In our latest episode of the Governance Podcast, Professor Mark Pennington interviews Professor Frans Berkhout of King’s College London on his latest book about climate governance. Tune in for a rich discussion on the limits of international coordination and how local experimentation can solve global commons dilemmas.
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Frans Berkhout is Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy and Professor of Environment, Society and Climate at King’s College London. His latest book, published with Cambridge University Press, is Innovating Climate Governance: Moving Beyond Experiments.
From 2013-2015 he was Director of the Future Earth programme, based at the International Council for Science (ICSU) in Paris. Before that, Prof Berkhout directed the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM) at the VU University Amsterdam in The Netherlands and led the Amsterdam Global Change Institute.
He has also held posts at SPRU (Science and Technology Policy Research), University of Sussex, and was Director of the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s Global Environmental Change and Sustainable Technologies programmes.
Among other advisory roles, Professor Berkhout was a lead author in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (2014) and a member of the Social Science Panel of the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. He sits on the editorial boards of Research Policy, Global Environmental Change, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Current Opinion on Environmental Sustainability, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions and The Anthropocene Review.
00:45: What was the motivation for your latest book?
5:15: What is experimentation in your framework? Is climate governance experimentation different from scientific experimentation?
10:15: Can you combine top down and bottom up approaches to climate governance?
15:25: Why do people at the local level take action on climate change?
19:35: How do local networks of experimentation get off the ground and get connected globally?
21:30: Some say that focusing on an experimental approach can serve as an excuse for a lack of coordination on climate change policy at the global scale. Others say global coordination is too slow and cumbersome. Can we reconcile this tension?
27:25: Do we always want local experiments to ripple out to a broader scale? Would they stop having contextual relevance?
31:45: What evidence do we have that local experiments are having a broader, more global effect?
35:00: Are we abandoning global coordination? Is there still a role for international policy?
39:17: What role does interdisciplinarity play in the study of climate change governance?
42:18: Do we have examples of networks of academic actors that experiment in social science approaches to climate governance?
45:03: What are the next research avenues for climate governance?
45:45: Are social scientists equipped to oversee the experiments? Are academics themselves complex enough to understand governance?
Mark Pennington: Welcome to The Governance Podcast from the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society. My name is Mark Pennington and I’m the Director of the Center.
Today our guest is Professor Frans Berkhout, the Executive Dean of Social Science and Public Policy here at King’s College London, where he’s also a professor of Environment, Society and Climate in the Department of Geography.
Frans is a world leading expert on science policy and climate change and today he’s going to be discussing with us his new book Innovating Climate Governance: Moving Beyond Experiments. This is an edited collection published by Cambridge University Press.
Frans, it’s great to have you with us today here at the Centre. I wonder whether you could start us off by saying a little bit about your own motivation for putting this book together.
Frans Berkhout: I’ve been interested in large-scale socio-technical change for a long time and also trying to understand the role of policy in that.
And in that work that I’ve been doing, that tradition of work, the question of the socio-technical niche – so where does novelty emerge – is a central question.
And a lot of the work that I’ve done has been around experiments, so new configurations of business, civil society, government, coming together, often in small quiet protected spaces in cities or in rural areas, to develop radical new technologies, which might be to do with sustainable development objectives, like electric vehicles or renewable power.
Often these things emerged in the 1960s and 70s with small groups of enthusiasts and the question is really theorising that and trying to understand that.
And this book is really an attempt to transfer some of that thinking, which has a particular kind of intellectual heritage, to trying to understand the emergence of experimentalism in climate governance and the context for that really is the overturning, I suppose, of international climate governance after the failure of the Copenhagen meeting in 2009.
Broadly, what happened there was that a dominant perspective, which was that you would have global coordination of national emissions reductions targets, it’d be codified in international law and then there would be some kind of compliance regime around that and the creation of global markets emissions, trading and so on.
That approach to achieving climate goals failed and out of the wreckage really emerged a much more bottom-up, voluntaristic, what was called “pledge and review” system, which became the basis for the new Paris Agreement in 2015.
