Do we all agree on the importance of learning and knowledge integration for environmental governance?

By Jens Newig

A couple of days ago, I received the report of a symposium I was invited to earlier this year. The symposium, held in May at the Stockholm Environment Institute, was about “Environmental Governance in an Increasingly Complex World: An Interdisciplinary Exchange on Adaptation, Collaborative Learning and Knowledge Integration”, gathering some 25 researchers and practitioners (You can access the website here, and the report here).

Learning and knowledge integration were the key issues discussed by speakers like Ryan Plummer (adaptive co-management), Bernd Siebenhüner (transdisciplinarity), Arjen Wals (social learning in education), Stephen Elstub (deliberation) and myself (governance learning). There certainly was a lot of interesting detail from empirical and conceptual studies. One key insight, however, emerged more implicitly: There seemed a remarkable consensus in the whole group that more learning – either through participation, co-management, or transdisciplinary interaction – would benefit sustainability and environmental governance. To quote from the report, knowledge integration and learning were even seen as “a necessary precondition for transformative change toward more sustainable futures”.

I certainly agree that without learning no major leap forward can be achieved – whether this concerns sustainability or not. I just have this slight unease with the high level of consensus on the issue. Are we still asking the right questions? Are we as reasearchers still learning (sic!) enough when studying learning? Going against the grain, a couple of contributions appeared to indeed question the dominant focus on standard models of learning. Arjen Wals, for example, brought forward the idea of un-learning. While this is not new as such, I believe it would be worth discussing more thoroughly in this community. (In the Leverage Points project – WP 2 “Re-Structure” – we will focus on related topics of de-institutionalisation for the benefit of sustainability). Perhaps it is as important to study what kind of (unsustainable) beliefs, convictions, practices, institutions we need to do away with, as it is essential to examine what new things we need to learn.

New perspectives on a society beyond oil

By Lisa Fischer

Norway is a country with an interesting energy profile. It is known to be rich on oil and gas, which now account for about a quarter of Norway’s GDP and almost half of its exports by value (The Economist, 2015). Despite rich oil and gas reserves, Norway’s domestic energy supply is dominated by hydropower (nearly 40%) (IEA, 2011). In light of a recent encounter with Norwegian energy transition researchers, however, it seems to me that Norwegians are starting to redefine their relationship towards oil. In October 2015 I attended the conference “Beyond oil” in Bergen (http://spacelab.b.uib.no/conference-beyond-oil/). The conference name itself suggests that Norwegians are starting to seriously think about alternatives and ways to realize a transition to a society beyond oil.
Joining the conference, I was especially inspired by three new perspectives that I believe are worth sharing:

1.) Respect for oil workers
I learned that Norwegian professionals in the oil sector, once a highly respected and prestigious workforce, have lost their good reputation. One of the two speakers, who mentioned the current “shaming” of oil workers in Norway, was arguing for showing respect for those employed in the industry. He mentioned the pioneer oil divers, who installed pipelines, took samples etc. – some of whom died in the course of doing their job. The idea of acknowledging work done by oil workers seems rather new in the current energy debate. Could we possibly introduce this way of thinking into the German discussion about energy supply, e.g. in the case of coal workers or workers in the nuclear power sector? The speakers went even further, and explained the idea to create new climate jobs and to address the dilemma of losing traditional jobs along the path to climate neutrality. I do like the idea of acknowledging what has been done by the (oil) workers for us, not only have they worked and sometimes still work under precarious conditions, but by doing so they secure(d) our energy supply and push(ed) economic prosperity. By taking care of them we would possibly enhance the acceptance of renewable energies and counteract resistance as we take a new and more sustainable energy pathway. It might be one way to actually work together and not against each other. It would also demonstrate that we implement the idea of sustainable development more holistically, by also taking care of the social pillar.

2.) Leaving the oil in the ground.
This is a radical and challenging idea. There is no global agreement of regulating or maintaining resources in the ground in individual states. The international community has no legal jurisdiction to decide how e.g. oil and gas discoveries should be regulated. Every state has the right to development (“Declaration on the Right to Development” by the United Nations, 1986). I learned that Kenya has just recently (2012) discovered oil. Companies are still in the exploration phase, so not actually extracting the oil from the ground. While discussing with Kenyans the idea of leaving the oil in the ground, researchers discovered that it is considered a rather absurd idea. Leaving resources in the ground seems quite a radical idea compared to the current way of thinking, but I do think that it is an idea worth discussing, and one which also arises when we think about new methods such as fracking for shale gas or extracting oil from tar sands.

