I find it is good to periodically revisit and re-articulate my research interests, and related practice foci.
Overall, I still have a strong interest in how techniques of prospection (such as scenario-based exercises and techno-economic modelling practices) are actually mobilised and used in sustainability-oriented contexts, and to what effect. This sort of research has been termed casting a “sociological eye” on how tools and techniques are used and adapted in-practice. But, in addition to, and related to, these sociology of knowledge style research interests, I have a growing interest in: the production and use of anticipatory knowledge in climate change mitigation, and related knowledge claims (e.g. claims about climate change mitigation options and requirements); how scientists and others seek to ‘constitute’ environmental problems and phenomena as salient (e.g. as salient problems for policy-makers, public action, etc); the production, evaluation and use of environmental knowledge (e.g. scientific knowledge about global warming and the climate system); and the socio-political dynamics of expectations.
My PhD research concentrates on scenario-based exercises and related scenario interventions, examining their usage in climate change-related contexts (mitigation and adaptation) and examining scenarios – and related representations of the future (e.g. roadmaps) – as ‘tools for change’.
Below is a longer outline of what I’m currently focussed on (e.g. in my PhD research) and interested in:
Current research interests (e.g. PhD-related foci and research questions)
Representations of the future are prominent, and sometimes very influential, in sustainability debates and related practices. For a range of reasons this is not surprising, including the inherent future-orientation of sustainability. Over the past decade, STS scholars – who often adopt a constructivist approach – have shown that expectations often “function as productive representations, which shape the conditions of possibility” (Horst, 2007, p.151), e.g. in the development of science and technology (which was the focus of my Master’s thesis on ‘nanotechnology’). A core claim is that there is often a “performative” aspect to expectations, i.e. that they do something in the present. For example, Brown et al (2003) have argued that expectations “perform a real-time purpose in shaping present day arrangements” and should, furthermore, be seen as “part of the world of action”.
I think this is inherently interesting and practically important. On most days I am reminded of this and why it’s important. For instance, last week I skimmed a book called 10 Billion in which the author argues that “every which way you look at it, a planet of ten billion [people] looks like a nightmare”. Others disagree, articulating strong counter-views about a world of 10 billion people. The great debate at the 2015 Sustainable Living Festival will deal with the prospect of collapse, including whether this should be welcomed, focussing on the question “To collapse or not to collapse?”. Last week I also scanned a special issue in Foresight on “descent pathways” in which the editors – Josh Floyd and Richard Slaughter – argue we live in “an increasingly imperilled world”. (Similarly, Clive Hamilton argues the 21st century is “a slowly unfolding catastrophe”, and that anyone putting forward alternative views is both unscientific and a climate science denialist. Wow…). Such representations of the present and future may “shape the conditions of possibility” in a range of ways. They could spark action and more activism (including legitimising and de-legitimising certain types of action), or despair and consequently inaction.
The editors of the “descent pathways” issue contend that consideration of what is an “adaptive response” should be informed by a ‘situational assessment’, including of plausible futures.
Thus, to the extent that expectations “shape the conditions of possibility”, I think it is important to understand what processes and practices shape expectations and how they influence action. My Master’s thesis examined how these processes and dynamics shaped nanotechnology R&D.
Increasingly I also think some of the key question centre on how and why particular expectations spread and circulate, and what their impact is in the present, and why. For example, we could seek to understand how and why different expectations of a world of 10 billion people have developed, where these expectations circulate, which are seen as more or less credible and why, and to what effect (e.g. impacts on policy) – rather than aiming to assess which expectations are correct (or were correct if an ex post study is conducted) – whilst recognising that whether such a world is “a nightmare” largely depends on current and future action. In addition, we could consider what strategic possibilities are enabled or precluded by different projections, rather than accuracy (Kaplan & Orlikowski, 2013).
In the domain of emerging technologies prediction is largely a mugs game and tends to be shaped by deterministic understandings and a related failure to take account of indeterminacy (e.g. the deep contingency of technological developments and societal outcomes). What is, generally, much more interesting is what Robin Williams terms “the mobilization of expectations” and the ways that both proponents and opponents of specific emerging technologies seek, increasingly, “to project very specific visions (utopian and dystopian) of these high technology futures” (Williams 2006). How are such expectations “mobilised” (as per Williams), by whom, to what effects? What is the purpose of such determinate projections and why are they now more common?