And so you have a context in climate governance where you’re beginning to depend much more on this bottom-up, less coordinated set of experimental work going on in governance, trying to incentivise, trying to create new configurations of actors, business, consumers, cities, and really the question is how does that work and given the observation, the empirical observation, that there are now thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of climate governance experiments happening at the local level all around the world, what do they really add up to and how can we conceptualise and think about a broader more systemic, more transformative effect of these many, many uncoordinated but very promising and interesting initiatives which are happening on the ground.
So, that was my, that was the flow of thinking really and so the book seeks to do a reconciliation and a dialogue, I suppose, between the field that I come from, which is broadly innovation studies and studies of policy and governance, and trying to see whether this experimental term which you might detect whether the way these two areas are talking about experiments have anything to say to each other.
Given also of course that many of the governance solutions will depend on technical solutions and the development and diffusion.
Mark Pennington: Okay, that’s great. Perhaps we could spend a little bit of time talking about what you mean by the term experimentalism. So, the notion of experimentalism plays a central role in the book. When many people think about experiments, they often think of scientific laboratory-style processes in which there are something close to controlled conditions. Can you tell us how the type of experimentalism that’s involved in climate governance differs from that kind of scientific-type process and why the difference is significant for climate change?
Frans Berkhout: So I think, of course, classically in the production of knowledge in a scientific context, we have controlled conditions and we usually, we’re seeking to test one of the factors, to vary them to develop, understand whether there’s a causal relationship between a change in a certain factor and an outcome, and then we can correlate and that helps us understand the effect between cause and effect.
In these kinds of cases, where you’re dealing with policy instruments, complex configurations of actors, we don’t have the same kind of control over conditions. These are usually, as it were, real-life experiments.
But in the sense that what we’re having here is the development of often new configurations of social actors, often mixed kinds of coalitions involving government, business, neighbourhoods civil societies, you know other other actors, coming together for the first time, often in a quite a local initiative, some often funded in some way by business or government, with the aim of learning, of creating new knowledge, of creating new networks, of creating something that works in terms of a new policy or a new incentive structure, or a new institutional configuration.
It has an experimental character and I think in the book we argue that there are a number of metaphors of experimentation which are lying in the background, often, of this idea of a more experimentalist approach to governance.
And we talk about, you know,experimentation methods, you know seeking to test a hypothesis or as a testing process, the idea of a pilot for instance, you’re seeking to select designs that work. Or the idea of experiments as aiming to generate learning by doing, so you know not just something in theory, but you try something on the ground. Or the idea of experiments of generating radical novelty, you know you might have a really wacky idea about how to get people to start cycling more, for instance, in a city, but you know how do you do that and how do you create that, which obviously has been achieved in places.
London is a great example of a city where there really wasn’t very much cycling and part of the aim of promoting cycling was of course emissions reduction, but the way you had to do that was to break through all sorts of social and cultural norms and invest in infrastructure to make it safe and so on.
So there are a number of different metaphors we have that play in the background, I think, when you’re thinking of this idea of experimentation and governance.
Now there is a small literature on experimentation in governance, as this work by an Zeitlin and Sabel, I think, which is characterising EU governance as experimental and their argument is broadly that what the EU does, it sets framework conditions and targets, then it it has the implementation of the policy of the national level and there’s quite a lot of discretion there about how countries do it, and then there’s review and peer oversight.
And their argument is that that has an experimental quality to it, because as you’re developing the policy you’re still pretty open about the way it will be implemented or precisely what the impacts will be in different places.
So, I think there’s something, you know, deeper going on which is an interesting set of questions which researchers in policy and governance need to be looking at.
Mark Pennington: Perhaps we could follow up on that a little bit. So people tend to contrast on the one hand this kind of top-down approach where experiments are organised from the center and with a more polycentric or bottom-up kind of approach. Can you talk about, perhaps the EU example is one there, where it’s possible perhaps to combine these two approaches, the kind of top-down element combined with a more bottom-up or polycentric type mechanism?
Frans Berkhout: Well, I think, as I said, that many of these climate governance experiments do begin with government programmes.
So they are government and demonstration programmes or pilot programmes, they depend on government funding and the legitimacy that comes through those. They often also depend on local governments or city governments creating the space for the for the experiment to happen.
