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11 Essays on Societal Transformation: The Most Important Challenge Facing Humanity

ARTICLE | | BY WAAS ST Working Group


WAAS ST Working Group

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In February 2021, the World Academy of Art and Science hosted an expert panel on societal transformation as part of its 60th anniversary conference. From this, a working group was formed for the purpose of identifying, developing, promoting and implementing practical, catalytic strategies for addressing major challenges and evolving human society into sustainable form. The societal transformation project was proposed and initiated by WAAS Associate Fellow Julene Siddique, a System Change and Arts expert. She is co-moderating the working group with WAAS Fellows Frank Dixon and Barry Gills.

Societal transformation has been a foundational theme of the Academy for many years. This project builds on WAAS’ substantial body of work in the field. This paper provides a collection of short essays from group members about societal transformation concepts and strategies.

Evolving human society into sustainable form (societal transformation) is the meta challenge. All other issues are sub-elements of it. Many experts have addressed different aspects of societal transformation over the past 50 plus years. It is widely recognized that reductionism is a, if not the, foundational cause of humanity’s unsustainability and major challenges. As WAAS founder Albert Einstein famously said, we must think at a higher level to solve our most complex challenges.

That higher level is whole systems thinking. It is based on the reality of humanity’s interconnectedness with nature and each other. This higher level thinking illuminates societal interconnections, root causes, systemic barriers, key leverage points and optimal systemic solutions. The following essays emphasize interconnectedness and provide societal transformation theories and strategies based on it.

Humanity is facing a multifaceted planetary crisis. This has fueled incredible potential momentum for change. The human species has so greatly impacted the natural world that we are crossing possibly six of the nine planetary boundaries identified by Rockström (Rockström et. al. 2009; Steffen and Morgan 2021). The recent IPCC Sixth Assessment report alerts us to the profound need for wide ranging societal transformation at a global scale. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted long entrenched systemic flaws in national and global systems and brought social and economic inequalities into a sharper focus.

Societal transformation has occurred numerous times throughout global history. But the depth, breadth and rapidity of transformation we face today are unprecedented. To address this heightened challenge, the Societal Transformation Working Group brings together a diverse group of thinkers. They discuss the deep systemic change and societal transformation needed to protect humanity and all life on Earth.

The following collection of essays provides several perspectives from differing fields and expertise areas. A number of common themes emerge. These can be summarized as follows:

  1. Top-down approaches are not enough. National and international economic and governance strategies are not resolving major challenges in a timely manner. Climate change and many other problems are getting worse. Reductionistic economic and political systems are the root causes of major challenges. Improving them through top-down and bottom-up approaches is essential. Many of the authors discuss the need for fundamental structural and systemic change.
  2. Several authors discuss the essential role of arts and culture in societal transformation. Suggested approaches include: critically addressing destructive social narratives that perpetuate flawed systems and harmful consumerism; using arts and cultural action to mobilize social movements; developing culture and arts-based approaches for driving widespread consciousness and behavioral change; and employing dialogic processes and localized action.
  3. Fundamental change to economic and financial system is essential for genuine social transformation. To resolve socio-economic inequality and ecological decline, the authors discuss different aspects of system change in economics, redistribution of resources and new financial mechanisms.
  4. Deep systemic change of educational systems is essential. Long-term solutions seek to achieve a sustainable and truly prosperous society, for example, by ‘re-architecting knowledge’ and fostering new values and behaviors.

In line with the above themes, new ‘literacies’, skills and capacities are emerging that will facilitate a coherent and coordinated global movement for systemic change. These include ‘transformation literacy’, ‘structural literacy’, ‘collaboration literacy’ and ‘integral capacities’. The authors discuss these literacies and other tools needed to facilitate effective societal transformation.

In summary, the interconnected nature of global crises demands a new kind of thinking and action. To provide this, the authors discuss many aspects of whole system thinking and holistic worldviews, including aligning human systems and society with the laws of nature.


  1. Rockström, J, & Steffen, W et al (2009) Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society, 14 (2), 32. doi: 10.5751/ES-03180-140232
  2. Steffen, W & Morgan, J (2021) From the Paris agreement to the Anthropocene and planetary boundaries framework: An interview with Will Steffen. Globalizations, 1-3. doi: 10.1080/14747731.2021.1940070


The essays address many societal transformation issues, ranging from higher-level, whole system concepts and approaches to more specific transformation themes and strategies.

Essay 1: Frank DixonGlobal System Change: A Whole System Approach to Societal Transformation

Essay 2: Garry JacobsProcess of Social Transformation

Essay 3: Mariana BozesanAn Integral Approach to Social Transformation

Essay 4: Petra KuenkelTransformation Literacy as a Collective Stewardship Task

Essay 5: Piero DominiciFrom Below: Roots and Grassroots of Societal Transformation, The Social Construction of Change

Essay 6: Thomas ReuterTransformations to Sustainability: Why integrated social change requires a political process based on inclusive communication

Essay 7: Barry Gills & S. A. Hamed HosseiniTransversalism and transformative praxes: Globalization from below

Essay 8: Alberto ZucconiEffective tools for promoting change in complex and interrelated realities

Essay 9: Janani RamanathanSystemic Change through a new Paradigm in Global Education

Essay 10: Benno WerlenWhat Constitutes Societal Transformation?

Essay 11: Jay BragdonThe Emerging Economic Renaissance

Societal Transformation Conclusions

About the Author(s)

WAAS ST Working Group