Concepts and Contexts of Design for Sustainability: (Coincidentally) Piloting a New Course at Aalto PhD Summer School

It’s been ten months since I started working for Aalto University, Department of Design. As a new professor in exploration of my new environment, with the aim of finding the best opportunities to contribute into Aalto while progressing my career, I raised my hand up to run this year’s departmental PhD Summer School few months ago. I was told that summer schools are more experimental than winter schools and good opportunities for testing new curricular and pedagogic ideas or piloting potential new courses. The course I wanted to run was of course going to be about design for sustainability. Nevertheless, I spent around a month thinking in the background processor of my mind what specific content I should bring together and how that content should be structured and delivered. My ultimate goal was to introduce design approaches for systemic sustainability transitions to students but given in our department there has not been systematic teaching on sustainability there was a need to build such knowledge base first before introducing this emerging, complex topic.

With this in mind, I designed the program to start by introducing theories relevant to sustainability, then move into issues and intervention contexts and finally present design approaches. The school would last for five days, so this plan meant that the students would be exposed to a substantial amount of new knowledge with a series of intense lectures. To balance such intensity I decided to allocate afternoons for reflections and activities relevant to the topic of each day. Then I contacted several lecturers and researchers to deliver the lectures. This was an enjoyable exercise as this way I got to engage with my colleagues in Aalto, in Helsinki University and found out about several experts in Finnish Environment Institute. I also invited two international researchers but only one of them was able to accept the invitation. The original program design had only minimally changed.

SSProgram.001

Designing the program and engaging lecturers was one thing, organising the school itself was another; it required a lot of coordination and planning. Luckily I had an amazing teaching assistant, Maria, who pretty much took charge of all tasks including finding and booking a venue, organising catering (yes, we fed the students for free to keep them focused), booking flights and accomodation for Joanna Boehnert, the international guest lecturer, photo-documenting as well as note-keeping during the running of the school.

The school started with high energy both from students and from lecturers. The days went fast and were full-on in terms of ranges of topics covered. Afternoons had been good to synthesise learning but also to do some experiential learning with less need for cognitive stretch.

IMG_5080

Stefan Fronzek from Finnish Environment Institute SYKE lecturing on climate science and impacts of climate change

IMG_5155

Cindy Kohtala delivering her lecture on emerging practices of making and production

img_5212.jpg

Mikko Jalas delivering a lecture on materiality of care

img_5222.jpg

Eeva Berglund talking about political economies of design during her lecture on “uncommon ground”

IMG_5378

Me talking about roles of design in transition processes during my lecture on design for system innovations and transitions

Half of the students who participated in the summer school were in their first year of PhD studies. Feedback indicated that the three lectures that majority of the students found to benefit them most were practice theory lens for transition experiments, emerging practices of making/production and design for system innovations and transitions: positioning a new field. Almost all students found group discussions of lectures to be the activity that helped their learning most. All of the students thought that the program as well as the days were structured well and that they would recommend this course (or a variation of it) to MA and PhD students.

As the coordinator of the course I also found the experience very rewarding. It gave me the opportunity to get to know the new PhD students in our department. In addition, I had a chance to understand my colleagues’ research in more detail and learned many new things myself. This was the first course I ran since I started working in Aalto and I am happy that I did a good job as indicated in student feedback. I also appreciated once more the diversity and depth of expertise held within the department.

Now we’re only days away from Juhannus, which marks the beginning of month-long summer holiday for many in Finland, especially those in academia. I am not planning to take a whole month off as I’d like to take the opportunity of this quiet time to write a grant application. At the dawn of my first anniversary of starting my role as Professor of Sustainable Design in Aalto I am full of ideas including developing a new course on Design for Sustainability Transitions. This summer school has also acted as a great “pilot” for this purpose. I will certainly reflect a lot more on this experience as I design this course.

CP TY

Advertisements

Convergent Conversations – Transformational Grief, “The Infinite Game” and Love

I spent the past week in Auckland on off-site academic duty commissioned by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) to evaluate two interconnected degree programs on game development. I also gave a public lecture on Visions and Pathways 2040 project at Transforming Cities Research Cluster of University of Auckland. NZQA duty was full-on yet straightforward; a great first experience which gave me insights on how the big machine of academic institution works from an evaluator’s perspective. Around thirty people attended the public lecture from universities and the Auckland Council. Besides being a fruitful exercise of academic networking, it did not yield to anything spectacular worthy to report apart from an observation that systemic research approaches like VP2040 is still rare and disciplinary conservatism mostly prevails across the board.