Usually, these experiments, because I mean, you know, another example in London for instance would be all those, you know, novel bus systems that you’re seeing, I mean the hydrogen for instance.
And these hydrogen bus programmes were part of, originally part of a European programme, a large European programme, in different cities, creating funding, linking to technology providers, you know, funding the infrastructure that was needed, for hydrogen buses for instance you require an infrastructure for, but clearly the city government, the planners were part of making that possible, politicians needed to see this as advantageous, as interesting for them, possibly because of future job creation, the development of new industrial sectors, the sort of city marketing idea, all sorts of reasons why local politics might be interested in these kinds of schemes.
And clearly they need to become embedded in a local landscape in order to happen, and then the local learning would happen, so you’d have the developments of supply chains, users would become familiar with these kinds of technologies, passengers might choose certain kinds of more sustainable transports and so on.
So, I think often these programmes are state-sponsored in all sorts of ways, but of course there are many other examples of just much more grassroots and local initiatives.
But again, often these do require some kind of input from the state, so I’ll give you an example of some work that a PhD student of mine is doing, Irene Hopkinson, which is about a big programme of urban gardening, which was sponsored around the London Olympics.
It was called Capital Growth and the aim of the mayor at that time, Boris Johnson, was to sponsor 2,012 urban gardens and the idea was to create new green spaces and so on. And many of these gardens did emerge, but as a result of neighborhood action and then they drew on grants and so on that were available from the centre.
But they had a much more bottom-up character to them and they have, you know, a whole variety of different expressions then in the urban landscape and the kinds of people who are involved. And what was what was developing there, in terms of knowledge and the way people were doing urban agriculture, creating green spaces for kids to play in, or to maintain urban biodiversity.
So there were a whole variety of reasons why people got involved in this, so I think often these things require both state involvement and, but they definitely – and that’s the point about these experiments and the idea of experimental turn and I think why these things have become so important in international climate governance is that they do pick up on and require the energy and entrepreneurship and vision and drive of real social actors on the ground.
I mean the reason why international climate policy in its old guise failed was because it was seen as statist and, you know, too constraining, whereas this is aiming really to unleash a set of creative and entrepreneurial energies at the ground level in order to generate new socio-technical configurations, new ways of doing things which will lead to, eventually, more sustainable outcomes.
And the conviction that it is actually the only way you can really generate the sort of massive systemic innovation that’s required, requires actually the incentives and the motivations of people at the grassroots.
Mark Pennington: Can we talk a bit more about perhaps some of the motivations behind this kind of experimentation? So, when we’re talking about any level of governance that’s below the international level, the global level, the level that you say whether as being failure you know in actually driving the climate change agenda forward, when we’ve got actors at the lower level, why is it that they are actually engaged in this kind of experimentation?
So we usually have the view that people won’t take action on climate change precisely because it’s a sort of global public goods problem or global collective action problem that everybody’s going to free ride.
It sounds as though many of the motivations behind these more localised experiments are driven by the idea that people can actually see a material benefit to their own quality of life from these various experiments taking place, and there is an argument I’ve heard from some people, I think actually Helena Rostrum made this argument, that sometimes people can focus too much on a global level, the more you emphasise the global dimension, the more helpless people feel in the sense that they can’t really impact the overall problem. Whereas if you emphasise the local benefits that can be derived from actually changing the way things are done, perhaps not even talking about climate change as such, you might as an unintended consequence have beneficial climate change effects.
Does that sort of gel with what comes out of this book?
Frans Berkhout: I think that’s right. I think the problem with the climate debate and climate governance up until 2009 was it was all global, it was all about global coordination, high politics and so on and you lost people.
I think it’s true of course that many of the motivations that people might have at the local level for pursuing these kinds of initiatives is because they see what we call “co-benefits”, so benefits for themselves.
So, you know, a city government might see that, you know, there are employment opportunities or investment opportunities, and you know, local bus travellers or local citizens might see that there are air quality benefits for instance in having our hydrogen buses. Certainly in many cities that is a huge political issue of course.
The local gardening example is one where people want to see more green space, safe spaces for people to be in, for children to be in, and so on.
