Transformative Learning Networks


  • Bruce Evan Goldstein University of Colorado Boulder
  • Claire Chase University of Colorado Boulder
  • Lee Frankel-Goldwater University of Colorado Boulder
  • Jeremiah Osbourne-Gowey University of Colorado Boulder
  • Julie Risien Oregon State
  • Sarah Schweizer University of Colorado Denver


Networks, Transformation, Learning, Capacity-building


Learning networks combine multistakeholder collaboration with community-spanning interaction and exchange across sites and scales. They are inter-organizational voluntary collaboratives that support innovation and social learning to promote systemic change. Learning networks are often attempted in situations where existing institutional arrangements cannot address looming challenges, and change is thwarted by a combination of lack of capacity and a powerful status quo. The four learning networks we are examining address the challenges of ecological fire restoration, urban resilience, fostering adaptive capacity to climate change and other unprecedented challenges in developing countries, and the deep cultural divide between the academy and the public.

We will consider how these LNs increase capacity to transform complex adaptive systems in which they are embedded. Our definition of resilience is grounded in how collective action can purposefully reconfigure systemic relationships to promote a new and desired state. We will explore how learning networks can balance the autonomy that individual organizations and communities require with the cohesion required to catalyze transformative change in policy and institutions operating at higher spatial/temporal/organizational scales. Different kinds of learning take place at each of different network levels – it is the effective interweaving of these heterogeneous interactions that fosters transformative capacity. Learning networks are bridging organizations: they form a bridge between different ways of knowing in communities and organizations, and they bridge to alternative futures by fostering innovation. Learning networks disrupt old habits and foster new collaborative relationships, reinforcing participants’ shared ties and purpose while providing freedom to experiment with innovative approaches.

Learning networks rely on effective design and ongoing facilitation to function effectively. Network facilitators or “netweavers” may be formally identified or may emerge from among network participants. These netweavers collaborate with participants in identifying goals and an effective network topology and infrastructure. Netweavers initiate activities that build community and promote a shared identity that provides the foundation for common practice and purpose. Ties within the network deepen over time as participants identify collaborative solutions. We will explore these features by drawing insights from the origin, design and netweaving of our four learning networks. We will show how effective learning networks possess a loose, light structure that allows them to learn and adapt as their membership becomes more confident and experienced, as new needs and opportunities are recognized, and as resources and institutional support require. We will also consider how network design is cross-scalar,  combining interpersonal and group collaboration with network-spanning interaction and exchange. Finally, we will reflect on how networks foster transformative capacity, an idea that is both conceptually subtle and difficult to detect over the short timescale of our fieldwork.

To the extent possible, our work is conducted by our being embedded in network leadership teams and actively participating in ongoing discussion about the network design and facilitation. We will also discuss how participatory action research and developmental evaluation frameworks enable this balance between participation and analytical engagement.


Author Biography

Bruce Evan Goldstein, University of Colorado Boulder

Associate Professor Environmental Design and Environmental Studies