Besides these “business”, I also had a chance to catch-up and have conversations with several people who are both parts of my professional network but also friends and inspirers of my work on the general topic of sustainability transitions. What made my trip worthwhile were these one-to-one, over-the-coffee/food/beer conversations which touched upon several themes that I’ve been mulling over for a while. Some of the conversations were continuation of previous conversations I had with these people both online and offline over the past few years. Some also echoed conversations I’ve been independently having with people I recently met here in Melbourne as well as with members of my international network indicating an increasingly converging grand narrative underlying the emerging sustainability transitions.

Following the news by NASA a few weeks ago which confirmed the decline of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet as irreversible, my friend Maya posted a Facebook status update stating her desire to weep accompanied by other signs of despair and asked her friends “how will we live on this world?”. I met Maya through a common friend seven years ago. She has a consultancy called Mind Balance where she offers, among other services, workshops on mindfulness meditation. During my PhD years Maya and I used to catch up over coffee and have long, fascinating conversations about what’s happening to the world and what should be done to create change. My head-heavy contributions about system innovation at technological, organisational, institutional and socio-cultural levels were complemented by her insights and knowledge on becoming and staying present, being self-aware and mindful and how spirituality connects with systemic transformations. I always found conversing with her very refreshing; they unlocked the shackle of my analytical brain. Maya has always represented calmness and groundedness for me, therefore, seeing her in such despair was very unusual. For that reason, my contribution to responses given to her was a call to overcome grief and despair to be able to think and strategise: “Although I fully understand the need for grief, we cannot let ourselves get lost in despair. This is a time for big change and the question is how we will prepare for what’s likely to unfold from now. Adaptation comes with a whole new set of questions on “how” which needs to be articulated in all of its dimensions; ethical, political, spiritual, technological and organisational.” In retrospect, I realised my response on that day to Maya wasn’t empathic enough.

Not long after this interaction with Maya, Gary, one of the executives of the Auckland Permaculture Workshop sent the other APW executives and collaborators including me an email asking our opinions on including models of the grieving process in APW course material with references to dealing with the idea of and getting prepared for potential unavoidable collapse. He particularly referred to the Kübler-Ross model which explains grief as a five stage process of passing through phases of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Gary and I, as well as another APW executive Finn met in Auckland last Friday. Among other topics of common interest –Gary is now teaching the Design and Innovation for Sustainability paper I used to teach at AUT- we touched upon the topic of grief. I expressed my concern with Kübler-Ross model based on its linear conception of grief and lack of a transformational element following “acceptance” phase, which, in my opinion, is necessary for linking grief to empowering oneself as well mobilizing action. Kübler-Ross model is developed for terminally ill people or for people who lost something dear to them such as a loved one; therefore it is understandable that “acceptance” is the final phase as such a loss cannot be remedied. Other models complement this model by offering models for “healing” which is relevant to dealing with societal collapse, nevertheless insufficient as they focus on the individual while we need to work with models focusing on groups of people. We concluded that our search for appropriate models of transformational grief would continue. I told Gary and Finn that I didn’t find the task uplifting and I wasn’t sure if my best fit was facilitating grief as my work focused on transformation of an undesirable unsustainable state. I told them that I saw collapse as only one possible –yet increasingly more probable- mechanism and that I chose, for the time being, to remain somewhat hopeful that we might find the creative resources within ourselves to avoid a complete collapse.

Gary and Finn along with many sensible others have been busy for several years putting their adaptation measures in place. A couple of months ago I had a Skype conversation with two of my friends –a couple, Tuna and Pinar- from Turkey who are strategic consultants for sustainability. They’re based in Istanbul; a city in social and ecological decline of accelerating pace. Being worried for not focusing on assuring my own resilience for what is likely to unfold during my lifetime I asked Tuna and Pinar if they had any strategic direction for themselves such as moving from Istanbul and establishing a base with fertile land and reliable community. Their response was heartbreaking yet honourable: “We don’t have any hope that things will get better here but we’re not going to leave the city. We will keep on doing what we believe needs to be done until the time when we cannot anymore. We don’t have a strategy for ourselves, we don’t need one, we don’t want one. Wherever everyone else ends up, so will we end up there too. We don’t think we can allow ourselves to have privileges.” Had this relieve my anxiety about not having proofed my future? Not really. Nevertheless, it resonated with my reasoning for not being “proactive”. It also amused me by reassuring how spot on Nietzsche was in defining the concept of “Turkish fatalism”. I cannot help but wonder though if the difference between the Gary-Finn-and-alike approach and the Tuna-Pinar-Idil-and-alike approach stems from the different cultures of individualism versus community-orientedness or differences in risk perception and risk management approaches.