Also to produce, you know, contact as well, there’s a sort of neighborhood formation, this is the idea of the creation of social capital around these kinds of initiatives, I think which is important. But I think it’s also a mistake to say that people are only motivated by their own local and personal interests.
I think people do get involved in these kinds of programmes precisely because they can become connected with a global issue which matters to them.
And often I believe, and this is one of the interesting examples of a sort of transnational notion of experimentalism, is the idea that when you have an urban gardening programme, initiatives in London, it will often be the case that of course they’re talking to other initiatives in London, but actually it ends up, it turns out, they’re connecting with people in Los Angeles and Detroit and Calcutta.
So there’s a sort of new globalism, which is around and the connectivity that knowledge flows, the resource flows, the flows of inspiration as well, of creativity of people maybe even, which is happening at the global level.
So there’s a different notion of the way coordination is happening which is really to do with these much more organic links that people then begin to create.
Mark Pennington: So how do these networks actually get off the ground? I mean, how, is it people using social media? What is the mechanism by which what looks like on the face of it potentially quite disparate fragmented experiments actually start to sort of snowball and get connected to each other?
Frans Berkhout: Well, sometimes it’s through, you know, city networks, or a whole range of different global associations of cities who are working on on climate issues together.
But you would also have, you know, people who are working on urban agriculture who then become connected with each other, begin to inform each other, are connected through social media – simple things like Facebook pages and so on – but then more formal associations also emerge in specific sectors, which are feeding ideas and you know, also as I say resources connecting up with technology providers, you know, there might be global companies or local companies are interested in becoming part of this, of providing solutions and they will then want to, you know, develop also new global markets through these kinds of networks.
So there are all sorts of ways in which this texture of networks then begins to configure, link together, quite local initiatives without requiring the state and it’s not necessarily a state-run or internationally coordinated or through a treaty mediated.
No, these are all sorts of very interesting networks which are emerging all the time through entrepreneurs and initiators at the local level, connecting up globally, and that’s very inspiring for people I think and interesting to learn.
What they are doing in Berlin you know, and can we learn from what they’re doing?
Mark Pennington: You do recognise in the book that the idea of experimentalism is a non-neutral term and I think you could say the same actually about the idea of the notion of sort of polycentric or bottom-up approaches.
So there are some people who will be concerned that to focus on an experimental approach, the complexities, the uncertainties that are associated with climate change, can act as a kind of excuse for a lack of coordinated action at the global scale.
Others would argue that coordinated global action is too slow and cumbersome. Is there a way of actually reconciling these sorts of views? Or is it just a tension that we permanently have to negotiate, in a sense?
Frans Berkhout: Well I agree and I think a lot of the academic research on these kinds of initiatives, on these kinds of experiments, has very much focused on individual cases.
It’s being sort of comparative case analysis looking at the factors or you know that lead to their creation and whether they can be sustained and so on.
And I think part of this book is trying to move beyond that, this idea of beyond experiments to try and understand what are actually the outputs and outcomes of these kinds of experiments and how can we begin to conceptualise more these broader impacts, which is another way of coming at this question of coordination.
To say that the coordination need not be something that is explicitly state led or codified through international agreements, but nevertheless if we now say that this more experimental action in governance and in the development of new technologies and so on is fundamental, which I think is probably true, how should we begin to think about, you know, the accumulation of knowledge, the knitting together, the broader sort of systemic and transformative effects that these kinds of experiments may have.
And, as I say, it is it is always going to be an interaction between the enabling resources and and the development of new institutional and regulatory systems and legitimacy that the state can give, as well as the the entrepreneurship and energy and novelty that emerges from the ground up.
So in order to conceptualise these things, I think we’ve tried to get away from the way in which the literature typically talks about these things, which is simply to talk about something called scaling-up, which is you know, experiments become successful as they become bigger, that is either in size, in value, in the number of people who are doing it, in the spatial extent of the experiment, maybe something that’s been tried in a neighborhood, then gets scaled up to the city and then it becomes scaled up to the region and then becomes a national programme.
I think that’s sort of, it doesn’t really describe a process, it’s just a description of something, and I think therefore we’ve tried to think about different ways and as part of what the book is trying to open out as how should we start thinking about these things.
