Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Credibility across cultures: expertise, uncertainty and the global politics of scientific advice, 6-7 February 2013, UK

Speakers include: Professors Anne Glover, Sir Robert Watson, Lidia Brito, David Spiegelhalter, Chris Whitty, Roger Pielke, Duncan Green and more.

Tackling 21st century sustainability and development challenges requires the ‘best available’ scientific advice. But what is ‘best advice’ and how might this idea need to be re-thought?

Many questions persist about how to build and maintain robust, open and accountable processes of expert advice that can operate effectively across disciplines, sectors, social contexts and national boundaries.

Join us for the STEPS Centre Annual Symposium on 6-7 Feb 2013, to debate the critical task of maintaining credibility across cultures.

• Register Now: http://stepssymposium2013.eventbrite.co.uk/
(50% discount available for students)

• Programme: View the Symposium programme

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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Ghana: take 70,900 metric tons of frozen chicken, add politics

A billboard advertising chicken in Accra, Ghana. By alew on Flickr
By Jim Sumberg and John Thompson
Convenors, STEPS Centre Livestock project

The well known expression – that [something] is ‘as likely as turkeys voting for Christmas’ – makes an intriguing and to date poorly understood link between poultry and electoral politics. But in some parts of the world, poultry has a wider significance for how both voters and politicians behave.

During some recent field work in Accra, Ghana, while researching pathways to sustainability in the poultry sector, we took the opportunity to conduct a series of rapid, opportunistic ‘interviews’ with taxi drivers. Our focus was on chicken consumption: the last time they ate chicken; the way it was prepared; the origin of the chicken; how often they eat chicken etc.

The ‘sample’ was 24 male taxi drivers aged between approximately 25 and 50 working in the nation’s capital. We obviously make no claim that these respondents are in any way representative of consumers at large. Nevertheless, a number of interesting points emerged:
  1. While nearly all the taxi drivers reported eating chicken, and some several times a week, nearly two thirds of our informants expressed a preference for fish. They also noted that fish had become more expensive in recent years.
  2. Most had fairly well developed views and preferences in regard to the different qualities (price, flavour, texture, ‘hardness’ or ‘softness’) of different kinds of chicken (e.g. frozen imported, ‘fresh local’ or ‘village’). While many expressed a preference for ‘fresh local’ or ‘village’ chicken, the relatively low price of imported frozen chicken (which can be less than half the price of local chicken) weighs heavily in its favour.
  3. Most expressed a preference for a particular chicken ‘part’, with thighs being the most commonly identified. One young man explained this choice by saying: ‘that piece is a heavy meat’. (Thighs seem to account for a large proportion of the estimated 70,900 metric tons of frozen chicken imported into Ghana annually). Only one said he had no preference and could not tell which part he was eating.
  4. A number of taxi drivers highlighted the fact that when they were children they consumed chicken only very occasionally: one told us that in those days in the village his family ate chicken and jollof rice only once in a year – at Christmas. This shift in consumption appears to be specific to chicken as opposed to all forms of meat. Few of the taxi drivers mentioned either recently eating or having a preference for other kinds of meat (beef, goat, pork, etc).
  5. The ‘turn to chicken’ may have an important generational element, with young people giving chicken a central place on their plates. In the words of our research assistant, a recent university graduate, ‘I cannot even remember the last time I ate beef’’. He frequents ‘chicken and chips’ shops and other fast food eateries, as do his friends.
  6. Health and safety concerns were very apparent. The fact that you could never be sure where the frozen chicken came from or how long it has been frozen arose several times. A number of our informants linked their preference for local or imported chicken, and particular chicken parts, to fat content. They also mentioned radio, newspaper and internet stories about foreign operators having purchased sick and dead birds and dressed them for sale in Ghana, or chicken parts being injected with preservatives or water before being imported.
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Thursday, 15 November 2012

"Pastoralism" book launch, 29 November, London

On 29 November, we're launching the book Pastoralism and Development in Africa with a panel debate and drinks reception in Central London, held in association with the Royal African Society.

Book launch
Pastoralism and Development in Africa: Dynamic Change at the Margins

edited by Andy Catley, Jeremy Lind and Ian Scoones
29 November 2012
London House Large Common Room
Goodenough College
Mecklenburgh Square
London WC1N 2AB
6.00 pm, followed by refreshments

To register, email Harriet Dudley: h.dudley@ids.ac.uk

Chaired by Dr Camilla Toulmin
Director, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

Dr Jeremy Lind (Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex) and Prof Hussein Mahmoud (Pwani University College, Kenya) will present some key themes from the book. Prof Katherine Homewood (University College London) and Dr Zeremariam Fre (Executive Director, Pastoral and Environmental Network for the Horn of Africa – PENHA) will respond.  Followed by open discussion. 

For more information, see the event page on the STEPS Centre website.

This book is part of the STEPS Centre's Pathways to Sustainability book series. Read more

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Land grabs: knowledge and resistance

by Nathan Oxley, STEPS Centre communications officer

Shalmali Guttal from Focus on the Global South addresses the opening plenary
The Global Land Grabbing II conference at Cornell last week brought together an impressive range of people with different disciplines, views and experience on large scale land deals – a phenomenon that’s erupted worldwide in the wake of recent global crises.

Supporters of large scale acquisitions of land make some big claims for them: that they help to boost economies, create jobs, make the most of ‘underused’ land and feed the hungry. These claims are examined and contested by those concerned about the violence and injustice that goes along with some large-scale land deals. As speakers at the conference showed, dodgy economics and even dodgier science join forces with powerful interests, with deals often negotiated behind closed doors. Even the participation of vulnerable groups in decisions about land is not what it seems: it can even be a method of controlling them without giving them a real say in what happens.
Read more

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

World Food Day: The State of Food Insecurity in the World and the Need for Coordinated Action

By John Thompson and Jim Sumberg

The three Rome-based agencies of the United Nations – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) – formally launched the 2012 edition of the annual State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) on World Food Day (Tuesday, October 16th). The report presents new estimates of undernourishment which show that progress in reducing hunger over the past 20 years has been better than previously believed, as the proportion of hungry people in developing countries has fallen from more than 23% in 1990-92 to less than 15% in 2010-12, bringing the estimated total number to 870 million in 2010-12.

Significantly, the new figures do not show an increase in global hunger following the recent food price crises of 2007-8 or the economic slowdown since 2009, let alone more recent food price increases. However, the report does find that from 2007 there has been ‘a significant slowdown’ in progress, bringing hunger reduction ‘essentially to a halt for the developing countries as a whole’. According to the report’s authors, given renewed efforts, it may be possible to reach the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger at the global level by 2015. However, the number of people suffering from chronic undernourishment is still unacceptably high, and eradication of hunger remains a major global challenge.

This year’s report also discusses the role of economic growth in reducing undernourishment, particularly growth in the agricultural sector. Sustainable agricultural growth is often effective in reaching poor hungry people because the majority of them live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for a significant part of their livelihoods. However, growth will not necessarily result in better nutrition for all. Thus, the SOFI authors argue that in order for economic growth to enhance the nutrition of the neediest, poor people must participate in the growth process and its benefits and use the additional income for improving the quantity and quality of their diets and for improved health services; and governments must use additional public resources for public goods and services to benefit the poor and hungry. Furthermore, this agricultural-led growth must be ‘nutrition-sensitive’ – i.e. it must result in better nutritional outcomes through enhanced opportunities for the poor to diversify their diets; improved access to safe drinking water and sanitation; improved access to health services; better consumer awareness regarding adequate nutrition and child care practices; and targeted distribution of supplements in situations of acute micronutrient deficiencies.

