This post comes from Creative Carbon Scotland
Creative Carbon Scotland’s Director Ben Twist has completed his PhD! In this blog he shares a summary of how complexity theory, cultural practice and sustainability work together.
At about the same time that Creative Carbon Scotland was formed I started work on a part-time PhD at the University of Edinburghâ€™s department of Sociology. Seven years later (it was very part-time!) Iâ€™ll be graduating in November.Â The subject of the PhD hasÂ bothÂ shaped and been shaped by the work of Creative Carbon Scotland, and I provide here a summaryÂ ofÂ Taking the Complexity Turn to Steer Carbon Reduction Policy: Applying practice theory, complexity theory and cultural practices to policies addressing climate change.Â (I can provide aÂ version with references to anyone who wants one.)Â My practical research focused on increasing the sustainability of audience travel toÂ His Majestyâ€™s TheatreÂ in Aberdeen andÂ relates to the useful skills and attributes that cultural practitioners can bring toÂ work on climate change, even in non-arts settings.Â
The Scottish GovernmentÂ has a problem.Â Â
The Scottish GovernmentÂ has committed to an 80% cut inÂ CO2-e emissionsÂ from the 1990 baseline by 2050Â (to be increased toÂ at leastÂ 90% in the Climate Change Bill scheduled for 2019).Â A 37.6% cut had been achieved by 2015,Â but largely through decarbonisation of the electricity supply, which has involved dealing with relatively few large companiesÂ in a field where regulation is seen as acceptable.Â Most of this low hanging fruit has nowÂ been plucked and the next stage will be much harder as it will require changes in the way in which millions of individuals and small organisationsÂ travel and transport goods, heatÂ and powerÂ their homes,Â buildingsÂ and appliances, and changes toÂ individualsâ€™ diets. TheÂ GovernmentÂ broadly followsÂ a commonly heldÂ viewÂ thatÂ individual behaviour isÂ none ofÂ itsÂ business, and soÂ thinksÂ itÂ has very limited control over these smaller â€˜agentsâ€™.Â WhatÂ is it to do?Â
SinceÂ 2009Â theÂ Governmentâ€™sÂ policy has focused on behaviour change toÂ achieve this reduction in the carbon emissions of individuals, andÂ itÂ set up aÂ usefulÂ research programme toÂ explore how to go about it.Â This revealedÂ that such behaviour change is in fact difficult toÂ bring aboutÂ andÂ seldom achieves the degree of change that is requiredÂ forÂ this enormous social, cultural and economic transition.Â TheÂ researchÂ points to interventions being required at individual, societal and infrastructural levels as well as working in a coordinated way across sectors to avoid conflicting changes, and it raisesÂ the issue ofÂ â€˜reboundâ€™, where financial savings made by improving energy efficiency are â€˜recycledâ€™ by consumers intoÂ increasedÂ consumption, reducing or removing the desired carbon reductions. Behaviour change is more complex than it might seem.Â
â€˜Behaviour changeâ€™ isÂ in factÂ a term that was seldom used in sociologicalÂ writingÂ before the 1970s:Â untilÂ then,Â governmentÂ in the UKÂ was openlyÂ involvedÂ inÂ organisingÂ social change.Â In the early 70s the post-war consensus between government, unions, companies and societyÂ broke down and aÂ post-KeynesianÂ economicsÂ focused on individuals and their choicesÂ â€“ rational choice theory â€“Â leading to the concentration onÂ theÂ â€˜rationalÂ actorâ€™Â approach toÂ individualÂ behaviour change.Â A feature of this approach that continues today, although it has beenÂ partly undermined by the financial crisis, is the view that government should get out of the way and intervene inÂ individualsâ€™ decision makingÂ as little as possible.Â
Relying on theÂ Rational ActorÂ
Rational choice theory sees the human being as aÂ â€˜rationalÂ actorâ€™, capable of makingÂ aÂ choice to act so as to maximise their personal benefit, and fundamentally self-interested, so making that maximisation of personal benefit the reason for all choices and behavioursÂ (and the influence of economics on policy is so strong that this doesnâ€™t apply just to the economic sphereÂ but has spread toÂ thinking about social fields).Â ThusÂ people constantly weigh up the various options they have in any particular circumstances and choose the course of action expected to result in the highest net benefit or the lowest net cost. This model relies on the individual having good and complete information about the courses of action, and it makes no comment on the â€˜preferencesâ€™ that the individual uses to evaluate the various benefits on offer.Â In an assumption with implications relating to concepts of sustainability it also assumes that the individual has endless, insatiable desire for benefit, for otherwise the whole model would fail to work when there was no longer any further maximisation of benefit that would lead to any behavioural choices.Â Â
