Prospective practices often try to change the course of change, not just anticipate or predict change. However, the underlying causal logic of such interventions tends to be under theorised and/or remains mostly tacit. In the evaluation literature this causal logic is often termed the “intervention theory”, or the “program theory”, or underlying “theory of change”.
There are some exceptions. For example, Kees van der Heijden has attempted to theorise the role of scenarios in organisational learning and change, by drawing on mental model theory of reasoning and developing the concept of strategic conversations to guide this practice. Ramirez and van der Heijden have also drawn on the concept of “transitional objects” and theorisation of value creation networks.
Nonetheless, large gaps remain when we consider the use of prospective practices in broader contexts such as use by actors seeking to achieve sectoral change or social change. Transformative change – especially beyond a single organisation –is generally a very difficult goal to achieve.
In the context of sustainability this goal is often termed creating “systemic” change. Although the term is rarely clearly defined, it implies a shift from incremental change towards more radical change.
In this post I consider five areas of research that are relevant to the causal logic of interventions:
- Research on “transitions” (transition theory) and “system innovation”;
- Research on path-dependency;
- Research on ‘prospective structures’ and the dynamics of expectations;
- Research on strategic collective strategic action and “strategic action fields”; and
- Research on the use of Future-Oriented Technology Analysis to prepare for and address “grand challenges” (e.g. climate change mitigation and adaptation).
Research on “transitions” (transition theory) and “system innovation”
Over the past two decades a large volume of research on the processes of more fundamental change towards sustainability has examined system innovation and transitions. Such changes are shifts in “socio-technical systems” – not only technological change, also changes in use practices, markets, regulation, infrastructures, meanings – achieved through multi-actor processes. A key claim is:
Transitions are not and cannot be planned in advance in a rational manner but emerge as actors navigate their way through multiple uncertainties (Geels et al 2004, p.10)
The focus on the limits of planning and navigating uncertainties is aligned with prospective practices.
One of the best-known perspectives is the so-called ‘multi-level perspective’; a structuralist process approach. That is, it emphasises the structuration of activities in local practices and provides a related framework for analysing the entire long-term process. The three levels, which Frank Geels is careful to describe as being a heuristic and “not ontological descriptions of ‘reality’” (Geels 2004), are: technological “niches”, socio-technical “regimes”, and the “landscape” of deep structural trends. The so-called socio-technical landscape is the external context for actors in niches and regimes.
One of the main things I take from this perspective is that existing systems are often characterised by stability, inertia and ‘lock-in. Theorists argue the right external circumstances are crucial for enabling novelties to break through (i.e. “windows of opportunity”), e.g. regime destabilisation. But there seems to be little guidance for initiating transitions, other than contextual considerations.
Others have recently adopted more actor-centred approaches, i.e. focused on strategies, resources and capabilities of individuals, firms and other organisations. (For example see a recent special issue of Technological Forecasting & Social Change). The role of long-term future visions, e.g. in providing guidance to actors, is one aspect. Others aspects emphasised in the TFSC issue include:
- Expectations: some papers describe the “expectations work” done by innovation actors and indicate that “expectations can also be regarded as specific resources created by collective action” (Farla et al. 2012). If expectations are collective – i.e. they are held by many actors and become institutionalised – they can play “a structuring role in innovation processes”; however, expectations can also be volatile and disrupt innovation processes.
- The active role of actors in ‘expectations dynamics’: given the importance of expectations they are also a target of strategic action. For example, the papers point to strategic discourse activities and other efforts by actors to strategically influence expectations. Actors also play related roles in stimulating ‘hypes’ which can, later, lead to constraining ‘disappointment cycles’.
- Institutional structures can constitute valuable resources: for actors that benefit from the existing system current structures are a valuable resource. Actors pursuing systemic changes to initiate transitions consequently often “find themselves in a hostile environment” and need to build up supportive structures (e.g. via network/coalition strategies and/or via expectations work).
- The roles of individual resources and organisational resources: the cases also show that knowledge, status, political contacts, financial means, etc, also tend to be crucial.