And so we develop concepts of replication, this idea that, you know, the models developed in different places are replicated in many places, often through these transnational networks, for instance.
The idea that there are ideas and models and blueprints have become circulated and that idea that through circulation new things themselves are evolved and fitted to different local systems.
Or a process of institutionalisation where you develop new practices, new norms, new rules.
Because don’t forget a lot of these kinds of things are not just about the policy or about the technology, they very much have to do with the way in which users of the transport system or an electricity system or a water system or a waste system, how they’re behaving and where their cultural norms have shifted away from a default, which is you know often the thing that gets in the way of change.
Can you get people actually to start doing things radically? I mean for instance, can you get people who live in cities not to buy cars anymore? Why would you own a car?
There are all these new schemes where you can have car shares and with an app it’s easy. I don’t own a car anymore and actually I think I have a better quality of life and certainly I don’t have all the anxieties and costs associated with owning a vehicle and parking it.
But getting that idea as a sort of dominant hegemonic idea is incredibly difficult. But it is actually and it requires all these many factors and individuals to somehow shift their own norms.
So that process, that whole process of institutionalisation, which is what we’re getting to there, is also part of what this is about and that’s something clearly that policies alone can’t do, it requires models and examples and, you know, all the the experience, the practical experience of new ways of doing things in order to get wider social change, which is what you’re looking for.
Mark Pennington: But do you see a tension there? So on the one hand there is an emphasis on the idea of you have these often quite radical experiments which perhaps wouldn’t take place if they were conducted globally, taking place outside of conventional structures. But then you have the idea that they might ripple out, so a broader number of actors adopt them.
But at the same time you’re not saying that necessarily it’s appropriate for everything to ripple out, because what may be appropriate to one circumstance or one context might not be appropriate elsewhere.
So there seems to be on the one hand an emphasis on things rippling out, but also at the same time the notion that you don’t necessarily want one particular experiment that’s pretty successful in one area to be replicated everywhere else.
Frans Berkhout: I think that’s one of the difficulties. There are two aspects of that: one is, there’s a chapter in the book which talks about the pilot paradox, which is simply this that the conditions that allow pilots to happen that is all the protection and the special circumstances that you create in order for a pilot to happen, is precisely also what gets in the way of their broader diffusion, because it’s precisely the specialness of the subsidies you’re given or the regulatory relief that you’re given or whatever that actually gets in the way of their broader diffusion. That’s one thing.
I think the other is that once you do start to translate learning or actor configurations or incentives or, you know, new technologies, new ways of doing things to new places, they clearly need to be fitted in some way to the new reality.
And what happens in, you know, if you move the example of you know something that worked in London to, I don’t know, to Lagos or something, you would you would come into a completely different technological, economic, cultural, institutional context and you’d need to do quite a lot of adaptation of that idea in order to make it work there and become embedded, which is why we talk about this process of embedding.
And in the process you would have all sorts of processes of reconfiguration going on, reconfiguration of policies, reconfiguration of infrastructures, reconfiguration of norms, of consumer practices, and all of that is difficult and grainifies on each other, if you make a technical change that requires something of the consumer and so on.
And and those processes are highly complex, they’re systemic and therefore there’s something emergent about them, you can’t predict precisely where they’ll end up.
And that again, I think argues for, and this is one of the other… Andrew Carbon and has an interesting very short chapter in the book which is talking about a sort of permanent experiment, you know, the idea that because these changes are so transformative and deep-seated, I mean if we’re going to go to zero carbon emissions within 30 or 40 years which is kind of what we want to do, the changes that need to happen are so complex and so connected with each other there’s no way you could plan that.
There’s no way in which there is a blueprint to say, look, for any place we know what that will be and therefore you need a sort of a permanent experiment going on.
There’s that experimentalist ethic, that view of always being open to the next stage of change, it’s got to be and the complex reconfigurations that are required in order to achieve that, is just part of what governance is now.
It’s not about just writing the policy implementing. No, it’s continually learning, moving to the next stage, reviewing, adjusting, getting local energy and entrepreneurs to be part of it.