Before meeting with Gary and Finn on Friday, I spent close to three hours with Niki Harré who is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland in the School of Psychology. She is the author of Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability and she is currently busy designing a game inspired by James Carse’s book “Finite and Infinite Games”. The game aims to identify what is of finite (extrinsic) and what is of infinite (intrinsic) value for people as a means to gain insight into how we can live well together (a question echoing Maya’s cry). Another aim of the game is to help people identify the finite games they have to play to keep playing The Infinite Game. As a community psychologist Niki is interested to understand motivational approaches to facilitate sustainability transitions. This created an immediate connection between her and I a couple of years ago and I helped Niki at very early stages of the development of the game. If I didn’t end up moving to Melbourne I would be her “design coach” (an opportunity I’m deeply saddened to have missed). Since the first prototype, Niki has run several workshops throughout New Zealand with groups of individuals as well as with organisations. She told me that the consistency of people’s deepest or infinite values is what has been most obvious from these workshops. While the natural world appears in the workshops as of intrinsic value, it is weaker than human qualities and emotions. She suggests this shows that people put people first. I questioned whether this could be proved true cross-culturally. She referred to her father’s statement (he was a cultural anthropologist) that indigenous communities use the natural world for their own purposes and that “living in harmony with nature” was a myth. She has since investigated this and found, for example, that fishing prohibitions in Pacific peoples are not because they cared for the fish but because this created opportunities for others to utilize the resource. To the extent that they understood nature and how to work with it, this was not because they wanted to live in harmony with nature but because they wanted to live well together as a human society. What does this tell us? Unfortunately one can never have sufficient time with people like Niki.

On Saturday I went to Maya’s place; we had lunch together and then went out for a walk on the beach. We did not follow up on topics of collapse or grief. It was mostly a conversation on happenings of our respective lives since we last saw each other in July 2013. We articulated the changes that have taken place in our views of people, places and ourselves including what we think our work is and should be. Then we sat on a bench and remained in silence for a while admiring the Rangitoto Island right across from the beach. Maya broke the silence, “Look, we don’t know what will happen even the next minute. We don’t know when Rangitoto will erupt but we know it will sooner or later, maybe even while we’re seated here, or long after we died. Nothing is certain and everything ever changes. Don’t paralyse yourself by getting lost in detail. You need to hold onto your truth and act from a place of integrity at any given time. That’s what matters.” I wondered what prompted Maya to make these remarks but didn’t ask for they fell in their places within me.

On that evening I went to a party to celebrate the long-awaited completion of my close friend Dan’s PhD. His topic was about issues faced in a contaminated site clean-up process in Mapua, New Zealand. Initially a technical research, Dan’s discovery on why an effective clean-up could not be achieved indicated reasons less to do with technical aspects and more with appropriate community engagement. Trained as an ecologist and an environmental engineer, facing the requirement to address his research question from a social science perspective resulted in Dan embarking onto a nine years long ordeal of undoing and redoing his project. In earlier years, Dan had several conversations with the local community several members of which fell sick due to contamination. He identified with the community members and lost track of his research for a while. Although I was one of the closest witnesses to his ordeal, I’ve never seen even a small piece of writing; he never felt ready to disclose his work. He changed it a lot, restarted few times, had to take time-off to recover from emotional fatigue the project caused him. Echoing his experience of identifying with the community while acknowledging the other difficulties associated with complex contaminated site clean-ups, finally he developed a new, very sophisticated psychosocial framework. The core elements of the framework include development of presence; self-empathy and empathy with community participants; rational and systematic understanding of the contamination problem from multiple perspectives; and empowerment of community as well as environmental manager perspectives. It was great to finally witness his completion which also meant uncovering of an age long mystery for our friends circle: what is Dan’s thesis?

To celebrate his completion and catch up on a one-to-one basis, I took him out for dinner a few evenings before the party. We talked about many topics as we have several common professional interests as well as a long personal relationship. While we were waiting for our desserts the conversation found its way to the topic of “love” with references to the “empathy” theme in his thesis. This reminded of my recent revisit of Dennis Meadows’ chapter on tools for transitions to sustainability in the book entitled “The Future of Sustainability”. Meadows counts love as one of the tools; the others are visioning, networking, truth telling, and learning. I recently had a brief interaction about this with a colleague in Melbourne who argued that love is not a tool but the fundamental basis. I disagreed although didn’t get a chance to voice and articulate this disagreement. I understood why he thought love was the fundamental basis, but for me there is one thing more fundamental than love which is fearlessness (distinct from courage) as it enables love; fear is a constant disabler for love to emerge. Also fundamental doesn’t mean absolute or self-manifesting. One has to work continuously to become fearless, or to act from a position of love. On top of this, love is an elusive concept and English language is not helpful either because of its “poverty” having only one word for love. This has always caused me a lot of struggle as I could never articulate the differences of several concepts that exist in my language all of which can only be translated as “love” as a result of this poverty. Therefore I always found the English word love iffy and unsatisfactory for explaining such a grand and rich human feeling. While I was reciting these thoughts to Dan he stopped me and said: “Don’t refer to love as a feeling, it is not”. I became perplexed and thought we were maybe having a language problem and asked “then what is it?”. He said “It is a state of existence when there is nothing else, I mean nothing else getting in the way”. I responded: “Oh, I loooove this dessert, don’t get in the way please” as a way of hiding a huge defeat, a lightning strike kind of check-mate behind my spoiled nature. Dan, knowing me very well that I revert to demagogy when I accept that I lost an argument, chuckled.

