Learning as a Key Leverage Point for Sustainability Transformations

Abstract: The global challenges of our time are unprecedented and urgent action is needed. Transformational learning and leadership development are key leverage points for supporting society’s transition towards sustainability. Many even claim that learning on an individual, organisational and societal scale is required for society’s successful transitioning towards sustainability. However, in this relatively new field, practitioners, scholars and educators grapple with what best promotes transformational learning and with how to best design and operate learning experiences that truly build capacity for leadership for sustainability. The aim of this work was to establish an improved understanding of this and to find recommendations for practitioners and educators with ambitions to create systems change for sustainability by building the capacity of people to be sustainability leaders.As an educator and facilitator of sustainability work for over a decade, working at the crossroads of local government and community change, lecturing on leadership for sustainability in Australia and currently being embedded within the faculty of the Master’s in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability (MSLS) program in Sweden, I have rested this thesis firmly within an action-oriented transformations research paradigm in which the only way to understand a system is through a comprehensive collaborative attempt to change it. One case of action research explored an organisational change for sustainability program that spanned over five years in a local government in Perth, Western Australia and the learning and policy interventions that supported this change. Participant observation with field notes, interviews, surveys and document analysis were particular methods used in this case. Two further cases focused on the MSLS program and its practices and specific components that support such leadership development and transformational learning. Feedback surveys from students and an open question survey to alumni were key methods used in these cases.The findings suggest that community and relationships are essential for supporting and growing sustainability leadership capacity; that hope and agency are irreplaceable components for leading sustainability change; that self-reflection and dialogue are skills that will help sustainability leaders navigate complex and uncertain futures and that these can be learned. Findings also indicate that creating a shared language for sustainability work helps bridge disciplinary divides and practitioner silos, and that skills of dialogue are required to capitalise on participation. Also, the integration of the components of community, place, content, pedagogy and disorientation with hope and agency can help support transformation in sustainability leadership education and provide synergistic reinforcement of the sustainability transformation required.This thesis provides added evidence that learning can be a key leverage point for sustainability transformations in an organisation and suggests how such learning can be most effectively achieved through a conscious design of learning environments, including the use and integration of the mentioned components to improve sustainability leadership for impact in society. 

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