3.) Broadening the discussion for a society “beyond oil”
It seems that in Norway the discussion about a society beyond oil is taking place on a relatively large scale, and taking a holistic view on things. In Germany, in contrast, the debate appears to be narrowed down to a few aspects, with energy supply by renewable energy dominating the public debate. However, speakers and participants at the Bergen conference had an even broader view on the issue of a society beyond oil, also thinking about production and consumption, corruption and justice with respect to energy access, among others. I think that the discussion in Germany could benefit from such a broader perspective on a society beyond oil.

 
References
International Energy Agency (2011) Energy Policies of IEA Countries- Norway 2011 Review, http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/Norway2011_web.pdf (accessed 31.10.2015)

The Economist (2015) Norwegian Blues, http://www.economist.com/news/business/21672206-now-easy-times-are-over-norway-must-rediscover-its-viking-spirit-norwegian-blues (accessed 10.10.2015)

United Nations (1986) Declaration on the Right to Development, http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/41/a41r128.htm (accessed 31.10.2015)

A community between integration and fragmentation. Observations from the International Transdisciplinarity Conference (ITC) in Basel, 8 to 10 September 2015

 

Stephanie Jahn, Judith Kahle

FOTO 151001_td_conference

The delegation from Leuphana University at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference in Basel, 08-10 September 2015

Julie Thompson Klein’s keynote opened this year’s International Transdisciplinarity Conference (ITC) in Basel, Switzerland, tracing back the beginning of the transdisciplinarity (td) discourse to the 1970s. Navigating through almost half a century of discourse, Julie Thompson Klein named and connected key publications, key terms and concepts as well as key players in the field.

Her lecture suggested that there is a shared understanding of td-research and that there might be even something like a td-community.

However, the following three days of conference left us with the observation that this is not the case: With regard to presentations, workshops and panel discussions, the field of td-research appears as a kaleidoscope of diverse understandings of transdisciplinarity as well as of different transdisciplinary research approaches – with no coherent use of terms.

Consequently, in the course of the conference one question was repeatedly discussed: Is it possible to find a common conceptualization of transdisciplinarity as a common conceptual ground to start from?

While some argued that, comparable to a boundary object, something like a td-body of knowledge and commonly used td-concepts already exists (e.g. Schläpfer, University of Zurich), others feared that a common td-theory could become so big and complex that it is no longer possible to apply. Yet others argued that a universal td-theory is an impossible goal to reach due to the fact that td-research is always context-driven (e.g. Engbers, Leuphana University Lüneburg). Instead td-scientists shall embrace and make use of the conceptual td-pluralism as well as of its context-dependency, saying: There is no one transdisciplinarity (DiGiulio, University of Bern).

As part of this discourse three major claims were brought up by the participants of the conference to handle the fragmented field of td-research:

  • No need to reinvent the td-wheel over and over again: There already exists a growing body of knowledge and experience in td-research from which we could learn when shaping current and future td-research (Julie Thompson Klein, Wayne State University, United States).
  • Ensuring a high quality standard in td-research: Shared quality criteria as well as qualitative and especially quantitative indicators are essentially necessary to better grasp, frame and measure the field (Session 13: Evaluating transdisciplinary collaborations, suggested and confirmed by several participants of that session).
  • Beyond knowledge exchange: Td-researchers need to go beyond mere capacity building and information sharing. Instead efforts towards building a td-community are necessary (e.g. Bergmann, Institute for Social-ecological Research, Germany; Bammer, Australian National University, Australia).

To sum up, one could say that the research presented and the discussions on the conference reflected this on-going definitional debate of both the transdisciplinary research mode and the persisting plurality of practical approaches to transdisciplinarity quite well.

But we (together with Herberg, Leuphana University Lüneburg) recognized at least one joint characteristic of the td-community: despite the many ambivalent concepts and approaches, the conference was shaped by a culture of agreement and tolerance. The reactions on a presentation for instance would almost entirely be benevolent, with very few or no critical inquiries, comments or questions on research practices, methods etc. being made. While such a culture provides a great basis for mutual knowledge exchange on the one hand, it leaves only limited space for constructive confrontation and fruitful contestations on the other.