The SOFI report also makes the case for public sector investments in social protection – e.g. social safety nets (cash transfers, food/input vouchers, etc.), social insurance, complementary social welfare services, labour market policies – to accelerate hunger reduction. First, social protection can protect the most vulnerable in society who have not benefited from economic growth. Second, when properly structured, can contribute directly to more rapid economic growth through human resource development and strengthened ability of the poor, especially smallholder farmers, to manage risks and adopt improved technologies with higher productivity.

We think that the arguments and analysis in this year’s SOFI report are fairly robust, however the report falls short in its examination of ‘purposeful and decisive public action’ to create a supportive environment for pro-poor long-term economic growth. Here, we get the usual policy ‘wish list’ – i.e. provision of public goods and services for the development of the productive sectors, equitable access to resources by poor people, empowerment of women, design and implementation of social protection schemes and, above all, ‘an improved governance system, based on transparency, participation, accountability, rule of law and human rights’. Fair enough, but how?

The good news is that some of these thorny governance issues are being addressed in the latest draft of the Global Strategic Framework for Food Security and Nutrition – a ‘dynamic framework’ which is supposed to provide a set of rules to ensure cooperation and policy coherence between countries and which will be submitted to the Plenary of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in mid-October. The CFS is a reinvention of a long-standing UN committee with a less than impressive track record. In its current incarnation, however, the CFS unites FAO, IFAD and WTO and creating a new space for civil society to engage actively in inter-governmental negotiations. Today, it is formally recognised by most institutions as the appropriate body to coordinate responses to the food and nutrition security challenges identified in the 2012 SOFI report. Nevertheless, the CFS still faces resistance of some governments to making the necessary reforms. In particular, the G-20, the group of the world’s most economically powerful nations, has staked its own claim to leadership of the global food security agenda by launching its own competing process. In June 2012, Mexico, as G-20 President, presented a commissioned, inter-agency report, Sustainable Agricultural Productivity Growth and Bridging the Gap for Small Family Farms, which reviewed progress made since the Cannes Declaration (when France held the G-20 Presidency in 2011) and called for investment in innovative research and technologies to help the developing world adopt more productive and sustainable agricultural solutions. The report argues that success depends heavily on a free flow of goods, ideas, knowledge, and services, including training services, across borders. Maintaining this free flow will require global policymakers to work together and ensure a transparent market and institutional environment.

Last month a follow-up meeting of G-20 chief agricultural science advisors was also held in Mexico. While there was a clear recognition that the domestic agendas of different countries have some significant areas of alignment, there was little agreement about fundamental food governance issues. Moreover, much of the emphasis was still on increasing production as the key route to reducing global food insecurity, rather than on addressing access and entitlements issues. This supply-side bias is linked to still deeply-rooted domestic priorities among the G-20 countries, particularly in difficult economic times, which encourage a focus on production increases at all costs.

Despite being a self-appointed body with little formal authority, the G-20 has sought to systematically bypass the reform agenda of the UN and CFS. Similar actions by the most powerful countries also recently derailed progress in major summits on climate change and trade, with potentially dire implications for agricultural development and food security. While the CFS was established under international law with formal governance systems and a clear mandate, with inclusive, if sometimes messy, procedures that bring different agencies and stakeholders to the table, the G-20 has none of these features. It is an invitation-only club of some of the world’s most powerful nations. The emerging and developing countries in the group have no mandate to speak for larger blocs of countries, as is the case in other international bodies such as the UN and the World Trade Organization. And because the G-20, as an extension of the G-8, has no formal institutional structure, it lacks even the transparency and accountability of the G-8, let alone that of the World Bank and other institutions where civil society has won important democratic reforms.

Much of the G-20’s work is hidden from public view. Its assertion of leadership in development finance, including a response to the global food crisis, undermines accountability in the international system, and weakens the efforts of the international organisations and inter-agency processes that should be addressing these problems. Furthermore, too much of the G-20’s food security agenda is focused on addressing the mismatch between supply and demand in international markets – as if global hunger were the result of physical scarcity at the aggregate level – while comparatively too little attention has been paid either to the imbalances of power in food systems or to the failure to support small-scale farmers to feed themselves, their families, and their communities.

Much of the G8’s work is hidden from public view. Its assertion of the role of leader in development finance – including in the response to the global food crisis – undermines accountability in the international system, and weakens the efforts of the international organisations and inter-agency processes that should be addressing these problems. What is more, too much of the G20’s food security agenda is focused on addressing the mismatch between supply and demand in international markets while too little attention is paid either to the imbalances of power in food systems, or to the failure to support small-scale farmers to feed themselves, their families and their communities.

Looking ahead, if we are to address the food security needs of the 870 million people who remain chronically undernourished, the CFS and its emerging Global Strategic Framework holds out the best hope of a new era of cooperation and coordinated action. However, even in the CFS the chronic structural issues – poverty, political marginalisation, inadequate access to productive resources, finance and markets, etc. – that are so central in the daily creation and re-creation of cycles of food insecurity and undernutrition are not on the agenda. We should all be very clear: until these underlying structural issues are put at centre stage, better cooperation and coordination will do little to address food insecurity and undernutrition in ways that do justice to the spirit and aspirations of World Food Day.

Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World is out now in paperback, edited by James Sumberg and John Thompson
The book is part of the STEPS Centre’s Pathways to Sustainability book series.
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Thursday, 11 October 2012

Herd it on the grapevine: how pastoralists get a raw deal in policy and the media

Mike Shanahan of IIED has written two great blog posts in two weeks on how pastoralism is viewed by politicians and by stories in the media.

The first covers how pastoralists have come to be viewed as ‘backward’ by some dominant policy narratives in Kenya, China and India.

"The dominant policy narrative casts pastoralism as a backward, irrational livelihood that takes place in fragile unproductive ecosystems and creates a catalogue of problems for non-pastoralists… the pastoralists themselves would of course disagree, and research suggests that they will have a critical role to play – if allowed to – as our climate changes."

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Thursday, 27 September 2012

Vive la révolution?

cattle market  Photo: Garissa cattle market from USAID's photostream on Flickr

Revolution is in the air. As the 3-day African Green Revolution Forum kicks off officially today in Arusha, the talk is of scaling up investment and innovation, focusing on small and medium-sized agribusinesses. Agriculture in Africa, neglected in recent years, is now seen as a sector with enormous potential to feed local populations and grow economies. The language of revolution is about historic change around big ideas. It suggests a radical, visible change for the better. Who benefits, and at what cost, will be crucial in determining its success.

But the African Green Revolution isn’t the only one around. The so-called Livestock Revolution has also emerged, in the last 10 years, as a powerful idea to provoke change. Like all revolutions, it is full of opportunities and threats, winners and losers. The STEPS Centre’s project on the poultry sector in Ghana will look at different parts of the sector, tracing how they interact and change over time.

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Friday, 14 September 2012

The great green land grab


"Land grabbing" is rarely out of the headlines. But the practice of land being appropriated by the environmental agenda - so-called "green grabs" - is gaining more and more attention. A new article on the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) blog looks at this phenomenon, and refers to recent work involving STEPS Centre members, published in a recent special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies.


Image: No Entry_1952, from creative1the's photostream on Flickr (cc-by-nd) Read more

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Low Carbon Energy Development Network 2nd conference (#LCEDN2)

Follow the conference on Storify

They are big, big questions: How can developing countries transition to low carbon energy systems? Do low carbon futures preclude economic development? Can low carbon energy access go hand-in-hand with poverty reduction? The first day of the Low Carbon Energy Development Network (LCEDN) second international conference grappled with all of these, and more (Photo: Kevin Urama by Lance Bellers).