I’m also intrigued by the potential to draw on insights from social movement studies and from research on collective action more broadly when exploring such questions. The idea that expectations are mobilised suggests this line of inquiry. That is to say that emergent collective action (a key focus of social movement studies) is often an important part of mobilising expectations. Also intriguing is whether mobilising structures and framing processes, which are theorised by social movement scholars, can be usefully related to the concept of “prospective structures” (developed by Rip & van Lente).
Related key questions include: How do threats and ambiguous events become constituted as salient (e.g. as salient problems for policy-makers and society)? How is the perception of opportunities subject to emergent social construction (see McAdam 2002)? How does the use of techniques of prospection relate to, and influence, such social processes? Does this differ for different approaches (e.g. narrative scenarios Vs determinate quantitative projections)? What are the politico-economic dynamics?
And, as Sarah Kaplan and Wanda Orlikowski ask in the context of organisational strategy-making, through what means is coherent strategic action made possible in the face of uncertainty?
These questions are related to my strong interest in the envisioning of potential futures and how this translates into action (or doesn’t!) – e.g. by constituting potential future events as salient problems, or by contributing to a shared perception of opportunities (see McAdam 2002), or – as Andrew Lakoff has eloquently put it – by bringing uncertain future events into a space of present intervention.
Finally, I’m interested in the spread of related practices such as those used for invoking and describing possible futures, including their use in strategy making (what Kaplan and Orlikowski terms “temporal work”). These seem to be a more common in a wide range of contexts. In many domains expectations have become a target of strategic action. These questions and interests are also explored in my research.
Currently, I’m a part-time Research Fellow at Swinburne University (at the Institute for Social Research) working on a project called ‘Visions and Pathways 2040’ which is funded by the CRC for Low Carbon Living. I mention this under professional practice because it is a research and engagement project, which involves the use of visioning, scenario-based workshops and backcasting practices.
An interesting aspect of this project is the aim to expand constituencies for change by mobilising business-as-unusual expectations. A key question is whether such processes can bring about (or contribute to) real change that advances decarbonisation and resilience in cities. Related questions address the role of visions and visualisation. An assumption is that expectations strongly shape the conditions of possibility (as discussed above); hence the focus on influencing expectations.
In terms of research, the project will shed light on ways that decarbonisation and resilience are being thought about with respect to Australian cities and the ways that different actors wish to approach this into the future (e.g. visions of decarbonised cities, views on the ways trade-offs should be handled, envisioned forms of local resilience including ways to mitigate climate risks via adaptation and changes to reduce vulnerabilities). There’s increasing focus on cities, and the built environment more generally, in climate change research and policy. Whether this focus is the right focus given the challenges (e.g. given the degree of inertia in the built environment) is an open question which will also be considered.
Core literature cited in this post
Brown, Nik, Rip, Arie, & van Lente, Harro. (2003). Expectations in and about science and technology (background paper for ‘expectations network’ workshop [link to pdf])
Horst, Maja. (2007). Public Expectations of Gene Therapy: Scientific Futures and Their Performative Effects on Scientific Citizenship. Science, Technology & Human Values, 32(2), 150-171.
Kaplan, S. & Orlikowski, W.J. 2013, ‘Temporal Work in Strategy Making’, Organization Science, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 965-95.
McAdam, D. 2002, ‘Beyond Structural Analysis: Towards a More Dynamic Understanding of Social Movements’, in M. Diani & D. McAdam (eds), Social Movement Analysis: The Network Perspective, Oxford University Press. (Link to pdf)
van Lente, H. & Rip, A. 1998, ‘Expectations in Technological Developments: an Example of Prospective Structures to be Filled in by Agency’, in C. Disco & B. Van Der Meulen (eds), Getting New Technologies Together: Studies in Making Sociotechnical Order, Walter de Gruyter & Co.
Williams, R. 2006, ‘Compressed Foresight and Narrative Bias: Pitfalls in Assessing High Technology Futures’, Science as Culture, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 327-48.