Social Theory of a Sustainable Collaborative Learning Society

Sustainable changes for wicked problems

The social theory of a sustainable, collaborative learning society, or Social Theory (ST) for short, provides a social innovation framework for realizing sustainable changes that are widely supported in society. It was developed with so-called wicked problems in mind. These are problems which involve many stakeholders with different values and priorities. The issue’s roots are complex and tangled. The problems are difficult to come to grips with and change with every attempt to address them. The problems have no precedent, so there are hardly any measures to indicate the right answer to these problems. Large-scale disruptions such as globalization and climate change are typical wicked problems. But besides these global issues, local challenges, which often derive from global issues, can also be wicked of nature.

As their nature is complex, dealing with such issues is complex as well. And while quick solutions often can be found, ST aims at realizing more sustainable change. Sustainable changes in light of ST are seen as changes that are arguably desirable and culturally feasible and have a broad social support. Only when different stakeholders truly have been involved and have been given a voice within the process, changes will be found that will hold for a longer period of time. These are solutions all stakeholders have agreed upon (but not necessarily wholeheartedly) to support, are in line with the prevailing culture and are agreed upon to be the best solution in that specific situation. Change is seen as something that should not be enforced by one party to another party (the result of persuasion). It is the result of a process of group learning in which all stakeholders learn from each other’s perspectives, changing their initial worldviews and a more common ground is found which offers new ways to move together. A process that takes time and will not happen overnight.

In order to find such solutions and bring about this type of change an approach must be taken that takes these aspects into account. ST offers such an approach.


As mentioned in the introduction, ST should be seen as a social innovation framework. It is not a specific method, nor an ideology, but rather tries to introduce a different way of looking at complex, interdisciplinary issues in order to reach sustainable change as described above. It aims at widening the understanding of a situation, searching for new insights and room for change. As broad social support is believed to be crucial for sustainable change it focusses on different perspectives and on learning from those different perspectives. This way ST offers us tools for social innovation processes.

ST is a framework with a strong theoretical foundation, tailored to application by years of experience, gained in everyday practice. These experiences from praxis have been translated into principles and ground rules (see the Principles and Ground Rules) and concrete practical steps and tools (see the Facilitators Guide). Although concrete tools and methods are offered, the framework itself should not be seen as a method. Different methods can be deployed, including ones that are not mentioned in this writing, provided they adhere and contribute to the principles behind ST. This way it can be ensured that they are used to reach the same goals.

To illustrate this point: keywords within ST are mutual understanding and shared meaning. ST stresses that in order to reach desired changes, stakeholders must go through a process in which they aim for mutual understanding (truly understanding each other’s positions and the complex situation at stake) and thereby trying to establish shared meaning (deciding upon what we together value most and which direction we should be heading). Different types of activities can be put to practice to explicate worldviews and the complexity of a situation, or to initiate a type of dialog needed to reach shared meaning. ST does not necessarily prescribe the way in which this should be done, but it does urge the importance of mutual understanding and shared meaning.

Iterative process

To prevent the ST framework from being too abstract and not giving enough guidance for practice the framework has also been translated into an iterative, reflexive Social Innovation (SI) process. This process in a sense forms a bridge between the more theoretical principles on the one hand and the concrete tools to implement ST on the other hand. In the next sections, a closer look is taken at this process and the different sub-processes and elements it consists of.


Before moving on to the SI process, a last note on ST in general. ST and its accompanying SI process tries to bring about change in wicked problems like climate change or social injustice. But at the same time, they steer on a kind of meta-transition changing our attitudes and developing our skills to cope with wicked problems and to use the same wicked problems as a vehicle to make that transition. Learning takes place on at least two levels. The first learning level is about understanding the ins and outs of the problematic situation at hand. The second learning level is to understand ST the SI process itself and to acquire the skills to be engaged in such processes. Hence knowledge and experience gained from addressing one issue will be used when addressing another complex situation. (And yet at another level, the originators of ST learn from these learnings and continue developing ST itself.)

This way ST tries to stimulate a process of group learning, both with regard to the specific wicked problem that is being addressed as well as to the process of addressing complex issues in general. Together we learn how to move in a meaningful way.