Transforming Innovation for Sustainability

This coming week I am giving two talks at conferences that seek to contribute answers to the question “how to feed 9 billion people by 2050″.

The first conference will be in Amsterdam, and is called “Towards an ecology intensive agriculture: learning from nature“. I am giving a Pecha Kucha talk (6:20 minute talk with 20 slides that change automatically every 20 seconds) called “Governing the Doughnut”.

The talk starts from Kate Raworth’s idea of the doughnut of social and planetary boundaries. Then, making use of transformation theory, which highlights the key role of governance in (dis)empowering socio-ecological transformation, I try to reflect (in 6 minutes!!!) on what we can do as scientists to support governance arrangements that can in turn support multiple pathways inside the doughnut (i.e., safe and just operating space).

The argument I make is particularly influenced by the work of:

In preparation, I am re-reading a commentary developed by scholars at the STEPS Centre, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Tellus Institute.

The article is called “Transforming Innovation for Sustainability”.

In the article, the authors argue that the 3Ds of direction, diversity and distribution, along with “sustainability brokering” can help to guide the analysis and decision-making processes we need to ensure a sustainable future.

They make a strong case for equity to be a  “core pillar of of world prosperity in an environmentally constrained planet” and that “business as usual is not an option; even a strong, sustained program of policy adjustments may be insufficient to counter harmful trends.”

They reiterate the urgency for transformation not only in policies and technologies but also across modes of innovation. They highlight that while there is agreement on the urgency of the addressing current planetary challenges, most actors have settled on solutions that rely on combinations of top-down policies (at multiple scales) which rely on “political will”.  They warn that such “top-down” policy proposals are often coupled with particular forms of technological fixes, which are packaged as solutions and rolled out. But they question if such approaches are enough. They call for a reconnection across local initiatives and global processes so as to find a safe operating space for humanity, from the bottom up. They argue this can best happen by embracing local action in multi-scale approaches.

They conclude:

Looking across these dimensions—the “three Ds” of Direction, Diversity, and Distribution—it becomes clear that defining and navigating the particularities of sustainability ultimately reflect political values and choices, as much as scientific and technical ones. … broad calls for integration need to be underpinned by finer-grained attention to what sort of sustainability and development are being pursued, for whom and how, and what this implies for improved stewardship of our planet. This brings further and ultimately more fundamental sociopolitical and justice questions to bear, concerning how such choices are made in relation to what values, by real decision makers in particular social and political contexts, and their implications for ecosystem stewardship and sustainability…

Useful resources for early career Sociologists

The Sociological Review just posted some great resources for early career sociologists.

They include:

Resources on the G7/8 New Alliance

A list of resources on the G7/8 New Alliance has been compiled by civil society groups in Africa and G8 countries. The list includes reports, briefings, case studies, civil society public statements, media articles and blogs in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and German.

It is a great resource. Check it out:


Earth Systems Governance

As I mentioned yesterday, my current goal to to try to write a short blog every day with quotes or reflection on something that has struck me as useful to my research, or just plain interesting.

Today I have been reading up on the Earth System Governance literature. I am VERY inspired by these academics and the work they are doing (check out their project website). Indeed, I take inspiration from them in terms of how to re-arrange the architecture of food governance to support sustainable food systems.

I will quote from Biermann’s work.

He writes:

Earth system governance builds on the assumption that humankind, having become inadvertently an agent in the earth system over the last 200 years, has now to develop the governing mechanisms to purposefully steer its own agency. Earth system governance is of course not about “governing the earth”, or about managing the entire process of planetary evolution. Earth system governance is concerned with the human impact on planetary systems. It is about the societal steering of human activities with regard to the long-term stability of geobiophysical systems. But the latter is non-trivial: What precisely are the goals of earth system governance? In what concrete directions should human agency develop? What are the normative assumptions that underlie earth system governance?

(Biermann 2012:5).

I think the questions that he raises serve to illustrate the fundamentally political nature of the issues we are grappling with when we evoke terms like “sustainability” or phrases like “feeding 9 billion by 2050″.

Reference:  Biermann, Frank 2012, “Planetary boundaries and earth system governance: Exploring the links.” Ecological Economics 81: 4-.9 doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2012.02.016

Keep it complex

It’s been a long time since I have actually written a blog. I have gotten into the habit of re-blogging, or rather have resorted to re-blogging since I have a lot of restrictions on my time (*cough* teaching*cough*).

To get back into the swing of things, I have decided to try to write regular short posts highlighting aspects of articles and books that I have been reading. I hope to pick out some quotes I find helpful and perhaps spark discussion.

To start, I have been re-reading Andy Stirling’s Nature comment “Keep it Complex” (23/30 December 2010 Volume 468 pp 1029-1031) (read it here).

In this paper he identified the challenges of selling complexity and uncertainly to policy makers. He reviewed 63 peer-reviewed studies economic costs arising from health and environmental impacts of different sets of energy technologies and found that while studies offer conclusions with narrow uncertainty ranges, together, the literature offers no clear consensus for policy makers.

He notes that:

The discrepancies between equally authoritative, peer-reviewed studies span many orders of magnitude, and the overlapping uncertainty ranges can support almost any ranking order of technologies, justifying almost any policy decision as science based (Stirling, 2010:1030)

He argues that the narrow focus on risk leaves science vulnerable to the social dynamics of groups and that when intrinsically plural, conditional nature of knowledge is realized, science can become more rigorous, robust and democratically accountable.

Importantly, he also notes that a single definitive representation of science is more vulnerable to manipulation. He acknowledges that plural conditional approaches are not immune to this, but that they can make political pressure more visible.

So rather than supporting policy-makers with conclusive findings, Stirling calls on us to keep it complex because “plural, conditional advice helps enable mature and sophisticated policy debate on broader questions” (Stirling, 2010:1031).

WANTED: BSc Thesis Student

Originally posted on Rural Sociology Wageningen University:

Feeding 9 billion by 2050?: A critical review of international policy proposals

Food security was thrust back onto the international agenda in 2008 when the FAO declared that for the first time, more than 1 billion people were going hungry. At this moment of enhanced crisis, others looked ahead and asked if we have trouble feeding the world’s 7 billion people now how will we feed the estimated 9 billion in 2050? This focus on feeding 9 billion by 2050 resonated with international policy actors who responded with multiple strategies to potentially address this problem.

This BSc thesis will undertake a systematic literature review of the problem framings and policy proposals that have been advanced to address this challenge.

The thesis student is expected to:

  • Develop a related research question
  • Undertake a systematic literature review
  • Map the framings of the policy problem
  • Map the proposed solutions
  • Select key policy…

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New Farmer Survey/Sondage sur les nouveaux fermiers et les nouvelles fermières

Originally posted on Ruminations on Germinations:

We want to hear from farmers in Canada! Tell us about the experience and needs of new farmers in Canada and you’ll be entered to win over $1500 in sweet prizes! SURVEY CLOSES MARCH 31, 2015.

La version française suit.


The National New Farmer Coalition and the University of Manitoba have put together a survey to assess the needs of new farmers in Canada where it concerns policy and educational opportunities. If you are intending to farm, are currently farming, or have recently exited farming, we want to hear from you! The results from this survey will be used to develop a National New Farmer Policy Platform that we aim to share with all levels of government. It will also document the sources of new farmer learning and make suggestions on how to improve this training in Canada. In order to give weight to our recommendations, we need as many farmer…

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