Creating spaces of belonging

In this chapter

  • Spaces of belonging are the basis for transformative change in landscapes. They empower individuals to collaborate towards common goals, and to drive meaningful and sustainable change.
  • Theory U is a method of creating spaces of belonging that combines well with the 4 Returns Framework because it’s designed for transformative outcomes.
  • Theory U has five phases: co-initiation, co-sensing, co-strategising, co-creating, and co-evolving. In the 4 Returns holistic landscape restoration context, there are diverse ways to apply Theory U.
  • Other participatory methods exist that fit with a holistic landscape restoration approach, including the Mutual Gains Approach.

The transformative change needed for holistic landscape restoration is only possible when all landscape stakeholders feel that they belong to a community with a shared goal. The concept, spaces of belonging, encourages collaboration among large numbers of stakeholders from within and outside a landscape. The spaces support a shift to a transformative mindset. They nurture and reinforce people’s commitment to a shared vision. It is an inclusive space where stakeholders can deepen their relationship with themselves, with those around them, and with nature. Ultimately, spaces of belonging empower individuals to collaborate effectively towards common goals, and to drive meaningful and sustainable change in the landscape. 

Spaces of belonging are important in holistic landscape restoration because of the complexity of the challenges. This brings a need for transformation and resilient teams that are deeply invested in bringing about change. But how can we encourage this engagement in a landscape? 

Various participatory approaches provide spaces of belonging, or participatory involvement, within the context of holistic landscape restoration. These approaches are about putting the local system and its people at the centre. 

This chapter focuses on one of such approaches: Theory U. Developed by Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in America and the Presencing Institute, Theory U offers a transformative approach to addressing pressing global challenges. The process was designed to allow stakeholders from diverse backgrounds to collect and interpret data together, understand each other’s perspectives, and create inclusive solutions. It is a valuable tool for multi-stakeholder processes and complex issues that are faced in holistic landscape restoration. 

Theory U has been used successfully by Commonland in various landscapes for more than a decade. Designed for achieving transformation, this method complements the 4 Returns Framework because it works well in the context of complex landscapes. 

This chapter shows how to use Theory U in a landscape initiative. It also looks at the Mutual Gains Approach, which could also be valuable in certain contexts. This chapter is based on the paper Creating spaces of belonging for large scale landscape restoration by Commonland and the Presencing Institute. Reading the full paper will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the topics presented here. For a deeper understanding of Theory U and how to put it to practice, we refer to the u-school for Transformation developed by the Presencing Institute.

The Theory U process

Landscape degradation is complex — caused by interwoven geological, ecological, social, political, economic, and cultural factors. It should therefore be approached from a holistic, multi-stakeholder perspective. Taking different points of view into account requires a shift from a symptom-focused approach — where each problem gets solved in isolation — to an integrated, collaborative, and transformative way of communicating and working. 

Stakeholders, inside and outside the landscape, must engage in deep listening, dialogue, and collective learning. Not only must communities learn together but they need to share their knowledge with other groups, such as other practitioners, funders, policymakers, and, potentially, consumers. Theory U offers a process for this. It enables stakeholders to connect, gain a shared understanding of root causes, formulate a future vision, and move into action.

The five phases

Theory U consists of five phases, and you may go through them more than once. Sometimes, the five phases of Theory U coincide with the 5 Elements of the 4 Returns Framework.

  1. Co-initiation – joining the group, setting a joint intention for the process

The first phase focuses on nurturing trusting relationships among stakeholders within a landscape. Stakeholders are introduced to deep listening and systems thinking to increase awareness of each other’s purpose, values, and work. They’re also introduced to the 4 Returns Framework and reflect on the return of inspiration, revealing the possibility of a better future in the landscape. The group co-creates an inspirational shared intention for the landscape based on the 4 Returns Framework, such as ensuring a future for the next generation or increasing connection in the landscape to cultivate positive change. 

Time is a critical factor. Seeking a commitment of at least 20 years encourages stakeholders to engage from a dedicated and practical perspective. This is essential for developing trust because it deters those who are involved only transiently and signifies a serious, long-term endeavour. The 20+ Year commitment underscores the importance of the initiative, instilling confidence and building lasting partnerships. 

The desired outcome is that stakeholders gain a sense of trust and feel committed to the process. They now share a language — the 4 Returns Framework — and can see how various influences on the landscape connect. They have started to uncover some individual and collective blind spots. 

  1. Co-sensing – letting go of preconceptions and investigating with an open mind, open heart and open will

The partnership “senses” the landscape collectively, understanding its potential, opportunities for change, and challenges. Through learning journeys, dialogue, stakeholder interviews, and shadowing (following a worker to learn about their job), the stakeholders know more about the underlying dynamics and mindsets that need to be addressed for change to occur. They begin to understand their role as leaders of this change. The primary focus here is to learn from what is already working, and what could be possible if we collaborate.

  1. Co-strategising – realising what these new insights mean for you and your work

Integrating and reflecting on the learning from the co-sensing phase, stakeholders build on their shared understanding of the system, to determine their roles within it, both on an organisational and personal level.

They move from learning to action by connecting to inspiration and common will. To overcome barriers to change — including cultural and psychological challenges — stakeholders need to embrace their role in bringing about the necessary change and shift in mindset.

This is usually the phase in which the first strategic plans are developed — whether it be a first proposition or a full strategy.

  1. Co-creating – prototyping new initiatives that could contribute to addressing systemic barriers

In the co-creating phase, small teams of stakeholders develop examples of integrated solutions based on the local context. They step over the threshold into thoughtful and heartfelt action and start co-creating a portfolio of locally adapted solutions with the potential to scale.