It was a stimulating, provocative and productive day with presentations and discussions focussing on which pathways to energy access for all might prove the most beneficial in terms of addressing poverty reduction, human development and economic growth.

During this, the United Nations' Year of Sustainable Energy for All, exploring the mix of potential solutions to these global challenges is more pressing than ever.

As, Nafees Meah, head of science at the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, pointed out during his conference address, there are  1.3bn poeple without access to modern energy, 2.7bn people without access to clean cooking and, by 2030, there will be 3bn middle class consumers.

We need to understand the impact of the energy access decisions these consumers make on the world's climate, Dr Meah said. "What works, and what doesn't work in driving clean energy? It is an area that is still unclear."

div class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0cm 0cm 0pt;"> The UK government, he said, is commited to expanding access to clean energy in developing countries, in trying to identify UK expertise and how it can most add value to critical research questions by working in close collaboration with research partners in developing countries. And that is one of the reasons behind DECC's sponsorship of the LCEDN.

The Network brings together researchers, policy-makers and practitioners from the UK to expand research capacity around low carbon development in the Global South. One of the functions of this second conference is to forge even closer partnerships with colleagues around the world, including in developing countries.

The event's keynote speaker, Kevin Urama, executive director of the African Technology Policy Studies Network, stressed the need for partnerships between developed and developing country experts.

"Creating partnerships with developing countries is a major issue - not just creating solutions and transferring them, " said Dr Urama.

"Technology transfer has traditionally ignored difference between end users. We need to move towards not only transferring knowledge and skills but towards building the knowledge and skills of the people - this becomes a systemic process of co-production and sharing knowledge, experiences, skills and equipment," he said.

Dr Urama added: "The marginalised and the poor are not benefitting from the CDM becasue the current mechanisms are using the old method of technology transfer."

You can watch videos of the speakers at the conference, flick through the presentations that were given and see photographs. All the material will be gathered on the event's Storify, which tells the story of the conference. All the material is not yet availble, but it will appear asap. You can also follow discusisons via the event hashtag on Twitter: #LCEDN2

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Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Video: Working together for low carbon development

Ed Brown, LCEDN Co-coordinator from Responding to Climate Change on Vimeo.

In this video, Dr Ed Brown, Co-coordinator of the Low Carbon Energy for Development Network talks to RTCC about why the network formed, what they hope to achieve and why a much more multi-disciplinary approach is needed to low carbon development in the Global South.

The LCEDN network's 2nd international workshop is at Sussex next week: participants will look at the outcomes of Rio+20 and discuss how to meet the UN goal of “Sustainable energy for all”.

Follow tweets from the workshop through the hashtag #LCEDN2. Read more

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Final Call: register for #LCEDN2 - Low Carbon Energy for Development workshop, 10-11 September

You can still register for the international workshop of the Low Carbon Energy for Development Network (LCEDN) at Sussex University on 10-11 September. There are a small number of places left, so the registration deadline has been extended to tomorrow at midday (24 August at 12pm GMT+1) next Thursday 30 August. 

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Thursday, 9 August 2012

Video: Adrian Ely on steps to sustainability (TEDx)

Adrian Ely talked about technology, innovation and the STEPS Centre's ideas on pathways to sustainability earlier this year at TEDx Sussex University. The video's just been made available, so here it is:

Video link
Adrian Ely's profile (STEPS Centre website)
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Friday, 3 August 2012

Agriculture as Assembly (or, what is the nature of the factory in ‘factory farming’?)

By Jim Sumberg and John Thompson

When considering the nature and spatial distribution of economic activity, two fundamental contrasts take centre stage: ‘urban vs. rural’ and ‘industry vs. agriculture’. While it is clear that ‘urban agriculture’ and ‘rural industry’ are possibilities (indeed important realities), it is the ‘urban + industry’ and ‘rural + agriculture’ associations that continue to frame both social imaginaries and policy discourse.

Perhaps it is because they play on and appear to contradict these deeply rooted associations that terms such as ‘factory farming’ and ‘industrial agriculture’ – which are used to simultaneously name, frame and shame – have such power. But what are we to understand by factory farming?

Campaigning and advocacy groups that uses the term and the image of factory farming draw attention to what are said to be general characteristic of modern livestock production including: scale (large); stocking density (high); diversity (low); use of technology and capital (intensive); product quality (low); welfare and ethical standards (low); and sustainability standards (low). In so doing they evoke the worst of the noise, regimentation, abuse and misery of a 19th century factory and the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ of William Blake’s Jerusalem. In this telling, factory farming is bad for livestock, bad for employees, bad for consumers, bad for the environment and, through the concentration of considerable power in the hands of a few, even bad for democracy. The contrast, sometimes explicit and sometimes not, is with systems of livestock production that are smaller in scale, less intensive and more embedded in local knowledge, traditions and environments – in other words, production that is more artisanal. Those campaigning against factory farming rely on a willingness on the part of their interlocutors to equate artisanal with higher welfare and ethical standards and enhanced quality and sustainability.

Such assumptions deserve to be unpicked, but that is not our primary interest here. Instead of focusing on the conditions of production, we want to highlight another less often cited dimension of modern commercial livestock production that may be relevant to the notions of factory farming and pathways.

Over a broad range of products the manufacturing sector has responded to globalisation and increased international competition with strategies such as the out-sourcing and ‘just-in-time’ delivery of component part manufacture. These component supply chains are managed in ways that are demanding (of the supplier) while providing maximum flexibility to respond to changes in global markets. As a result, the ‘factory’ from which finished products emerge is now often primarily an assembly plant: few if any raw materials may actually be transformed into component parts on site. This contrasts with the historic image of a factory (in at least some industries) as a site where diverse trades, skills and knowledges came together to transform a variety of raw material into component parts and ultimately finished products.

In many ways poultry farming has also evolved along similar lines, such that a modern poultry farm, particularly confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), is essentially a site of assembly of components sourced through highly competitive supply chains that may stretch around the world. It is now likely that there will be few if any historical, spatial, agro-ecological or co-evolutionary links between a particular poultry farm and e.g. the breed, feed or equipment used. Here the poultry producer plays the role of an assembler, following a tightly specified regime designed (by others) to deliver consistent and uniform products at least cost. Instead of factory farming we might better conceive of this as ‘assembly farming’.

The anthropologist Paul Richards famously talked of ‘agriculture as performance’, with rice farmers in Sierra Leone performing by calling on a whole repertoire of context specific moves and (largely locally produced) resources as they sought to responded to the unfolding risks and uncertainties of a cropping season (early or late rains, poor burn of the bush, accidents, sickness etc). What we want to highlight in an analysis of factory farming is the change in the nature of that performance, where the ‘agriculture as assembly’ that characterises commercial poultry production is so tightly orchestrated through vertically integrated chains that even the slightest misstep can be the difference between profit and loss, survival and bankruptcy.

There is a deep irony here. If modern poultry production is an example of ‘agriculture as assembly’, much of the post-production activity within the globalised food system – as evidenced by the booming world trade in ‘chicken parts’ – is about disassembly. In Ghana, where we are launching a new STEPS project focused on the poultry sector, imported frozen chicken parts (from Brazil, the USA and Europe) account for approximately 60% of the poultry meat consumed. These global dynamics of assembly and disassembly within the broader agrifood system must necessarily frame our analysis of pathways to sustainability within Ghana’s poultry sector. It may be that there are reasons to be concerned about ‘factory farming’, but let’s first understand the changing nature of the factory and its consequences for a range of producers and consumers and other actors.

