Researcher Reflections #6: Social Innovation and Change

We are wrapping up this summer series of reflections from members of the MC3 research team with a piece by John Robinson. Prof. John Robinson is Associate Provost, Sustainability at the Univeristy of British Columbia and a Co-Investigator with MC3. In this blog, John shares his thought on the dynamics of change and social innovation.

A common question in climate change circles is “why don’t people respond to the manifold evidence that climate change is happening and change their behaviour?” I prefer to turn the question around: “why would such behaviour changes ever happen?” After all, we live in highly path dependent systems, with strong degrees of technological and behavioural lock-in.  Changes in energy systems, for example, typically take decades to occur. Moreover, we have a plethora of evidence that information alone does not change behaviour. In fact increased science literacy may actually increase polarization of opinion on issues like climate change, reinforcing initial positions.

Such considerations might make us rather pessimistic about the chances for significant change in response to climate change. Yet we know that change happens nevertheless. Indeed, rapid social, technological, political and economic change seems to be the condition of the modern world, though little of it seems to be planned. It is probably fair to say that we are overwhelmed by the pace and amount of change surrounding every aspect of our lives.

So is our world resistant to change or surrounded by it? And what can we usefully say about the likelihood of achieving the degree of changes in technology and behaviour that are called for by the climate change research community? The emerging study of complex socio-natural-technical systems (i.e. our inter-connected world) might provide a few pointers.

First, our world is complex, and characterized by emergence. This means it is to a significant degree unpredictable and uncontrollable, and thus can only be partially understood or managed.  This flies in the face of our Enlightenment-based beliefs in the power of rationality and predictive management. It calls to mind the old adage that the only law of sociology is the law of unanticipated consequences. I would go so far as to suggest that the second order consequences of many changes goes in the opposite direction from the anticipated first order effects, and is often larger (think of the predictions that telecommunications would give rise to the paperless office, or of building highways to reduce traffic congestion).

Second, unanticipated change, sometimes of massive dimensions, will continue to happen. And it is not just the biophysical properties of our climate systems that will change, but also social, cultural, economic, religious and other phenomena. We should therefore put quite a lot of effort into developing tools and processes of adaptive planning and response.

Third, all these phenomena are inter-connected in complex ways. We should not focus our attention only or even mainly on climate change, any more than we should do so for any other aspect of our inter-dependent world. In fact, unless we change the underlying unsustainability development path, climate policy alone will not be sufficient to achieve even our climate goals, let alone other critical objectives. While, in practice, we must act in finite time, on specific problems, we should constantly bear in mind the potential higher-order consequences of our actions, and the inter-connections between apparently unrelated subject-areas. 

Fourth, since change is endemic to our world, the challenge may be less one of creating or inducing change than of managing and trying to influence the change that is already and constantly occurring all around us. Here various forms of sustainability transition theory suggest the importance of looking to small protected niches of innovation, and their potential for causing changes in the larger regimes of which they are a part. Such work also suggests the importance of connecting such niche-level innovation to larger landscape level changes in underlying cultural, technological, economic and political factors.

To me, these considerations inspire an optimistic take on our future. The focus shifts from needing to convince everyone that we have to  make drastic changes in energy systems to meet the climate change challenge, to trying to create or support local experiments—social innovations—that tend to move us in more sustainable directions, while simultaneously looking for ways to connect such innovations to larger scale changes in our culture. Given complexity, there can be no blueprint. What works well here and today may turn out to be counter-productive elsewhere or in the future. But we can surely identify and support specific changes that, in our best current judgement, move us in a more sustainable direction. 

Our goal should be to surf the biogeochemical, and cultural, waves of our world, enhancing them instead of degrading them. This means renouncing the comfort of strong certainties and big, one-size-fits-all solutions, and embracing uncertainty and multiple trial-and-error experiments. It implies a stronger focus on participatory processes at the local and community scale. Perhaps most of all, it requires a sense of humility, openness and collaborative experimentation.