20 April, 2016

We are delighted to learn that our session on sustainability was accepted to the RGS-IBG 2016 Annual International Conference that will be held at the Royal Geographical Society in London, from Tuesday 30 August to Friday 2 September 2016.

Session title: Be constructive! Situating sustainability research at the nexus of positivism and reflective positionality (see abstract here)

Session organisers: Markus Hesse (U. Luxembourg) Constance Carr (U. Luxembourg)
Chair: Constance Carr (U. Luxembourg)

Discussant: Susannah Bunce (U. Toronto)


1. An interdisciplinary review of humans-nature relationships in urban sustainable futures
Olivia Bina (U. Lisbon and U. Hong Kong), Lavinia Pereira (U. Lisbon), Eduardo Costa Pinto (TU Lisbon)
We critically review the changing relationship between humans and nature in the city, as a cornerstone dimension of 21st century sustainability policy. We start with the Anthropocene as the metaphor for humans becoming a force of nature, and the city as the emblematic setting for a sustainable or dystopian outcome for the planet. At the origin of the problems arising from this age is a breakdown of humans-nature relationships (HNR) that has its roots deep in Berque’s ‘Classic Modern Western Paradigm’. We examine current urban sustainability policies (green, eco, low-carbon and smart - GELCS) from the perspective of humans-nature relationships. The inquiry engages with notions of reductionism, duality and economization that shape our contemporary condition and mainstream views of HNRs, by: (1) proposing a new interdisciplinary conceptual framework for “HNR in the city” that helps to rethink nature as intrinsically valuable and humans as part of natural processes, namely through concepts of interconnectedness, belonging and embodiment, (2) applying the framework to a range of GELCS policy documents, from both international organisations and leading cities across the globe, (3) categorizing the policies reviewed in terms of how their treatment of HNR relates to transition and transformation discourses, and (4) drawing lessons and recommendations for the treatment of HNR that is consistent with the ethical and transformative ethos of sustainability theory and policy.

2. Broken promises and balancing acts: researching retrofit in North London
by Rebecca Ince (U. Sheffield)

This case study of domestic retrofit in North London firstly critically examines the reality of experimenting with super-optimistic policy in an urban context, and secondly illuminates the tensions and compromises within an EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) project assisting a local authority (the London Borough of Haringey) in developing its domestic retrofit strategy.
  The Green Deal, launched in 2012 and culled in 2015 was - at the time - the UK government’s flagship energy policy. Its two strands - a market mechanism of loan finance for energy efficient home improvements (e.g. insulation), and an industry accreditation framework - were intended to overhaul existing, inefficient UK housing stock. This overhaul promised to reduce carbon emissions, create a new retrofit industry (generating jobs and ‘green’ growth) and protect the vulnerable against fuel poverty. Urban spaces were positioned as sites of experimentation, tasked with creating localised retrofit infrastructures - making the Green Deal ‘work’. In reality, funding was sporadic and narrowly focussed on specific technologies and markets, creating a partial infrastructure that ignored local priorities and excluded swathes of North London’s most vulnerable residents. The IAA research process was both satisfying and challenging for the critical researcher. Rich knowledge was co-produced with council officers, SMEs and community groups, along with a welcomed evaluation and a framework of principles upon which to base future retrofit work. However, expectations of providing retrofit ‘models’ to try were impossible to meet, heavy policy critiques had to be balanced with good news from Haringey’s context (such as highlighting their innovative advisory process), and qualitative ‘impact’ proved difficult to measure when reporting to funders.

3. Hiding the Hidden Hand: Essentialism, Anti-Essentialism, and the Science-Policy Interface
Tom Becker (U. Luxembourg)  Rob Krueger (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Markus Hesse (U. Luxembourg) 
Decision makers from around the world, at all scales, seek a new science-policy interface (SPI). SPIs often come in the form of best practices, which are defined as policy ideas developed in one place  and deemed unproblematic when transferred across space. Best practices have been elevated to best practices because they are ostensibly vetted (objectively) and readily available (universal) for import. They are essentialist in that they have elements, such as rational actors, that are necessary to their function. Recent studies in policy mobility, an anti-essentialist approach to understanding the movement of policies from one place to another, have shown that there are significant challenges to the essentialist paradigm of scientific policy-making (e.g., new institutional contexts and actor perspectives).
   The debate between essentialism and anti-essentialism in the mobility of best practices resonates with the work of Albert O. Hirschman (1915-2012). Hirschman gained notoriety by developing an anti-essentialist theory of policy, the hiding hand principle, by assessing development projects in the 1950s and 60s. The hiding hand only emerges in the face of policy ‘failure’ and leads to more creative solutions to problem solving. For policy makers to profit from the hiding hand they must abandon the notion of universality and objectivity, which is the goal of the science-policy interface. Hirschman’s work is valuable today; it refocuses the object of analysis to the role of actors and how they frame, promote, and determine best practices. We examine the hiding hand through the URBACT markets project. This project reveals the dynamics of how actors develop and adopt best practices using the science policy interface to overcome failure and uncertainty with universality and objectivity. 

4. Quantitative Story Telling at the European Commission: new method, same challenges for nexus policy studies
Kirsty Blackstock, Kerry Waylen, and Keith Matthews (of the James Hutton Institute) and Mario Giampietro (A.U. of Barcelona)
We will discuss the application of “Quantitative Story-Telling” (QST) underpinned by “social  metabolism modelling” with the aim of informing European Commission policy making processes. Our H2020 project “Moving Towards Adaptive Governance in Complexity: Informing Nexus  Security brings together scientists from multiple disciplines with a range of European policy actors in a transdisciplinary “nexus dialogue space”. In this space, we co-analyse the narratives that underpin  policies within the water, agriculture, biodiversity, climate and energy “nexus”. QST defines and  implements assessments of “social metabolic patterns”, using metrics that are meaningful when  applied across space and over time. The analysis also assesses how these patterns respond to global drivers, key dependencies and where they exceed planetary boundaries. Deliberations within the  dialogue space focus on how policy narratives are bio-physically feasible, institutionally viable and  politically or socially desirable. The project generates familiar challenges for the critical qualitative  researcher: With whom are we telling stories and for what purpose? What interest do policy makers  with a clear remit, mandate and set of influences have in tackling the nexus? Is there a coherent and  bounded set of European ‘nexus policies’? Within our research team, how do we map multiple  interpretations of social metabolism metrics and competing policy narratives onto a single modelling framework? Explicitly highlighting these issues can support this radical reframing of the nexus  debate around social, environmental and geographical justice. Such a reframing is challenging when simultaneously trying to prove the ‘utility’ of new approaches to policymakers, requiring continual  iterations of QST to ensure salience, build credibility and ensure legitimacy within these policy  processes.

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