The Sustainability Experimentation Venture Network (SEVeN) emerged out of work I did with Pradip Swarnakar in organizing ETSD 2014. Papers received for the conference revealed a rich body of case study-derived knowledge that was being underutilized. Conversations with conference participants led us to realize the  potential in forming a knowledge network into which researchers, practitioners and lay people could feed examples of small-scale, community-based efforts to engage in experimentation to achieve sustainability.

Our vision was shaped by a sense, inspired partially by Dr. Anna Wieczorek’s presentation at the conference, that case studies could be aggregated to advance the field of sustainability transitions research. See below for references to work in this quickly growing field. Much of the existing work on sustainability transitions examines top-down, policy- and technology-driven approaches to sustainability experiments. We suspect that bottom-up responses to resource shortages, climate change, and other environmental changes can contribute importantly to the larger project of understanding how societies make transitions from one regime to another.

Below are some excerpts from a proposal we developed based on this concept. It is currently under review and we are seeking other funding opportunities as well.

Sustainability Experimentation Venture Network (SEVeN):
Nurturing local knowledge for global change

Pradip Swarnakar, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology
ABV-Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management Gwalior, India

Stephen Zavestoski, PhD, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology
University of San Francisco, California USA


Human beings have historically generated extensive local knowledges in response to changing environments. However, with the scale and speed of global climate change, the knowledge being produced locally needs to be aggregated and disseminated as rapidly as possible. The aim of SEVeN is to aggregate micro-level case studies of community-based sustainability experiments in developing countries to identify key social factors in community-based sustainability experimentation processes. With adaptive muddling theory, SEVeN brings to bear an understanding, derived from local knowledge and enhanced through the use of ICTs, of the influence of belief systems, political interests, power and culture in adoption and diffusion of sustainability experiments. SEVeN will leverage growth in Internet access through mobile technologies to “crowdsource” case study science, combine cases in a comprehensive and accessible clearinghouse of information on sustainability experimentation, and utilize the “big data” nature of the aggregated case studies. SEVeN takes a transdisciplinary approach to synthesize information and communication technologies (ICTs) with local sustainability experimentation to achieve the rapid aggregation and dissemination of knowledge required to support social transformation towards “effective, equitable and durable solutions” to today’s sustainability challenges. SEVeN aims to build a global knowledge network beginning with a pilot in South Asia. SEVeN will advance state-of-the-art of understanding in peer-to-peer sustainability experimentation knowledge sharing through integration of ICTs and community engagement. SEVeN has the potential to deliver:

  1. A global database of case studies of community-based sustainability experiments designed to answer questions such as: Where (with whom) does power reside in processes of sustainability experimentation and implementation/diffusion of innovations derived from sustainability experiments? How are power and agencies performed in these processes? Whose voices and narratives remain unheard? How do experiments/innovations become legitimated and how can this be assessed?
  2. Training and capacity-building for non-academic citizens to produce scientific knowledge by contributing their own sustainability experiments, experiences and narratives to the SEVeN database; and to utilize the database to adapt and develop localized approaches to sustainability experimentation.
  3. New forms of knowledge to decision-makers, funders, and other stakeholders emphasizing how social factors in sustainability experiments shape social transformations.
  4. Enhanced knowledge production capabilities in communities that builds resilience and facilitates sustainability transitions.

Conceptual framework

Climate change and other global environmental change challenges elicit sophisticated large-scale techno-political solutions. The potentials of such solutions are often unrealized, particularly in developing countries, due to imbalances of power, economic inequality, cultural barriers, and other social factors that prevent the dissemination and flow of information, knowledge, capital, and other resources.

Meanwhile, climate chaos and resource shortages cause socio-ecological disruptions to which individuals, families, tribes and communities are responding daily. We call these heuristic responses “sustainability experiments”–local experiments in alternative behaviors, practices, traditions, technologies, and institutions to sustain a group or community in the face of socio-ecological disruption. Social science case study traditions document many of these instances of experimentation. But there are two fundamental problems with the current practice of case study research. First, a research-related problem is the tendency to select success stories which inhibits identification of the barriers revealed in failed experiments. Second, knowledge network-related problems arise from the institutional arrangements of researchers that incentivize publishing work in scientific journals to which few have access, writing in jargon-laden and discipline-specific styles, and devoting large amounts of individual time and resources to narrowly defined cases without the resources to identify or build links to other cases. The challenge of deriving lessons through meta-analyses results from lack of standardization of case study methods across disciplines.

SEVeN not only seizes the opportunity presented by the extensive but unstandardized body of knowledge currently buried in journals, libraries and scattered across the Internet, but also integrates community-based knowledge to move beyond the binary of Western science/traditional knowledge. SEVeN would first compile the idiographic findings of case study research into a preliminary database. At a “Case Study Hackathon,” we would facilitate creative collaborative problem solving–among academics, nonprofits, community partners, and government partners–aimed at reimagining case studies so they can be scaled up without becoming inaccessible to the average lay person. The hackathon will identify the necessary fields of data for capturing the essential characteristics of sustainability experiments. These fields, in turn, will be used to simplify into plain language existing academic case studies, while also providing a structure for contributions of non-academic and multi-media “case studies” (i.e., narratives). The SEVeN database could allow sustainability transitions researchers to identify criteria for sustainability experiments with transformational potential. Because the cases in the database will eventually be crowdsourced, the hackathon is a vital process of co-designing a case study model that is broad enough to capture diverse voices, sophisticated enough to produce useful findings, yet parsimonious enough to remain feasible and produce accessible data. Lessons learned by coastal communities in Bangladesh, for example, must be made accessible and relevant to coastal communities in Indonesia.

Relevant Works: Sustainability Transitions

Avelino, F. 2011. Power in Transition: Empowering Discourses on Sustainability Transitions. PhD Dissertation, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Available at:

Avelino, F. and J. Rotmans. 2009. “Power in transition: An interdisciplinary framework to study power in relation to structural change.” European Journal of Social Theory 12(4):543–569.

Berkhout, F., Wieczorek, Anna, & Raven, Rob. 2011. “Avoiding environmental convergence: A possible role for sustainability experiments in latecomer countries?” International Journal of Institutions and Economies 3(2):367-385.

Hoffman, J. 2013. “Theorizing power in transition studies: The role of creativity and novel practices in structural change.” Policy Sciences 46:257–275.

Lachman, D.A. 2013. “A survey and review of approaches to study transitions.” Energy Policy 58(July):269-276.

Markard, J., R. Raven, and B. Truffer. 2012. “Sustainability transitions: An emerging field of research and its prospects.” Research Policy 41(6):968-979.

Steering Committee of the STRN. 2010. A mission statement and research agenda for the Sustainability Transitions Research Network. Available at:

Truffer, B. and L. Coenen. 2012. “Environmental innovation and sustainability transitions in regional studies.” Regional Studies 46(1):1-21.

Relevant Works: Capabilities and Adaptive Muddling

De Young, R. 1999. “Tragedy of the Commons.” In D. E. Alexander and R. W. Fairbridge (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. (Pp. 601-602) Hingham, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

De Young, R. and S. Kaplan. 2012. “Adaptive muddling.” In R. De Young and T. Princen (Eds.) The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. (Pp. 287-298) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Nussbaum, M. C. 2000. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities  Approach. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Sen, A. 2005. “Human rights and capabilities.” Journal of Human Development 6(2):151–166.

Schlosberg, D. 2009. “Capacity and capabilities: A response to the greenhouse development rights framework.” Ethics, Place and Environment 12(3): 287-290.

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