Thus, in our study, we are planning to apply and extend the STEPS ‘Pathways Approach’ to analyse the dynamics of socio-technical change within the poultry system in Ghana and its connections to actors and interests in other parts of the world. We will focus on the interactions between different poultry pathways – from ‘large-scale industrial’ (i.e. the factory farms) to ‘intermediate commercial’ to ‘small-scale backyard’ – and identify their distinct features, dynamic interactions and interdependencies. We believe such an analysis could lead to deeper understandings of what may be called ‘Pathway Bundles’ that are co-dependent. In this way we hope to shift the emphasis from a choice between opposing or alternative pathways to an analysis of the drivers, dynamics and implications of their co-evolution.
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Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Low Carbon Energy Development Network (LCEDN) Second International Workshop

The second international workshop of the Low Carbon Energy for Development Network (LCEDN), titled Transitions to low carbon energy systems: which pathways to energy access for all?, will take place at the University of Sussex in Brighton in the UK on the 10th and 11th September 2012.

This second LCEDN event is intended to identify and discuss priority questions that need to be answered to meet the UN goal of “Sustainable energy for all”. Reflecting on the outcomes and implications of Rio+20, the workshop will have a particular focus on the extent to which low carbon development can simultaneously address concerns around energy access, poverty reduction, human development and economic growth.

The workshop is international in both its scope and significance and it will be hosted by the STEPS Centre and SPRU - Science & Technology Policy Research and at the University of Sussex, and is supported by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The event will involve participants drawn from across a wide array of academic communities, government departments, private sector organisations and NGOs, as well as a range of countries.

Workshop goals
Intended outcomes include the forging of new south-north partnerships for addressing the research priorities emerging from the workshop and will be designed to address a series of questions, such as:
  • In addition to the technical issues of low carbon energy technologies, what are the challenges to achieving energy access for all?
  • What are the links between energy technologies, energy services, development and poverty reduction?
  • What are the implications for energy access of rapid urbanisation and what can we do as researchers, policy makers and practitioners to ensure the provision of sustainable energy for the urban poor?
  • What financing mechanisms work, and what else needs to be done to make finance work for the poor?
Planned sessions include
  • The development benefits of low carbon energy access: what is the evidence?
  • Transformative energy pathways: the political economy of low carbon energy access
  • Group consultations on the evidence and the challenges
  • Low carbon energy technology transfer, development and poverty reduction
  • Financing sustainable energy for all: what works, and what needs to change?
  • Plenary discussion identifying follow-on workshops, partnerships and research priorities
We are currently in the process of securing a number of excellent speakers and will provide updates on this over the coming weeks. In the meantime, please do save the dates and we hope to see you in Brighton in early September. See the event website for more details and how to register online.

For specific enquiries and for further conference, transport and accommodation details, please contact:
Dr Rob Byrne Research Fellow SPRU and STEPS Centre Freeman Centre, University of Sussex, Brighton, BN1 9QE, UK
E-mail: R.P.Byrne@sussex.ac.uk T: +44 (0)1273 873217

STEPS work on energy and climate change:
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Thursday, 19 July 2012

Video: Pastoralism in Africa - doing things differently

Our new book Pastoralism and Development in Africa explores the booming livestock trade in the Horn of Africa, a region more often associated with conflict and famine.

In this video, two of the authors - Hussein Mahmoud and John Letai - and two editors - Ian Scoones and Jeremy Lind - give their views on pastoralism and development.

Buy the book from Routledge 
More information, reviews, blogs and articles

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Thursday, 12 July 2012

Health markets: Gerry Bloom and David Peters in Nature

Gerry Bloom, STEPS health convenor and David Peters (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) have a comment piece in Nature today, on the challenge of unregulated health markets in the developing world.

"Bringing order to unruly health markets is a major challenge. Yet the problem is largely ignored by governments and international agencies. The World Health Organization (WHO) continues to highlight a shortage of primary health workers as the main barrier to accessing health care in low- and middle-income countries. It neglects the growing presence of drug sellers, rural medical practitioners and other informally trained health-care providers. 

To find better ways to meet the health and welfare needs of the poor, we need to look beyond ideological debates about public and private sectors and improve how these evolving markets operate. This will not be easy, because health markets are complicated and interventions have unpredictable consequences..."

This article comes ahead of the book Transforming Health Markets in Asia and Africa: Improving quality and access for the poor, which will be out in the STEPS Centre's Pathways to Sustainability book series.

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Pastoralism: the hidden story of development in the Horn of Africa

Our new book Pastoralism and Development in Africa: Dynamic Change at the Margins explores the hidden story of pastoralism in the Horn of Africa. The latest volume in our Pathways to Sustainability book series, it contains 20 chapters on empirical research on the current state of pastoralism; it is edited by Andy Catley, Jeremy Lind and Ian Scoones.

Katherine Homewood is professor of Human Ecology at UCL. She has written a review of the book and has allowed us to reproduce it in full here.

Pastoralism and Development in Africa drives home the tremendous scale and pace of change in northeast African pastoralism. It has its finger spot on the pulse, tracking unfolding events up to the weeks and months before publication, and grounded in authoritative knowledge of general context as well as incisive analysis of social and historical particularities. The subject matter spans resources and production, commercialisation and markets, land and conflict, established and emerging alternative livelihoods. Chapters range from overviews by internationally renowned ‘elder statesmen’ social scientists (African and other), through to new voices from a rising generation of young African researchers and development practitioners, ably expounding the issues facing the pastoralist societies from which they themselves come, within which and for which they work.
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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Green Grabs explained: radio interview with Melissa Leach

Last week, our director Melissa Leach was interviewed about green grabs - the appropriation of land for environmental ends - by Brent Bambury of the Canadian station CBC Radio. Here's a direct link to the interview, and you can stream the audio below, after the jump.

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Thursday, 21 June 2012

Harnessing diversity across the global innovation system: a key challenge post Rio+20

By Adrian Ely, Head of Impact and Engagement, STEPS Centre

Technology and innovation feature prominently in what looks likely to be the final outcome document from Rio+20, however the diversity of new ideas that can contribute to sustainable development remains underappreciated.

Mark Stafford-Smith, co-chair of the ‘Planet Under Pressure’ conference that was held in London in March this year called for the world to embrace a ‘global innovation system’ for sustainable development.  Without reference to innovation systems, the outcome text from Rio+20 highlights the role of technology-transfer, finance, capacity-building and intellectual property – all relatively predictable components of an internationally-negotiated text.  But beyond that, there are some passages (in the 19th June text) that relate to the role of more diverse forms of knowledge and action within a global innovation system for sustainable development.

Diversity in Innovation Systems
Innovation scholars who have looked at innovation systems at national and regional levels have noted the importance of diversity.  As one of the earliest theorists of innovation systems has noted, “National and international policies thus confront the need for a sophisticated dual approach to a complex set of problems. Policies for diffusion of standard generic technologies are certainly important and these may sometimes entail the encouragement of inward investment and technology transfer by MNCs. But also important are policies to encourage local originality and diversity” {Freeman, 1995}.

Another pioneer of innovation systems thinking has warned against an excessive focus on dominant and narrow innovation directions – “‘intellectual strip-mining’ indicates a process where moving rapidly ahead on well-established trajectories may imply that too few resources are used to explore alternative ones” {Lundvall, 2002}.
This focus has been re-emphasised by work in the STEPS Centre’s Manifesto on innovation, sustainability and development and also in our recent work that highlights the role of innovation in transforming development pathways so that they remain within planetary boundaries.  ‘Transforming Innovation to Sustainability’, co-authored with colleagues from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Tellus Institute, stresses the urgency of shifting global patterns of development in an attempt to keep them within a ‘safe operating space for humanity’.  Beyond a focus on the transfer of cleaner technologies from North to South, the report calls for a radical re-think of innovation that “gives far greater recognition and power to grassroots actors and processes, involving them within an inclusive, multi-scale innovation politics.”