Before I caught my plane back to Melbourne, I popped into the newsagent at the airport. Among a poor selection of magazines (more magazines on “men’s interest” than “current affairs”), I picked New Zealand Geographic’s May-June issue because it had a special feature on climate. The piece must have been written before the breaking news on West Antarctic Ice Sheet as one article stated “there are signs of instability” rather than mentioning irreversible decline. The feature covered articles on findings of ANDRILL (which looked at ice cores to understand past climate and implications of current projections on stability of ice sheets and concluded that previous projections were conservative) and retreat of New Zealand glaciers especially of Franz Josef. From what I read I realized that Franz Josef, which, when I visited in 2008, left me in awe with its mass, beauty and vulnerability, retracted steadily that now tourists have to walk three kilometres to reach the terminal face and it is not safe anymore to climb the glacier as its front is very unstable so you have to be dropped from a helicopter to the top if you desire to do a walking tour. I obviously was being slack in practicing my “spiritual aikido” which I use to deal with the type of information I’m exposed to on a daily basis; a self-desensitisation routine. All of a sudden I felt like stabbed in the heart by the fact that no piece of land or place I felt connected to, developed a deep love towards, or dared to call home, would remain unaffected, that we single-handedly managed to alter the surface of the world to a point of no return. The child in me wept with full tears for several minutes while my adult self felt lucky for not having anyone seated next to me.

Right after I arrived in Melbourne on Sunday, I went to the closing night of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival to listen to Chick Corea and Gary Burton. It was full house; several hundred people had come to enjoy what I (metaphorically ?) think to be an emergent property of the slavery system. I wondered if any beauty would eventually emerge from the corrupt systems of our society too, nevertheless, neither the jazz nor this thought helped me yet to recover from the shadowland I sank into. Maybe it’s time to add grieving to Meadows’ list; if we’re going to experience it increasingly more, it makes sense to at least frame it in an empowering way, i.e. as a tool.

 

System Innovation for Sustainability: Using Systems Thinking and Design Thinking

I recently attended a webinar on using systems thinking and design thinking conjointly to address sustainability challenges. The webinar was presented by Peter Coughlan of IDEO and Colleen Ponto of Seattle University. It was great to hear from these forefront thinkers/doers thoughts similar to mine on the potential of using systems thinking and design thinking conjointly. I also derived a lot of learning on how to communicate these ideas using simple language and examples. I am looking forward to seeing this thinking spread to a wider audience and used by policy makers (top-down actors) and innovators (bottom-up) alike, preferably in collaborative projects. Inspired by this webinar, I explain my thoughts on conjoint use of systems thinking and design thinking that I’ve been mulling over for a while. I have five main messages.

1. All design and innovation efforts to achieve sustainability should be based on sustainability science:

Sustainability is a system property. In order to plan for and achieve the required transformations towards becoming sustainable, we need to work with a set of questions which cannot be answered through traditional disciplinary segmentation of knowledge (Figure 1). First we need to understand the systems needing to be transformed and the interrelationships between these systems. This knowledge is acquired and interpreted by basic disciplines such as physics, chemistry, sociology and ecology. Second, we need to understand what we can do to transform these systems. The knowledge to answer this question comes from the applied disciplines such as engineering, agriculture, architecture and business. Third, we need to establish what we want to do and set our priorities towards our destination based on what we know about the systems and what we can do to transform them. The knowledge for this comes from disciplines such as planning, law, politics and design. Finally, we need to establish a values framework which will oversee our work towards sustainability and will inform our actions. The knowledge for this comes from disciplines dealing with human values such as ethics, philosophy and theology.