And that’s I think the only kind of reasonable way in which in such a complex many-layered highly-complex, you know, connected and embedded process. How does that actually unfold and how does change emerge within such a system?
Mark Pennington: What sort of evidence have you got in the book and what other evidence is emerging that these experiments are being embedded, that they are starting to have this kind of transformative effect?
So you know we started the conversation by you saying that the global approach, sort of, the Paris Accords etc. have failed. What evidence that we got that we are starting to see these transformative effects from these kind of experiments?
Frans Berkhout: So there’s one I think really interesting chapter by Lewis Carvalho and Irina Lazzarini in the book on community choice aggregation in the United States.
And broadly these are buyers clubs where local communities, local governments get together and coordinate their purchase of green electricity.
And the idea is that if you tried in a market to sell green electricity to individuals, that you would fail because creating the mass would take you far too long and what happens here is that by creating suddenly aggregate demand across different communities, you’re making it worthwhile for the providers of green electricity to come in.
And this is an example, this is an idea that emerged in the Midwest in Ohio in the 1990s, it’s migrated to California where it’s become a very kind of well known and quite a broad scale development.
And Carvalho argues it’s now remigrated back to the East Coast, so it’s been taken up in New York and New Jersey and so on. And they plot this movement and each time it becomes more institutionalized, becomes more large-scale and therefore as a market trigger it becomes more influential.
So I think there are examples like this.
On the other hand, I think a lot of the work for instance, there’s a very interesting chapter on one of these climate experiments in India and trying to assess whether they had transformative or more incremental effects and in India then there’s again, and many of their cases that are looked at, actually most of the impacts that they had on government policy and adoption of new practices and technologies was pretty incremental.
So it isn’t true to say that an experimental approach always leads to more rapid adoption of highly novel approaches. That’s not true.
Clearly other factors that will determine, presumably to do with the institutional rigidities that exist to prevent more novel approaches to be adopted. But again I think these are really interesting theoretical questions and they’re interesting policy questions.
What is the best design of an experiment and through seeing it in stages, where gradually a thing can become extremely influential often through being mobile and transferring through different stages, through different places.
Mark Pennington: I mean listening to you talking about this stuff, it’s quite inspiring actually the things that are being achieved. But at the same time, does this focus on experimentation, localism – does it mean you are abandoning the idea of looking at global coordination? That we shouldn’t now be focused at all on trying to get international level agreements? Or do you think there is still an important role for that in conjunction with this kind of more bottom-up sort of approach?
Frans Berkhout: Yeah I think by stressing the importance of experimentalism in governance, you don’t get away from having some level of global coordination. But I think the global coordination is of a different type.
So it is not necessarily about setting legally binding emissions targets for countries, which are then complied with. It is more to do with creating the conditions under which you do set broad targets, as we have the 3 degree target or 1.5 degree targets, which implies certain kinds of levels of emissions over time.
And then what the international system is really all about is about stimulating innovation, connecting entrepreneurs and local initiatives and less local initiatives, and somehow guiding those and providing resources and connecting them with technology providers and setting good examples.
So I think the the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention, based in Bonn, is now sponsoring all sorts of international partnerships and linkages of the type that we discussed before, to help farmers in sub-saharan Africa link with farmers in other tropical areas as they’re thinking about biological fixation of carbon for instance, soil carbon.
And in this way you create a sort of global movement of farmers at the local level who are adopting new techniques, of analysing what they’re doing in different ways, perhaps you know enabled by global information system satellites and so on, that allow agents on the ground to act in a radically new way.
So I think there’s always going to be a requirement for global coordination, but what it’s providing is different than what we assumed it would be providing in the past.
Mark Pennington: It sounds almost as though part of that is trying to sustain some kind of identity for people to be actually involved with the issue, but the way in which they might actually be involved with it will vary depending on their local circumstances, the context that sort of thing. Is that a fair …?
Frans Berkhout: Absolutely and I think that you know because climate gets in in everywhere, I mean it’s partly to do with the course emissions reductions, partly to do with adapting to changes in climate itself.
Everyone is responding in their own way depending on, you know, what sector they’re, in where they’re living.
