What are sustainability experiments? (Part 2 of 2)

Last Wednesday’s seminar at the Finnish Environment Institute on “Sustainability Experimentation: Interplay between Grassroots and Institutions” engaged with the question of how to bridge the institutional approach to sustainability experiments with the grassroots approach. As summarized in the last two posts about the seminar (see here and here), answering the question first requires the not-so-easy task of defining sustainability experiments.

bridge low res

A bridge too far? Can bottom-up and top-down approaches to sustainability experiments be bridged?

An ideal definition would be focused enough to steer case selection by researchers and produce systematic analyses of sustainability experiments (both successful and failed), while also being broad enough to capture the informal and sometimes unplanned grassroots efforts to experiment with new approaches to sustainability challenges.

As I wrote in last week’s post introducing the “Sustainability Experimentation: Interplay between Grassroots and Institutions” seminar, one definition of sustainability experiments describes them as “small initiatives in which the earliest stages of learning takes place [and that] bring together new networks of actors producing new combinations of knowledge, capabilities and resources, solving a problem in a novel way” (see Berkhout et. al. 2011).

The most commonly used definition of sustainability experiments might be the following: “planned initiatives that embody a highly-novel socio-technical configuration likely to lead to substantial (environmental) sustainability gains” (Berkhout et. al. 2011, p. 370 and Berkhout et. al. 2010). There’s yet another definition, one I included in part 1 of “What are sustainability experiments?” Originally employed by Castán Broto and Bulkeley (2013), the definition views an intervention as experimental “when it is purposive and strategic but explicitly seeks to capture new forms of learning or experience.”

Finally, Pradip Swarnakar and I have been considering the following definition of grassroots sustainability experiments: “local experiments in alternative behaviors, practices, traditions, technologies, and institutions to sustain individuals, a group or community in the face of socio-ecological disruption.” Our intention with this definition is to carve out space for the kinds of informal experiments that would be excluded from the commonly used definitions identifying experiments as highly planned and purposive initiatives “likely to lead to substantial (environmental) sustainability gains.”

As if the definitional challenge is not great enough, the third presentation of the “Sustainability Experimentation: Interplay between Grassroots and Institutions” seminar introduced policy experiments as a specific type of sustainability experiment. Paula Kivimaa, Senior Research Fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit SPRU at the University of Sussex, in her presentation “Experiments in climate governance – lessons from a systematic review of case studies in transition research” (embedded below), highlighted how policy experiments are ill-defined and understudied. Much transitions literature focuses on technical experimentation, leaving undeveloped our understanding of the dynamics of policy experimentation.

Employing a meta-analysis of published case study research on climate policy experiments, Kivimaa and her colleagues aimed to answer the following questions:

  • What is the nature and focus of experiments that link sustainability transitions to climate governance?
  • What kind of outputs and outcomes do these experiments generate?
  • What is their specific role in low carbon or climate resilience oriented transitions?

Despite a relatively small sample size–only 18 articles (covering 29 cases) were identified for the period examined (2009-2015)–Kivimaa and colleagues were able to make some useful observations. First, the outcomes of these policy experiments were limited, with “changed discourse” being the most common outcome (e.g., creation of a new shared vision or future narratives). Second, few of the policy experiments analyzed explicitly challenge the existing policy and institutional framework. In other words, they seem to lack the transformative potential desired in sustainability experiments. Finally, the researchers concluded that at the experiment-level, “success” of an experiment is fairly easy to measure (e.g., functionality of a product or service). But at the strategy level (e.g., were broader goals achieved or was the experiment replicated or linked to others to harness potential?) success is more difficult to measure. At the system-level (e.g., progress toward overturning a sociotechnical regime), success is very difficult to assess.

Despite these challenges, according to the authors, we need to address the lack of scholarship on climate policy and governance experiments because such research promises to be beneficial to policymakers interested in experimentation.

Furthermore, as Mikael Hildén and Jonas Schoenefeld suggest in Can we experiment our way out of climate change?, “In many cases the purpose of experimenting is nothing short of learning how to change the world.” But we will not be able to learn what we need to know on the basis of a single experiment, they argue, instead indicating that “multiple and repeated experiments in different places may be necessary.” Without knowing how to define sustainability experiments our chances of learning from them may be slim as we won’t even know where we should be looking for the knowledge we need.

As I’ll attempt to illustrate in my final post on the “Sustainability Experimentation: Interplay between Grassroots and Institutions” seminar, regardless of how we define sustainability experiments they will be essential in leading to the societal transformation  humanity must undergo to stay within our planetary boundaries. The transformation will involve a range of sustainability transitions following multiple pathways. We can agree, I believe, that more sustainability experiments, covering as diverse a range as possible, are  needed. The lessons we learn from these experiments–both successful and failed–will be our guide to the transition pathways in which we place our hope for a viable future for humanity.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre’s groundbreaking work on nine planetary boundaries beyond which humanity risks generating abrupt or irreversible environmental changes

Works Cited

Berkhout, F., Verbong, G., Wieczorek, A.J., Raven, R., Lebel, L., Bai, X., 2010. Sustainability experiments in Asia: innovations shaping alternative development pathways? Environ. Sci. Policy 13(4):261–271.

Berkhout, F., Wieczorek, A., & Raven, R. 2011. Avoiding environmental convergence: A possible role for sustainability experiments in latecomer countries? International Journal of Institutions and Economies3(2): 367-385.

Castán Broto, V. & Bulkeley, H. 2013. A survey of urban climate change experiments in 100 cities. Global Environmental Change 23: 92–102.


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