Figure 1. Transdisciplinary generation of knowledge (Max-Neef 2005)

Sustainability science has complex adaptive systems theory as its main tenet, focuses on the dynamic interactions between nature and society and aims to bridge the natural and social sciences for seeking creative solutions to these complex challenges.  (Clark & Dickson, 2003; Jernek et al., 2010; Kates et al., 2001; Spangenberg, 2004). Sustainability science is a transdiscipline which integrates knowledge from all disciplinary domains to solve socially relevant complex problems. Sustainability scientists, instead of developing disciplinary expertise, focus on understanding specific sustainability problems by tapping into the knowledge generated from all disciplines relevant to the problem. The expertise gained by sustainability scientists can be described as a new generation expertise because of its transdisciplinary nature.

Although there is a lot of discussion on sustainability within the design and innovation field and there are a lot of claims on sustainability of particular products/services/technologies or business operations/models/processes, I do not observe much of this being based on the science of sustainability. Unless designers/innovators acknowledge and use the growing body of knowledge generated by sustainability science, there is not much potential for design/innovation efforts to address the right problems with the right objectives.

2. In order to achieve sustainability, our design and innovation efforts should intervene into systems:

Today we know that reducing unsustainability through efficiency improvement approaches will not produce sustainability; it will only save us miniscule amounts of time before the systems we rely on collapse or become unviable to support human life. Traditionally and still currently, we focus most of our efforts to improve existing products/services or design new products/services with higher efficiency than the earlier ones. Although these approaches have their place in transforming systems, if remain as our sole strategic framework for innovation they become lock-ins and hinder systemic transformations (e.g. Könnölä & Unruh, 2007). Product-centred innovation approaches should leave their places to innovation efforts aiming to meet particular social functions, thus breaking from incrementalist tendencies and generating opportunities for radical systemic transformations. The new generation innovation approaches do not start with a product concept; instead, they start with identifying new ways of meeting human needs which have traditionally been met by particular products or services or left unmet. For example, in the new approaches to innovation, the starting aim is not to develop a more efficient washing machine but generating ideas on how to provide clean clothes to people. By taking a step back and identifying the actual need, innovative concepts are generated and new organisational models can be developed. This approach also enables moving from a fixation of technological development to developing both technological and social interventions conjointly meeting the specified need.

The new generation innovation efforts aiming to address interrelated environmental and social issues should be based on sustainability science and innovate not only for developing new technological solutions to sustainability problems but also to generate new organisational models, inspire new social and cultural norms and to eventually alter the institutional context within which socio-technical systems reside. This require both macro and micro-level innovations; in other words we need to optimise our designs for the systems as well as for the individuals using the products/service/technologies of the systems. Leveraging micro- (product/service) and macro-level (system) innovations simultaneously mandates business plans to cover longer periods than they traditionally have and strategic and market-creating approaches to innovation than market-following approaches.

Figure 2. Levels of innovation for sustainability (Brezet, 1997; Gaziulusoy, 2010; 2011)


3. Design thinking is a very appropriate approach to use in innovation for sustainability especially when used in conjunction with systems thinking:

Design in society has been understood with references to its outputs such as fashion design (clothes), urban design (cities), architectural design (buildings), car design (automobiles), product design (products), service design (services) etc. However, design is a fundamental human cognitive ability, it is a particular way of thinking. Design professionals are trained to use design thinking to generate solutions for specified challenges. Design thinkers tap into different types of knowledge available to humanity to reach a normative goal. Design thinking is a process which starts with defining/redefining the problem to be addressed. This is followed by research, creative exploration, evaluation of ideas and implementation and communication of the solution. The output of design thinking can be any of the above mentioned outputs but also through design thinking one can conceive new systems, processes, organisational models, enterprises, policies and even community campaigns. The strength of design thinking in the context of innovation for sustainability lies in its emphasis on the divergent process of generating alternative solutions before acting upon one compared to traditional optimisation approaches which selects the optimum solution among available options. Design thinking process can be applied to almost any problem to transform people, organisations and systems. This has been coined with a new term by UK Design Council: Transformation Design. The new generation innovation approaches explicitly or implicitly use design thinking for transforming the society.

Figure 3. Conjointly using systems thinking and design thinking (Coughlan and Ponto, 2012)

Design thinking can reach its potential to address sustainability challenges only if it is conjointly used with systems thinking as these two approaches complement each other in achieving system innovations. Systems thinking looks at the history and present state of systems to analyse and understand them. Design thinking looks at the present state of a system and asks the normative, future-oriented question of “what can be?” in order to innovate and transform the systems. Systems thinking has qualitative and quantitative tools and methods which help to uncover patterns and structures within a system to explain how the events -the problems we observe- have been created through time. On the other hand, design thinking has several tools and methods to uncover the mental models which created the structures and historical patterns. Systems thinking optimises at system level whereas design thinking optimises at individual level therefore together they can create alignment between the innovation direction of system components and systems consisting of those components.