Picking up on this observation and linking it to the fragmentation of the td-research field we propose a culture of critical and constructive contention instead. We see great potential for the td-community by developing a respectful form of scientific criticism as it is common within “classical” disciplines (even though the “respectful” is not always given in every context). Adopting the perspective of Karl Popper* we would like to strengthen: Scientific quality (regardless of the particular research mode) can only be enriched by mutual critique, by contesting each other and each other’s concepts. Appreciative critique could also help the community to get into a constant practice of clarifying quality criteria than to just claim them and discuss about them on an abstract, theoretical level.

If you are interested in the plurality of td-research, but also in indicators and patterns: stay updated with our research project MONA, find our presentation at ITC-Conference here.

See also our blogpost on the Sustainability Logbook, where we published a post introducing five online tools that collect and structure literature and other resources in the context of inter- and transdisciplinary research: Disentangling the huddle of literature on inter- and transdisciplinarity research: 5 online tools offer perspective.

 

*freely adopted from: Popper, Karl. The logic of scientific discovery. Routledge, 2005.

Joining cutting-edge research on environmental politics and governance: Impressions from the Richard Wesley Conference

Participants - Foto from official conference website

 

 

 

By Elisa Kochskämper

This May, the Richard Wesley Conference on Environmental Politics and Governance was convened for the first time by the Center for Environmental Politics of the University of Washington, and with the financial aid of Richard B. Wesley and Virginia Sly. This new conference set two ambitious goals: to showcase the best and most innovative scholarship on environmental politics and governance; and start to build a new research community for this research field. The need to better demarcate the field of Environmental Politics and Governance (EPG) stems, according to the conference convenors of the conference, Aseem Prakash and Peter May (University of Washington, Seattle), from a current paradox: although the importance of analyzing present environmental challenges and required solutions is widely recognized by society and academia, EPG remains an understudied area in the social sciences. They identify a ‘silo approach’ as a major reason for this, as EPG scholarship is scattered among various subfields and sub-disciplines without sharing knowledge or results and therefore without building a firm common ground.

With these aims in mind the conference was organized from the 14th to the 16th of May in Seattle. After an initial welcome session on the first evening, eight panels were distributed over the following two days. Furthermore, post-dinner conversations that reflected on the intended community-building process took place every evening. Yet, did this conference meet its aims and differ from other conferences on EPG? It did. Below I offer some reflections on the reasons.

 

  1. Small group size

A group of 45 scholars was gathered by Aseem and Peter in a small center for environmental education on Bainbridge Island, around 16km from Seattle, amidst the lush forests of Washington State. I mention the location because it was one of the factors that created the exceptional, original and inspiring atmosphere the conference transmitted during its whole course.

The small group size, resulting from a selection process out of 290 abstracts, involving contributions of over 400 scholars from 40 countries, was another factor. We met for breakfast, lunch and dinner, attended all paper presentations, as there were no parallel panels, and participated in all post-dinner conversations. Discussions on current or recent research projects, home university, common difficulties for publications but also on hobbies or personal backgrounds, emerged completely naturally and by the end of the second day, all participants knew each other. Professional – and personal – knowledge exchange and input was therefore high (inside and outside the panels) and extremely valuable. Whether such a small group size would be viable for future conferences was one of the more controversial discussion topics in the post-dinner conversations

 

  1. High quality of papers

A defining feature of the conference was the consistently high quality of the papers presented. 32 papers addressed topics ranging from global, national and local issues, or analyses of scale (global institutions, networks, and interactions; policy approaches and outcomes: cross-national comparisons; city-level environmental politics and governance), to behavioral aspects and conflicts of distribution (opinions, attitudes, and environmental communication; conflict and cooperation in subnational governance), to pertinent substantive environmental issues (emissions, decarbonization, and climate change; environmental inequalities; corporate environmentalism and greenwashing). Presenters hailed from many of the leading institutes and universities engaging with environmental policy and governance around the world, such as Stanford and Princeton University, University of California, Australian National University, University of Essex, ETH Zürich or the Potsdam Institute.

