Following my recent doctoral assessment a fellow PhD student at the Institute for Sustainable Futures asked me a very timely question: “so what?”. I took this question to be probing about the need for and potential benefits of my research. I reflected on this during my flight home and tried to identify the various layers – ranging from the personal to societal – of my thoughts about this…
My initial response to this question relates to learning and contributing to a chosen profession. My doctoral research should help me and others to be better practitioners – especially where “better” is taken to mean contributing to broader social goals and not only organisational objectives. Too often I also hear colleagues describing their work as being “more of an art than a science” and whilst there is some truth to this viewpoint, it more often than not seems to be an excuse used to justify sloppy practices or not rigorously interrogating their work and its outcomes. My PhD research is, in part, shaping up as a critique of the “this is an art, not a science” position of practitioners.
This initial response is part of what makes the project meaningful for me, i.e. given its links to my recent work and current work and desire to ply my trades as effectively as I can.
But I also don’t think it is a sufficient response. I take the view that doctoral studies should be more than further vocational education. I also believe that government-funded scholarships should support research aiming to deliver social benefits (public good oriented). As I’m the recipient of a scholarship I feel that I need to make a special effort to do socially beneficial research.
A second response is related to observed trends in sustainability research and practice. I see lots more efforts to use approaches like scenario analysis and visioning exercises as tools for achieving sustainability objectives, but little examination of their roles and impacts. My own experiences have led me to wonder if this is a good use of resources and effort, and bemoan the lack of evaluative research that would help us to know what sorts of impacts these practices have, why, and under what conditions. I also wondered about the adoption by sustainability scientists of poorly theorised practices from other fields and implications for this for sustainability research. Part of the “so what?” is thus making a contribution to the foundations of sustainability research and policy.
Initial research into possible evaluation strategies and approaches also quickly revealed the complexities of doing and evaluating interventions in complex systems. Sometimes this leaves me wondering whether it is possible to learn “what works”. Similarly, some “wicked” problem theorists (e.g. Rittel and Webber) argue they are “one-shot” problems and that this constrains our capacity to learn through trial and error. This can be quite demotivating. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that we cannot gain some transferable learnings. As a practitioner I’ve certainly learned along the way. But I also think we need to be mindful of how we extrapolate from experience, and whether lessons learned under particular conditions will be applicable in future exercises. Here, I believe contributions can be made to sustainability research and related practice-led fields such as scenario planning.
Initial research has also revealed that the theoretical and philosophical underpinning of such practices has been insufficiently developed. I now see this as connected to many of the challenges faced by sustainability scientists and others. New ways of bridging different epistemological and ontological positions are needed, e.g. to better anticipate and address complex environmental risks.
However, there is also more. Example scenario projects like the “future forums” run by CSIRO are potentially places in which we can understand broader phenomena and issues. For example, by examining them we may better understand some of the collective action problems and institutional issues that often are barriers to innovation – for which interventions, like those I’m studying, can be conducted to help address. Sociological and institutional theory, and empirical research, can help us to understand these issues and how might be better overcome to enable greater action.
So, part of the “so what?” will hopefully involve demonstrating how particular theory (e.g. field theory) and practices can help with understanding and addressing such issues. If institutional limits are as important, if not more important, than environmental limits – e.g. as argued in Human Choice and Climate Change (edited by Rayner and Malone) – this aspect is crucial. Practical examples include the challenges institutions typically face when adapting to discontinuous change, poor and/or slow decision-making that often occurs under conditions of low levels of predictability, and related sources of inertia that often prevent non-incremental change in organisations and wider systems.
For example, scenario planning is commonly viewed as a technique that can increase organisational adaptiveness (i.e. the ability to adapt to a changed and changing ‘environment’).
Prospective processes and interventions can thus be used by actors to address these institutional limits; however, overall, little is known about their effectiveness. Additionally, barriers to reform in organisations and society often constrain change programs. For example, those invested in the status quo tend to “fight” much harder than potential beneficiaries (as seen in climate policy debates).
Here field theory looks to be relevant. Field theory predicts that in existing social fields the “reproduction” of a field and main actors within it will be “the ‘default option’ normally preferred by all field actors” (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012, p.96). This is due to a complex mix of cognitive, social and institutional factors. If this is accurate, these are important barriers to change. They write:
“Existing [field] settlements represent an often imposing cognitive barrier to contentious action. After all, such settlements define stable, predictable worlds and sources of meaning and identity for all participants in the strategic action field. To overcome this barrier, challengers must fashion alternative conceptions of control that simultaneously undermine the existing settlement, which providing a new animating vision for the field” (p.107).