4. Design and innovation efforts should be collaborative and empowering:

One fundamental systems thinking rule states: When intervening in a system, effort should be put in restoring or enhancing the system’s own ability to solve its problems (Meadows, 2008). Aligned with this, it is really important that in our design and innovation efforts we analyse and address problems with a good contextual understanding and in a way to create opportunities within that context. Two solutions addressing the problem of access to safe drinking water can be used to illustrate this point.

It is common knowledge that currently approximately 800,000 people lack access to an improved water source. There have been many efforts to address this problem which also include developing purification technologies. One product marketed as LifeStraw, designed by a Swiss company, became one of the iconic products addressing this problem in developing countries. This product consists of a plastic tube through which a person can suck water from a water body. The water is filtered by fibres that are in the tube as the person drinks it. A person generally goes through one or two of these products in a year. This product is often referred to as a great example of sustainable design. This product has received criticitism for being too expensive for the intended use contexts and the funding was supplied by health campaigns run by NGOs which probably tapped into foreign aid.

Purifying water is not rocket science; there is no need for sophisticated production technologies, plastic cases and top-secret filter formulae. The problem with access to drinking water does not rise from the lack of appropriate technologies in a context to purify water, it rises because of the lack of incentives to act in ways to enhance and restore those contexts their own ability to purify their own water (because the so-called “innovators” cannot make a business case otherwise). Low cost water purification systems can be easily made using local materials and low-tech manufacturing technologies. A good example is the clay pot filter developed by Australian material scientist and potter Tony Flynn. This filter is made by mixing clay with fine grained organic material fired without the requirement of kilns. This technology is open source so that anyone can make these filters and the knowledge of making them can be transferred to the communities experiencing the problem.

Therefore, both in identifying and addressing problems design and innovation efforts should use human-centred approaches to generate solutions which are empowering for the intended users. This of course also requires shifting from profit-centred economic models of doing business to people-centred models, which essentially can be conceived as a design problem.

5. Design and innovation efforts should be based on a personal vision aligned with the future we would like to see in the world

Unfortunately, vision as a term has been narrowed down to mean a single-sentence, “measurable” statement by the mainstream management literature and practice of 1990s. Recently, the power and importance of visions and the proper practice of visioning is being rediscovered by people who are working in the field of sustainability, from scientists to grassroots activists to policymakers. Futurists define visions as “futures for the heart”. On the contrary to single-sentence visions of 1990s, the more detailed and the more collaboratively developed the visions for sustainable futures are the better. Our design and innovation efforts can lead us towards achieving system innovations for sustainability only if our day to day actions are informed by a personal vision which takes into consideration the spatial and temporal influence we have as individuals on our workmates, company vision, fellow citizens, policy, and future generations.

Temporal and spatial influences of personal action and vision

References I used in this post:

Brezet, H. (1997). Dynamics in ecodesign practice. Industry and Environment, 20(1-2), 21-24.

Clark, W. C., & Dickson, N. M. (2003). Sustainability science: The emerging research program. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100(14), 8059-8061.

Coughlan, P., & Ponto, C. (2012). Systems Thinking + Design Thinking: Moving from What Was and What Is to What Could Be [Webinar]. USA

Gaziulusoy, A. I. (2010). System Innovation for Sustainability: A Scenario Method and a Workshop Process for Product Development Teams (Ph.D. thesis). University of Auckland, Auckland.

Gaziulusoy, A. I. (2011). System Innovation for Sustainability at Product Development Level: A Conceptual Framework. Proceedings of the Tao of Sustainability: An International Conference on Sustainable Design Strategies in a Globalization Context, October 27-29, 2011, Beijing, China.

Jerneck, A., Olsson, L., Ness, B., Anderberg, S., Baier, M., Clark, E., … Persson, J. (2010). Structuring sustainability science. Sustainability Science, 1-14.

Kates, R. W., Clark, W. C., Corell, R., Hall, J. M., Jaeger, C. C., Lowe, I., … Svedin, U. (2001). Environment and development: Sustainability science. Science, 292(5517), 641-642.

Könnölä, T., & Unruh, G. C. (2007). Really changing the course: the limitations of environmental management systems for innovation. Business Strategy & the Environment 16(8), 525-537.

Max-Neef, M. A. (2005). Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecological Economics, 53(1), 5-16.

