About me

Hi, my name is Dr Stephen McGrail. I am a research professional based in Melbourne, Australia. Most recently I’ve worked in academia, including as a Research Fellow at Monash University (sociology department) and at Swinburne University (urban social research focused on decarbonisation and climate change adaptation) here in Melbourne. Prior to this, I worked in management consulting and advertising (i.e. professional services).

I’m currently in-between gigs and, related to this, I am currently posting relatively infrequently as my core focus is presently on career (re)development considerations and related decision-making in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A few years ago I completed my PhD at an applied sustainability research institute called the Institute for Sustainable Futures (part of University of Technology Sydney). For my PhD I developed an evaluative case study of ‘prospective exercises’ convened by CSIRO-based researchers which explored potential and anticipated energy transitions, problems and related shifts and longer-term scenarios centred mostly on decarbonisation and other strategic challenges (e.g. energy security). The evaluative aspect sought to attend to outcomes of these exercises and, related to this, how the exercises were conducted and the social, political and cognitive factors that influenced their effects. My thesis also drew on theory from a wide range of fields to theorise ‘prospective knowledge practices’.

In addition to its relevance to professional work I’d been doing, the study also responded to the increasing prominence of projections (and scenarios) of the longer-term future. Central themes included the roles of future-oriented calculative practices such as techno-economic and energy system modelling and related activities such as scenario-building, including what people actually do when they appraise and use (or ignore) the outputs from these practices (such as modelling results and/or other ideas which are developed).

Related to the above theme, I also considered how actors make decisions in domains like the energy domain and under particular conditions. I drew on an interdisciplinary mix of theory, noting, for example, the influences of the frame(s) through which actors see and interpret information and make their decisions (also see Fligstein et al. 2017, Sovacool et al 2016, and Tidd & Bessant, 2018), and cognitive factors like motivated reasoning (see Mercier & Sperber, 2011). I argue that the case study findings are relevant to other transition contexts. (Also see related work on, for example, innovation adoption and rejection).

The practice lens, and other theoretical lenses, adopted in my PhD research also highlighted the importance of wider cultural and institutional factors (including ways of doing things that have become taken-for-granted) to the use and effects of such exercises.

In contrast to some of my earlier research which attended more to the informal production, circulation and evolution of expectations (e.g. in nanoscience and related technologies), my PhD research (and some other published papers) thus attended to more deliberate and conscious efforts at the production, appraisal and promotion of expectations. This research was related to professional work I was engaged in over the 2006-2017 period.

Since then I have done further research on ‘sustainability transitions’ (with an emphasis on urban water management practices and ‘deinstitutionalisation’ during transitions).

Prior to completing my PhD I completed an MA by research (social studies of science/history and philosophy of science), and MSc (strategic foresight) and BBus (Marketing) degrees.

Associated research/work (often done as part of teams I’ve been grateful to be part of) has been published in a number of academic journals including the Journal of Cleaner Production, Sustainability, Futures, Evaluation Journal of Australasia, International Journal of Foresight and Innovation Policy, On the Horizon, and Journal of Futures Studies. I have also been an invited reviewer for a number of leading journals including Sustainability Science, Geographical Review and Environment, Systems and Decisions, as well as providing reviews as part of journal special issues (e.g. for a special issue that appeared in the journal On the Horizon). For more information on these articles see the publications page.

Blog aims and contact details:

This blog was originally used to reflect on my PhD journey, share emerging insights, and comment on related issues and events that emerge from time to time (most posts between 2013-2018 reflect this original focus). The URL reflects my earlier work as a process facilitation consultant (and management consultant). I’ve considered ditching it, but it reminds me of where I’ve come from and of the normative orientation that guided such work. The focus of this blog will co-evolve with the focus of my future professional career along with the issues I decide to comment on or review from time to time. 

Preferred contact via email: stephen.mcgrail@gmail.com