RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2016


246 Be constructive! Situating sustainability research at the nexus of positivism and reflective positionality
Convenor(s) Constance Carr (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
Markus Hesse (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
Chair(s) Constance Carr (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
Timetable Thursday 01 September 2016, Session 4 (16:50 - 18:30)
Session abstract Sustainable development remains a powerful concept across European and global fields of policy-making. Spurred by the all-encompassing threat of climate change, the rhetoric of a great transformation successfully occupies current policy and practice. However, in contrast to the doom and gloom predictions, and in stark contrast to the sheer magnitude of the challenge of dealing with such complex set of problems, recent policy ideas and recipes seem trivial, and overly rationalised and optimistic. With respect to this, there are two interrelated issues that will be explored in this session. First, much of this new rationality of sustainability moults into popular labels such as ‘green’ or ‘smart’ where the city is the primary setting. This search for practical solutions in the city is further buttressed by the ‘sustainability business’ and associated green-washing practices that have emerged, as well as a variety of tools to assess, monitor, evaluate, and certify sustainability initiatives (indicators, metrics, and planning orthodoxies such as density, integrated, or holistic planning) that have become standard practice. Scholars have been active to identify the pitfalls here: Elgert & Krueger (2012) discussed the epistemology of metrics; Wiig (2015) interrogated the corporate strategy of a multi such as IBM behind ‘smart city’; Angelo & Wachsmuth (2015) criticised ‘methodological cityism’ in political ecology; Purcell (2006) showed the limits to localism; Mössner (2013) exposed socio-political limits of green cities. These criticisms highlight that there is something else to explore beyond current notions of sustainability. In this session, we explore further critiques of existing attempts, as well as conceptions of sustainability that embrace more contemporary imaginaries of urban geographies. These include critical reflections on super-optimist projects such as transition towns, or green cities (e.g. localism, methodological city-ism, green-washing in urban marketing), and thoughts on the disparity between the normative of sustainable development and current policy realities (How has this disparity changed? How is it produced? What lays outside the current lens? How has green urbanism changed over time and across places?). The second issue relates to expectations of knowledge proliferation in academia, as research communities are increasingly embedded in contradictory settings, expected to provide results and not problems, to be frank but constructive, and moreover, to be elite, excellent, income-generating as well as critical. In this respect, there is thus good reason to analyse the research-policy nexus, as Woods & Gardner (2011), Pain (2006), and Beaumont et al. (2005) have explored, examine the construction of knowledge claims as Rydin (2007) has explained, and rework some considerations with regards to rationalist modes in sustainable development and emerging sustainability modernities. We thus also want to interrogate the tensions between the construction of positivist sustainability on the one hand, and the position of the critical researcher on the other hand – the treading of the fine line between Dennis Judd’s (2005) claim that urban scholars tend to assume that “everything is always going to hell” (Judd 2005) and Elbert Hubbard’s classical “positive anything is better than negative nothing” (Hawthorne 1902). Concrete questions addressed here are: Who is producing claims to knowledge in practices of sustainable development urbanism? What are the possibilities and limitations for researchers to balance constructive interventionism with realistic limits of sustainable development and all its complexities, messy politics, wicked problems that are observed in human geography? How is it possible to pursue state-led contract work while maintaining critical integrity? What are relevant reflections the ontology, methodology and ethics of applied SD research practice?
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2016@rgs.org
An interdisciplinary review of humans-nature relationships in urban sustainable futures
Olivia Bina (University of Lisbon, Portugal , Portugal)
Lavinia Pereira (University of Lisbon, Portugal)
Eduardo Costa Pinto (Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal)
We critically review the changing relationship between humans and nature in the city, as a cornerstone dimension of 21st century sustainability policy. We start with the Anthropocene as the metaphor for humans becoming a force of nature, and the city as the emblematic setting for a sustainable or dystopian outcome for the planet. At the origin of the problems arising from this age is a breakdown of humans-nature relationships (HNR) that has its roots deep in Berque's 'Classic Modern Western Paradigm'. We examine current urban sustainability policies (green, eco, low-carbon and smart - GELCS) from the perspective of humans-nature relationships. The inquiry engages with notions of reductionism, duality and economization that shape our contemporary condition and mainstream views of HNRs, by: (1) proposing a new interdisciplinary conceptual framework for "HNR in the city" that helps to rethink nature as intrinsically valuable and humans as part of natural processes, namely through concepts of interconnectedness, belonging and embodiment, (2) applying the framework to a range of GELCS policy documents, from both international organisations and leading cities across the globe, (3) categorizing the policies reviewed in terms of how their treatment of HNR relates to transition and transformation discourses, and (4) drawing lessons and recommendations for the treatment of HNR that is consistent with the ethical and transformative ethos of sustainability theory and policy.