The issue editors observe that “a commonality of the observed strategies is that they all reach out to the broader environment (or system) the actors are part of” (Farla et al. 2012). Similar to field theory (see below) the editors also call for more attention to both incumbent actors and challengers.
Of particular interest is how expectations have become a target of strategic action (termed above “expectations work”) the structuring roles of expectations in innovation processes.
Research on path-dependency
Social and policy scientists have recently done relevant research on path-dependent social processes. Path dependency refers to forms of non-reversible and self-reinforcing processes, commonly those that seem to not be able to shake free from their history (which is often termed “lock in”). Similarly, STS scholars such as Rip and Kemp have studied the irreversibility that can emerge from processes of technological adoption and standardisation. They write: “irreversibility, once achieved, is what makes a technology hard, difficult to change, and a structural factor itself”. One motivation for this research is to better understand “why certain policies, technologies, and institutions endure despite the presence of other seemingly more appropriate or logical alternatives” Levin et al (2012).
A thought provoking paper has considered in this relation to the climate problem. Typically, path-dependency is seen as the enemy due to ‘locked-in’ reliance on high carbon fossil fuels. Levin et al (2012) argue that it is possible to turn path-dependency on its head and consider how to “trigger and nurture path-dependent processes that lead to transformative change over time”:
While most scholars of path dependency focus on its negative consequences for efficiency and/or social policies, our approach turns this literature on its head by looking forward in time rather than backwards to elucidate how generating path dependencies might foster desired policy outcomes in the future. This strategy leads us to explore the interaction of policies that may be fragile at first and/or apply to only a small group, but which may trigger path-dependent processes that unfold (p.124)
They call for “applied forward reasoning” that considers the potential for particular causal logics and policy logics to trigger and nurture path-dependent processes. The research goal of applied forward reasoning is to “identify possible policy interventions and reason forward to how the problem and interventions might unfold over time”. Rather than pursuing a big “one shot” solution they call for a contrasting “progressive incrementalism” approach. Four causal logics are described:
- Lock-in: when a policy/intervention contains a logic that gives it immediate durability;
- Self-reinforcement processes due to the increase, over-time, of reversal costs, which encourage the choice(s) to be maintained. A simple example is up-front investments and other sunk-costs where costs of reversal to the investor rise over time;
- Increasing returns where the benefits from an intervention increase over time; and
- Positive feedback: processes that expand support beyond the initial target populations in ways that reinforce, rather than detract from, the support of the initial population
Aside from these causal logics, they call for more attention on three change processes and strategies.
First, the process of gaining support from a “winning coalitions” of diverse stakeholders (who often support an intervention or policy for very different reasons) is emphasised. They call for “reorienting short-term interests by promoting coalitions that unleash path-dependent processes” (p.144). Also important is whether coalition-building works to “entrench very weak forms of governance” or if there is a plausible logic of expansion (e.g. positive feedback) and path-dependent processes.
A second strategy is creating new actors and interests that are supportive of incremental policies. The idea is to “change the political landscape in the future by nurturing new actors and organizations that have an interest in low-carbon trajectories” and thereby trigger path-dependent processes.
A final perspective focusses on the roles that norms and values in policy trajectories via processes that “generate ‘logics of appropriateness’ uniting and expanding a political community”. If an intervention is “more likely to lead groups to adapt their expectations in ways that mean the original intervention becomes accepted as appropriate (i.e., legitimate)” then can influence policy in these ways.
Levin et al (2012) point to the literature on ‘advocacy coalitions’ and learning via processes of stakeholder deliberation. In particular, research on deliberative processes with polarized groups with different core values suggests they have the potential to “change their ‘secondary core’ beliefs about effects of instrument choice, opening up policy innovation and unblocking policy log jams”.
With respect to prospective practices the potential roles of coalition-building and deliberation (for fostering stakeholder learning) appear very relevant to the causal logic of such interventions. These need to be placed in a larger framework of potential path-dependent social processes.