And the massive complexity of this requires an approach to change, an approach to learning, approach to innovation which is connected and can be fitted to the very specificity and therefore is inspiring to people to get involved. So people also feel connected.
I mean, I think the idea that we’re all entirely atomized individuals doing this for ourselves, that’s not my experience. And I don’t think that’s what these experiments demonstrate.
These experiments I think are a unique combination of certainly people seeking benefits for themselves, but as part of a wider and connected social economic policy movement towards achieving these long-term goals which people feel affiliated with and responsible for as well.
Mark Pennington: Perhaps we could pick up on another element of the interconnection there. So there’s a good deal of emphasis throughout the book on the importance of interdisciplinary work in social science. So part of the complexity is that climate change is an issue that involves science, it involves questions of governance, social organisation. Can you say a little bit more about the role that interdisciplinarity plays in this particular book? Why you think, why you assemble the kind of authors that you did? You actually cover a diversity of fields.
Frans Berkhout: Well, I think again it stems from maybe my own background and the sort of field that I come from which is more, as I said, there’s more innovation studies.
The work that we’ve been doing on system innovation, we realised over the last 15-20 years, requires us to work with economists, with historians of technology, with sociologists working on science and technology, science technology studies, and probably also with you know people in, who work in political science and policy studies.
So, I think it’s come natural to that group of people that we need to collaborate in order to and listen to each other and develop new, more hybrid concepts that allow us to understand in a more complete and systemic way, systematic way, what is really happening with the aim of course also of influencing policy and people.
So I think we sought to apply a similar kind of ethic of collaboration to this and I’m a firm believer that we can all learn from each other across disciplinary divides, if we listen hard and we try, I mean, we will never be experts in each other’s subjects. But we can try to import and use ideas and build on each other the sort of insights that exist in different fields.
And it’s only then that you have a kind of large enough conception which can begin to deal with the true complexity of the problems that we’e dealing with.
I mean you know, there’s this a sort of mirror image to the complexity of the problem you’re dealing with, requires a certain kind of complexity in the conceptual apparatus that you’re seeking to apply to understand that.
And I think, you know for me therefore words that’s pretty fundamental, but everyone will have their different approaches to that and everyone will come to it from their own perspective and there’s no right way of doing it.
And interdisciplinarity is not at all an end in itself. It’s only because through doing it we can have better explanations of what we think is going on.
Mark Pennington: I mean academics often talk about interdisciplinary work but sometimes more reluctant to practice it when you’re dealing with– I mean sometimes people call climate change a wicked problem which has got all these multiple dimensions but actually getting people to talk across the dimensions of that can be very challenging.
Do you think that is a serious challenge? Or do you find, obviously the people who have contributed to this book are interested in interdisciplinary approach, but do we have examples of the kind of networks of academic actors that mirror those kind of on-the-ground networks of social actors who you’ve talked about generating these kind of experiments that are transforming the system.
Frans Berkhout: Yeah I think increasingly, certainly you know, in in my field of science technology studies, science technology innovation studies, you do get the sort of groups of people that I was talking about coming together in their journals and in their conferences and so on.
So there is, you know, not just a tolerance for each other, but really an active listening and an active learning.
I should explain maybe, I mean my background, I did a geography degree initially, but then I went off to do a PhD in science technology studies, and my first postdoctoral work was working with a physicist on nuclear weapons controls.
And I had to work out how, you know, a nuclear reactor works and you know, calculate how much plutonium was being produced there. So, for me, you know, I’ve never been terribly interested in a disciplinary boundary. I think you can travel across them.
There are dangers of course and you’ll never probably be viewed as one of us, but I think it can lead to really interesting research careers and I think more and more young scholars are interested in trying to do something which is, you know, more synthetic, more hybrid because you get to, you know, interesting questions and maybe you get to interesting answers.
Often you’re going to have to collaborate with people from different disciplines, but again there are plenty of people around who are looking to do that.
And you know, as long as you’re brave enough and continue trying to be interesting, then I think working in an interdisciplinary way is I think likely to be more interesting but I’m just talking about my own experience there.