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: a primer. White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Spangenberg, J. H. (2004, August 27-28, 2004). Sustainability Science: Which Science and Technology for Sustainable Development? Presented at the meeting of the IRDF Forum on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg. Available from http://www.istas.ccoo.es/escorial04/material/dc10.pdf

UNICEF/WHO. (2012). Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation. Available from http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2012/9789280646320_eng_full_text.pdf 

Some questions on system innovation for sustainability

This evening I had a Skype chat with Anna Birney, who is the head of System Innovation Lab at Forum for the Future, to meet and to exchange views and ideas about the topic. I learned a little bit more about the new strategy FFF has just launched and explained Anna what I’ve been doing in relation to system innovation in the past five years. Both Anna and I share the opinion that the theories around system innovation and transitions, although useful to understand how systemic change occurs in socio-technical systems, has so far been a little bit slack in providing pointers and leverage points to transform systems at practical level. I also must add to this that, the discourse has been predominantly techno-centred and not much emphasis has been put on social innovations in system innovation experiments. This is, in my opinion, mainly due to the fact that the theories have been coming out of the European Union context which is primarily post-industrial, advanced in technological innovation and dominated by a Western worldview of well-being. I know through some of my contacts in academia that research in system innovation area is now starting to investigate emerging and bottom-of-the-pyramid economies (for example the program led by Rob Raven) and validity of models and theories in different socio-cultural contexts. I have been mulling over some questions about system innovation especially in the context of companies and innovation teams for a long time now. I’ll list them here. But first I’ll introduce the multi-level perspective on system innovations which has been developed over the years mainly by Rene Kemp and Frank Geels who are well-known scholars in this area (see Kemp, 1994; Geels, 2005a, 2005b; Geels and Schot, 2007).

In order to investigate innovation at system level, not only technological change but also changes in user practices, markets, regulations, culture and infrastructure, which altogether constitute the socio-technical regime, should be addressed. This model portrays the dynamic nature of system innovation through a layered structure. According to this model, the stability increases and rate of change decreases towards upper levels of the socio-technical system, but the depth and influence of change increases towards lower levels. Nevertheless the change does not happen in a linear fashion and the relationship between the three levels is similar to a nested hierarchy. The layers have internal dynamics as well as influencing changes at other levels and the central focus is at the middle where the socio-technical regime resides. Geels (2005a, p.83) explains “First, novelties emerge in technological and/or market niches. Niches are crucial for system innovation, since they provide the seeds of change. The emergence of niches is strongly influenced by existing regimes and landscape, … [T]he influence from the regimes on niches is stronger and more direct than the influences from landscapes, which is more diffuse and indirect” . The niches are loosely structured and there is much less co-ordination among actors. The regimes are more structured than niches and the rules of the regimes have co-ordinating effects on actors through a strong guidance of the activities of the actors. Landscapes are even more structured than regimes and are more difficult to change. Nevertheless, as the figure suggests, landscapes influence change both on niches and regimes; in return, niches (may) change the regimes, and the new regime changes the landscape in the longer term. The socio-technical landscape in this model is relatively static, stands for the external context and represents the physical, technical and material setting supporting the society, and cannot be changed by the actors in the short-term. Landscapes are constituted by rapid external shocks, long-term changes and factors that do not change or change only very slowly. In order to manage systemic transitions, the lowest level of MLP model, i.e. the niches, play an important role since radical innovation takes place in niches whereas in socio-technical regimes innovation is incremental. The niches consist of promising innovations and they have to be protected in order to enable them to develop from an idea or a prototype to a technology which is actually used.

With references to the MLP model, here are my questions:

1. How does sustainability issues relate to this model? My answer to this is that they are among the landscape developments and put the socio-technical regime under pressure (but only if influence the regime immediately). Some of the responses have been to enforce regulatory measures on companies which respond to these regulatory measures through compliance. On the other hand, given that governmental policy is developed with a short-term outlook, the legislative enforcements, although helping with optimisation and efficiency increases, are not likely to be the most effective leverage points to transform systems. In cases where sustainability issues are significantly relevant to a particular sector, and if companies are a little bit forward looking, there may be some voluntary action taken with a longer-term approach as seen in some of the fresh produce growing industries strategising to respond to impacts of climate change on their business. However, unless the signals from the landscape are immediately relevant to the socio-technical regime, the regime will continue with business-as-usual. This leads to the second question, which was also a question of Anna;

2. What will be the impact of landscape changes on the companies which are part of the incumbent socio-technical regime? Given the traditional business planning periods are considered very short-term in the context system innovation, those companies which fail to adopt transformational strategies are likely to go out of business. This is similar to some publishing companies, which did not have the foresight about the impacts of increasing self-publishing, becoming bankrupt suddenly. Although technologies do not come by overnight, those companies with short planning periods may not be able to adapt the changes that are being “cooked” currently but which will become “market norms” a short while beyond the preferred business planning periods of short-termist companies. On the other hand, for those companies with foresight about the impact of unfolding meta-level changes, the problem is how to manage the organisational transformation. Here I think the concept of creative destruction in a Schumpeterian way is highly relevant. Since niche innovations are particularly important in transforming socio-technical regimes, the rest of my questions are related to them and I don’t have answers to these questions as yet;

3. Niche innovations are counter to and threatening for the incumbent regimes and their business/market logic. In this case, how best to protect them and manage their maturation while avoiding the sudden collapse of the incumbent regimes? Who is going to carry out this mediatory management job? If everything will be left to the self-organising dynamics within the system, how will maturation of these niches be guaranteed? If there’s no guarantee possible, what’s our Plan B?

