Foreword by Juha Leppänen
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?
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.
"We all operate through forms designed for the industrial era whose premises may not support changing systems."
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.
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 essential when trying to solve collective problems that escape current governance modalities, such as nation-states. To change societal systems, we need to transcend the premises of existing forms and explore new ones. We must 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 we aren't successful in dealing with the climate crisis. Similarly, there's broad recognition of economic inequality 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, governments and institutions' declining trust and legitimacy 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 emerged.
"The tragedy of the form imposes a solidification of the status quo
through structures that perpetuate it."
Today, hypotheses for a new form — new vehicles for collective action — are emerging. These range from distributed ledger technologies to social movements operating — decentralized yet codified. A single meme or a powerful image can spark change in the current digital context. 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 must explore options more consciously. We have a lot to learn, not just about interventions but also the forms through which they’ve been operationalized. This can be the key to unlocking more transformative capacities.
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 decarbonization in ways that single cities, nor the Commission alone, could not achieve. This illustrates 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 operationalized. These new forms would not only make the orchestration of action more meaningful in the context of the necessary transformation 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 vital as it highlights why the language is still somewhat 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 needed 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 deliver on climate policy successfully, 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, the orchestration of interventions can more likely achieve it, 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 creating 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.
"The question we haven't been able to answer is a fundamental one.
What are we?"
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.
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". We challenged ourselves to think beyond what our form dictates.
Now we have an ethos and an impact model. These constitute 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. Our 50 people work in four teams 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. Our projects range from major European research programs to niche interventions that help us understand how societal systems change. We try to imagine tactical routes through which these critical systems can change and prioritize our actions based on what moves them. Together with our partners, we seek to push through the necessary systemic changes 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 for our role, we recognize the need to take accountability for the crises we're facing today and landed on a role of "leading societal transformations". In all its awkwardness, this sentence forces us to constantly reflect on why we work. I sometimes feel we've lost the verb "lead". While inflated in the business literature, we should make leadership in the societal context a much more explicit discussion. We, actors aiming for societal change, have become incredibly talented in using euphemisms for leading. It's easy to use either passive or technocratic discourse and avoid reflection on tough questions of accountability, humility and legitimacy. 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 in think tanks, civil service or politics, 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.
"As substitutes, our goal is not survival by all means. Our success signifies the end of our existence."
"In the interregnum, we need vehicles pushing for societal transformation which we don't yet have."
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 impossible.
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, in the following pages, 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.
Chief Executive, Demos Helsinki
We challenge obsolete forms and experiment towards joyful and equitable alternatives.
We don't have a strategy.
We have an Impact Model.
Societal transformation is not a goal. It's a maze. In the maze, we find that compasses work better than strategies. Our compass is our Impact Model.
the Impact Model?
The Impact Model is a collection of tools that help us decide our course of action as we navigate through uncertain paths. It is more reflexive and agile than a strategy, as uncertainty is embedded.
We, Demos Helsinki,
promise that our approach aims to...
The hard limits
that we refuse to cross
Our ethos describes why we exist, how we want the future to be, and our approach to doing the things we do to arrive there.
We focus our work on four leverages. We believe that these leverages are critical for pushing forward the change we wish to see in the world.
- Expanding agency in decarbonization: Policy changes and technological innovations are not enough to stop climate change. We need engaged citizens, states, corporations and communities to collaboratively overcome the greatest issue of our time. This demands strengthening the agency of people and organizations who too often are left as bystanders of their own future.
- Transformative governance: Public organizations have reinvigorated people’s trust in the future by establishing new governance approaches to lead and manage societal society-wide transformations.
- Regenerative infrastructure: Regenerative infrastructures build on using existing resources and catalyse and enable individual and collective action towards fair, sustainable and joyful futures and enable joyful co-existence of human and natural world.
- Emancipatory economy: We believe the role of economy and any economic system should increase human capabilities within our planetary boundaries and as a result, free humans to reimagine and determine their individual and collective future. The economy should be steered and reviewed to increase collective wellbeing in an ecologically regenerative way.
Hard limits create the urgency for our work: they define what risks we will avoid at all costs and, consequently, represent what we refuse to contribute to.
Our impact model helps us connect different societal domains, moving seamlessly between macro and micro.
We're not just a think tank.
We build and explore viable routes to change.
We work with transformative global and local partners who understand the need for new, 21st-century forms. Synthesis is at the heart of everything we do — so we strive to build unlikely alliances.
Who needs to be involved in policymaking for a 1.5-degree life? How do we create a movement for an economic paradigm shift? What is a smart, open, and inclusive city of the future? In the interregnum, how do we empower meaningful, coherent, and bold governance?
Our projects empower our partners to lead with conviction in the 21st century.
Who said that bold governments can't be humble? Working with the Finnish Prime Minister's Office, and in collaboration with Prof. Charles Sabel, we created the Humble Governance model. Humble Governance helps governments navigate through complex challenges by giving them the tools to drive action. Yes, even against the constraint of polarisation and short-term electoral cycles. Read the publication ->
New economic thinking
Along with our partners One Project, Partners for a New Economy, Global Assessment for a New Economics (GANE), and the Laudes Foundation, we carried out a mapping of new economic thinking in Europe. We concluded that only by embracing the movement's pluralism will the relevant organizations be successful in pushing forward an economic paradigm shift. Read the publication ->
Sustainable timber construction
The most material constraint of them all — construction — is in major need of an update. Cities will soon not be livable if we keep using extractive and environmentally destructive methods and materials. In Helsinki, we brought together central and local governments, construction industry leaders, and city planners to kick off a collaborative transition to sustainable timber construction. It worked. Read more ->
Is it individual action or structural changes that will get us to a livable future? At this point, it's both. Individuals must feel empowered to make the right choices. Governments, however, must not only provide these options, but make them desirable. We work with central and local governments to incentivize and mobilize an equitable and joyful 1.5-degree life we can all desire. Read more →
We also collaborate with global Research & Development consortia who co-create innovative forms.
We collaborate with a global alliance, UNTITLED, to imagine new institutions.
UNTITLED is an alliance and an approach to collectively reimagine society, create an agenda for social transformation, and experiment with executing it. It is founded by an alliance of activists across sectors.
Critical in analysis, empowering in synthesis.
Across 2021, we were engaged in 90 projects globally. Our partners were governments, cities, foundations, and organizations — all working towards a shared ethos of equitable and transformative change.
Since we began in 2005, we have learned from and co-created with partners around the globe. The map below shows where our work has taken us so far.
Connect with us if you want to experiment, share learnings or create something together.
Cultivating trust is the bedrock of our community.
We firmly believe that we all possess the capacity to transcend current forms if they don't serve us anymore.
However, as creating new forms is not a straight path, it can feel like being a builder without a blueprint. This is a lot to ask. To navigate the ambiguity, we rely on each other and provide sufficient support along the way. We build relationships and coalitions at the speed of trust.
In our day-to-day lives, this means consciously prioritizing trust, smiling, and asking others how they're doing. The maze can be intimidating — less so when we remember that we are not there alone.