Discussions within sustainability and environmental communities often centre on rates and types of change – i.e. pace and depth of change contrasted with what is necessary to effectively address key sustainability challenges. There is, thus, a need for research that contribute to a fuller understanding of why incremental change is far more common than transformative changes (as well as informing new strategies and approaches based on this improved understanding).
Lately additional issues have also been on my mind regarding the stories that are told about the future, by whom, why, and their implications in the present. For example, some social scientists have examined the biases that often shape how we think about the future – for example Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholar Robin Williams detailed how ‘narrative bias’, forms of determinism, and institutional dynamics shape technological expectations. My master’s thesis on nanotechnology and society in the Australian context drew on STS theory and revealed similar issues/dynamics.
Thus, I think there is a need to better understand and examine the presence of the future in the contemporary present and how people engage with it (or don’t!). This can be a driver of conflict (e.g. as I found in nanotechnology debates) and consequently constrain action. It can shape public policy and decision-making. Additionally, STS research has shown that “in scientific and technological developments actors continuously and explicitly refer to what is possible in the future” (van Lente 2012). This process generates social dynamics (e.g. hype and disappointment cycles). A desired outcome of my research is to better understand how these social processes are enabling and/or constraining action.
On a related philosophical level, in some respects sustainability is about the relationship between the present and the future – a position described in the original definition of sustainable development. (“…Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”). This requires temporal relations to shift somewhat: i.e. the future becomes a cause of the present (e.g. choices that are made), not only present actions influencing the future.
At most sustainability events I attend such anticipations are intense. Typical narratives that are told are: catastrophe is coming, but it can be partly or totally prevented if we act now, or (in another version) we need to start preparing now in order to minimise the damage when the crisis hits. To some extent I concur: for example, far greater preparedness for climate change and its potential impacts is needed. Such narratives motivate some folk to take strong actions to address sustainability issues. On the other hand, I also think greater reflection on the way claims about the future are made to achieve various goals, and what shapes expectations, is needed. For example, the claims of folk like Paul Ehrlich (e.g. regarding population growth) have been revealed to be doom mongering and contribute to greater skepticism about the claims made by other environmentalists. Similarly, prominent activists like Paul Gilding articulate quite deterministic “catastrophe is coming, let’s get prepared” arguments.
These arguments are often linked to the institutional issues mentioned above – i.e. some activists believe that our economic and political systems don’t have the capacity to respond to sustainability issues which, they argue, consequently makes disaster inevitable (…so let’s start getting prepared…) or inform calls for a social revolution. I agree that the adaptive capacity of contemporary institutions is being severely tested. But in contrast, more solutions-oriented research can examine whether and how these institutional barriers can be better addressed. (As a quick aside perhaps it’s also a good thing that other folk are focussed on preparedness in case we fail to make required changes!!).
More broadly, I’ve become more interested in the cognitive and institutional barriers to developing an understanding of the ‘dynamic complexity’ of many sustainability issues (e.g. climate change). I’ve come to understand that sustainability challenges often demand a form of thinking that is termed “integrative complexity” by some psychologists (i.e. a particular “cognitive style”). This cognitive style is necessary for considering the trade-offs that are faced in sustainability issues, developing nuanced and sophisticated scenarios, and can militate against dogmatism. Similarly, Daniel Kahneman differentiates between “narrow” event-focused thinking and “broad” processual thinking. So I think it is important to understand if prospective exercises help to develop such styles of thinking, or militate against cognitive biases that tend towards a short-term view (preventing consideration of long-term consequences).
Overall, this reflection has articulated the following areas of need/benefits:
- Becoming better practitioners and moving towards a “science” of strategic interventions;
- Better understanding the roles of scenario analysis and visioning exercises as tools for achieving sustainability goals, and how they translate into action (desired and unintended);
- Better understanding the conditions under which these practices are used and more/less effective, and the implications for efforts to reduce institutional barriers to change;
- Better understanding contemporary anticipatory practices and thinking, related social processes, and the ways that these shape sustainability-oriented actions and policies; and
- Testing ways of assessing and influencing cognitive styles (such as towards ‘integrative complexity’, less dogmatism), given the ‘dynamic complexity’ of sustainability issues.