4. Recently there have been a lot of interest in these niches mainly in sustainable and social entrepreneurship discourses. On the other hand, these discourses does not really reference their theories or activities to sustainability science. What is the actual potential of niches in enabling systemic transformations for sustainability (especially since sustainability can only be assessed at the systemic level, that is no niche innovations can be claimed to be “sustainable” and also sustainability cannot be assessed before the fact, that is before there is a new socio-technical system with observable and measurable properties)?;

4. And finally, it has been observed that while these niches are maturing, there have been value changes in their associated entrepreneurial contexts to become aligned with the values of the socio-technical regime that is aimed to be changed. How can the individuals -the entrepreneurs- be empowered so that the value compromises they have to make to place their innovations in the market and compete with established companies and technologies do not exceed levels to nullify their change agency?

References I used in this post:

Geels, F. W. (2005a). Technological transitions and system innovations: a co-evolutionary and socio-technical analysis. Cheltenham, UK ; Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar Pub.

Geels, F. W. (2005b). Processes and patterns in transitions and system innovations: Refining the co-evolutionary multi-level perspective. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 72(6 SPEC. ISS.), 681-696.

Geels, F. W., & Schot, J. (2007). Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, 36(3), 399-417.

Kemp, R. (1994). Technology and the transition to environmental sustainability: the problem of technological regime shifts. Futures, 26(10), 1023-1046.

What is system innovation for sustainability?

System innovation is defined as “a transition from one socio-technical system to another (Geels, 2005, p.2)”. Some historical examples of system innovation are the transition from sailing ships to steam ships, the transition from horse-and-carriage to automobiles, and the transition from piston engine aircrafts to jetliners in American aviation (Geels, 2002a, 2002b, 2005). Much more profound examples of system innovation are agricultural revolution and industrial revolution, both of which fundamentally changed how the society operates. The society is currently experiencing another profound system innovation determined by the rapid development and diffusion of information and communication technologies. Since system innovation is a transformation which takes place at the wider societal context, it covers not only product and process innovations but also changes in user practices, markets, policy, regulations, culture, infrastructure, lifestyle, and management of firms (see, for example, Berkhout, 2002; Geels, 2006; Kemp and Rotmans, 2005; Sartorius, 2006).  In other words, system innovation occurs when the societal system functions differently and thus there is a requirement for fundamental structural change (Frantzeskaki and De Haan, 2009).

Historical examples of system innovation differ from system innovation for sustainability simply by not having a predefined and desired output. On the contrary to historical examples, endeavours to achieve system innovation for sustainability has a desired outcome: sustainable socio-technical systems. This raises questions about what sustainability means, how sustainability of a system can be achieved, what characteristics socio-technical systems have and how can we change socio-technical systems. Answers to these will be investigated in my upcoming musings. But next, I’ll write about the history of system innovation, how it all started and where it is now.

References used in this post:

Berkhout, F., 2002. Technological regimes, path dependency and the environment. Global Environmental Change, 12(1), 1-4.

Frantzeskaki, N., De Haan, H., 2009. Transitions: Two steps from theory to policy. Futures, 41(9), 593-606.

Geels, F. W. 2002a. Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research Policy, 31(8-9), 1257-1274. Retrieved May 20, 2007 from ScienceDirect.

Geels, F. 2002b. Understanding the Dynamics of Technological Transitions: a co-evolutionary and socio-technical analysis. Unpublished Ph.D., University of Twente, Twente.

Geels, F. W., 2005. Technological transitions and system innovations: a co-evolutionary and socio-technical analysis. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar Pub.

Geels, F. W., 2006. System innovations and transitions to sustainability: challenges for innovation theory. Paper presented at the SPRU 40th Anniversary Conference,11-13 September 2006.

Kemp, R., Rotmans, J., 2005. The Management of the Co-evolution of Technical, Environmental and Social Systems, in: Weber, M., Hemmelskamp, J. (Eds.), Towards environmental innovation systems. Berlin, New York: Springer, pp. 33-55.

Sartorius, C., 2006. Second-order sustainability–conditions for the development of sustainable innovations in a dynamic environment. Ecological Economics, 58(2), 268-286.