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A Theory of Transformative Agency in Linked Social-Ecological Systems

Frances R. Westley, Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience
Ola Tjornbo, Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience
Lisen Schultz, Stockholm Resilience Centre
Per Olsson, Stockholm Resilience Centre
Carl Folke, Stockholm Resilience Centre
Beatrice Crona, Stockholm Resilience Centre
Örjan Bodin, Stockholm Resilience Centre


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We reviewed the literature on leadership in linked social-ecological systems and combined it with the literature on institutional entrepreneurship in complex adaptive systems to develop a new theory of transformative agency in linked social-ecological systems. Although there is evidence of the importance of strategic agency in introducing innovation and transforming approaches to management and governance of such systems, there is no coherent theory to explain the wide diversity of strategies identified. Using Holling’s adaptive cycle as a model of phases present in innovation and transformation of resilient social-ecological systems, overlaid by Dorado’s model of opportunity context (opaque, hazy, transparent) in complex adaptive systems, we propose a more coherent theory of strategic agency, which links particular strategies, on the part of transformative agents, to phases of system change.

Key words

institutional entrepreneurship; skills; social innovation; transformation of linked social-ecological systems

Copyright © 2013 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087