In a changing world

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Theory of Social Change

In 1992, Future Generations began tackling humanity’s toughest challenge. How can we improve our lives and sustain this progress? The approach taken was to examine what had worked.


Especially, what had worked for communities to advance with what they had? Was there evidence for how progress is sustainable while working within budgets and holding to values that define people’s lives?


Around the world, community-based advancement was underway. How was it happening? Could it be replicated and scaled up with little additional money?


SEED-SCALE has since grown in sophistication from a method to a comprehensive theory. SEED describes the start, which is growing local opportunities. SCALE is guided growth in quantity and quality within enabling environments, be they local, national, or global. There has been progress in monitoring community progress with key local indicators of change.


Some abiding findings are:

•    Act as a local partnership with no expectation of outside help and funds.

•    The best resources are likely those already in the community’s possession.

•    Best practices can be gleaned in a life that is one of continual learning.

•    Rising aspirations for quality of life attracts more and more people.

•    Communities mature from cooperation on shared goals, and social change emerges.


Over a quarter-century, SEED-SCALE continues to evolve on the basis of community-specific experiments and case studies. These are documented in Just & Lasting Change: When Communities Own Their Futures, 2nd Edition (Johns Hopkins Press, 2016) and Empowerment on an Unstable Planet: From Seeds of Human Energy to a Scale of Global Change (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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Future Generations Co-founder Carl Taylor (middle) receiving the Presidential Medal from President Bill Clinton in 1994. He is accompanied by UNICEF Executive Director Jim Grant (left).

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The process of SEED-SCALE includes several steps: four basic principles, seven tasks to sustain momentum, five criteria to assess progress, and three dimensions of scalability.



SEED: Self Evaluation for Effective Decisionmaking 

SCALE: Systems for Communities to Adapt Learning and Expand


Four Principles of Sustainability

1.    Build from success

2.    Form a three-way partnership of the bottom-up, the top-down, and the outside-in

3.    Make decisions based on tangible evidence rather than opinions

4.    Focus on behavior change rather than provision of services


Seven Tasks to Sustain Momentum

1.    Organize a local coordinating committee (LCC)

2.    Identify successes already occurring

3.    Learn from the experiences of others

4.    Gather data about local results

5.    Make and follow a workplan

6.    Hold LCC and community members accountable

7.    Make mid-course corrections to strengthen the Four Principles


Five Criteria for Self-Evaluation

1.    Inclusivity

2.    Sustainability

3.    Holism

4.    Interdependence

5.    Iteration


Three Dimensions of SCALE

1.    SCALE 1: Stimulating Community Awareness, Learning, and Energy (quantitative) 

2.    SCALE 2: Self-help Centers for Action, Learning, and Experimentation (qualitative)

3.    SCALE 3: Synthesis of Collaboration, Adaptive Learning, and Extension (enabling environment)

Our Method

Four Principles of Sustainability

These principles are a basis for nurturing sustainable community-driven development. They provide a framework for understanding how social change is nurtured, sustained, and scalable.


1.    Build from success

  • Focus on what is working. Encourage positive outcomes. Acknowledge and learn from weak results.

  • Not all problems can be solved at the outset. Still do not ignore them.

  • Establish a community understanding of “success.” 

  • See that rising aspirations emerge—they are not determined by others.

  • As successes improve the quality of life for some, others will want to join. More participants foster innovation. Improved success leads to new aspirations. 


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2.   Form three-way partnerships

  • Form partnerships of actors: bottom-up (local agents of improved lives and behavioral change), top-down (enablers, policymakers, funders), and outside-in (innovators, collaborators from beyond one’s community).

  • Communities change positively as people appreciate other’s assets and roles, and they determine a course of collaboration.

  • As initial tasks are achieved, new roles emerge. Adjust. Partner smartly.


3.   Make decisions on the basis of evidence, not opinion

  • Communities can learn to identify and gather evidence, such as key indicators of positive change.

