It is a fascinating paradox that the same innovative capacity that has put us in the current environmental predicament is actually what can be used to push us out of it. History has shown that humanity has managed to adapt to a wide range of complex challenges.
However, the current predicament might just be the greatest ever. For decades, concerned scientists, environmental NGOs and others have been calling for urgent changes (or transitions) that are large enough to transform our unsustainable way of living. Politics, the corporate world and civil society are increasingly getting the message and there are indeed an immense number of ideas on how to shift to more sustainable trajectories (green urbanism, renewable energy, agro- ecological farming and ecosystem-based fisheries, to name but a few). The problem is that we not only have to collectively speed up our efforts, but also look at ways to solve several problems at the same time.
An ambitious plans admittedly, but nonetheless necessary and by all means possible.
Halting a steam-powered train of thought
Despite decades of calls for change, a clear understanding of the mechanisms and patterns under which global transformations can actually happen is still lacking. The growing concern about this has led to an increased focus on the role of innovation, but the question remains: can we innovate sufficiently rapidly and intelligently to tip our socio-economic system out of the current paradigm and into a more sustainable one?
Historically, humanity has placed great faith in technological innovation to help transform societies and improve the quality of life. The most obvious example is the industrial revolution, while the most recent example is the fast-changing way we communicate across the world. There are good reasons why we place faith in our capacity to innovate, because it has traditionally been associated with a better quality of life. Questioning innovation therefore goes against the grain of the prevailing worldview and the governance structures that rule our lives, but we cannot deny that the last five decades or so of high innovation have also caused some serious damage to the planet. Moreover, we appear to be locked on a technological path that is not only accelerating tremendously rapidly, but also carries with it unintended and undesired social and environmental consequences.
In other words, we have for long seen a decreasing degree of control over the impact of our innovations, but a change is coming.
Mind the ingenuity gap
The problems we are facing are so complex that some argue that we are caught in an ‘ingenuity gap’, where the world’s problems have become so difficult to solve that we lack the ingenuity required to solve them.
Along the same lines is the argument that the ‘techno sphere’, the innovative engine that has driven our modern economy, is organised along lines that are very different, if not downright contrary, to the functioning of the world’s ecosystems. Ecosystems are based on non-linear mutual independency and one part cannot be separated from another, while the techno sphere, whether in terms of machines or structures, is based on a linear, means-to- an-end logic. Putting it bluntly, most current economic and technological solutions are ecologically illiterate and too linear and single problem-orientated. There is a need for a change of mindset.
The private sector is in many respects one of the main suppliers of innovative thinking and is consequently fundamental in carving out new directions for more sustainable innovations. Businesses can make a huge difference, and there is a growing global movement of promising social entrepreneurs with new ideas who want to contribute to a sustainable society, and build companies based on strategies such as “Ubiquity first, worry about revenue later”. At the core of this movement is the idea that entrepreneurship is a way of achieving social change. Interest in social innovation and social entrepreneurship has literally exploded in recent years with training programmes, conferences, competitions and awards, and special funds for entrepreneurs who take social responsibility and put societal benefits at the core of their enterprises.
The essence of social-ecological innovation
The outlook need not be too gloomy. Ongoing large-scale transformations in e.g. information technology, biotechnology and energy systems have huge potential to significantly improve our lives in a sustainable way. However, this can only happen if we start working with, instead of against, nature. This is the idea behind the new concept of social-ecological innovation, which has been defined as “social innovation, including new technology, strategies, concepts, ideas, institutions, and organizations that enhance the capacity of ecosystems to generate services and help steer away from multiple earth-system thresholds”. However, in order to boost our capacity to innovate in this way, there needs to be support and incentives in place, particularly in the private sector. The transformation needed must include the creativity and ingenuity of users, workers, consumers, citizens, activists, farmers and small businesses alike.
The X Prize Foundation, an American non-profit organization once known for competitions for spaceflight innovation, is one example, which has turned its attention to ocean health. In 2013 it announced a 2 million USD competition for devices that can monitor the changing chemistry of the oceans due to climate change – the first time the X prize has decided to concentrate on a specific research area.
Law also plays its part. Law is traditionally characterised by ‘thou shalts’ rather than opening doors for new approaches. As a reaction to this, the concept of reflexive law has emerged. Reflexive law is less rule-bound and recognises that as long as certain basic procedures and organisational norms are respected, participants can arrive at positive outcomes and correct their projects along the way, basically learning by doing. In response to growing complexity, detailed rules are replaced by procedures for regulated entities to follow. Reflexive law is a social innovation which seeks to promote multi-level governance and preserve diversity and experimentation at local level. Bottom-up responses to crises are a central element in all of this. There are enormous reservoirs for learning and innovation that are often revealed in moments of crises. In fact, some of the best and most constructive innovations often come from disaster-hit (or disaster-prone) communities.