 

  1. Interdisciplinarity

The aim to reach out to diverse subfields of EPG and foster interdisciplinarity was also met, albeit to a lesser extent. Regarding disciplines, political science predominated, although this homogeneity was extensively discussed during the post-dinner conversations. Apart from representation of a larger diversity of disciplines from the social sciences, calls were also made to reach out more to natural scientists. For us, coming from a group with the background of geography, environmental law and political science in EDGE, it was rather surprising that papers with more than two authors, which additionally come from different fields, were difficult to find. But this, again, might be due to the strong focus on political science coming from the Anglo-Saxon context. Geographically, representation from other western countries was rather low, let alone representation of developing countries. Finally, regarding group composition and coverage of topics, we were somewhat surprised that the whole resilience and earth-system governance scholarship was not present.

 

  1. Cutting-edge methods

One effect of the aforementioned Anglo-Saxon political science bias might be the emphasis on quantitative methods – only 4 out of 32 papers worked with qualitative methods. Quantitative methods were highly sophisticated and it was in particular methodologically instructive to see experimental designs on the rise. Yet, the low representation of qualitative approaches and absence of mixed methods seemed to undermine to a certain degree the intention to bring one research field comprehensively together and achieve sound theoretical insights. This, however, was also mentioned in one evening discussion session.

 

  1. Outlook

Nonetheless, these were rather formal or organizational points, which seem to be quite normal for a first conference, which is intended to mark a starting point for the gradual definition of a potential new or stronger field. The conference is planned to continue in a rotating, self-organizing manner, and the next conference is set to be held in Gerzensee, Switzerland, so many of the points raised above can be easily addressed already in the second Richard Wesley Conference on Environmental Politics and Governance. In case you are now more interested in the conference and emerging research community, you can sign up to the listserver, which was set up to provide information on, and facilitate knowledge sharing within the research community. Abstracts for the second conference are due soon, by November 3, 2015; do not miss the opportunity, we are still amazed by our outstanding stay on Bainbridge Island.

See our presentation in EDGE – Presentations.

Linking transdisciplinary sustainability research with governance

By Jens Newig

On attending the 2nd International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP 2015) in Milan, I would like to share some thoughts on the relationship of transdisciplinary research and the governance of science-policy interactions.

For those of us working in sustainability and environmental studies, transdisciplinarity (Hirsch Hadorn, Pohl, Scholz, Lang, Bergmann, …) has become an important feature. Some prefer the terms “mode 2 science” (Nowotny, Gibbons) or “post-normal science” (Funtowicz and Ravetz). They all refer essentially to the participation of non-academics in academic processes, aiming to democratise research and to produce better and societally more relevant (“socially robust”) research outputs. Whether we see it as a new mantra, or as a mere necessity to produce knowledge relevant to solving today’s looming environmental sustainability problems – it is virtually impossible to ignore transdisciplinarity when engaging in sustainability-relevant research.

Connecting academia and practice

At the well-attended ICPP 2015 plenary session on “Academics and practitioners, opposed or complementary?”, established scholars and policy-makers discussed different venues through which the academic sphere and that of policy-making are or could be linked.

The following list blends those points raised in the panel discussion, mainly by Leslie A. Pal and Rob Hoppe, with some of my own thoughts that immediately followed this. (For the purposes of simplification, I call those people outside academia who are to some degree influential in what they do “decision-makers”).

So what are those interfaces between academia and practice?

  • Decision-makers have typically themselves gone through a university education, perhaps up to PhD level or beyond.
  • Some decision-makers publish in (academic) journals.
  • Some decision-makers even read academic journals.
  • Countless think tanks, established by policy-makers themselves, consult policy-makers
  • Decision-makers selectively draw on consultants for particular purposes, and those consultants sometimes engage more with the academic sphere than do policy-makers in their day-to-day practice.
  • Some decision-makers attend (academic) conferences and exchange here with academics.
  • ‘Public intellectuals’ publish their ideas in newspapers, bridging academia and public opinion.
  • Boundary workers who, through participation in academia and in practice, facilitate co-production of knowledge.

Why is transdisciplinarity not mentioned?

Surprisingly, to me at least, transdisciplinarity, mode 2, post-normal science – those concepts that appear as the epitome of science-practitioner interaction – none of them were even mentioned in this 90-minute plenary panel.

How can this be? Perhaps most obviously, different academic discourses do not diffuse evenly into scholarly communities. Transdisciplinarity might in comparison still be a niche discourse. This does not mean that it should not be important to other fields of research, too. Exchanging about this is of course why conferences such as ICPP are important.

