Bridging grassroots and institutional approaches to sustainability experiments

The triangle model. A bridge between top-down and bottom-up experiments?

The triangle model, introduced in Annuka Berg’s presentation, proposes “experimentation hubs” as a bridge between top-down and bottom-up experiments.

The second half of “Sustainability Experimentation: Interplay between Grassroots and Institutions,” a seminar hosted by the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) on October 14, 2015, featured presentations on top-down approaches to driving sustainability experimentation and the experiences of municipalities as “guinea pigs” for government-initiated experiments.

Annukka Berg, Researcher in the Finnish Environment Institute’s Environmental Governance group, asked in her presentation “Is it possible to promote experimental culture top-down? Finland’s quest to become an experimentalist society.” Following a number of reports on energy and climate policy (2009) and sustainable growth and well-being (2013), then vice-chair of the Finnish Parliament’s Committee for the Future (and now Prime Minister), Juha Sipilä, held a hearing on experimentative culture. Ideas on experimental culture were met with enthusiasm across political party lines as they were seen as a way to become more action-oriented. This enthusiasm led to Berg’s report in 2013, “Time to experiment! – Finland on its way to become an experimentalist society” in turn resulting in the inclusion of the following commitment in “Finland, a land of solutions: Strategic Programme of the Finnish Government (PDF),” the government’s official vision statement published in 2015:

Experimentation will aim at innovative solutions, improvements in services, the promotion of individual initiative and entrepreneurship, and the strengthening of regional and local decision-making and cooperation. Experiments will make use of citizen-driven operating practices.

The report also promised launching of an experimentation program and the introduction of a legal basis to make experimenting easier. These commitments were followed in June 2015 by a report for the Design for Government project developed through a collaboration between think tanks Demos Helsinki and Avanto Helsinki with the Department of Design at Aalto University. The report, “Design for Government: Human-centric governance through experiments,” proposes “a new, quick-to-implement model for including experiments and behavioural approaches into Finnish policy design.”

The next steps, guided by Minister Anu Vehviläinen and members of a Ministerial working group on reform of operating practices, include a plan to establish an “office” to promote experimentation that would be part of the Prime Minister’s Office and a project to study the possibility of a special fund for experiments and how such a fund might function. Three pilot experiments are also being launched. Details, in Finnish, can be found at the government’s “Experimental Finland” website.

Berg’s presentation pointed to the need to balance the real potential for citizen empowerment with the risk that experimentation is a buzzword with communicative and political value that, even if implemented, might not challenge governance structures, company operating systems or long-term practices of individuals and organizations in ways required to drive a societal sustainability transition.

The “triangle model” (see above) neatly proposes possible relationships between top-down and bottom-up experimentation, but it also conceals some important questions. To what extent, Berg asked in closing, is it possible to promote experimentative culture top-down? Additionally, how do we address the fear of failure that might stymie experimentation?


The next presentation, “The Municipality as ‘low-carbon lab’: Promises and perils,” by Eva Heiskanen, Research Director, Consumer Society Research Centre University of Helsinki, made real the obstacle of fear of failure, as well as other local-level dynamics that might inhibit experimentation. Heiskanen began by asking how we account for the experiences of local communities and individuals whose lives may be impacted by experiments whose success is likely to benefit the broader society. More generally speaking, “How do local people experience experimentation?”

Heiskanen noted a distinct lack of research into this question. The work of her research group begins to fill this gap by looking at the Carbon Neutral Municipalities project in Finland in which five small municipalities volunteered to work toward the goal of 80% emissions reductions by 2030. By emissions-reductions goals, the project was quite a success. But Heiskanen’s research wanted to know how residents of the localities experienced it.

Interviews with involved actors (e.g., council members, committee members, chairpersons of local NGOs, local businesses (12 interviews) as well as “ordinary residents” revealed, among other things, that there was a social risk of appearing foolish by experimenting. As one interviewee explained:

“We have [now] gotten over the hardest part. At the start, people were afraid whether this would entail financial commitments, and whether we would be punished if we don’t achieve the targets. Or if we would lose face! … But luckily … we had one concrete project to get us started … Then the project started to get positive publicity, and it became easy to carry the project forward.”

In addition to this concern, the research identified the following perils of experimentation at the local level:

  • Disappointment and frustration over stalled projects
  • Risks and complexities of assessing new systems
  • Local of adequate local knowledge base
  • The perception that experimentation might harm local businesses by fulfilling commercial motives under the guise of carbon neutrality

The research also identified local learning outcomes, such as the lesson to focus on sensible solutions that bring short term rewards and enhance the credibility of a project. National-level project supporters learned that face-to-face engagement is necessary to get local buy-in and that expert support can stimulate voluntary action.

Heiskanen’s group concluded, among other things, that local people experience experiments differently than scientists in a lab. Official conclusions regarding “success” or “failure,” for example, might not resonate with local participants for whom the experiment may have produced a more complex set of outcomes. Additionally, Heiskanen concludes that local climate action experiments cannot afford to fail, at least not often, given the risks undertaken by local communities. The full set of presentation slides follow:

Heiskanen’s conclusions point to the potential for the triangle model (see above), particularly the mid-level experimentation hubs, to deal with some of the challenges of bridging community-level experimentation with top-down efforts to drive societal change. For example, ongoing buy-in at the local level requires momentum and credibility that are most easily secured with risk-reducing “quick wins.” But this might unintentionally result in the promotion of fairly conventional technologies over innovative technologies with greater transformative potential. How would experimentation hubs address these challenges?

First, they could steer the path of experimentation into the spaces where innovations with the greatest potential might arise (i.e., by creating “protected spaces” in the language of Strategic Niche Management). Second, they could serve as a resource for local communities to understand the risks and rewards of particular experiments, and tap expert knowledge as needed. While local communities might reach up to experimentation hubs for this type of support, the hubs might reach up to higher level government agencies and actors to offer support in integrating lessons from the local-level experiments into national policy. Working down the pyramid, governments can shape top-level agendas such as identifying desirable goals, and then the hubs translate these goals into experiments, or the spaces where experiments can take place, the outcomes of which might help achieve the specified goals. Additionally, the hubs utilize top-level support to bear some of the risk local communities take on in experimenting.

How this might unfold in practice is an experiment currently being undertaken as part of Finland’s aspirations to become an “experimentalist society.” Although the “Sustainability Experimentation: Interplay between Grassroots and Institutions” seminar engaged participants in some challenging questions, tensions, promises and perils regarding sustainability experimentation, grappling with the challenge of bridging institutional and grassroots, or top-down and bottom-up, experimentation approaches ultimately forces us to confront bigger questions about the nature of social change. This was the topic of the concluding presentation in the seminar, Tuomas Ylä-Anttila’s “The bee swarm model of social change: How do insitutions and grassroots push for (and against) sustainability,” which I’ll discuss in a subsequent concluding post.

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