In what ways does the Rio text recognise more diverse forms of innovation?
Beyond the predictable focus on the need to transfer technological solutions from North to South and “close the technological gap between developing and developed countries”, I was surprised by some sections in the Rio+20 text that point to the possibility that diverse forms of innovation are beginning to be increasingly recognised across UN member states.

Paragraph 197, for example, states “We recognize that traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities make an important contribution to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and their wider application can support social well-being and sustainable livelihoods.”  Innovation is not solely the domain of ‘developed countries,’ therefore.  This sentiment is reinforced in paragraph 268 which stresses the need to “facilitate entrepreneurship and innovation including among women, the poor and the vulnerable.”

In a recent article in the Guardian, my colleague Adrian Smith and I have stressed the role of inclusive innovation at Rio and beyond.  Innovation needs to be inclusive not just in the outcomes that it delivers but also the process of innovation itself – involving users and poorer communities in setting the new pathways for their development, and empowering bottom-up efforts towards shared sustainability goals.

Similar ideas were reflected in civil society inputs to the ‘Rio Dialogues’ process, in which the top 3 recommendations in the theme ‘Sustainable Development for Fighting Poverty’ included a reference to supporting grassroots innovation, and the online forum that informed these went as far as recommending the establishment of an international programme to identify, validate and support the dissemination of grassroots innovation ideas.

Within agriculture, for example, this might mean fostering traditional approaches that have been shown to raise productivity or serve broader sustainable livelihood needs in one part of the world, and facilitating their recombination and hybridisation with different approaches (technological and non-technological) that have been shown to work elsewhere. In paragraph 109, the text recognises “the importance of traditional sustainable agricultural practices, including traditional seed supply systems, including for many indigenous peoples and local communities.”  However, commitments and to supporting and connecting such approaches are absent.

Where now?  Linking diverse contributions
Even despite these encouraging sections in ‘The Future We Want’, the text still remains overly fixated on conventional North-South technology transfer, a focus on hardware and finance and insufficient attention to diverse contributions from communities and civil society across the world.

We can only hope that the implementation efforts that must follow the Rio conference will embrace calls to nurture, empower and connect innovation for sustainable development in communities across the world.  A global system of innovation needs to be inclusive – not only in its outcomes but also in the inputs to the innovation process itself. We have a long way to go in building linkages between the diverse range of actors who can make valuable contributions to a global innovation system for sustainable development.

Freeman, C. (1995). "The National System of Innovation in Historical Perspective." Cambridge Journal of Economics 19: 5-24.

Lundvall, B.-Å., Ed. (2002). Innovation, Growth and Social Cohesion: the Danish Model. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.
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Opening up Sustainable Development decision-making at the UN?

By Adrian Ely, in Rio de Janeiro

The Rio+20 conference has been enriched by a process to engage civil society  the Rio+20 Dialogues forSustainable Development.  While innovative and pioneering approaches like this should be encouraged, there is much room for improvement in the future.

The Rio Dialogues were initiated in April by the Government of Brazil and carried out with the support of the United Nations.  In each of ten different themes, they involved a multi-stage process including:

  • Online discussion, facilitated by academic organisations from around the world
  • Selection of 10 recommendations from the online discussion
  • Open (online) voting on those ten recommendations
  • Presentation of the online discussions to a panel of 10 experts in Rio
  • Live discussion by this panel at the main Rio+20 venue, Rio Centro
  • Voting by the live audience on the ten recommendations from the online discussion
  • Articulation of a further recommendation by the panel
  • Presentation of three recommendations from each theme to a roundtable of leaders gathered for the high-level segment of the Rio+20 conference

Tens of thousands of participants took part in the online discussions, and the voting process saw more than 63,000 people from 193 countries cast nearly 1.4 million votes.  This is an impressive attempt to open up the intergovernmental process to other actors by the hosts Brazil, who have also provided leadership in other areas of the negotiations.

However, how will the outcomes of the dialogues really contribute to the conference outcome, and how can we best profit from the process – into which so many have dedicated their time and efforts?  These questions deserve serious thought if such efforts to open up to civil society are to be improved into the future.

Even now, writing from Rio, the answer to the first question seems unclear beyond the reporting from roundtables to the plenary at the end of the conference.  There seems never to have been a well-articulated process through which the ‘Rio Dialogues’ outcomes will be introduced into the inter-governmental process, from which they have been isolated from the outset. 

If these kinds of institutional innovations are to play a role in future conferences, the involvement of governments, and a commitment from Member States and the UN - at least to respond in writing to the recommendations – should be a pre-requisite.  More detailed planning and a much longer period of engagement would also be needed for this complex process to be co-ordinated successfully.

With regard to the second issue, the knowledge and ideas captured through the online process is much broader than the recommendations themselves.  In many cases, detailed discussions and considerations around implementation appeared in the online fora. Without attention to the recommendations that have been ‘voted out’ along the way, and the detailed discussions online, the Rio Dialogues risks losing much of the richness of the process as they narrow down to three one line recommendations. 

Colleagues from IDS (Matthew Lockwood, Melissa Leach, Adrian Bannister) and I helped to facilitate the theme ‘Sustainable Development for Fighting Poverty’.  With academics from Brazil and South Korea, I presented the outcomes of the online discussion to the expert panel at Rio Centro.  From the ten recommendations identified, three were finally fed to the roundtables.

Beyond these, however, the dialogues process gathered together a diverse range of views and novel ideas which cannot be communicated in three bullet points.  These are unlikely to be relayed to leaders through the roundtables, and it is unclear whether they will be taken into account as the outcomes from Rio are taken forward.  

Much of the STEPS Centre’s ‘designs’ work and thinking around ‘methods and methodologies’ highlights the need not only to broaden out the inputs to policy appraisal, but also to open up the outcomes of such processes in order to profit from the plurality of views that they contain.
I believe that these kinds of institutional innovations should be encouraged, and that experiments such as the Rio Dialogues should be further developed in future UN processes.  Personally, I hope that the Dialogues – not only in terms of the 3 (or 10) recommendations selected but also the knowledge gathered throughout the process – can be taken forward in the implementation of what is agreed over the final days of the conference. 

Future approaches for engaging civil society in UN negotiations (outside the major groups architecture) deserve to be supported, but must also be sufficiently resourced and realistically planned, if they are to strengthen what is already a complex and difficult process.

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The slippery nature of 'water grabbing'

Large-scale land acquisitions for agricultural investment, popularly known as 'land grabbing', have recently attracted headline attention.  But the implications of these land grabs for water resources have stayed out of the spotlight until now. 

A special issue of the journal Water Alternatives, with a focus on water grabbing, contains 14 new articles which draw on case studies from around the globe, including Sub-Saharan Africa. One of the editors is Lyla Mehta, who convenes the STEPS Centre's Water & Sanitation domain.
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Video: listening to different views on sustainability

To mark the week of the Rio+20 conference, our funders ESRC have produced a series of short films looking at what social sciences are contributing to environmental research across a range of areas - from consumer habits and employment, to poverty and global development.

"Sustainable world" features STEPS Centre director Melissa Leach, explaining how the 'pathways to sustainability' approach offers a way of understanding and building towards sustainability from multiple viewpoints - not only as rich and powerful nations see it, but also including the values and knowledge of poorer people.

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Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Where is the green economy? Audio interview with Tim Jackson

Here’s a treat for those looking for Rio+20 listening material: an interview with Prof Tim Jackson (author of Prosperity without Growth), talking about the future of the green economy. The interviewer is Adrian Ely, Head of Impact and Engagement at the STEPS Centre.

