Democracy at the Crossroads

How can we enhance governance and democracy to address sustainability challenges?

von the Collective Leadership Institute, April 12, 2023
Democracy at the Crossroads

Are good governance and democracy declining? Do we have a stake in this process or is it up to governments to change? And what has all of this to do with your everyday- and job life? This article gives an overview on why governance and democracy are of paramount importance to achieve sustainable development. It brings it to a level where you can explore your own possibilities for enhancing governance and democracy, and it offers an opportunity to learn more at the Transformation Literacy Conference week end of April.

I guess we all know that in the way we work and interact today, human activity is exceeding planetary boundaries, the very systems that make life on Earth possible. Food, water, and energy systems are threatened, as well as healthcare, education, and social services, and democracy, justice, and peace. The recent Club of Rome’s report ‘Earth4All’ makes a strong and clear case: The necessary turnarounds for a sustainable and regenerative future are still possible, but require trust-based governance processes and structures that focus on societal wellbeing and equity as a basis for transformation.

Are governance and democracy solely the responsibility of the state authorities and the public sector? Do we need to wait for the – by nature often quite slow – decisions made by this sector to create meaningful change? Are liberal democracies no longer capable to create the momentum that is needed for the transformative change that is needed to achieve sustainable development? If we answer these questions with yes, we are on the direct path towards authoritarianism.

We at the Collective Leadership Institute (CLI) think that good governance occurs when representative stakeholders are engaged in an inclusive and participatory manner in decision-making processes that are devolved to the “lowest” appropriate level, where relevant expertise, experience, and stake are most present. The lowest level for many people and in many cases is the workplace where they spend at least 8h each workday. It is the civil society organisation that people engage with as volunteers in their free time. It is the time with family and friends that we spend each day. Compared to the time that we spend in direct interaction with the state, be it going to elections, asking for state benefits, or getting a new passport from state authorities, the time that we spend for work, free time, and with family and friends is obviously multiple times higher. Why do we dare to ask the state to solve the big sustainability challenges like climate change or social inequalities for us?

It is absolutely right that the state has power to change things through transforming structures and rules. According to Ken Wilber’s Integral theory, this is just one dimension of change (see picture below). There are three other approaches that you might have realized in your daily life: transforming information flow is an approach that movements like Fridays for Future use to increase awareness for an important topic through advocacy based on scientific facts. However, both of these dimensions of change focus very much on the collective level and lack an understanding of the individual preferences that are equally important to liberal democracies. Culture, values, and relationships might change even though the state is not fostering or even hindering it, and no widely accessible information campaigns are there. We see that currently for example with women rights in Iran. And finally, there is the power of the individual consciousness that can create change. We see it in trends like increasing vegetarian and vegan nutrition these days.

dimensions of change graphic

When you have reached this point of the article, you might realize that real big change happens only when all these four dimensions go together. And at the same time, it is obvious that we cannot create change at all these levels alone. However, and coming back to the places and activities that we spend most time with, we all can contribute to good governance and democracy: how often have you face situations at the workplace where decisions were made without consulting those who are affected by the decision? Or how often have you observed traditional top-down leadership approaches? These kinds of behaviours are – in most cases (I exclude emergency cases where these kinds of decision-making and leadership styles save time and lives) – outdated and in the worst case anti-democratic.

How often is the civil society organisation you volunteer for faced with structural problems that prevents it from creating more and longer-lasting impact? And at the same time there are maybe people in it that don’t care about participatory decision-making? Both weaken civil society and thus democratic participation and good governance. And how about family and friends? Is it all at an eye level in your case or are traditional hierarchies dominating the interactions? The way we treat and educate our children, but also elderly, is very much determining the way how society works as a whole.

I hope I could make my point clear that good governance and democracy are things that are in our hands and not somewhere out there. “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Is what Barack Obama said. How to fill these great words with life?

CLI has developed six so-called Transformation Enablers that – if properly paid attention to at all levels – bring the four dimensions of change together. These Transformation Enablers are:

  • Enlivening narratives: What are the stories that inspire transformative change?
  • Enabling structures: How do we organize collective stewardship of change?
  • Life-enhancing innovation: How do we guide innovations towards regenerative futures?
  • Empowering metrics: How do we measure progress?
  • Multi-stakeholder governance: How do we learn collectively and navigate differences?
  • Guiding regulations: How do we safeguard the commons and planetary life-support systems?

compass displaying enablers of transformation

The six mutually supportive Transformation Enablers are based on the Collective Leadership Compass. Each of them is a necessary component to develop transformation strategies that become successful. Their mutually supportive character means that we need to combine them to be able to strategize the path together for that leads to tangible transformative change. Together, they function as a stewardship architecture for planning and implementing transformative change.

The skill that needs to be trained to enable more people to work along these Enablers we call Transformation Literacy. With Transformation Literacy, we invigorate the human competencies to co-create multiple forms of responsible citizenship in the era of the Anthropocene – the evolutionary period, in which the behaviour of human beings determines the future of the planet.

If you would like learn more about the details of Transformation Literacy, and get to know international experts and like-minded practitioners, feel free to participate CLI’s Transformation Literacy Conference week that takes place 24-28 April online and is free of charge. This year’s theme is Governance and Democracy. The conference sessions focus on how different transformative change efforts make a decided contribution to inclusive and participatory governance – serving the diversity of interconnected sustainability goals we seek to realize for life on planet Earth.

You can learn more about the conference sessions, the speakers, and register here:

collective leadership conference

About the Collective Leadership Institute: CLI’s vision is to empower future-oriented people to lead collectively towards a sustainable future. With our Capacity Building Programmes, our Transformation Support, our Collective Leadership Hubs Network, and our Research, we build competence for sustainability. The institute has been operating since 2005 and has offices in Germany and South Africa, and branch offices in Egypt, Ukraine, and the United States.