  • This approach differentiates between what people think and what they come to know.

  • Locally relevant expertise is essential for determining key indicators.


4.   Focus on behavior change rather than provision of services

  • When communities make plans for themselves rather than implement plans made for them it is more likely that positive behavior change from within will emerge.

  • Leadership must discern when to step back and allow communities to point to their own rising aspirations.

Seven Tasks to Sustain Momentum


These seven tasks mobilize the four principles that guide and sustain growth.  They are a cycle of activities, to be repeated iteratively. They parallel what we know from the agricultural cycle of plowing, planting, irrigating, and harvesting.  Each task is integral to the holistic cycle. Neither agriculture nor social change are effective unless all tasks are completed. Allow for iteratively improved steps rather than anticipating perfection.


1.    Organize a local coordinating committee (LCC)

  • Social change is effectively managed by a team that is inclusive and representative.

  • Dysfunctional team members must be replaced by new, productive, reliable members.


2.    Identify successes already occurring

  • See what has worked and continues to work in a community.

  • Analyze underlying evidence supporting this success, and set key performance indicators.


3.    Learn from the experience of others

  • Communities learn from each other to adapt to new challenges and growth.

  • Adaptation leads to innovation, improved lives, and outreach.


4.    Gather data about local results

  • Understanding community (in the sense of shared purpose and collaborative potential) begins with gathering evidence.

  • Organizing community events, surveys, and polling engage people and propagate ideas.


5.    Make and follow a workplan

  • Develop a clear workplan with 3 to 5 specific tasks.

  • For each task, discern who will do what, by when, where, and with what requisite resources.


6.    Hold partners accountable

  • Adhere to agreed-upon roles.

  • Building accountability helps ensure local agency of community change and aspirations.


7.    Make mid-course corrections and strengthen the Four Principles

  • Mid-course correction is a process for learning to direct actions.

  • Making corrections may effectively assess and strengthen the underlying principles.

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Five Criteria for Self-Evaluation


These five criteria monitor local success and growth. They can complement other assessments methods and indices. They help track whether change is positive or problematic.


1.    Inclusivity

  • •    So all have an opportunity to participate in change, inclusivity is more effective than exclusivity.

  • •    As all individuals partake in benefits from social change, a community becomes healthier.

  • •    Since change is challenging and obstacles will arise, address blockage and grow paths of inclusion.


2.    Sustainability

  • Balance environmental, economic, and socio-cultural growth to minimize depletion of resources.

  • As people and cultures adapt to change, communities must identify values that are to endure.


3.    Holism

  • People and communities are complex. They have diverse needs and aspirations. So growth occurs within multiple complementary social and economic sectors.

  • Holistic life improvements require parallel achievements and growth across different sectors.


4.    Interdependence

  • Regard and reciprocity shore up available resources between individuals and communities.

  • All sides gain with genuine interdependency.


5.    Iterative

  • Complete an action, examine data, analyze and learn from the process, and make improvements.

  • Incorporate gradual improvements and allow repetition to generate perfection.

  • Three Dimensions of SCALE


Once a community sustains its desired change, it may scale up with internal and external resources. Community decision making and action are still the drivers of quantitative and qualitative change, but now broader partnership can augment an enabling environment for positive change.


SCALE 1—stimulates community awareness, learning, and energy (quantitative)

  • Increased local participation and scope of activities.

  • Validated with local evidence and empowering results.


SCALE 2—self-help centers for action, learning, and experimentation (qualitative)

  • Rising aspirations for quality of life.

  • Social growth enhanced through applied learning, replication of successes, and experimentation.


SCALE 3—Synthesis of Collaboration, Adaptive Learning, and Extension (enabling environment) 

  • Evidence of improved quality of life invites more participation and communities.

  • An enabling environment, such as policy, market, or education system, increases cooperation, promotes new approaches, and reaches new regions.

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