This focus on the rational choice theory of behaviour led to aÂ host of theories about how to achieve behaviourÂ changeÂ whenÂ governments wanted (most research was government led: government is of course quite a lot about influencing the activities of citizens). These include:Â
- Improving the individualâ€™s knowledgeÂ so they would makeÂ â€˜betterâ€™Â choices;Â
- Widening the understanding ofÂ the personal benefit to include social,Â psychological andÂ moralÂ benefits, not justÂ material ones;Â
- Considering longer termÂ rather than just immediate benefits to be gained from a choice.Â
TheÂ problems with rational choice theory are howeverÂ bothÂ legion and well documentedÂ (search forÂ Motivating Sustainable ConsumptionÂ by Professor Tim Jackson, for example)Â andÂ toÂ addressÂ theseÂ the theories of behaviour became ever more complicated to the point whereÂ they seemed impossible to apply in practice.Â The behaviour change theoriesÂ suffered similarlyÂ and a core problem is that individuals lack â€˜agencyâ€™ â€“ the ability toÂ makeÂ changes when their actions areÂ influenced by a complex web ofÂ other factors and agents.Â Other people, material things,Â habit, commercial, financialÂ and socialÂ pressures, the weatherÂ etc allÂ combine toÂ intervene between what someone mightÂ wantÂ to do (orÂ thinkÂ they want to do)Â and what theyÂ actually endÂ up doing.Â Â
In an attempt toÂ overcomeÂ these problems whilstÂ avoiding seeming to interfere in individualsâ€™ choices, both the US and UK governments leapt upon â€˜Nudgeâ€™,Â aÂ rag-bag of techniques owing a great deal toÂ theÂ marketingÂ worldâ€™sÂ success inÂ changing behaviours.Â Nudge accepts that individuals donâ€™t make very good rational choosers: weÂ are influenced by all sorts of things (including of course marketing). Nudge therefore applies various techniquesÂ to help us choose â€˜betterâ€™,Â and to some extentÂ itÂ works practically.Â There areÂ howeverÂ ethical questions about thisÂ â€˜choice architectureâ€™, asÂ people are beingÂ manipulated without their knowing, whilst laws and regulations do it openly,Â butÂ moreoverÂ the focus onÂ the individual and his/her behaviour is not enough, and this forms part of theÂ problem ofÂ what I call â€˜the sheer muddle of everyday lifeâ€™.Â Â
A personal example of this might help show why consistent behaviour change is so difficult to achieve. My decision to cycle, take the bus or drive to a performance at the theatre is influenced by many different factors. Who I am going with (my wife doesnâ€™t cycle), who I am going to meet there (cycling gear wonâ€™t impress some people); the state of the roads/cycle lanes/traffic conditions (cycling feels dangerous in Edinburgh but is often faster than driving in heavy traffic); the cost, timing and convenience of the bus (does it go there, does it come back after the show, how long will I have to wait?); the cost of parking and fuel, the likelihood of having a drink after the show; the weather; the time the show starts (am I going to be rushed to get home from a meeting, eat and get there by bus?).Â Â
All these factors vary from occasion to occasion and they are not all in my control: indeed, they are in the control of numerous different people and agencies. Whilst the various theories of behaviour can explain or predict my behaviour in certain circumstances andÂ Nudging might influence my behaviour to some degree,Â itÂ canâ€™tÂ actually addressÂ the issues that stop me cycling to the theatre. What is required rather than a focus on the individual is system-level analysis of the factors that lead me to behave in a particular way and, if we agree that intervention is necessary and acceptable, system-level intervention so that my individual desire to travel to the theatre in a sustainable way is not thwarted byÂ any combination ofÂ frightening cycling conditions, discouraging social norms, expensive, inconvenient buses and cheap, convenient car parking.Â
From early this century another approach to behaviours was taking shape.Â PracticeÂ TheoryÂ movesÂ upÂ a levelÂ from the individual to the social, considering that rather than individuals choosing toÂ â€˜behaveâ€™Â in aÂ particular way,Â â€˜practicesâ€™Â exist in societyÂ outwithÂ the individual and individualsÂ â€˜performâ€™Â or â€˜enactâ€™ them, constantlyÂ re-interpretingÂ the practices in their performance of themÂ and so strengthening and reinforcing themÂ in a dynamic way.Â Â