The interview was recorded after a public lecture by Tim Jackson at the University of Sussex last month, as part of our 2012 Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability. His title was Where is the green economy? Prosperity, work and sustainability ‘after the crisis’. (Thanks to Hannah Corbett of IDS for recording, editing and publishing the interview.) Read more

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Transforming innovation for sustainability

A radical new approach to science and innovation is urgently needed to steer us within planetary boundaries and secure human wellbeing, fostering diverse types of innovation and empowering the grassroots creativity of poorer people.

As the world gears up for the Rio+20 Earth Summit, many are pinning hopes on a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) that, by 2015, will succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in thinking and action on environment and development.

New research by the STEPS Centre, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Tellus Institute argues that SDGs that keep human societies within a 'safe operating space' requires an approach to innovation that gives far greater recognition and power to grassroots actors and processes, involving them within an inclusive, multi-scale innovation politics.

In a jointly-authored paper, Transforming Innovation for Sustainability, current development goals focussing on one-track scientific solutions to global challenges are seen as failing to respond effectively to the uncertainty and shifting dynamics of today's world, and to the diverse needs of the poor.

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Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Influencing the Rio+20 outcome document

By Melissa Leach

The STEPS Centre submitted a position paper to the Rio+20 zero draft preparation process, in which we argued that science, technology and innovation have essential roles to play in sustainability. But science is not enough: A radical new approach to innovation is urgently needed giving far greater recognition and power to poorer people’s own innovations and priorities.

We proposed that a set of underlying principles need to guide innovation for sustainability and poverty reduction, addressing: (a) The specific Direction of change. This means being clear on the particular goals and principles driving policy and innovation, not leaving these open, undiscussed or driven by general imperatives of growth or progress, but actively steering these towards the kinds of transformation needed to meet integrated sustainable development/poverty reduction aims; (b) Diversity: Nurturing more diverse approaches and forms of innovation (social as well as technological) helps respond to the very varied ecological, social and economic contexts in which poorer people live, as well as to cope with uncertainty and surprise, and (c) Distribution: asking about who gains and who loses from particular innovations. Grassroots innovations offer particular value, helping to favour and prioritise more fairly the interests of the most marginal groups.

We argued that Rio+20 should provide a global framework supporting different forms of innovation that address sustainable development challenges at local, national and global levels. Beyond setting targets, this should be about enabling the grassroots and enhancing innovation capabilities for the longer term. We submitted a set of recommendations covering five areas for action: agenda setting; funding; capacity building; organising; and monitoring, evaluation and accountability. Our recommendations included: UNEP/ the proposed new specialized agency on environment adopting the assessment, promotion and co-ordination of innovation for sustainable development as part of its mandate; Transparent corporate reporting on R&D investments which focuses on poverty alleviation, social justice and environmental sustainability.

These remain our ‘wish list’ for Rio+20. new paper by the STEPS Centre, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Tellus Institute on ‘Transforming Innovation for Sustainability’, which we will be showcasing at an event in Rio, connects these arguments firmly with the science of ‘planetary boundaries’ and the urgent need to steer societies within a ‘safe operating space’. New approaches to innovation are vital to meet this challenge.

Looking at the Draft Outcome document of 2nd June, it is disappointing how little, if any, of this new thinking on innovation is represented. On the positive side, there are a number of mentions of the importance of diversity (e.g. para 35 “We acknowledge the natural and cultural diversity of the world and recognize that all cultures and civilizations can contribute to sustainable development”) and of the need for inclusive approaches to sustainable development that recognise the roles of grassroots and community efforts (e.g. para 36 “We further acknowledge efforts and progress made at the local and sub-national levels, and recognize the important role that such authorities and communities can play in implementing sustainable development, including by engaging citizens and stakeholders...”).

There are valuable emphases on broad public participation (e.g. para 37 ‘Sustainable development requires the meaningful involvement and active participation of all Major Groups – women, children and youth, indigenous peoples, non-governmental organizations, local authorities, workers and trade unions’ - as well as business and industry and the scientific community. ...we agree to work more closely with Major Groups and other stakeholders and encourage their active participation, as appropriate, in processes that contribute to decision making, planning and implementation of policies and programmes for sustainable development at all levels including through the contribution of their specific views, knowledge and practical know-how’.)

However, these emphases are nowhere linked specifically to innovation. Instead, recommendations around innovation – largely in the section on ‘green economy’ – largely follow old-style views of one-way ‘technology transfer’

Indeed the term ‘innovation’ is hardly used, let alone attention to its social as well as technical dimensions, or the need for diverse approaches: e.g. para 65. ‘We recognize the critical role of technology as well as the importance of promoting innovation [[in particular/ also – Switzerland] in developing countries – G77; EU reserve]. We invite governments, as appropriate, to create enabling frameworks that foster environmentally sound technology, R&D and innovation [to support green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication – G77 delete; RoK, EU, Switzerland retain pending clean-up of text]. [In this regard, we acknowledge the importance of international sustainability standards, predictable regulation and sustainable procurement. – EU; G77 delete; US, Japan, Mexico, RoK reserve] – Japan supports Chair’s text [We emphasize the importance of technology transfer to developing countries. – Japan, G77; EU, US reserve] We reaffirm the objective to promote, facilitate, and finance as appropriate, the access to and the transfer of environmentally sound technologies and corresponding know-how, in particular to developing countries, on favourable terms, including on concessional and preferential terms [, as mutually agreed, taking into account the need to protect the IPRs as well as the special needs of developing countries for implementation’.

In specific sections (e.g. on food) there is some acknowledgement of the potential contributions of local technical knowledge: e.g. ‘We also recognize the importance of traditional agricultural practices, including seed supply systems, for many indigenous peoples and local communities’.

However there is no commitment evident to the kind of global framework, or approaches to agenda-setting that link grassroots innovation with national and international goals, that we advocated. There are recommendations for global partnerships (e.g. para 49. ‘We commit ourselves to re-invigorating the global partnership for sustainable development that we launched in Rio in 1992. We recognize the need to impart new momentum to our cooperative pursuit of sustainable development, and commit to work together with Major Groups and other stakeholders in addressing implementation gaps’, and there are recommendations to strengthen ECOSOC. But any consideration of innovation is absent from these paragraphs.

In sum then, what I see is a missed opportunity - at this point - to integrate broader thinking about inclusive participation and partnerships for sustainable development (which is present in the document, at least to some extent) with thinking about innovation. The latter - to the extent that it figures at all - is largely driven by outdates notions of one-way technology trasfer.

Can our interventions at Rio help to turn this around? One can but hope.

More on the STEPS Centre's activities at Rio
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Sustainable business in India: challenges for Rio+20

By Ian Scoones
India has seen unprecedented economic growth in recent years; yet with this comes a growing demand for resources and increased pressure on the environment. But how can we combine business success and broad-based economic growth with environmental sustainability? This is a major challenge for fast-growing emerging economies such as India. As the Rio+20 conference approaches, creating sustainable business options in these countries is a high priority.
Earlier in 2012, the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore together with the STEPS Centre organised a major conference titled “Risk, Competitiveness and Sustainability”. It was hosted by Infosys, one of Bangalore’s information technology success stories, and now a global company with annual revenues of $7bn. The event was supported by the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI). Sridhar Pabbisetty, one of the conference organisers and Chief Operating Officer of the Centre for Public Policy at IIM-B, said “the conference challenged companies, academics and not-for-profit organizations to collaborate together and find sustainable business models that would effectively address business, social and environmental risks”.