Mark Pennington: So what do you think is next for research in climate governance? Moving beyond this book, do you have plans for more work this this field or can you point towards what the latest avenues of inquiry are?
Frans Berkhout: Yeah, I mean, I think this general idea of an experimental approach to climate governance is one that needs further work I would say.
And I think we’ve just begun to sketch out a field here which is trying in a more, you know, theoretically robust way to talk about beyond experiments.
So once you’ve got experiments and there’s empirical evidence, there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of these things going on, how can we begin to think about they’re contributing at a global level to achieving these local targets?
And we’ve just scratched the surface with this book but it is a fundamental question for international climate policy and policy makers need to have a view about how the many initiatives they’re doing at the grassroots, how they add up and how they multiply each other, how they leverage each other and how we’ll be able to achieve these, because in the end of course these are global objectives we’ve got.
So there’s an awful lot more to do I think in this this area, I think, we have just begun to open up an area of a field of work and I hope we’ve sought a little bit conceptually here to clarify some of the ideas in the background and there’s a lot more to be done.
Mark Pennington: Isn’t there a problem though, in a sense, that if there is this kind of diversity of experimentation going on out there, which is very dispersed, that in a sense social scientists aren’t necessarily well equipped to be able to oversee where all those experiments are taking place?
They themselves are not complex enough to be able to research the responses to the problem that are actually taking place and that we’re only going to get quite a partial picture of what is actually going on, or the possibilities that there might be actually for change to take place?
Frans Berkhout: I think that’s probably right and maybe what we need is increasingly a more quantified approach, so that, I mean, as I said earlier, a lot of the work has been very qualitative and dealing with single or small, small-end numbers of cases.
And actually we need to develop a conceptual apparatus which will allow us to begin to have oversight over and maybe the development of databases and so on, collecting information more systematically, looking at the inner potential and the real change that’s been achieved through these many initiatives that are there. So that may be one way in which we need to go.
So I agree with you that this is a key methodological problem. I’m not sure I know exactly how to …
Mark Pennington: Well, I had a slightly different take on it. I was thinking more of, if you think of the people who engage in these experiments, you could think of them as almost being action researchers who are actually doing research on the ground and they are the social scientists who are trying to come up with particular experiments and they might know more actually about the context of them the people who are studying them.
And in a sense to focus too much on people studying these things, is actually replicating the problem of centralised governance where the assumption is that someone out there actually can generate all the data in one place and tell us all what we ought to learn from it.
Frans Berkhout: Well, I think that is right, I mean the idea of living labs for instance, which you see a lot of now, is this idea of the the empowered citizen or entrepreneur or whoever it is who is actually the expert on the innovation and the changes happening in in their particular place. And the researcher is a sort of enabler and guide but not really fundamental to this.
I think that’s probably right, on the other hand, you know, the person driving the living lab or whatever, is also probably wanting to have wider contacts and relationships and understanding of how they’re contributing to a wider set of systemic changes, you know, at also the global level.
So I think you don’t get away from this question of how you, how you link up, how you make sense of things that are happening on the ground, aggregated up presumably – in complex and lots of various ways – to some kind of global outcome, because you know, clearly because this is in the end a global public problem, you know.
You don’t get away from that, you know, carbon dioxide methane are mixed very rapidly in the atmosphere and they generate a local climate outcomes and global climate outcomes which we then all experience.
So there’s no way of getting away from that and it’s a really fundamental and interesting question for social science and for, you know, global governance as well, on how we go on about achieving this in the future.
Mark Pennington: Okay well, there’s a lot of food for thought there. Thanks very much Frans for talking to us today on The Governance Podcast. Thank you.
Frans Berkhout: Thank you, Mark.
The Governance Podcast is a project of the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society (CSGS). Housed in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London, CSGS examines how both formal and informal rules of governance operate and evolve, and how these rules facilitate or imperil peaceful, prosperous, and ecologically secure societies. The Centre supports research asking broad questions about social and political power and is especially interested in comparative research assessing the performance of alternative governance in ‘real world’ or ‘non-ideal’ conditions. The Centre convenes a regular research seminar, holds academic conferences and book events open to the public, and hosts seminars focused on questions relevant for policy-makers and a general audience.