The study: I conducted a series of impact evaluations, and a related case study, which examined the “futures forums” conducted by a research group at CSIRO – Australia’s national research agency – called CSIRO Energy. CSIRO Energy (formerly called the ‘Energy Transformed Research Flagship’ and ‘Energy Flagship’) is developing new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also seeks to inform related decision-making and policy-making such as via techno-economic modelling and related analysis. The “futures forums” component of their work adopts a more participatory approach where multi–stakeholder dialogue and learning processes are combined with, and also informed, their modelling work and scenario analysis. Each forum produces a public report on a focal topic such as the future of Australia’s electricity grid and energy sector (link).
It’s important to note that these were quite high-profile exercises. To give one example, participants in the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Roadmap Forum included staff from Qantas, Virgin Australia, Boeing, Airbus, Caltex, the Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF), The Climate Group and relevant Federal and State government departments along with CSIRO scientists.
In my research I conceptualised these forward-looking participatory exercises as ‘prospective exercises’ (some other folk call them foresight processes/exercises) and I conceptualised related knowledge practices as ‘prospective knowledge practices’ (PKPs). I wanted to examine and theorise their use in the context of sustainability-related transitions and – informed by the impact assessments – I evaluated their utility and effects.
The exercises I examined had a range of aims such as producing a set of outputs (e.g. a set of agreed future scenarios, a consensus report, etc) and informing or influencing related decision-making. In some instances, there were broader goals around influencing or informing public policy debates (e.g. energy policy, transport policy), or promoting changes that involved actors were seeking to realise or accelerate. In all instances there was a core focus on energy transitions either in terms of emerging and/or potential changes or in relation to normatively desired transitions in energy supply and/or use.
The data I collected indicate that CSIRO staff struggled to achieve these aims and, in some key respects, failed to achieve them, though all the studies were completed. Other practitioners wouldn’t be surprised to hear that most of these studies were difficult to complete and CSIRO staff often found themselves in tough situations where there were disagreements, a lack of consensus (in contrast to their desire to run a consensus process that produced consensus outputs) and methodological challenges. Additionally, though the outputs were used by many actors, often the studies either didn’t have significant impact or they had unintended impacts due to the ways that the outputs were used.
Interesting questions can be posed about this such as: why bother to conduct these exercises (given their challenges) or participate? What characteristics of prospective knowledge practices (PKPs) contributed to the identified issues and their effects? How could their use be enhanced in the context of sustainability-related transitions?
Or, more simply, why? Why did the forums have these characteristics, challenges and outcomes? Answering such questions requires a serious attempt at causal explanation.
Case analysis and additional findings: I looked at the case from a range of perspectives. Before going into the specifics I’ll provide a quick overview: Chapters 3 and 4 explores the guiding “intervention theories” that informed the design and facilitation of the CSIRO futures forums. Chapter 5 proposes that prospective knowledge practices (PKPs) are social and reviews the evidence to examine whether, and in what respects, this appears to have shaped the futures forums and their effects. Chapter 6 examines some more political aspects of knowledge practices and what this might tell us about the use of anticipatory knowledge in real-world social contexts. Chapter 7 examines cognitive factors centred on understanding reason as a cognitive mechanism. Chapters 8-10 introduce some further theoretical ideas that serve as integrating devices, centred on theories of action and actor theories (derived from pragmatism) and the notion of microfoundations.
As the previous paragraph indicates, the range of relevant factors is vast and any explanation will be partial at best. Some aspects more strongly point to facilitation decisions, process design and methodological choices; alternative explanations point to myriad other factors which can structure forward-looking inquiry, the ‘work’ that gets done during a prospective exercise, and how actors use the outputs (or don’t).
Whilst practitioner choices are consequential (I discuss many examples in the thesis), ultimately I concluded that other factors were at least as influential and probably much more so. Such a conclusion could be misinterpreted so, to be clear, I’m not arguing that practitioners have no agency, and I discuss in the thesis the significance of their guiding theories of change. Rather, what we need to recognise is that their agency and the actions of participants in these exercises are shaped by the social structures in which they are enmeshed and by cognitive processes, amongst other key causal factors. With this careful framing we can move on to consider some arguments below.
One argument I considered is that prospective exercises, PKPs and their effects “reflect the social conditions of their production and the social conditions of those involved in their production” (Erickson, 2016, p.1). A related science studies-informed idea is that anticipatory knowledge is actively made, not discovered or found ‘out there’ in the world via the ‘detached’ use of research methodologies. This simple idea is potentially quite profound: it means that additional factors must be considered when interpreting all anticipatory knowledge claims, including the influence of social processes which may have been consequential in their production. More broadly, I concluded that PKPs are strongly social in nature and that in the case these aspects tended to constrain the outputs that were produced and their subsequent use in ways that limited their effects.
Another argument I considered is the futures forums, their outputs, and their effects were constrained and enabled by politics. This perspective also suggests that forward-looking processes and anticipatory knowledge are resources which actors have varying capacities to put to strategic use (e.g. due to power relations) and this, in turn, conditions their effects. I found some credible evidence of this in the focal case, along with political processes such as bargaining games. I also argue that actor learning in transitions often is also ‘political’ in the sense that actors look for ‘ammunition’ to use in policy/strategy debates.
