Key concept review: temporal work in environmental advocacy and sustainability transitions

My doctoral research used to be framed and described in terms I learned as part of a Master of Strategic Foresight degree (for thoughts on this degree which is being wound up by Swinburne University see an earlier post). Over the past four years I’ve moved on from the “foresight” tribe, so to speak, but aspects of what I learned in this course continue to inform my research and work.

These days I tend to think about and describe the core objects of investigations in my research in different terms. One focus of my research is the use of forward-looking (prospective) knowledge practices as part of the temporal work done by actors in sustainability transition contexts. What does this mean? Well, there are a bunch of concepts that first need to be defined and some historical and contemporary examples might help to illuminate what I mean.

An interesting historical example is the global population control movement and the writing and advocacy of scientists such as Paul Ehrlich (see earlier blog post). Population control advocates often voiced dramatic, fairy dystopian views of the future and made related predictions (e.g. in Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb). Ehrlich stated that this was part of his strategy to try to encourage action. More contemporary examples can mostly clearly be identified regarding climate change action advocacy and analysis of clean energy transitions (e.g. see earlier blog post). Claims are frequently made, for example, about how much time we have to act, and the potential implications of this, and strategic issue assessments often integrate perspectives on the future with understandings of history (e.g. earlier periods of similar change) and the current situation. Recently, I’ve also made the broader argument that over the past two decades we’ve seen a ‘prospective turn’ in environmental thought.

This topic is broader than my PhD research project. It’s perhaps best summarised as studying temporal work and dynamics in environmental thought and related action. This line of inquiry is relevant to understanding and enabling innovation, climate change action and environmental politics.

Moreover, a strong argument can be made that much environmental thought and action is inherently prospective.

Here is an outline of some related key concepts:

Temporal work: The notion of temporal work refers to the development and contesting of strategic narratives that are told by actors (see Kaplan & Orlikowski 2014). The specific term and concept was first proposed by Kaplan and Orlikowski (2013) to describe practices they observed being used by managers involved in strategy-making during an industry crisis. These practices (of ‘temporal work’) were used by managers to “settle on particular strategic accounts that link interpretations of the past, present, and future in ways that appear coherent, plausible, and acceptable” (p.965). They found that managers relied heavily on temporal work when proposing and debating strategic options under uncertainty and that the intensity of temporal work that was done influenced the extent to which strategy-making departed from a status quo approach. Kaplan & Orlikowski (2013, p.965) further contend that “projections of the future are always entangled with views of the past and present, and temporal work is the means by which actors construct and reconstruct the connections among them” (p.965). The related concept of expectations work has been proposed by some sustainability transition researchers.

Some sustainability transition scholars similarly argue that “in practice, navigating transitions requires connecting the past, the present and the future through a sense of trajectory” (Turnheim et al 2016, p.241). Such arguments clearly emphasise the potential role of ‘temporal work’.

Knowledge practices: The concept of knowledge practices describes the socially situated activities through which knowledge is produced, evaluated and used (Camic et al 2011). For example, sociologists use ensembles of patterned activities to produce social theory and financial analysts use specialist knowledge practices in order to provide financial advice. The “practice” aspect emphasises the day-to-day actions and processes through which knowledge is produced, evaluated and/or put to use.

Techniques of prospection: this terminology was proposed by Mallard and Lakoff  (2011) for the “set of practices used for envisioning an unknown future” such as scenario-based exercises. Techniques of prospection are one of the knowledge practices included in the book edited by Camic et al. (2011).

Sustainability transition: a ‘transition’ is typically defined as a “long-term process of radical and structural change at the level of societal systems” (link). Sustainability transitions are transitions which are part of broader changes towards a ‘sustainable society’. Such transitions include clean energy transitions (which are the focus of my PhD research) amongst many others.

Over recent years I’ve also come to better understand that environmental politics is, in large part, a politics of the future (also see Groves 2016). Consequently a broader claim is that we need to study key activities and styles of anticipation and their influence, as well as how people, organisations and societies deal with uncertain futures, if wish to understand environmental politics. Many actors in sustainability debates are – in various ways – seeking to navigate uncertainties and change.

Related to this one of the things that continues to fascinate me is how particular views of the future develop and what influences them, such as the integrating (as per ‘temporal work’) of interpretations of the past, present and future into new influential perspectives.

Beyond the foci of my own research consider the following important example: the commonly stated claim that humanity is currently in “ecological overshoot” and, therefore, exceeding the long-term “carrying capacity” of the planet. This claim is often made by environmental activists. However, it is a difficult claim to empirically defend because, overall, it is cannot be straightforwardly assessed in terms of the present situation. Instead, when activists and scientists are making claims about “overshoot” typically they project future developments (e.g. those seen as likely future consequences of present actions and ways of life) and discuss related future implications. This is clearly seen when claims are made that present ways of life cannot be sustained (into the future).

There are descriptive, explanatory and normative aspects to exploring these sorts of practices. The descriptive aspects contribute to a better understanding of such practices, who uses them and why, and so on. From a normative perspective we can consider whether it’s a good thing that activists, scientists and others are making such claims, and, to the extent that it is a good thing, what can be done to make them more influential. I personally have many concerns about many uses and aspects of forward-looking inquiry (link) but I also recognise their potential importance to sustainability.

Key references

Camic, C., Gross, N. & Lamont, M. (eds) 2011, Social Knowledge in the Making, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

Kaplan, S. & Orlikowski, W.J. 2013, ‘Temporal Work in Strategy Making’, Organization Science, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 965-95.

Kaplan, S. & Orlikowski, W. 2014, ‘Beyond Forecasting: Creating New Strategic Narratives’, MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 56, no. 1, pp. 23-8.

Mallard, G. & Lakoff, A. 2011, ‘How Claims to Know the Future Are Used to Understand the Present: Techniques of Prospection in the Field of National Security’, in C. Camic, N. Gross & L. Michele (eds), Social Knowledge in the Making, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 339-77.

Turnheim, B., Berkhout, F., Geels, F., Hof, A., McMeekin, A., Nykvist, B. & Vuuren, D.v. 2015, ‘Evaluating sustainability transitions pathways: Bridging analytical approaches to address governance challenges’, Global Environmental Change, vol. 35, no. November, pp. 239-53.

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