Broken promises and balancing acts: researching retrofit in North London
Rebecca Ince (The University of Sheffield, UK)
This case study of domestic retrofit in North London firstly critically examines the reality of experimenting with super-optimistic policy in an urban context, and secondly illuminates the tensions and compromises within an EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) project assisting a local authority (the London Borough of Haringey) in developing its domestic retrofit strategy. The Green Deal, launched in 2012 and culled in 2015 was - at the time - the UK government's flagship energy policy. Its two strands - a market mechanism of loan finance for energy efficient home improvements (e.g. insulation), and an industry accreditation framework - were intended to overhaul existing, inefficient UK housing stock. This overhaul promised to reduce carbon emissions, create a new retrofit industry (generating jobs and 'green' growth) and protect the vulnerable against fuel poverty. Urban spaces were positioned as sites of experimentation, tasked with creating localised retrofit infrastructures - making the Green Deal 'work'. In reality, funding was sporadic and narrowly focussed on specific technologies and markets, creating a partial infrastructure that ignored local priorities and excluded swathes of North London's most vulnerable residents. The IAA research process was both satisfying and challenging for the critical researcher. Rich knowledge was co-produced with council officers, SMEs and community groups, along with a welcomed evaluation and a framework of principles upon which to base future retrofit work. However, expectations of providing retrofit 'models' to try were impossible to meet, heavy policy critiques had to be balanced with good news from Haringey's context (such as highlighting their innovative advisory process), and qualitative 'impact' proved difficult to measure when reporting to funders.

Hiding the Hidden Hand: Essentialism, Anti-Essentialism, and the Science-Policy Interface
Tom Becker (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
Rob Krueger (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, USA)
Markus Hesse (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
Decision makers from around the world, at all scales, seek a new science-policy interface (SPI). SPIs often come in the form of best practices, which are defined as policy ideas developed in one place and deemed unproblematic when transferred across space. Best practices have been elevated to best practices because they are ostensibly vetted (objectively) and readily available (universal) for import. They are essentialist in that they have elements, such as rational actors, that are necessary to their function. Recent studies in policy mobility, an anti-essentialist approach to understanding the movement of policies from one place to another, have shown that there are significant challenges to the essentialist paradigm of scientific policy-making (e.g., new institutional contexts and actor perspectives). The debate between essentialism and anti-essentialism in the mobility of best practices resonates with the work of Albert O. Hirschman (1915-2012). Hirschman gained notoriety by developing an anti-essentialist theory of policy, the hiding hand principle, by assessing development projects in the 1950s and 60s. The hiding hand only emerges in the face of policy 'failure' and leads to more creative solutions to problem solving. For policy makers to profit from the hiding hand they must abandon the notion of universality and objectivity, which is the goal of the science-policy interface. Hirschman's work is valuable today; it refocuses the object of analysis to the role of actors and how they frame, promote, and determine best practices. We examine the hiding hand through the URBACT markets project. This project reveals the dynamics of how actors develop and adopt best practices using the science policy interface to overcome failure and uncertainty with universality and objectivity.
Quantitative Story Telling at the European Commission: new method, same challenges for nexus policy studies
Kirsty Blackstock (James Hutton Institute, UK)
Kerry Waylen (James Hutton Institute, UK)
Keith Matthews (The James Hutton Institute, UK)
Mario Giampietro (Autonomous University of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain)
We will discuss the application of "Quantitative Story-Telling" (QST) underpinned by "social metabolism modelling" with the aim of informing European Commission policy making processes. Our H2020 project "Moving Towards Adaptive Governance in Complexity: Informing Nexus Security brings together scientists from multiple disciplines with a range of European policy actors in a transdisciplinary "nexus dialogue space". In this space, we co-analyse the narratives that underpin policies within the water, agriculture, biodiversity, climate and energy "nexus". QST defines and implements assessments of "social metabolic patterns", using metrics that are meaningful when applied across space and over time. The analysis also assesses how these patterns respond to global drivers, key dependencies and where they exceed planetary boundaries. Deliberations within the dialogue space focus on how policy narratives are bio-physically feasible, institutionally viable and politically or socially desirable. The project generates familiar challenges for the critical qualitative researcher: With whom are we telling stories and for what purpose? What interest do policy makers with a clear remit, mandate and set of influences have in tackling the nexus? Is there a coherent and bounded set of European 'nexus policies'? Within our research team, how do we map multiple interpretations of social metabolism metrics and competing policy narratives onto a single modelling framework? Explicitly highlighting these issues can support this radical reframing of the nexus debate around social, environmental and geographical justice. However, open reflection and overt positionality may be challenging when simultaneously trying to prove the 'utility' of these nexus approaches to policymakers.
Discussant - Feedback and Thoughts on Sustainability and Research
Susannah Bunce (University of Toronto, Canada)
The session organisers welcome Prof Dr. Susannah Bunce as discussant. Reflecting on her own work in sustainability research in urban geography, Bunce will draw key themes from the papers presented, hint at emerging questions for scholars in urban geography, and kindle discussion in the group.