This question has often been a tough one to answer. Often I talk about the practical things I’m doing like evaluating the ‘effectiveness’ of a set of interventions, and examining way that such evaluations are and can be done. This aspect has recently become much clearer – next month I start developing the first of three or four case studies of the ‘future forums’ that a division of CSIRO – the Energy Flagship – has run over the past 10 years (E.g. see the recent ‘Future Grid Forum‘). My plan to also examine Reos Partners’ facilitation of ‘transformative scenario planning’ (TSP) processes has also shored up — an opportunity has emerged to investigate the convening of TSP processes by Reos as part of the ‘Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions’ (ASSAR) project which is led by the African Climate and Development Initiative.
However, this sort of response is lacking in many respects. It doesn’t really answer some basic questions like: what do you want to help to understand (which isn’t currently well understood)? Or what’s the focal research problem? What are the associated key research questions?
One thing I did early on was look for theses that could serve as a model or guide. For example, I reviewed Christiane Baumann’s thesis ‘Making Better Choices’, which investigates the potential for ‘collaborative stakeholder dialogue’ (CSD) processes to contribute to “a broader focus in urban transport development that better integrates environmental, social and economic considerations”. She examined a case where CSD has been relatively successful – Munich – for key lessons (critical success factors) and investigated whether these approaches can be transferred to Sydney. I also looked at Jaco Quist’s study of the impacts of participatory backcasting experiments that were conducted in the Netherlands, which investigated whether and how such exercises result in follow-up and spin-off activities.
These two theses seemed well-aligned with my professional and research interests in understanding what roles such process can play in catalysing greater action to address sustainability problems or in enhancing the ways that these issues are addressed. There weren’t (and still aren’t) many detailed empirical assessments of these sorts of interventions and their effects.
Related to these general interests, initially one of my motivations was to contribute to the legitimacy of the ‘foresight’ area by providing more empirical evidence of its benefits and functions (whilst contributing to our understanding of how to address sustainability issues). Now, a year and a half into my candidature, my interests have diversified somewhat. I’ve become more skeptical about the benefits of ‘foresight’ methods and futures thinking – both in general, and regarding sustainability. The literature on these seems biased, dominated by practitioner self-reports (i.e. reporting on their own interventions). I’ve become more critical of the futures work conducted by many sustainability advocates and other sustainability-oriented folk. For example, futures research is often done for political purposes and falsely presented as an objective scientific activity, perhaps believing that the ends justify the means.
Most importantly, my research and thinking has become much more focussed on what I call the current ‘social juncture’ around climate change, i.e. the juncture we seem to have reached regarding how human societies understand and respond to changing and anticipated climates and the related key dimensions of organisational and human behaviour. Many futures-oriented issues are important parts of this juncture such as regarding: the use, predictive value and epistemological status of numerical simulation models; decision-making under uncertainty, including the use of simulations (i.e. models) to assess risks and inform planning; and the increasing focus on collapse-style scenarios (e.g. with some observers arguing crises and disasters are now inevitable). Regarding the latter, activist Bill McKibben astutely warns that obsessing over collapse-style scenarios tends to “keep you from considering other possibilities”, limiting creativity and agency. Related crucial aspects include the politicisation of climate science (which has increased significantly), science-policy interfaces, and institutional inertia.
My research with CSIRO and as part of the ASSAR project (with Reos Partners) provides an opportunity to study practices that are being used in this juncture, their roles and effects. In both cases:
- Participatory scenario analysis is facilitated (Reos’ processes are a full scenario planning process);
- The exercises typically have a clear problem-orientation: CSIRO exercises typically aims to address a key energy and transport issue related to greenhouse gas emissions reduction; Reos Partners see their TSP processes as a way of making progress on a “stuck” problematic issue;
- Diverse participation is sought: in the CSIRO processes cross-sectoral participation is sought (i.e. industry, government, and civil society); Reos emphasises ‘whole system’ representation;
- Social learning processes are core to how the exercises are understood to ‘work’; and
- Modelling is used to assess risks and uncertainties: in the case of CSIRO their modelling capability is central; in the case of Reos Partners the use of modelling is not normally part of the TSP process but it will be in the ASSAR project (consistent with much climate research).
Similarly, in both climate risk management and energy transitions core issues are increasing uncertainty (e.g. whether the past can be expected to be indicative of the future) and the ways that actors try to cope with more uncertain conditions. For example, as Lakoff has argued, new tools like scenario-based exercises are necessary when past data cannot be used to accurately calculate risk (see Lakoff, 2008).
In a very general sense, I think that a major gap in current research and practice is the lack of a sufficiently sociological conception of change. For instance, institutional inertia is often reduced to only being driven by vested/material interests (when it is much more complex than this); and there is too little consideration of how and why periods of transformative contention do or don’t lead to new and innovative forms of collective action. This has led me to explore the utility of sociological theories for better understanding the dynamics of institutional stability and change (e.g. field theory), and for understanding the ways that ‘prospective exercises’ can shape this stability/change.
In my paper on the current ‘social juncture’ around climate change I concluded that it indicated that “further experimentation and research is needed to explore the roles of futures research during the social juncture”. Gradually I’ve been moving towards making this the central focus of my thesis.