Theme 2: Learning

How and why have transformations occurred?

In order to understand the potential to achieve far-reaching societal transformations in the future, it is valuable to learn lessons from historic experiences of transformation, and identify and understand both obstacles and drivers that have influenced them. This theme complements the present and future oriented work of Theme 1 to explore the history of and opportunities for transformational change through past and emergent examples.

Theme 2 will problematise and theorise the notion of transformation, drawing on multiple meanings, experiences and strands of literature to identity different forms, rates, and processes of change, and highlighting the most significant drivers, patterns and outcomes of change. It will refine and improve existing theories and concepts to understand better the conditions under which different degrees of transformation occur and the roles played by values, co-benefits, and moments of change in accelerating (or impeding) transformation.

This theme seek to achieve a holistic, interdisciplinary understanding of what enables and restricts transformational change, and to provide foundations for the experimental and action research undertaken in Theme 3.

Research questions

(a) What are the drivers of and barriers to low-carbon and sustainable transformation, particularly in relation to consumption, diet, mobility, and thermal comfort?

(b) How does disruptive change impact on individuals and societies in respect of these challenging areas? 

(c) When are the most effective moments in time to intervene for low-carbon, sustainable transformation?

Project 2.1 Learning from government-led transformations

There is broad agreement that the far-reaching transformations needed to fully decarbonise society have to be accelerated by public policy interventions, chiefly adopted by central and sub-central governments. However, these public policy processes are often ‘black-boxed’ by scholars of transitions, leading to a partial understanding of the extent to which public policy enables and/or hinders change. Project 2.1 will address this gap in the literature by exploring why interventions to achieve emissions reduction have been successful in some sectors, while others remain seemingly intractable (e.g., transport) or barely even acknowledged (e.g., reducing meat consumption). It will examine how far and why certain policy packages of interventions, including regulation, market-based instruments, and behaviour change (or ‘nudge’) initiatives, have resulted in change, and the forms that these governing activities took. Concurrently, it will examine why in other sectors change has been limited or even curtailed, either because of weak policy steering or in relation to coalitions favouring the status quo. We will focus on: (a) a sector that has achieved significant emissions reductions (electricity supply in the UK), examining the extent to which public policy played a role in the sector’s emissions reductions, how and why it was able to do so; in conjunction with (b) the challenging areas that require deeper and faster change, exploring which policies have been adopted in the past, by which level of governance, and how they have performed. Critically, we will test the hypotheses that climate policy interventions are more effectively leveraged through co-benefits and at key moments in time.

Project 2.2 Learning from society-led transformations

Existing literatures indicate that many transformations are triggered by non-government actors. Food-sharing schemes, for example, allow businesses and domestic users to donate food within their community, thus reducing food waste and assisting those in poverty; off-grid communities have installed biomass heating schemes to replace high emitting and expensive oil boilers. Our focus in this project is on how successful initiatives have been achieved and diffused or upscaled. We will consider society-led change in the context of (1) cooperative networks and relationships, (2) communities of practice, and (3) formal policy framings. Cooperative networks/relationships include international and national links that provide support through knowledge exchange, funding and capacity building (e.g., INGOs, government funding agencies, pressure groups, C40 network). Communities of practice include practitioners, experts, and academics who have implemented projects and initiatives within the challenging areas. Formal policy framings include legislative frameworks and contexts relevant to the four challenging areas that can shape the potential solutions enacted by these groups. This project will combine insights from documentary analyses and systematic reviews with primary data collected through expert interviews to understand how transformative change has occurred in recent history, for example in response to economic shocks and new technologies (e.g., ICT/smart technologies). Our approach incorporates social network analysis (SNA) of the knowledge, place and institutional relationships and conditions that support and foster transformations, together with mapping areas of best practice in the four challenging areas at selected scales, with a focus on values and co-benefits (e.g., resilience, health, employment) contributing to the success of initiatives (e.g., community sharing schemes).

Project 2.3 Learning from disruption and moments of change

We use ‘moments of change’ as an analytical device to examine how changes in the actions of individuals and organisations occur. Moments of change take many forms: biographical changes (e.g. pregnancy or retiring); personal interaction with innovations (e.g. car-share or heat pumps); experience of climate-related events (e.g. heatwaves or floods); and large-scale political or infrastructural disruption (e.g., Brexit, economic downturns). Such moments of change are potentially significant as they can affect the basic rhythms of everyday life and disrupt behavioural and organisational routines. This project will integrate sociological, political, socio-technical and psychological understandings of moments of change. It will apply this interdisciplinary understanding to everyday actions of individuals and organisations in the four challenging areas, thus offering a much-needed account of climate change response along the temporal dimension (i.e., from stability to sudden change).

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