This includes creating an impact strategy, preliminary scaling and replication strategies, and regenerative business development (see chapters Monitoring the 4 Returns and Regenerative business). Our focus in this phase is on creating prototypes — doing small-scale actions on the ground, reflecting on them, and adapting to learn quickly and integrate strategically. These actions are based on insights from thorough landscape analysis and are informed by the concept of the 3 Zones

  1. Co-evolving – reflecting, learning, scaling what works and changing what doesn’t

The last step in the process is aimed at finding long-term funding, and scaling, replicating, and integrating prototypes and innovations into the existing landscape. Having chosen which prototypes are most suitable for the ecosystems within the landscape, we work with stakeholders to develop strategic action plans and then continue to support with scaling, adaption and replication of these solutions.

From daily practice to systemic change

Theory U proposes that the quality of outcomes in any system depends on participants’ level of attention or consciousness. It serves as a framework, a method for change, and even a way of being. Theory U excels in systemic transformation.

In landscape restoration, Theory U helps stakeholders to recognise blind spots and align the efforts of participants. We have adapted Theory U to work specifically in the multi-stakeholder settings of landscape restoration. There are four ways in which Theory U can be applied in the context of holistic landscape restoration.

  • Daily practice. One of the ways in which Theory U is understood is as a state of being, a sense of self and our role in the bigger system. You can practice elements of Theory U daily, for example by practising the four levels of listening, or doing guided journaling, empathy walks, dialogue interviews, or case clinics. You can learn more about these practices on the website of the u-school for Transformation.
  • Targeted workshop. Theory U can be used as a guiding process in a workshop, usually over one or two days. It offers an excellent selection of tools for diverse groups of stakeholders. A Theory U workshop could change their perspective of the landscape and their role in it. It can encourage collaboration
  • Landscape lab. Here, lab is short for “systemic / social innovation lab”. In our context, it usually has a trajectory of one to two years during which 50-80 landscape stakeholders from various sectors spend time together in workshops, which “anchor” the process and mark the progress of the Theory U steps. They also do some practical work between workshops. The purpose is to instil a shared, holistic understanding of the landscape across all stakeholders, enabling them to collaborate more effectively to create change in the landscape, for example by removing systemic barriers.
  • Regional learning lab. This lab, rather than serving one landscape, acts as a place where the partners involved in landscape labs in various landscapes come together to share experiences. It is a support structure for several labs with matching characteristics, such as a focus on a particular theme or proximity to each other.

These levels of applying Theory U for holistic landscape restoration can be used at various stages of an initiative as needed. In its simplest form, Theory U can become part of our daily operations. The other levels are context specific. They are used in a targeted manner, with some prerequisites. It depends on the local context, the preconditions needed for a lab, such as fertile ground and a capable and resourced team to organise and coordinate the process and follow-up, and what the landscape team wants to achieve.

Conditions for success

Trust is crucial in holistic landscape restoration initiatives. Trust builds over time through years of working together, emphasising the importance of long-term commitment. Theory U workshops and labs can foster excitement among landscape stakeholders, but failing to follow up effectively can damage trust. To avoid this, prerequisites must be met:

  • Team capacity. Ensure your team is capable and resourced to support the process, including financing and ongoing support between workshops.
  • Clear purpose. Define the lab’s purpose clearly and ensure the team understands the process.
  • Connect to practice. Ensure the process integrates all relevant research and information about the landscape, its challenges, existing initiatives, and stakeholders. If this information is not included, participants can feel that you are disregarding the work that has already been done.
  • Concrete action. Prototypes and conversations must lead to tangible actions that create value for landscape initiatives.
  • Manage expectations. Do this throughout the process.

Other ways to gain multi-stakeholder consensus

The Mutual Gains Approach (MGA) is part of the consensus building process developed by the Consensus Building Institute. Consensus building is a way to structure and ease multi-stakeholder, multi-issue negotiation by: 

  • Identifying stakeholders and assessing their interests, abilities, and potential for reaching consensus-based agreements
  • Deciding whether to go ahead with a consensus-building process and starting with clear goals, ground rules, a work plan, and timetable
  • Using joint fact-finding to resolve technical and factual questions and help the group develop workable options
  • Managing deliberation among stakeholders to maximise the chance of reaching agreements that are technically sound and politically acceptable
  • Promoting consensus agreements whenever possible, or enabling near-consensus alternatives Offering opportunities for stakeholders to revise their agreements during the implementation phase

More details on these steps can be found here.

The Mutual Gains Approach comes into play during the consensus-building process when stakeholders are negotiating outcomes. At the core of the Mutual Gains Approach are four steps for negotiating better outcomes while protecting relationships and reputation. A central tenet of this approach is that a vast majority of negotiations involve parties who have more than one goal or concern in mind and more than one issue that can be addressed in the agreement they reach. Participants using this approach improve their chances of creating an agreement that is better than existing alternatives. The four steps of the Mutual Gains Approach, which are detailed here, are:

  1. Preparation
  2. Creating value
  3. Distributing value
  4. Follow-through

The consensus-building process and the Mutual Gains Approach are particularly relevant to elements of the 4 Returns Framework — shared understanding, as well as vision and action plan.

Learn more

Participatory leadership needs trained facilitators. Here are some platforms, resources, and courses to learn more and get trained as a facilitator yourself.

What’s next

Having shown how to create a solid basis for your initiative with a landscape partnership, the next section explores an important phase of setting up a new initiative — gaining a shared understanding of the landscape and its stakeholders.

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