Joseph Lewis
January 2024

Emergence of the dragonfly: the role of transformative change


This article is taken from 'Transforming the planet: Our vision for the future of environmental science', which sets out a vision for the role of environmental science in facilitating the transition to a sustainable society.

Throughout the IES’s Future of ES23 horizon scanning and foresight project, the urgent need for transformative change was evident. ‘Transforming the planet’ identifies how to make that change real by co-creating a sustainable society where people and nature thrive.

Read our full vision in Transforming the planet.

When talking about the future, metaphors come all too easily. The butterfly is a popular one: the transformation from one thing into another captures all the possibility associated with a world remade in a more beautiful image. 

However, an understanding of complex systems reveals that such a simple approach to transformation is inaccurate. Social, economic, and environmental systems are entangled in feedback loops, subtle drivers, and holistic pressures over time, making them resilient to some changes and wildly susceptible to others. The result is that changes often lead to policy failures or unintended consequences. To address the complexity of systems, transformative change approaches are needed, utilising key leverage points to manipulate whole systems.

In that context, it is not the metamorphosis of the butterfly humanity should be seeking, but the emergence of the dragonfly. When a nymph transforms into a dragonfly, many subtle pressures come together to create a new creature beneath the surface of the nymph’s skin. Once that unseen change has begun, the nymph moults, shedding away its past appearance as it adopts a new form. Often, more than a single moult is needed as the creature grows into what it needs to become. Nonetheless, at the end of the journey, the world bears witness to a full transformation: the emergence of the dragonfly. 

Through that lens, much can be learnt about the requirements of transformative change. ‘Transition’ is not as simple as putting society’s hopes into a cocoon and expecting them to emerge flawlessly on the other side. Systems inhere against change, so it is necessary to work with their key drivers, making those subtle transformations beneath the surface until the whole system emerges transformed. Just as the emergence of the dragonfly is only possible under the right circumstances, enabling conditions must be met to facilitate transformative change. And much as the nymph must moult many times, so too does transformative change require iteration and reflection in order to be fully realised. 

Transformative change is a necessary element of meeting society’s hopes to transition away from the unsustainable pressures which drive environmental challenges. Achieving it will not be easy; it requires novel thinking and a strong understanding of the systems people work and live within. Fundamentally, the core questions will be: who will drive transformative change, what systems and frameworks will underpin it, and how can that transformative change be delivered?

What the future holds: is transformative change still achievable? 

In the face of dynamic social, economic, and natural systems which push back against attempts to change them, it can feel that uncertainty is overwhelming and that there is not much agency to shape the future. However, much like the dragonfly, many small, coordinated and well-managed changes beneath the surface can come together to transform the world. 

The world is not yet aligned with transformative approaches to environmental crises, but such approaches are still achievable. The critical factors which will determine which future humanity faces will be how well people work collaboratively to build a shared social vision of the future and how quickly they embrace the path to that future through transformative change. 

Once humanity knows what it wants to achieve and makes the necessary preparations, society will be ready to take flight through transformative change, carried on the wings of the dragonfly.