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Session Overview
RT-1.3: Potentials and limitations of Theory of Change (ToC) - Systematizing experiences and ways forward
Tuesday, 14/Sept/2021:
1:30pm - 3:00pm

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Potentials and limitations of Theory of Change (ToC) - Systematizing experiences and ways forward

Martina Schäfer1, Lisa Deutsch2, Silke Kleihauer3, Rachel Claus4, Brian Belcher4, Kora Kristof5, Sabine Hoffmann2, Julian Schenten3

1Center for Technology and Society (ZTG), Technische Universität Berlin, Germany; 2EAWAG, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Switzerland; 3Innovation and Transformation Platform, University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt, Germany; 4College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Royal Roads University, Canada; 5German Environment Agency (UBA)

Transdisciplinary research (TDR) projects aim to contribute to solving complex and wicked real-world problems by intervening in and supporting processes of social change. Obtaining a joint understanding about: (1) the character, success factors, and barriers of change processes, and; (2) the logic of expected research contributions to change through activities, outputs, outcomes and impacts are major challenges for TD- and transformation research. Theory of change (ToC) is an important starting point for successfully bringing about change. It has been used in various thematic contexts (e.g. research for development, sustainability research, research on regional innovation processes) and with different purposes to reflect, initiate, monitor or evaluate interventions in change processes (Deutsch et al, 2021[1]).

A ToC is a process and a product. Developing a ToC is an inherently dialogic and reflective process (Vogel, 2012[2]). A ToC process uncovers the viewpoints, basic ideas, and assumptions of researchers and actors from policy and practice about the key mechanisms and conditions for creating change in a specific context and documents them as a set of theories describing the assumed causal relationships between project/program interventions and (un-)intended outcomes. The ToC “product” is a narrative and/or visual model that illustrates the causal logic between the main activities, outputs, actor-specific outcomes, and impacts, as well as the assumptions underlying the change process in the short, medium and long term (Belcher et al., 2020[3]; Deutsch et al. 2021). The ToC approach recognizes that socio-ecological and socio-technical systems are complex, and that causal processes are often non-linear with multiple interactions and feedback loops (Belcher et al., 2020).

Envisioned goals

Recently, the ToC approach has gained a lot of attention and has been increasingly applied in TDR contexts. Experience shows that, despite useful overarching guidelines to develop ToCs, there is no universal approach. Different researchers have different purposes in mind when developing ToCs with their teams, and therefore apply ToCs in different ways and/or in different stages of TDR (Koleros & Mayne 2019[4]). In recognition of this diversity, the workshop aims to exchange experiences from different contexts and systematizing the different purposes and functions of developing ToCs, as well as the challenges, strategies and remaining questions for further developing the ToC approach and link it to transformation research. Based on two workshops that were carried out in the context of the project “system innovation towards sustainable development”[5] and facilitated by the German Schader Stiftung in 2021[6], the organizing team wants to introduce and discuss first ideas regarding the following questions:

  1. For what purposes are ToCs useful?
  2. At what stages of TDR can ToCs be developed with which functions?
  3. What is the experience with combining ToC with other methodological elements (e.g. actor analysis, scenario technique, indicator development, etc.)?
  4. What challenges did participants face in developing ToCs and how did they cope with them?
  5. How can the ToC approach be further developed for: a) facilitating its practical application; b) outlining and explaining the mechanisms and conditions for creating social change processes/transformation processes, and; c) understanding the role of TDR projects in transformation processes better?

Intended target audiences

We invite scholars from all disciplinary and thematic backgrounds to share their experiences and join a process of clarifying the potential and limitations of the ToC approach. Active participants are asked to provide their experiences with the ToC approach in a power point presentation (maximum 5 slides), addressing the questions posed above. The slides will be shared with all participants in advance of the workshop. The organizing team will systematize the inputs and suggest topics for break out groups within the conference session.

Workshop structure and design

The workshop will be structured in four steps:

  • Presentation of the organizing team with first ideas about systematizing the purposes and functions of developing ToC (15-20 minutes)
  • Plenary discussion (15 minutes)
  • Break-out groups addressing aspects of the above-mentioned questions (purpose, stage of development, limitations, potentials, challenges, coping strategies, opportunities for further development of the approach), oriented at the inputs that were submitted beforehand
    (35 minutes, documentation of the discussion via miro board)
  • Discussion in the whole group bringing together insights from the break-out groups and agreement on follow-up activities (20 minutes)

The inputs that were handed in are available at this link:

It is recommended to have a look at the inputs before the session.

[1] Deutsch,L., Belcher, B., Claus, R.,Hoffmann, S. (2021): Leading inter- and transdisciplinary research: Lessons from applying theories of change to a strategic research program, Environmental Science & Policy,Volume 120,

2021, Pages 29-41,

[2] Vogel, I., 2012. Theory of Change. Retrieved from uk/media/57a08a5ded915d3cfd00071a/DFID_ToC_Review_VogelV7.pdf

[3] Belcher, B., Davel, R., Claus, R., 2020. A refined method for theory-based evaluation of the societal impacts of research. MethodsX 7. mex.2020.100788.

[4] Koleros, A., Mayne, J. 2019. Using Actor-based Theories_Of Change to Conduct Robust Contribution Analysis in Complex Settings. Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation.

[5]For the project approach see; for the application of ToC-elements see

[6] The following scholars have participated at the first workshop in March 2021 and contributed to first ideas of systematizing the experiences with ToC approaches: Regina Bendix, Michèle Bernharnd, Kilian Bizer, Bettina Brohmann, Lisa Deutsch, Martin Führ, Stefan, Hilser, Sabine Hoffmann, Silke Kleihauer, Josefa Kny, Kora Kristof, Karen Lehmann, Alexandra Lux, Melanie Mbah, Emilia Nagy, Laura Pauli, Jonas Rehn, Martina Schäfer Julian Schenten, Charis Stoica, Anna Wasmer

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