Research on ‘prospective structures’ and the dynamics of expectations
Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars have also examined how expectations can structure activities, e.g. in technology development. For instance, van Lente and Rip (1998) contend that:
Expectations help to interlock activities and to coordinate activities and to build up agendas. Because of their “script”, expectations allocate roles for selves, others and (future) artifacts. When these roles are adopted a new social order emerges on the basis of collective projections of the future. (p.203)
They introduce a paradoxical term: prospective structure. By this they mean that the content of these expectations – particularly the orientations and scripts they contain – can pull actors together who, when they enact appropriate strategies, then generate a social structure which shapes further action. In the context of technology development this idea simply means the following: “actions [can] become coordinated through the prospect of a new technology and its functions” and, additionally, “this configuration is simultaneously shaping the technology-to-be”. They elaborate as follows:
Story-lines may structure action before the fact. It is because of their content that these stories help to create new patterns and institutions. The basic mechanism is that actors position themselves and others (and future technology) in a story or plot, and so make others into characters in the story. In reaction, others will become enunciators of stories of their own, which are inevitably linked to the original one. Since implications for action are drawn, the stories become assembled into a repertoire used by actors to define possibilities and strategies, as well as to evaluate the actions of others. Thus, prospective structures emerge, i.e. arrangements that do not yet exist, but are nonetheless forceful due to the perceived implications of the projected future (p.206; emphasis in original)
An example that’s often used is ‘Moore’s Law’. It is argued that the “law” holds because actors judge actions and technological accomplishments – and also make investment decisions – with respect to what the Moore’s Law predicts; thus directing efforts towards the “prediction”. Thus it is argued to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Van Lente and Rip also consider these dynamics in relation to emerging areas of science (e.g. a case study on membrane technology; also see ‘nanotechnology’).
Other scholars similarly observe that “in some sense, the building of [technological] promises is endogenous to the unfolding of technologies, so that the social construction of promises and the actual material development of technological achievements are mutually determined” (Apreda et al, 2014).
The broader point is that if expectations about future developments are taken up they can be a source of change (e.g. via the emergence and stabilisation of agendas). Theorisation of prospective structures and expectations dynamics may help to articulate the causal logic of prospective practices.
A related STS research program called the Sociology of Expectations has built on these and other key insights (for good introductions see this paper and another paper by Van Lente). Related phenomena such as “social bubbles” can be levers of transformative innovation (see this research program).
Research on collective strategic action and “strategic action fields”
Transformative change often also involves forms of collective strategic action. Research programs of scholars of social movements, organisations, and the dynamics of ‘collective action problems’ are thus all highly relevant.
An important insight develop by some sociologists studying these phenomena is that action takes place within meso-level social orders, such as an issue / policy domain, or – in the economic realm – a market. As noted in earlier posts, a generic term for all such social orders is a “strategic action field”. They argue that these fields are the fundamental unit of collective action. Instead of systemic change they argue we should focus on field creation, reproduction, and transformation.
Sociologists also seek to understand lock-in, which is generally termed the reproduction of a social order (status quo). For example, Fligstein and McAdam – authors of A Theory of Fields – point out that an existing field imposes cognitive barriers to innovative action by providing “stable, predictable worlds and sources of meaning and identity for all participants in the strategic action field” (p.107).
Fligstein and McAdam write: “we expect change in stable fields to be incremental, more imitative, and, generally, in reaction to the moves of others” (p.85) and further contend that “transformative change typically … await the destabilizing force of exogenous change pressures” (p.85). Related dynamics are driven by dependencies between fields. These can be a source of crisis (i.e. caused by change in related fields), which creates a kind of “ripple effect” across fields, but these dependencies “normally serve to stabilize all affected strategic action fields” (p.100). The modal outcome of contention within a field is argued to be “reestablishment of the prior order” (p.106).
An additional issue in stable fields is that participatory prospective practices could just be another space in which ongoing strategic games get played out, resulting in little / more incremental change. Similarly, incumbents (the dominant actors in a field) can be expected to be conservative.
These points reminded me of research in STS and innovation studies, such as the concept of a socio-technical regime. For example, utility systems can be resistant to change to due to strong inter-linkages – between multiple elements such as technological systems, institutions, value orientations, and resources – which work to stabilise consumption and patterns of governance and production. Transformative changes to established regimes is challenging under such conditions.
