I’m currently pondering potential research topics and questions for the PhD I hope to start next year. A paper that will soon appear in the journal Futures by some contacts of mine at CSIRO offers some interesting guidance that is well-aligned with my ‘fuzzy’ ideas.
Together with others at CSIRO and the consultancy Futureye, I have been analysing the social trajectories and dynamics of complex enviromental issues – with a focus on global climate change and biodiversity decline. Two papers based on this research have been provisionally accepted, pending successfully addressing minor issues raised by referees.
The paper on biodiversity applies path-dependecy and generation theory to assess the ‘critical juncture’ we’ve now reached on the problem of biodiversity decline and the potential to significantly improve biodiversity protection over the next decade(s):
- Path-dependency: Past societal choices often generate path-dependency, that is they can constrain the ability to move in a different direction. (A similar idea is the influence of sunk cost effects in decision-making and maladaptive behaviour).
- Path-generation: on the other hand, studies focusing on path generation identify how mechanisms of social stability that oppose system shifts can be countered through actions along ‘pathways’ that enable system transformation
NOTE: The Journal of Futures Studies recently featured a special issue on path- dependence, -breaking, and -creation (see Vol. 15, No.4, 2011).
The paper speculates on the potential for ‘transformative path generation’ to protect biodiversity (in-line with the 2020 targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity). What’s most relevant to my planned PhD research is the discussion in the paper of factors impeding ‘path generation’ and the potential roles of futures methods in stimulating greater system responsiveness e.g. to biodiversity decline and its associated risks. In particular, the authors note there currently in not a shared societal belief that biodiversity loss poses risks to humanity and that, therefore, policy action is needed.
Although few concrete ideas are put forward additional use of techniques like participatory scenario development, collective visioning exercises, etc, is suggested to help shift these societal beliefs. The authors calls for the use of “engagement methods that manage the boundaries between knowledge and action in ways that enhance the salience, credibility, and legitimacy of the information about biodiversity loss” and thereby “accelerate the [needed] tension and disruption” to shift collective perceptions and intensify policy action. Further, they contend that these techniques can “provide for collaboration between science and other knowledge and value systems” which can enable policy to be underpinned by reasoned societal debate.
The paper also references Slaughter’s ‘transformative cycle’ in noting the role of transformations of meanings (e.g. of the issue being engaged with) in enabling re-conceptualisations that help to identify new goals and options. Here futures methods can be ‘reframing technologies’.
Both perspectives are helping with the initial conceptualisation of my research.