Another reason could be that the discourse on transdisciplinarity is much focused on (funded) research projects. Projects are limited in scope and time, often short-term, which makes on-going interaction between science and practice more difficult. Hence what Rob Hoppe – one of the plenary speakers – calls the preoccupation of transdisciplinary sustainability scholars with trust-building, whereas classical ‘policy analysts’ in other areas tend to have more stable relationships with decision-making (see http://works.bepress.com/robert_hoppe1/2/).

Third, as someone with experience in leading and studying transdisciplinary projects (→ project MONA), my impression is the following: By calling for an involvement of non-academics into research, and even an empowerment of practitioners (Brandt et al. 2013), transdisciplinary researchers (often implicitly) assume academic research to be on the side of those who are in power to decide. The plenary discussion at ICPP showed, however, that practitioners tend to see things quite differently. For public decision-makers, the point of departure is public decision-making (quite naturally), into which academics can or should be involved (through think-tanks and other mechanisms listed above). In their view, decision-makers have the power to decide, whereas academics just do research. Someone at the panel even mentioned a certain angst on the part of academics of being left out of decision-making.

The final point connects to the previous one. In response to my question of why transdisciplinarity did not figure in the said plenary, one of the panellists (I think it was Rob Hoppe) mentioned the typical normative stance of sustainability researchers in their desire for changing the world for the better, in Germany now hotly discussed under the label of “transformative science”. The general tendency at the panel was, however, to keep academia and policy-making apart (referred to as ‘demarcation’) lest we run into important legitimacy issues if researchers engage in decision-making themselves. Nevertheless, both worlds should of course connect, which is then referred to as ‘coordination’.

What role for governance?

These thoughts might sound awfully critical of transdisciplinary sustainability science. They are not. But perhaps they help us put transdisciplinarity into perspective and remind us that this is just one of many ways in which research and practice can connect. After all, we are still struggling to understand the pathways though which transdisciplinarity actually leads to an effective co-production of knowledge. This is what colleagues and I are trying to find evidence for, comparing 100 completed sustainability-related research projects (→ MONA).

So how does all this concern governance? As sustainability governance scholars, we should be aware of the multiple avenues through which we can interact with practitioners. Transdisciplinary research projects are one important way (with many different facets). Others are listed above. In particular, we might want to engage in boundary work, or connect with boundary organisations such as consultancies.

Regarding public sustainability governance, research funding organisations in particular should likewise take into account the multiplicity of research-practice interactions. While certain environment and sustainability-oriented funding programmes in Germany and Switzerland demand transdisciplinary interactions in projects they fund, the United Kingdom funding bodies are heavily concerned with the practical and societal impact generated through research (see Julia Leventon’s recent blog entry on ideas4.sustainabiliy.org). Both of these approaches appear somewhat one-sided. One could consider, for example, encouraging and funding long-term interactions between research and policy, or creating and funding intermediary organisations that serve as institutionalised bridges between research and decision-making.

Readings

Brandt, P., Ernst, A., Gralla, F., Luederitz, C., Lang, D.J., Newig, J., Reinert, F., Abson, D.J., Von Wehrden, H. (2013) A review of transdisciplinary research in sustainability science. Ecological Economics 92, 1-15.

Funtowicz, S.O., Ravetz, J.R. (1993) Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25, 739-755.

Hirsch Hadorn, G., Hoffmann-Riem, H., Biber-Klemm, S., Grossenbacher-Mansuy, W., Joye, D., Pohl, C., Wiesmann, U., Zemp, E., (2008) Handbook of Transdisciplinary Research. Springer.

Hoppe, R. (2005) Rethinking the Science-Policy Nexus: from Knowledge Utilization and Science Technology Studies to Types of Boundary Arrangements. Poiesis Prax 3, 199-215.

Lang, D.J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., Swilling, M., Thomas, C.J. (2012) Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science 7, 25-43.

Nowotny, H., Scott, P., Gibbons, M. (2004) Re-thinking science. Knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty. Polity Press, Oxford.

Stauffacher, M., Flüeler, T., Krütli, P., Scholz, R. (2008) Analytic and Dynamic Approach to Collaboration: A Transdisciplinary Case Study on Sustainable Landscape Development in a Swiss Prealpine Region. Systemic Practice and Action Research 21, 409-422.