#009 - Theories of Change
Current mood: contemplating ancient symbols of inner & outer pressure. | Art by Jade Lee on Unsplash

#009 - Theories of Change

Meg Pagani

Yesterday was the last day of the TED Countdown event, a “conference and global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis”.

TED is a big platform, probably one of the main ones when it comes to thought leadership and narratives of change, and there’s one particular highlight from this event that has caught my attention (and that is going viral).

One of the conference’s panels saw on stage Shell CEO Ben van Beurden, Scottish activist Lauren MacDonald, the Paris Agreement’s negotiator Christiana Figueres and Chris James, the founder of Engine No.1, the small fund that led an Exxon shareholder revolt earlier this year.

In this short clip you can see activist Lauren MacDonald that, when given the chance to ask Shell CEO Ben van Beurden a question, confronts him saying “you should be absolutely ashamed of yourself” and calling him out on the incoherence of Shells’s rebranding efforts and actions, which are costing lives.

What interests me about this is less what happened and why (though I consider it important, and you can read more about it here) and more the dynamic and Theory of Change that this event represents.

When we talk about impact, climate change, social justice and any other topic related to change, the go-to approach and message is: this is wrong, the way things are right now is not how they should be. Things should be different, and should be made right.

As mentioned before in the piece “Your Offering and Prime Material” I’ve been an activist since way longer than being an entrepreneur, but I am also the daughter of a psychologist and theologist, my father, and an educator and psychomotor expert, my mother.

This means that I was born in a family that taught me 2 key things, which I still apply today:

  1. there’s difference between change that looks at the branches VS the roots of things and situations
  2. We always have the power to set a specific climate or conditions to increase the chances for specific behaviours to take place (or not).

This is a recurrent topic for me (someone could say borderline hyper-focus obsession, but hey) because it touches some of the topics I’m most passionate about: transformation, behaviour, design and power.


Any change or transformation we desire requires a shift of behaviour.

In activism, most of the narratives I see speak of shifts of behaviour that we want and expect others to make: either demanding leaders and policy makers to take different steps, or advocating for people to get involved in a cause by signing a petition, donating to a cause or changing a habit.

In other words, activism applies specific design principles in words, visuals and processes in order to exercise power and create the conditions to reach a specific outcome.

It’s interesting though to observe that the type of design principles and power levers applied in this context are very specific: they tend to converge and aim to corner, creating a climate characterised by pressure, and often guilt and shame.

They go: this is wrong, this is important, for this and this and this reason, and therefore THIS is the right thing to do and we want you to change and to take action accordingly.

And while this type of work is crucial to put our foot down and set a boundary with the abuses of power that our current social and economic system is based on, it’s very important to remember that it’s just one side of the change-making process.


To me, activists, journalists and even researchers whose work focuses on identifying the wrongs and calling them out are the “collective shadow workers” of our time: they are the ones that go in, often putting themselves at risk to map out and show to the world the current architecture of our way of operating, and the people and processes that are currently its sustaining pillars.

But on the other side of shadow work there’s transformation work, which is based on very different design principles: a lot less about convergence and shaming and a lot closer to transition and even healing of the belief systems that cause the behaviours we’d like to change.

What I saw on that TED Countdown stage and clip is the representation of the type of power we acquired over the last few decades: the power of information, of democratised access to knowledge, the power for a young activist to go beyond top-down statements and shed light on what lies beneath the surface. The power to apply pressure and say “don’t lie, we know about this. You are in a leadership position, you can choose differently. Why aren’t you?”.

I am a fore-front believer in the crucial nature of this power.

But I also consider crucial that more and more individuals and organisation choose to focus on the other side of that story: if some of us are the shadow workers, calling out the wrongs and setting our collective gaze towards another direction that could be taken, who is going to be on the other side of that bridge building what’s missing?

The skill sets required are profoundly different.

I’m a firm believer that some (not all) of the people who hold power today are genuinely looking for new tools, languages and references to answer to our collective call and steer their Titanics towards new trajectories.

But the one climate and condition that will surely prevent that steering to happen more and faster is to focus solely on applying our powers to demand, shame and guilt.

Does it mean I justify incoherence? No.
Does it mean I stand for more talking, conferences and roundtables without accountability? No.
Does it mean we should not call out the wrongs and denounce the abuses of power that are still in play? No.

It just means that, personally, I believe that behind every behaviour we want to change there’s a person, and a story. And if we won’t meet people right there, at root level, how can we talk about sustainable change?


PS – one of the people whose incredible work inspired me recently is Gabor Mate and his recent movie The Wisdom of Trauma. I personally highly recommend it to anyone who is passionate about change and who is looking for radically transformative lenses to think about change.

PPS – Some of you already do, but I’d love to officially invite you to share with me your perspectives, thoughts, feedbacks or things you disagree with. Everything I share is just my personal perspective, which can’t wait to be enriched by yours. So, as I say some times, please reach out and break it for me.