Transnational networks as relational governance infrastructure

Photo: Highways in Riga by night

Photo by Aleksejs Bergmanis on Pixabay

The resource use of our economies currently exceeds the planetary limits. Our way of life requires profound changes to become sustainable. Governing transformation towards sustainability is an orchestration of a multitude of actors and goes beyond top-down state regulations and bottom-up grassroots initiatives. The required transformation touches various types and levels of interactions – from indigenous communities resisting wind energy projects in Oaxaca (Mexico) to youth groups in Copenhagen mobilizing street protests to spark world leaders into action on climate change, from German courts ordering politicians to come up with more ambitious climate protection legislation to European legislation bodies introducing due diligence and sustainable supply chain laws affecting developing countries. The success of transformation towards sustainability depends on how these interactions are facilitated or orchestrated.

Governing transformation needs relational infrastructures that connect people and initiate cooperation for fair and equitable solutions that allow even the short-term losers of transformation to be better off. Cooperation in knowledge networks is one example of these relational infrastructures. How can this type of networks be used to promote sustainable transformation? We argue for three key points: First, they need to acknowledge and align the multiple pathways of aiming for sustainable transformation. Second, social innovation needs to become a basis to change values and behaviour. Thirdly, we recommend to find the leverage points to achieve the most impact with least burdens.

Cooperation in transnational networks is a tool to support sustainable transformation

Knowledge networks provide space for interaction and meaningful dialogue on sustainable transformation, particularly when transcending national borders and disciplinary boundaries. As multi-stakeholder settings, knowledge networks have the potential to enable their members to jointly define the problem and develop creative solutions. In order to fully unleash transformative potential, knowledge networks need to invest in mutual trust and structures that enable easy connection.  . Trustful relations boost the sharing of knowledge, expertise, contacts, , eases dispute resolution, increases learning and therefore supports creativity as well as promote self-organization.

There are multiple pathways of sustainable transformation

There are multiple pathways  towards sustainable transformation, and there are diverse understandings of what constitutes the global common good. Cooperation in transnational networks needs to appreciate the different pathways and provides support in aligning them. There is not one “suitable” way to govern transformation, not least because of different historical experiences or socio-economic contexts of countries. Each pathway is a combination of individual choices, government interventions, historical and current contexts as well as values – the “perfect” in one context might be unsuitable in another. Collaboration in networks can sharpen awareness of positionality, valuing different perspectives and learning about different cultural and historical formed ways of thinking. These are preconditions for mutual learning and finding solutions that benefit all members in society (“Leave no-one behind”). Multi-stakeholder networks such as Managing Global Governance (MGG) with members from both the public and private sector in Brazil, Mexico, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Germany prioritize mutual learning and collaboration and thus regard members as equally important. Jointly defining the challenges at institutional and societal level to find legitimated solutions towards sustainable transformation is key. Networks provide the space and structures to exchange good and bad practices that can be replicated or avoided leading to transformation.

All pathways share social innovation which has the power to change values

Social innovation is crucial because it builds on what is already helping and can change what the society regards as no longer helping. As an example for a social innovation, Bhutan approves any law only if  it improves its “Gross National Happiness.” Although still facing some challenges by its current political transition, Bhutan appraises its legislation through what it perceives as the nine key areas of happiness – psychological well-being, health, education, good governance, ecology, time use, community vitality, culture and living standards. This example shows how norms become a reality by internalisation through daily practice, because people take them as self-evident. There is the need to revisit how values and norms are created, assessed, and distributed. Constantly reflecting and negotiating social norms and rules definition is crucial as our societies often favour unsustainable practices simply because they “were always done this way”, and thus represent a comfort zone as opposed to an alternative that is deemed uncertain.

Creating action at the right leverage points to increase impact

Transformation needs leverage points to unfold its full and sustainable impact. Transnational networks can use several leverage points to target their actions towards the common good. Leverage points refer to mechanisms or strategies that can help achieve the best possible impact with the least invasive actions. . . Dependence on oil imports, for instance, pose barriers to shift from one pathway to another. They are thus “carbon lock-ins” and will need time and additional resources to be dismantled. One important prerequisite of finding leverage points is to see the bigger picture, which is one potential strength of transnational and transdisciplinary networks. In addition, top-down approaches need to mobilize more material and immaterial incentives for more actors, especially for those who have so far resisted change. The best reward that can be given to initiators of voluntary community projects, for instance, is the “feeling” that these projects are actually inspiring changes. This feeling of being valued, however, also largely depends on the public sector remunerating these projects.

Stop, Listen, Change and Move Forward

How is governing transformation towards sustainability possible in its complexity? It is about connecting people, aiming at empowering partners within this process. Networks are able to provide space and resources for exchanges and other types of interactions. With these networks, we constantly negotiate or reconfirm our values, and through social innovation society alters what is regarded as valuable and what not. We often prioritize unsustainable practices merely out of habit, thus revising values is more important than ever. We need the ability to stop, listen, change and move forward.


This blog article was inspired by the discussions during the Panel “The (Im)possibility of Governing Transformation to Sustainability – Between Politics and Self-Governance” organized by PD Dr. Dr. Ariel Hernandez (German Development Insitute) at the 5th International Converence on Public Policy (ICPP5). We kindly want to thank all contributers: Prof. Dr. Jens Newig (Leuphana University Dr. Nicolas Jager (University of Oldenburg), Prof. Dr. Annette Elisabeth Töller (FernUniversität Hagen), Dr. Katharina Schleicher (German Advisory Council on the Environment), Dr. Tobias Schulz and Tamaki Ohmura (Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape), Dr. Koen Bartels (Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham) and Dr. Johanna Vogel (German Development Institute).

Photo: Ariel Hernandez

Ariel Macaspac Hernandez is a researcher at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE). As a decision analyst, he looks at collective decision-making processes and bargaining interactions particularly on issues relevant to climate protection, energy security, cessation of political violence and sustainable development.

Photo: Johanna Vogel is an International Cultural Economist and Senior Researcher in the Research programme “Inter- and Transnational Cooperation” of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE). Among other duties, she takes care of the Network- and Aumniwork for the MGG-Network. Her work areas are the importance of networks in global governance structure, urban inequality, the importance of networks in global governance structures, urban inequality

Johanna Vogel is an International Cultural Economist and Senior Researcher in the Research programme “Inter- and Transnational Cooperation” of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE). Among other duties, she takes care of the Network- and Aumniwork for the MGG-Network. Her work areas are the importance of networks in global governance structure, urban inequality, the importance of networks in global governance structures, urban inequality

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