A further argument is that the outcome patterns can be explained by the functions and tendencies of human reasoning and the conditions under which this occurs. This argument draws on a related idea: “we cannot perceive the future but only infer it” (Mercier & Sperber 2017, p. 53). This implies that such inferences and the reasoning mechanism(s) that enable these inferences will be significant both during a prospective exercise and afterwards when actors appraise the outputs (e.g. when assessing the plausibility and/or strategic relevance of claims) and consider whether (or how) to use them. I drew on one theory of reasoning (Mercier & Sperber 2017), but others could be used.
I concluded that all such arguments have some explanatory value and that they’re somewhat overlapping explanations. This is similar to Cerulo’s (2016) argument that human thought and social phenomena have both “inside” aspects (i.e. the neural activity in the brain and associated cognitive mechanisms) and “outside” aspects (sociocultural factors and processes) which interact. The interplay of such “inside” and “outside” factors is complex and consequential in prospective exercises and other PKPs.
In the thesis Abstract I summarise this as follows: “the net effect of the identified [causal] mechanisms and contextual factors constrained the roles and impacts of the futures forums”.
After further reflection I also concluded that the case is relevant to considering a broader set of questions about forward-looking exercises, their roles and the use of PKPs in real-world settings. Consequently, I entitled the thesis: “The Roles and Use of Prospective Knowledge Practices in Sustainability-related Transitions”.
Considered from a more ‘macro’ vantage point, the focal prospective exercises may give us insights into their use in context of high-stakes debates and changes (e.g. debates about energy policy and energy transitions): how do actors deploy the future in such contexts and why? To what effects? How do actors ‘consume’ related information (i.e. which presents claims made about the future)? The tendency suggested by the case is that actors don’t deploy the future in a disinterested or neutral manner – as per commonly-expressed scientific ideals/norms – and consequently we need a different account of PKPs that can better incorporate external influence, strategic action, and institutional structuring. Moreover, this can promote conflict between actors seeking to embody scientific ideals (e.g. CSIRO staff) and others whose approaches embody a different set of norms.
The thesis considered patterns on the claim ‘consumption’ side of things as well. I argue that the case suggests that actors have a strong tendency to seek out confirming evidence to justify or reinforce beliefs and a tendency to discount or avoid disconfirming evidence. This case suggests this can reinforce attitudinal polarisation and can contribute to other outcomes that influence sustainability-related transition processes.
Considered from a more ‘micro’ vantage point, the case suggests we need to think more about the work that practical actors are seeking to do when they participate in a prospective exercise or use the outputs and whether our theories and practices are consistent with this. For instance, if “most individuals are not grand entrepreneurs, but practical people doing practical work to get a job done” (Smets & Jarzabhowski, 2013, p.1304) how do PKPs aid them in completing this ‘work’? The case suggests prospective exercises and other PKPs can be useful for such work, such as for more mundane goals actors can have like justifying their decisions. The outputs are often used for related reasons such as when actors have a belief (e.g. that certain actions are needed) and are looking for justification. Moreover, the search for justification can influence what scenarios and claims are considered credible/plausible.
In the concluding chapter of the thesis I sketch some related arguments about how a ‘pragmatic’ central goal – such as primarily seeking “to guide or enable action in the problem situations actors are facing” (p.296) – could enhance some practices.
Related claims and thoughts: This case research has raised the idea that the use of PKPs can be enhanced by a clearer microfoundation informed by cognitive science and sociological theories of action and knowledge practices. (See Part 3 – Chapters 8-10).
A further, complementary set of considerations – which I only briefly touched on in the thesis – address the nature of energy debates and energy policy. Sovacool et al (2016) persuasively argue that numerous causes of contention mean that “energy discussions of any real depth will ultimately sire disagreement rather than consensus” (p.336; emphasis added). This is an interesting counter-point to the emphasis placed on consensus by CSIRO staff. A contrasting outcome such as “increased disagreement induced by deliberation” (Landemore & Page, 2014), i.e. “dissensus”, may in some cases be more productive, though this depends on the goals of the exercise and how ‘success’ is defined.
In the next post I will expand further on some of these broader thoughts and ideas that the case research stimulated, building on the empirical research and conclusions.
Cerulo, K.A. 2016, ‘Cognition and Cultural Sociology: The Inside and Outside of Thought’, in D. Inglis & A.-M. Almila (eds), The SAGE Handbook of Cultural Sociology, SAGE Publishing, Inc.
Erickson, M. 2016, Science, Culture and Society: Understanding Science in the 21st Century, Second edn, Polity Press, Cambridge UK; Malden, USA.
Landemore, H. & Page, S.E. 2015, ‘Deliberation and disagreement: Problem solving, prediction, and positive dissensus’, Politics, Philosophy & Economics, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 229-54.
Mercier, H. & Sperber, D. 2017, The Enigma of Reason, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Smets, M. & Jarzabkowski, P. 2013, ‘Reconstructing institutional complexity in practice: A relational model of institutional work and complexity’, Human Relations, vol. 66, no. 10, pp. 1279-309.
Sovacool, B.K., Brown, M.A. & Valentine, S.V. 2016, Fact and Fiction in Global Energy Policy: 15 Contentious Questions, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.