PhD – all systems are go (starting Jan 2013)!

I am the grateful recipient of a PhD scholarship from the Institute for Sustainable Futures (@ UTS). Like most early stage PhD students I have a broad idea of what I want to research, which will no doubt be clarified and will evolve during the first 12 months:

Working title: “Experiences and Practices of ‘Foresight’ in Sustainability Science, Innovation, and Activism”

This project will examine the past, present and possible futures of ‘foresight’ practices in sustainability science, sustainability-focussed innovation activities and evolving forms of activism. ‘Foresight’ here is used as an umbrella term referring to a wide range of forward-looking exercises, analytical methods, and associated activities (e.g., used as an input into planning or policy-making, and/or aiming to influence present decision-making and actions). Whilst these are sometimes termed ‘foresight’ exercises, more often different terms are used which refer to a particular approach or technique (e.g., scenario planning, backcasting, etc.). Sometimes the term ‘foresighting’ is also used (e.g. by CSIRO in Australia).**

Background

Sustainability discourses have been heavily influenced by forecasts and the evolution of forecasting theory and practice. Famous examples include Thomas Malthus (who forecasted inevitable famine due to population growth), the Limits to Growth project (an early experiment with computer-assisted simulations and model-based projections), and contemporary consideration of climate change and futures (using more advanced modelling practices). Similar to other application domains we have also recently seen a shift from traditional forecasting/planning to ‘foresight’ – incorporating, and akin to, the shift from technological forecasting to ‘technology foresight’ exercises which is a more participatory and aims to contribute to shaping the future (i.e. not to predict or control the future).

(The editors of the journal Futures, Ziauddin Sardar and Ted Fuller, also noted such a shift in their editorial commentary accompanying the December 2012 issue of Futures. They wrote: “what accompanied the formation of Futures in 1968 was an expectation that through improved knowledge and methods, the future would be more easily predicated or forecast, and as a corollary, more controlled and would be much ‘better’ … but uncertainty and a bit of humility must now be the norm.” Furthermore, they add “what we have discovered since then is that greater world knowledge, and the generative process and the actions arising from such knowledge, produce more complexity and diversity”, underscoring the evolving understanding of issues like complexity and diversity and the importance of developing greater critical reflexivity)

New types of sustainability problems have emerged that are more future oriented. For example, as the influential sociologist Anthony Giddens observes, “global warming is a problem unlike any other, however, both because of its scale and because it is mainly about the future”. We are also seeing a related increase in the future-oriented emphasis on security, i.e. more emphasis on protecting against future dangers (e.g., as per the discussion of food, water, and energy ‘security’). Like futures studies sustainability addresses societies’ relationships with their own futures.

Over the past decade an emerging academic/research field called ‘sustainability science’ has rapidly taken shape which “transcends the concerns of its foundational disciplines [e.g. in the natural and social sciences, engineering, etc.] and focuses instead on understanding the complex dynamics that arise from interactions between human and environmental systems” (see this article and working paper for a detailed outline). Increasingly, sustainability scientists seek to go beyond gaining such an integrated understanding to also develop new problem-solving activities (e.g., for advancing clean energy systems, achieving ‘food security’, and so on). In Europe sustainability science has an implementation-orientation focussing on more effectively dealing with persistent problems of unsustainability that have a high level of complexity (see Jäger, 2009) and facilitating major societal ‘transitions’ towards a sustainable future. Consistent with these foci, Jager (2009) notes that sustainability science aims to be “a driver of societal learning and change processes”, i.e. to be a change agent.

Over the past decade or so we have also seen increasing focus on sustainability innovation in the private sector, which requires more ‘systemic’ innovations and the development of many new business fields (Konnertz et al., 2011), along with related shifts in environmental activism. Like sustainability science, new approaches and methods are being used and advocated in sustainability innovation and by activists (e.g. in NGOs, business, etc.).

Increasingly, ‘foresight’ methods and exercises are being used in the sustainability science, innovation and activism. For example, alternative methods of innovation planning (e.g., scenario techniques, roadmapping, etc.) are being used. Important early adopters of these practices include CSIRO, change consultants/facilitators (e.g., Forum for the Future, Reos Partners, etc.), and government departments focussed on industry and innovation policy (e.g., DIISRTE here in Australia). These methods/exercises provide new forms of interventions in sustainability/policy challenges.

More broadly, improving impact assessment/evaluation and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches are seen as central to progressing futures research and ‘foresight’. These topics have risen in prominence in relevant journals and conferences. Linked with this some scholars have noted that in some contexts the initial enthusiasm shown for ‘foresight’ activities has given way to a significant deal of scepticism and increasing critical analysis of various types of prospective analyses (e.g., in some European countries) and examination of the associated difficulties/complexities (e.g., in embedding ‘foresight’ in decision-making processes, or in policy contexts). The evaluative frameworks that are being developed may have broader applicability for considering the recent experiences with, and practices of, ‘foresight’ in sustainability science, innovation, and activism.

Aims

This research project aims to contribute to a better understanding of important new application domains where ‘foresight’ is being used (with a focus on sustainability science, innovation, and activism). What roles do, and could, these practices play in these domains and in efforts to facilitate major societal ‘transitions’ towards sustainable futures? What are the requirements (e.g., in terms of methodology, outcomes, etc.) and how do these requirements differ from other application domains?

Like other application domains there is an associated need to better evaluate the use of ‘foresight’ methodologies and practices in sustainability science, innovation and activism. To contribute to addressing this knowledge gap, existing evaluative frameworks and relevant theory will be examined, with a view to applying/tailoring these to new application domains. Additionally, the rationale for using ‘foresight’  methodologies and practices, and the contexts for these use (e.g., policy and/or managerial context, the problem being addressed), will be reviewed via detailed and comparative case study research. This research will assist with understanding whether the objectives are being achieved, the associated benefits and risks, and the major drivers of – and barriers to – adoption.

The project will also contribute to the theory and methodologies used in sustainability science. For example, sustainability science aims to provide decision-makers with better advice about the effects of various forms of interventions in sustainability problems. What effects have past interventions – which included ‘foresight’ activities – had? Similarly, sustainability science aims to better understand the interactions and emergent properties of coupled human-environmental systems. On the one hand, the research carried out in this field – to understand these interactions and emergent properties – is relevant to the evolution of foresight. On the other hand, ‘foresight’ methods and practices may be drawn on to understand and anticipate these ‘interactions’ and ’emergent properties’.

Overall, such a project can help to address the research/theory-practice gap. Indeed, some scholars argue ‘foresight’ is currently dominated by “practices in search of theory” (e.g., Wilkinson, 2009)!

Methods

A mixed-methods approach will be adopted, including multiple case studies and ‘action research’ methodologies to: 1) examine successes and failures to-date in taking up these new practices and methods (I.e., in sustainability science, innovation, and activism); and 2) identify and test new strategies and theory-informed approaches for improving the use of these practices and methods.

**Nb. A useful general definition of foresight is the ability to anticipate future needs and to act accordingly

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