Bipashyee Ghosh, a doctoral student at SPRU attended the Nexus Network workshop on ‘Transforming Innovation: addressing nexus challenges with radical change’ on 17th March 2017. Here she shares her thoughts from the day, arguing that transformation towards sustainability at the nexus requires attention be paid to transdisciplinary knowledge; appreciation of plurality and diversity; and experimentation with the knots and joints of interrelated systems.
Researchers still ask the question, What is nexus? A more interesting question might be, What is so radical about nexus? After all, the idea of interconnected systems, or webs of resources has existed for a long time. The idea behind “Deep transitions” is the movement of multiple inter-related socio-technical systems towards similar directions, so is the conceptualisation of the “articulated” smart city thriving on ‘connections’ that foster learning, sharing and realising differences. Yet the nexus concept has its unique space in appreciating and acknowledging the complexities and uncertainties associated with solving persistent problems associated to those interconnections. Addressing nexus challenges essentially means recognising the limitations of sectoral focus, disciplinary methods and market innovations, thereby looking for alternative, transformative innovations in policy, businesses, users and research communities.
However, it is also widely recognised that the nexus doesn’t have a single monolithic definition, and participants at the workshop on Transforming innovation on March 17th suggested that there is not one nexus, but many ‘nexuses’. Beyond conventional resource or “systems of provision”-based-nexus like food-water-energy, some people referred to a nexus of interconnected problems and challenges that societies face – including inequality, pollution and poverty. Another use of the nexus concept was introduced by the practise theorists who mobilised the concept to speak for relations between interconnected practises. The ‘nexus of practices’ as described in a book with the same title, refers to interconnections or junctions between set of actions in everyday life which form constellations over time and space. In her presentation at the workshop, Elizabeth Shove shared her ideas on the making of nexus (‘nexusing’) by changing the junctions. Naming this process as “Fluxus” she played around with thoughts on reconfiguring, realigning nexuses as an exercise resembling different ways of knotting ropes. Indeed, it is crucial to think about the creation of each nexus, and how we can strategize and experiment with the Fluxus towards socially desirable directions. The flurry of socio-technical experiments in urban settings in the Global South supports this premise.
Many solutions surfaced in the day’s discussion and presentations on how nexus challenges could be addressed. It was argued that “transdisciplinary research” offers a capacity to overcome disciplinary boundaries and apply alternative tools, techniques, methods for addressing nexus problems. Transdisciplinarity with what Frances Harris called, a “high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty” transcends academia and involves collaboration with, and active participation of stakeholder practitioners. As Andy Stirling has described it, “…true interdisciplinary research escapes the shackles of particular theoretical prejudices, privileged methods or favourite solutions .. not through large programmes, but in more intimate pluralities embodied within small teams, or even individuals…. The result is greater openness and transparency about the diversity of ways to understand and address particular problems.” Debates on the distinction between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research may persist, however the point here is that complex societal challenges are best tackled through research and collaboration which leaves behind the ego of disciplines. Talks by Research funding agency representatives at the Sustainability in Turbulent Times conference echoed this message through encouraging and prioritising what they call, “Agile” research with high impact.
Another concept that recurred throughout the day in discussions on solving nexus challenges was the idea of democracy. Dipak Gyawali shared his experiences as Nepal’s Former Minister for Water Resources , that natural resource management processes in Global South are often hijacked by what he calls “procedural fetishism” and often there are desperate attempts to devise laws that are “perfect” rather than plural policy options, However, Andy Stirling’s definition of democracy foregrounds plurality and diversity together with an environment where the most marginalised have a voice and every citizen has rights to speak up and challenge power. In my own research, I found that more often efforts of being democratic and fair are limited to designing participatory policy making processes, offering room (sometimes literally so) to people to share ideas and concerns. However, crucial is the transparency in registering dissenting voices instead of ceremonial citizen’s participation in a rather superficial democratic setting. Sustainability in turbulent times can only be ensured by not just allowing debates, but really thinking through diverse questions and criticisms raised by even non-experts, about the existing systems and practises and their inter-relations in transition.
Times which are turbulent also come with immense new opportunities. Opportunities to be creative and reflexive; opportunities for collaboration and coordination between public and the private; between researchers and practitioners, between businesses and civil society. While the polarised principles, climate scepticism and individualism across the globe seems disturbing, the advancement of science, technology and innovation never seemed so promising to tackle the grand challenges. In my own research on mobility transformations in Indian megacities I have witnessed a multitude of innovations, visions and objectives towards solving multiple interconnected systemic problems. In order to direct and re-direct those towards sustainability, I propose that transdisciplinarity, plurality and experimentation are the key aspects to be nurtured.
The scope of the concept of innovation itself needs self-evaluation and broadening beyond markets and products in order to address complex societal challenges like injustice, inequality, climate change. SPRU’s Innovation policy 3.0 for transformative change put forward these targets, as promised in the fascinating “Transforming Innovation for addressing nexus challenges” conversations. To fulfil these aims it is time that those three things, namely, transdisciplinary knowledge, appreciating plurality and diversity of options and voices and experimentation with the knots and joints of interrelated systems – become the norm rather than radical ideas in transformations towards sustainability.
Photo credit: flickr