Introducing “The Sustainability Experiments” series

Having just finished the fifth post reflecting on and analyzing the presentations and discussions of “Sustainability Experimentation: Interplay between Grassroots and Institutions,” a recent seminar on sustainability experiments at the Finnish Environment Institute, I thought I would group the posts into “The Sustainability Experiments” series. Each entry in the series is linked by its title below, followed by a synopsis and a list of the seminar presentations discussed in the post. The presentations themselves are embedded in the respective posts where they are discussed.

Sustainability Experimentation: Interplay between Grassroots and Institutions

This post provides background on the field of sustainability transitions research of which sustainability experiments are a part. It also introduces some existing definitions of sustainability experiments and argues for the importance, in particular, of grassroots sustainability experiments.

  • “Fast Tracking Sustainability Transitions: Tapping the Human Tendency to Experiment,” Stephen Zavestoski, Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology, University of San Francisco and Visiting Researcher, Finnish Environment Institute)

What are sustainability experiments? (part 1 of 2)

Here I problematize the concept of sustainability experiments by pointing to the extremes––formal experiments in the lab research tradition and informal experiments playing out at the grassroots as individuals and communities strive to deal with sustainability challenges––and then ask how these extremes could be bridged so that knowledge produced through grassroots sustainability experimentation can be utilized at the institutional level.

  • “Welcome to the Seminar,” Mikael Hildén, Director of Climate Change Programme, Finnish Environment Institute
  • “Sustainability Experimentation Venture Network (SEVeN): Nurturing local knowledge for global change,” Pradip Swarnakar, Research Fellow, Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki and Associate Professor of Sociology, Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Gwalior

What are sustainability experiments? (part 2 of 2)

In this post I propose that an ideal definition of sustainability experiments 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. A look at Paula Kivimaa’s presentation on experiments in climate governance reiterates the importance of arriving at a definition of sustainability experiments.

  • “Experiments in climate governance – lessons from a systematic review of case studies in transition research,” Paula Kivimaa, Senior Research Fellow, Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex

Bridging grassroots and institutional approaches to sustainability experiments

This post focuses on the extremes captured in two of the seminar’s presentations: how can an entire nation become an “experimentalist society,” on one hand; and, on the other hand, what are the experiences of everyday people in local communities who are enlisted in the experiments their governments undertake? The “triangle model of experiments” is explored as a possible conceptualization of a bridge between bottom-up and top-down experiments.

  • “Is it possible to promote experimental culture top-down? Finland’s quest to become an experimentalist society,” Annukka Berg, Researcher,  Environmental Policy Centre, Finnish Environment Institute
  • “The Municipality as low-carbon lab: Promises and perils,” Eva Heiskanen, Research Director, Consumer Society Research Centre University of Helsinki

Can sustainability experiments drive social change?

This concluding post in the series unpacks the relevance of the concept of “adaptive muddling” to understanding the potential importance of grassroots sustainability experiments before pointing out how any intellectual or material investment into sustainability experiments is premised on certain ideas of social change, which in turn forces us to consider the role of social movements. The post reiterates the potential usefulness of framing certain efforts and initiatives as sustainability experiments in order to return to the underlying challenge ahead: arriving at a sufficiently broad yet meaningful definition of sustainability experiments that can leverage the knowledge produced through grassroots sustainability experiments by linking it to institutional decision-making.

  • “The bee swarm model of social change: How do institutions and grassroots push for (and against) sustainability?” Tuomas Ylä-Anttila, Helsinki Research Group for Political Sociology, University of Helsinki

I would like to thank the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), and especially Eeva Primmer (Head of SYKE’s Environmental Governance Unit), for organizing my visit and the seminar. All of those in attendance at the seminar should also be thanked as their contributions to the discussions during the seminar helped shape the posts in this series. I’ve also had many conversations following the seminar with SYKE researchers whose questions, comments and ideas surrounding sustainability experiments are diffused throughout this series and will continue to shape my thinking on the subject well into the future. Finally, I’m grateful for my colleague and friend, Pradip Swarnakar, with whom I’ve collaborated in the conception and development of the Sustainability Experimentation Venture Network.

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