The conference, held in Infosys’ prestigious HQ in Bangalore, was opened by Shri. S.D. Shibulal, co-founder and CEO of Infosys Technologies. He outlined how Infosys has been pursuing an integrated approach to evaluate environmental challenges and find sustainable solutions. His vision was for Infosys to be a leader in India and indeed the world in this field.

Around 120 participants attended the event from across diverse companies from Bangalore and beyond. Participants also included engineering and management students, eager to learn about the cutting-edge developments in linking business practices to sustainable solutions. Presentations ranged from conservation and environmental organisations to economists, law and management specialists, but the core was a series of case studies of Indian companies that are grappling with the sustainability challenge at the heart of their business strategy.

For example, Megha Shenoy, Research Director at ROI-India, outlined her team’s work on creating an industrial waste exchange network in the Nanjangud Industrial Area, in Karnataka in southern India. She demonstrated how careful analysis can lead to only 0.5% of solid non-hazardous wastes needing to be disposed of. “This requires a systematic effort to encourage in-house recycling and waste reduction”, she said. “With symbiotic exchanges established with upstream, downstream and other allied industries, as well as strengthening the informal recycling market, major reductions in waste can be achieved”, she added.

Meanwhile, Rohan Parikh, Head of Green Initiatives at Infosys Technologies explained the Integrated Design Approach followed at Infosys in the design of new buildings. Through this approach average energy consumption per employee was brought down by 23% over four years. “This was made possible due to an intense collaboration between external consultants, architect and the construction team with the top management at Infosys closely involved”, he said. With the maximum utilization of daylight, innovative use of radiant cooling and continued expansion of green power sources, this has enabled Infosys to embark on a sustainable energy path, he explained. “We have a target to be 100% carbon neutral by FY 2018 at Infosys”, he added.

Infosys also has a focus on water sustainability. This has borne fruit with the amount of rain water sequestered in Infosys campuses across India estimated at more than 4.3 billion litres every year; about 123% of their annual water consumption. Advanced sewage treatment technology and other technological innovations such as biogas and the chemical reduction initiative all contribute. “These are all steps in the direction of building tomorrow’s enterprise: one centred on sustainability”, he argued.

Whether it is the reduction of waste or the conservation of energy or water, all these efforts are increasingly seen as central to sound business practice. This is not just corporate PR, but a core part of the business model. As Richa Bajpai. co-founder and director of NextGen, argued “tommorow’s climate is today’s challenge”. NextGen is a leader among a rapidly growing group of Indian cleantech firms with operations in sustainability and emission management and linking waste to energy generation.

Sustainable businesses require innovation in technology, organisation and management – and usually all three together, participants argued. As Prashanth Vikram Singh of Price Waterhouse Coopers explained, responding to economic, social and environmental sustainability challenges together is essential for any business if the fundamental challenges of carbon and waste reduction are to be achieved. For many businesses, this involves negotiating what Santhosh Jayaram of DNV Business Assurance called the “jungle of standards”.

Applying new technologies was seen in many of the cases discussed at the conference as central. Indian companies now setting up and growing can leapfrog competitors in North American and Europe who are locked in to more unsustainable practices, it was suggested. This requires some fairly fundamental reimagining of ways of working however. Basic infrastructure, design, architecture and planning must be rethought. Prem Chandavarkar, Managing Partner at CnT Architects described, for example, the challenges of imagining a different Indian city which responded to sustainability imperatives.

Many of the sustainability gains thus require more fundamental organisational shifts, and need to be led from by top-level management. Only with this commitment – from CEOs, Boards and supported by shareholders – will sustainable practices really emerge on a wide scale. The good news is that this is happening already. In a recent blog post, Thomas Lingard, global advocacy director at Unilever (and also a member of the STEPS Centre’s advisory board), explains how new alliances for sustainability are being forged in the private sector. In the lead up to Rio, this is essential, as this constituency must be central to any sustainability transition. As the IIM-B/STEPS Centre conference showed, India is at the forefront of this new movement, with new, innovative technologies and practices to share.

More about: STEPS Centre activities around Rio+20
Steps Centre work on risk, uncertainty and technology in India
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Thursday, 31 May 2012


Participants in the recent STEPS Summer School came to Brighton from all around the world, bringing diverse life experiences and disciplinary perspectives together to learn about, discuss and debate new approaches to research for sustainability.

Much of our discussion focused on the importance of encompassing plurality and diversity in both research and policy processes, and being alert to different framings of any given issue, particularly more marginalised ones.  This got me thinking that it would be interesting to apply these ideas to ourselves (the group of participants at the summer school), and explore the range of perspectives within our group about the activity we are all involved in, namely: carrying out research for sustainability.

At the same time it seemed like a good opportunity to illustrate one of the methods that had been highlighted earlier in the week as a potentially useful tool for ‘opening up’ policy to a more diverse range of concerns and discourses, ‘Q method’.

So, on something of a whim, I volunteered to carry out a Q study with the group and present the results back at the end of the week in a mini-conference organised by the participants. Carrying out a Q study in 3 days was a little experimental for me, and I wasn’t even sure it would work: would our views be different enough to reveal anything interesting? Or would the fact we’d all just participated in the same two weeks of talks mean that we’d all just ‘regurgitate’ perhaps unconsciously what we had been hearing over the summer school?! In the end, thanks to everyone’s enthusiastic participation and critical engagement with the exercise, it was a lot of fun, and revealed some interesting things about the diversity within our group despite the fact that we are all ostensibly involved in a similar endeavour.

I’ll give a brief background to the method before I describe the results. Q has a long history (it was developed by the psychologist William Stevenson in the 1930’s), and in recent years has found favour with a wide variety of researchers from different disciplines (from geography and political ecology to psychology and nursing) who share an interest in exploring different perspectives or framings, or in eliciting minority or marginalised discourses.

In short, the method involves a researcher collecting a number of opinion statements about a given topic and asking a group of participants to sort them onto a scale (e.g. -4 to +4) according to how much or how little they are like their opinions. The resulting sort patterns are then statistically analysed to see whether particular groups of people sort the statements in similar ways.  Resulting clusters of sort patterns (or ‘factors’) represent more or less shared points of view within the participant group and can be interpreted (usually with the aid of additional comments from participants) and written up as narratives. It’s a ‘small n’ method (generally carried out with a purposive sample of between 20 – 40 participants), so despite its statistical underpinnings, it is also highly interpretative, and lends itself to combination with a variety of other methods both quantitative and qualitative.

The first step in any Q study is defining the area you are interested in exploring. In this case the topic of interest was the diversity of answers to the question: ‘what is research for sustainability?’ The summer school attendees were all asked to contribute one statement about research for sustainability with which they agreed, and one with which they disagreed.

This generated around 70 statements (to which I added a few more into the mix, based on notes I had scribbled down during sessions with different speakers throughout the week, or questions or comments made by different participants).These statements were then narrowed down to a manageable number, the ‘Q sample’ (in this case 34 statements) which members of the group were asked to sort onto a ‘quasi-normal’ distribution shape from -4 to +4 according to how much or how little they were like their opinion. 26 people (including myself) carried out Q sorts, and the results were then statistically analysed for patterns using the free software, PQMethod. Deciding on the number of factors (or perspectives) to extract is a matter of judgement as much as mathematics, and depends to a large extent what you are interested in finding out from your data.  In this case since I was interested in shared perspectives, I decided that only those factors with which at least two individuals were associated would be extracted and considered. Using this criterion, 4 distinct factors emerged from the sorting patterns, with one further factor that was ‘bi-polar’ i.e. two people who sorted the statements in almost opposite ways.

So what came out, and what could it tell us about the diverse group of participants at the summer school?

