizations pursuing our own development or relevance — although we, too, feel captured by this obligation. We can overcome our constraints only when we partner up to collaborate both on interventions and the exploration of new forms.

At Demos Helsinki, we aim to take this notion of being a substitute with the humility it implores. As 2022 unfolds, we are serious about transcending the constraints of our imposed shape. If you are too, get in touch.

Hopefully, you will find ways to connect with us. Either way, we’re always keen to hear what others are doing. Action is our biggest source of hope.


This article was first published on our thematic webpage Forms Matter. You can read more about how our partners work with us to challenge obsolete forms and experiment until we get to new ones there.


Feature Image: mim.girl/iStock