In 2007 the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) was formed to address the many threats facing coastal and marine ecosystems in the western Pacific Ocean. What is unique about this initiative is the role of so-called “institutional entrepreneurs” in the emergence of the CTI. Such entrepreneurs are individuals and groups of individuals who succeed in creating new institutions (the norms and rules that shape human interactions) or transforming existing ones. Studies of the network revealed that a small network of approximately ten institutional entrepreneurs was key to initiate the process.
They developed the scientific concept of the CTI into an integrated framework for marine governance. These ten entrepreneurs came from both inside and outside the region and predominantly, but not solely, from conservation NGOs with a long history of working with marine conservation. Together with a number of underlying driving forces, including demands for social and economic development, a window of opportunity emerged to create a network better suited for regional cooperation.
Studies on innovative responses to social and natural disasters increasingly stress the need for governments and institutional aid mechanisms to take a step back and ‘listen and engage’ with communities rather than ‘orchestrate and plan’ on their behalf. Termed “inclusive innovation”, this involves listening to local communities for ideas, informing local populations of resources and possibilities available, trusting them and allowing a diversity of innovative responses to emerge, as opposed to insisting on a top-down planning process.
One example of “inclusive innovation” is the Honey Bee Network in India. It has received international praise for the way it supports grassroots innovators in the rural poor of India who are rich in knowledge and talent, but poor on resources to scale up and convert their ideas into viable products, The network’s founder, Dr. Anil Gupta describes the network as taking the nameless, faceless innovators of India (and beyond) and bringing them into a network where they get an identity.
Resilience scholars have also focused on the role of informal shadow networks – groups of stakeholders that work outside the fray of regulation and implementation in places where more formal networks and structures fail. One of the most celebrated examples comes from Chile, where a combination of fisheries collapse and the move to democracy provided the opportunity to try out some new arrangements for managing fisheries. The experiments were based on informal partnerships and trust between fishers, scientists and managers.
There was a general recognition that Chile’s fish stocks were in trouble, things were turbulent and people were open to new approaches. There was also a good scientific understanding of coastal ecosystems in the region on which to base a new management plan. All this eventually led to the testing of new co-operative models for fishery management, based on the latest science concerning fish stocks and the surrounding marine ecosystem. The end result was a revamped national system of marine tenure that allocates exclusive ocean territories to local and small-scale fisheries. The system excludes the major industrial fishing fleets, which have their own exclusive fishing zone. By cutting the number of large vessels in distinct territories, fishing pressure has been reduced.
Getting stuck in the MUD
Tapping shadow networks such as those in Chile is a key challenge to governance. Traditional, expert-driven, top-down approaches to problem solving are not nimble enough to effectively address convergent, non-linear and rapidly changing problems.
There are also lessons to be learned from innovation studies in the domain of business, technology and organisational behaviour. These have long established the importance of approaching innovation from a top-down and bottom-up perspective, sometimes referred to as ‘management up-down’ (MUD ). This basically refers to a company’s ability to efficiently connect those drawing up company strategy with the sources of innovation, most commonly taking place at the front line, on the shop floor or in small designated teams. This in turn produces the cascade of resources required to bring innovation to markets and scale up the innovation itself. Key individuals in this process are the so-called connectors, who are able to understand the overall strategic direction the company wants to take, frame that to those working on the ‘front line’, identify promising innovations and sell these back to the strategic apex of the company.
Overall, economic and technological solutions must become more ecologically literate and see the numerous possibilities in investing in sustainable use of ecosystems and their services. This requires us to organise innovation and technology development in new ways that are more networked, open- sourced and inclusive, while working more directly for social justice, poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability. The planetary risks we are facing are so large that business-as-usual is not an option.
Emerging social innovations and technological transformations involve enormous opportunities with huge potential to improve our lives in a sustainable way. But creating a good Anthropocene means going beyond solutions that merely reduce negative impacts and rather develop a mindset where we acknowledge that we are part of this planet, not conquerors of it.
There are numerous examples of major socio- technological advances that have improved human life. The flipside is that too many of them have degraded the life-supporting ecosystems on which human well-being ultimately depend. What we need are innovations that can increase human well- being and at the same time enhance the capacity of ecosystems to produce services.
That is what social-ecological innovation is all about.