With more time to analyse the results one could try to draft short narrative descriptions of the different perspectives, but in this case I’ll simply point to some of the areas of similarity and difference revealed by the study, and flag up some questions about particular statements that might serve as useful starting points if one were to interrogate the data further. The original statements that participants were asked to sort are listed in the table below.

In the table above, the statements at the top are the ones where there is a high degree of consensus between the viewpoints (i.e. the statements that were sorted in more similar ways by the group); those at the bottom are those with which there was greater levels of disagreement. 

Below are my thoughts on the answers to some key questions asked. The numbers in brackets are the hypothetical score that each of the idealised perspectives or ‘factors’ would have awarded this statement in terms of the original distribution -4 to +4). 19 out of the 26 participants loaded on just one factor, while seven people’s views were either split between two or more factors, or didn’t load on any.  Factor 1 was dominant, with eight people sharing this point of view to a greater or lesser extent, while four people loaded on factor 2, three people loaded on factor 3, two on factor 4 (and one positively and one negatively on factor 5).

At the top of the table, one of the statements which received a unanimously ambivalent zero, or negative 1 score from all of the factors, concerned the issue of impact:

24. Sustainability research needs to be used: ultimately the most important thing is impact (0,0,-1,0,0)

What might this ambivalence stem from?  Is this perhaps an allusion to tensions between calls for all research to make itself above all ‘policy relevant’, and the need for more critical perspectives?  Or perhaps our group felt that ‘impact’ was too broad and vague a term?

Our group also appear to share disagreement with statement 13:

13. Sustainability research should prioritise the environment: in the end the planet is everyone's life support system and it has limits. (-1,-1,-2,-1,-2)

This shared disagreement seems to echo debates that occurred earlier on in the summer school about the political implications of a global framing of the environment as a ‘life support’, and questions raised by various group members about whose views and needs might be disregarded under this framing of the problem.

Given the emphasis of the STEPS centre on ‘pathways’ to sustainability (sustainabilities?) is it perhaps unsurprising that our group largely agreed with statement 26:

26. It's about throwing light on different possible 'pathways' of development, and not stopping at appreciating them but elaborating their merits and demerits (2,1,3,2,3)

But this statement also engages with the idea that it is possible to judge different pathways (‘elaborate their merits…’), pointing to the shared perception in the group of the existence of a normative framework for doing so that exists beyond the framings of the research subjects, and acts to prevent the prevent the researcher becoming paralysed by relativistic tendencies. Exactly what this normative framework might look like might be the subject of another Q study!

Related to this issue, the largely negative response awarded to statement 11, further highlights a shared unease with a wholly relativist worldview in which the only ‘good’ is advocating on behalf of marginalised groups whatever their particular stance or values:

11. Research for sustainability should work to advocate for all marginal groups even if their values don't fit in neatly with those of the researcher or the broad sustainability agenda. (-1,-3,-1,-2,0)

The question then becomes – how does a researcher make the call to advocate or not on behalf of those they are studying?

Despite the ambivalence around the idea of ‘impact’, perhaps somewhat paradoxically the broadly positive results awarded to statements 14 and 25 suggest that contributing to ‘social change’ and encouraging ‘mobilisation’ are important dimensions or outcomes of research for sustainability:

14. It's about engaging, reflecting and questioning with the overall aim of contributing to social change that respects the environment. (3,4,1,3,4)

25. Sustainability research needs to provide new storylines to encourage mobilisation around more socially and environmentally sustainable goals. (3,3,0,2,3)

Moving further down the table towards areas of disagreement, the issue of values and normativity in science emerges in statement 5, and generates some different responses between the factors:

5. Removing norms and values from science may not ever be fully possible, but doing good science for sustainability is about minimising the personal biases and norms of the researcher. (-3,-3,-3,0,-1)

Does the disagreement expressed by factors 1, 2, 3 and 5 with this statement suggest a view of scienc e in which norms and biases are inevitable? Or is what is emerging here about differing understandings about the normativity inherent in the idea of sustainability? Would this statement have been sorted differently had it just been about ‘doing good science’ rather than ‘good science for sustainability’?

Returning once again to the sticky issue of ethical relativism, some disagreement started to emerge around statement 12:

12. One person's environmental degradation is another person's improved livelihood or decreased disease risk: degradation is a relative concept and when doing research for sustainability, researchers should not impose their own external framing of the environment, however important they feel it to be. (-1,-2,1,-1,1)

Factor 3 and 5 in particular appear to express greater agreement than the others with this statement, while factor 2 appears most negative about this issue. When read alongside the negative scores awarded to statement 13 (that the environment should be prioritised as it is everyone’s life support), the difficulty with either absolute position becomes clear, and as a group we appear uncomfortable and divided about the radically relativist position implied by statement 12, and yet largely against a purely absolutist global framing such as apparent in statement 13.

The geographical focus of research was the subject of statement 8:

8. Research for sustainability should focus primarily on the developing world. (-4,-4,-4,-3, 0)

This was disagreed with strongly by all but one factor.  If interrogating the data further, it might be interesting to ask whose views were represented by this factor, and why this might be.

One of the statements that generated a greater amount of disagreement concerned the issue of ethics:

4. Research for sustainability is about bringing ethics to a global system dominated by capital. (2,-2,-2,1,-3)
Does disagreement about this statement imply a difference of opinion about the extent to which research for sustainability is about ethics per se?  Factor 2 and factor 5 in particular disagree with this statement. We might compare this to the sorting pattern for other questions to try and understand why this is. For example, factor 5 responded positively to statement 28 and negatively to statement 19 – does this suggest that this view is uncomfortable with seeing research for sustainability in terms of ethics, and challenging power, preferring to focus on the role of the researcher as building up knowledge about the world?

Again, a high level of disagreement emerged around statement 6 regarding ‘win-win’ solutions:

6. It's about finding win-win (socially just and environmentally sustainable) solutions to difficult problems. (-1,4,0,-2,-1)
Factor 2 in particular prioritised this statement above all others while factors 4 and 5 were much more ambivalent about it. Why? This difference appears to go to the heart of a debate which recurred at various moments over the course of the summer school: whether talk of ‘win-win’ solutions might act to gloss over the existence, in some cases, of real conflicts between more socially-just and environmentally sustainable outcomes, and allow the researcher to conceal with a layer of ‘discursive blur’ where his or her normative commitments really lay…

Just how ‘radical’ we as researchers need to be, or what we should aspire to do with our research, also divided the group:

29. Research for sustainability is about enabling the radical transformations required by sustainability agendas. (2,-1,0,-3,4)

And disagreement about exactly what ‘radical transformations’ might involve could also be inferred from the disagreement around statement 31 which suggests that reducing the ecological footprint by all possible means should be the goal of research for sustainability:

31. Research for sustainability is about reducing the ecological footprint of humanity by all means necessary. (-2,-2,-4,-4,3)

 So there it is. Even among a group of researchers with many shared ideals and commitments to the idea of carrying out ‘research for sustainability’, a group who had spent two weeks listening to the same talks and taking part in the same debates, there was a diversity of perspectives.  Different views about the ethical and political dimensions of the idea of sustainability, different emphases on the purposes or ideal outcomes of research, different ways in which people negotiate the difficult terrain between commitment to a personal set of ideals and normative values, and an appreciation of the need for research to reveal diversity, and sometimes conflicting voices.

Whatever else we might learn from exploring the particular differences between members of our group in this way, hopefully the exercise served to remind us all that there is no single unassailably ‘right’ perspective about research for sustainability. We all have to situate ourselves in this critical and contested field through ongoing processes of engagement with difficult debates, trying as best we can to avoid being too contradictory in our positions, and keeping at the forefront of our minds the importance of reflexivity. Thanks a lot to everyone who took part!

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