A sociological focus on change and stability in ‘fields’ also prompts consideration of:
- The interplay of the three elements of all ‘strategic action field’ situations: the resource endowments of the players, rules that govern interaction in the field, and the social skills of the actors;
- The barriers to change that existing strategic action fields represent (i.e. field “settlements”) – such as cognitive barriers to innovative action imposed by an existing field;
- The mediating dynamics during field crises (e.g. the attribution of threat / opportunity, the appropriation of organization resources and vehicles) and the potential roles or prospective practices in ‘firing’ – or helping to ‘fire’ – key social mobilisation mechanisms;
- The movement-like mobilisation processes involved in field formation and transformation. E.g. field stability can be achieved through building a political coalition, i.e. a cooperative project that provides resources – both material and “existential” – to members; and
- The development of the social skill that’s required for effective collective action. Participation in inclusive deliberative processes may help to develop these cognitive capacities.
Finally, field theorists such as Fligstein and McAdam emphasise the general phenomenon on “strategic action”. They define this as: “the attempt by social actors to create and sustain social worlds by securing the cooperation of others” (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012, p.17).
Research on Future-Oriented Technology Analysis (FTA) “as a key instrument to help prepare for and tackle Grand Challenges” (Haegeman et al. 2012)
A European FTA conference explicitly considered the potential roles of FTA in anticipating and shaping structural change. I’ve only looked at the papers published in a subsequent special issue of Technology Analysis and Strategic Management. The call for papers pointed to roles by way of:
- “Improving the quality and robustness of anticipatory intelligence and preparedness for disruptive events through the use of systematic approaches and the development of shared insights and perceptions;
- Creating spaces for an effective dialogue between key players in different policy domains;
- Vision-building and consensus-building for engineering major processes of transformation; and
- Shaping and defining research and innovation agendas”
One interesting paper by staff from Technical Research Centre of Finland argues road mapping can generate a more anticipatory culture and help build “systemic transformation capacities”.
Another case places FTA in a framework of continual learning and the need for firms to develop and steward networks of value creation. FTA has roles in facilitating more dialogue and interaction across business networks to support decision-making. They claim that this is central to “allowing network partners to evolve together and creating an evolutionary leap in sustainability performance”.
Interestingly, about half the papers focus on obstacles that typically get in the way of FTA playing such roles, in particular problems generated by unpredictability, ignorance (e.g. the many unknown unknowns, etc) complexity and failures to grasp important developments. The editors suggest FTA can be an intervention in “extrapolated futures” by injecting creativity and exploration. The papers also don’t adequately consider the potential roles of FTA in shaping structural changes.
The editors of the TFSC special issue emphasise the centrality of actors engaging and interacting with other types of actors, and the related importance of large actor networks and collective action to most transformation processes that have been studied. Related key questions about how actors coordinate and collaborate in making transitions suggests social scientific studies on prospective structures, expectation dynamics and theories of “fields” can contribute to establishing a more robust theoretical foundation.
Field theorists also discuss the problem of deciding what is a resource in a ‘strategic action field’ situation. The research on sustainability transitions cited above points to the need to consider expectations (especially collective expectations) “as specific resources created by collective action”. Further consideration of the strategies used by actors to create such resources and their structuring influence on innovation processes is a promising line of inquiry for further research.
One of the reasons they can be a resource, as shown by Sociology of Expectations research, is that collective expectations act as structures that constrain and enable individual actors and actions.
Indeed, in many domains future expectations have clearly become a target of strategic action which is termed “expectations work”. Given prospective practices can be a form of expectations work a further way forward is to further consider the expectations work of different actors and its effects.
Whether or not such activities lead to transformative change depends on many mediating dynamics and factors that remain poorly understood. Research suggests incremental change and reproduction of social orders is far more common than fundamental change (what Fligstein and McAdam term “the occasional rupture”). The extent to which prospective practices can increase the likelihood of such “ruptures”, and the mechanisms by which this occurs, is poorly understood. The research programs noted above on path-dependent processes and field dynamics provide some starting points.
If others are drawing on additional theory they think is relevant I’d love to hear from you…