Scaling the Impact of Sustainability Initiatives: A Typology of Amplification Processes

All over the world, small and large initiatives work on creating a more sustainable future. For societies to operate within the earth’s biophysical limits while simultaneously fostering justice and well-being, sustainability transformations are required. Such fundamental changes of interactions and feedbacks are crucial for ensuring long-term sustainable systems. Research on sustainability transformations is based in diverse research areas that draw on different theories and methods for investigation. This heterogeneity results in multiple understandings of transformations. In a recent paper, Lam et al. (2020) examine literature on sustainability transformations to provide a typology of amplification processes applied by sustainability initiatives to increase their impact.

Lam et al. (2020) highlight, that urban as well as rural sustainability transformations may be best understood when considering them as place-based societal changes driven by local actors. Here, so called sustainability initiatives act as local solutions to sustainability problems with global relevance. These initiatives are often designed, carried out, and led by local actors and inspire new ways of thinking, doing, and organising. In order to increase their transformative impact, sustainability initiatives in collaboration with other actors can engage in amplification processes – diverse actions that extend the impact they have on systems.

A large number of amplification frameworks in research focuses on identifying actions that increase the impact of sustainability initiatives via specific processes. Lam et al. (2020) conducted a selective review and identified six such amplification frameworks based in three different research areas: social innovations research, social-ecological transformations research, and socio-technical transitions research. While these three research areas have different theoretical backgrounds, they all describe sustainability transformations as multilevel, multiphase, and cross-scale processes. In addition, they share the common goal of understanding how to increase the impact of sustainability initiatives via amplification processes to foster transformations.

In order to further unpack the commonalities and differences between the six frameworks, Lam et al. (2020) developed an integrative typology of amplification processes. They identified eight generic and unique types of amplification processes. Importantly, these processes are not mutually exclusive and one initiative can deploy diverse processes to increase its transformative impact. To further reduce complexity, the authors aggregated the eight amplification processes into three categories: amplifying within, amplifying out, and amplifying beyond an initiative.

Typology of amplification processes by Lam et al. (2020, p.11). The eight amplification processes illustrated on the right are grouped into three categories.

Stabilizing and speeding up – both processes which generally seek to increase the impact of one specific initiative – constitute the category amplifying within an initiative. The process of stabilizing aims at prolonging an initiative’s impact by making it more resilient to upcoming challenges through strengthening and deeply embedding it in its context. Because current sustainability challenges demand faster impact of initiatives, speeding up involves increasing the pace by which initiatives create impact.

Next, processes that seek to impact more people and places are divided into two subcategories. The two amplification processes labelled growing and replicating both depend on already existing initiatives. While growing describes the expansion of an impact across a geographical location, organization, or sector in a similar context, replicating entails the copying of an initiative to a dissimilar context. Transferring and spreading describe processes where new independent initiatives are inspired by existing initiatives and are adapted to other places and contexts. Transferring involves taking an initiative and implementing a similar one in a different place with a similar local context whereas spreading involves disseminating core principles and approaches of an existing initiative to a dissimilar context. These four processes are aggregated into the category amplifying out.

Finally, the category amplifying beyond comprises processes that seek to increase their impact by altering rules of incumbent regimes or changing values and mindsets. Scaling up aims at reaching higher institutional levels through codifying the impact of initiatives into law, policy, or institutions. Meanwhile, scaling deep aims to change people’s values, norms, and beliefs by fostering new mind-sets, changing perceptions, and introducing new ways of relating and knowing as well as new value systems. Processes in this category differ from the other processes in that they suggest a reconsideration of how initiatives create impact.

Lam et al. (2020) argue that their typology is relevant on multiple levels. The authors suggest that it will bring more coherence into the dispersed literature on amplification processes and encourage dialogue across research areas to support reflection on these processes. In addition, the authors hope that their typology is of practical assistance to sustainability initiatives striving to increase their transformative impact by exploring the spectrum of amplification processes. They highlight that a combination of different amplification processes is most probably needed to foster large-scale systemic change.

The typology of amplification processes proposed by Lam et al. (2020) conceptually bridges insights from different research areas. Importantly, the authors stress that the processes described do not apply to all contexts and places. For example, some processes stem from frameworks that focused only on either urban or rural contexts and most of the reviewed frameworks stem from research conducted in the Global North. Additionally, amplification entails considerable responsibility challenges: although sustainability initiatives play an important role in creating a more sustainable future, processes for amplifying their impact are complex, non-linear, context-specific, and place-based. This means, that these processes may even lead to negative, unanticipated, social and environmental side effects. Thus, the amplification of sustainability initiatives also poses questions of power and justice.

To read the full paper by Lam et al. (2020) click here. The typology proposed by Lam et al. (2020) was used by Fischer et al. (2019) to structure a book for practitioners in the context of their work in Southern Transylvania which can be found here.

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