Pathways to the Great Transition Workshop, Barcelona, October 2016

Workshop journey pathways

The purpose of the Smart CSOs Lab is to learn about, and experiment with, fresh strategies for civil society organisations and activists, aimed at catalysing a Great Transition to an ecologically sustainable and just political and economic system. We do this through connecting lessons from theory and practice and developing a network of diverse activists and researchers. Our annual gatherings support our efforts in both of these aims, providing input for our research work, and directly connecting activists and researchers from a wide range organisations, backgrounds and places.

Thirty-three activists, researchers and funders from 12 countries joined our 2016 workshop. We met at the inspiring venue of the Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona. For the two days between October 13–15, we worked together around three core themes:

1. Visions and theories of change

One of the objectives of this workshop was to dig deeper into the different theories of change and differences in visions that we hold, in order to spark debate and reflection around this.

The very first workshop session got straight to this point, asking participants to line themselves up across the room according to their positions on questions such as: Which is the more effective driver for the Great Transition: effective national laws or self-organised forms of citizen collaboration? (If you would like to see the full list of questions used in our ‘sociometry’ exercise, please click here.)

It was clear from the beginning that there existed a wide range of opinions within the group. Our work now is to analyse the workshop outputs to understand where we have a high degree of clarity and convergence, and where we hold some necessary and enriching diversity. By clarifying the assumptions underlying our ideas, the aim is to lay the ground for further convergence.

2. Strategies for systemic activism

From 2017 onwards we plan to work on some more systematic action-research in a small number of organisations. Through this, we want to practice and experiment with new strategies and approaches to change, and apply the Smart CSOs framework. We hope to draw valuable lessons to share with other organisations.

At the workshop we kick-started initial reflections and conversations for this new piece of work. We explored ways in which participants’ organisations and campaigns could evolve towards more systemic activism and our emerging common vision. We experimented with the Smart CSOs framework (see our Re.imagining Activism guide), discussing how the model outlined in the guide could be relevant to our work in our different civil society and activist contexts.

Particularly interesting this year was the inclusion of participants from academia who provided a fresh perspective on systems thinking, much appreciated by their colleagues from activist civil society organisations.

3. Community

Our annual workshop/conference reflects our belief in the power of community and collaboration to strengthen our joint efforts. We took the opportunity provided by the workshop to consider the role of the Lab’s core team in hosting the community, always with the aim of advancing the conditions to flourish as a learning community of practice.

Strong relationships and friendships are often forged at Smart CSOs Lab events. Out of some of these, splinter systems-thinking working groups have been established in France and Belgium. Members from each of these groups attended the workshop, and we had the chance to hear about the work they have been doing and their ideas for how to replicate their model in other locations.

The rest!

As at all Smart CSOs Lab events, there was the opportunity for participants to organise sessions during a ‘slow lunch’. By far the most popular of these was in relation to power and privilege, during which we shared personal and professional experiences of how both power and privilege can influence efforts for change. Others chose to discuss the ‘prosumer’ economy, or just relaxed watching the local teenagers dance to K-pop in the CCCB courtyard!


The workshop provided us all excellent food for thought to use in our diverse ‘day jobs’, as summarised by this response to a question in our feedback form:

“Really wonderful people and conversations that positively inspire and impact on my work directly.”

The workshop gave us some fantastic material for our ongoing work. We will be using outputs from the workshop in analysing visions and theories of change, and taking the lessons from sessions on strategies for systemic activism for our coming research.