This is exemplifiedÂ wellÂ by theÂ practice of daily showering. When I grew up, daily showering was unheard of and indeed impossible: it is a function ofÂ everything fromÂ showersÂ existing in peopleâ€™s homes, a good source of hot waterÂ andÂ warm bathroomsÂ to a social expectation of frequent showering, evenÂ the existence of shower gelÂ â€“ a whole complex of technological, social, commercial and practical factors, some of which didnâ€™tÂ apply in the 1970s.Â Today no-one chooses to be a dailyÂ showerer, butÂ the combination of all those factors makesÂ it a very common practiceÂ in UK life.Â Daily showeringÂ thereforeÂ exists outside of theÂ individualÂ but manyÂ individualsÂ performÂ it, changingÂ and influencingÂ the practice asÂ theyÂ do so.Â A useful diagram from Elizabeth Shoveâ€™sÂ influential paper helps here:Â
Practice Theory has influenced the Scottish Governmentâ€™s approach to behaviour change, whilstÂ not quiteÂ removing from it the focus on the individual: the GovernmentÂ promotesÂ the Individual, Social and Material (or ISM) Model, which asks users to think about all the different factorsÂ in the different areas that might lead to individualsâ€™ â€˜behavioursâ€™ to consider how to change them. And Practice Theory has a great deal to offer â€“Â I find it a compelling description of how people come toÂ do the things they do in the way they do. While it is good, however, at describing how practices come about, the ways in which they change and how they die out,Â it isÂ almost totally silent on how to deliberately change existing practices or create new ones.Â IndeedÂ some of theÂ main proponents of Practice Theory in the UK argue that seeking to bring about a transition is fundamentally problematic as itÂ perhaps wronglyÂ assumes thatÂ there is an agreed state to transitionÂ to.Â I understand their concerns but argue that since the democratically elected ScottishÂ Parliament unanimously passed the Climate Change ActÂ includingÂ its targetsÂ in 2009, we do have an agreed endpoint we want to reach, and the discussion is more about how we achieve those carbon reductions.Â
Complexity theory, which derives from the natural sciences and mathematics,Â is often expressed in languageÂ similar toÂ that used to describe practice theory,Â andÂ itÂ may offer a solution to this problem of how to apply practice theory practically, as it were.Â In very brief terms, complexity theory holds that complex systems â€“ as distinct from merely complicated ones â€“ are open systems consisting ofÂ manyÂ elements or agents which interact dynamically between themselves and indeed with influences outside the system. These interactions are rich, in that one agent may influence and be influenced by many others.Â TheyÂ are non-linear, in that small changes can have large effects or vice versa. This non-linearity is an essential condition of complexity and means that the system cannot be collapsed into a smaller equivalent system. For the most part, interactions are likely to be atÂ fairly shortÂ range, although the ramifications of an interaction can be felt at greater distances as subsequent interactions are triggered in other agents. However, this means that the influence of one agent may be altered, increased or diminished by further interactions along the chain. ThereÂ are therefore feedback loops, both positive and negative, as interactions lead to changes that bring about further interactions to multiply or cancel out the effect of the first.Â
As a result of the feedbacks, the interactions and their non-linearity, complex systems are not in equilibrium â€“ a particularly important change from a view of science, economics and other disciplines that have traditionally assumed a tendency towards stability and equilibrium.Â Complex systems have a history: not only do they develop and change over time, but their present and future are determined by their past.Â Crucially for this discussion, complex systems have â€˜emergent propertiesâ€™:Â properties of the whole system, not individual elements therein, which cannot beÂ foreseen just byÂ looking at the individual parts.Â Â
Complexity theory is usually applied toÂ the natural world and physics, but there is a growing view that it can be used to describe complexÂ socialÂ systems, in thatÂ phenomena seen in society can be understood as emergent properties ofÂ the complex social system that is society.Â ThusÂ traffic congestion can be seen as an emergent propertyÂ of aÂ system in whichÂ car driving seems cheap and convenient,Â public transportÂ is unfashionable,Â expensiveÂ or inconvenient,Â road systemsÂ areÂ designed for outmoded traffic patterns andÂ utility companiesÂ haveÂ a disconnected approach toÂ planning roadworks.Â Â Â
I argued that practices â€“ the result of a complex combination of technological, social, historical and other factors â€“ could usefullyÂ be seen asÂ emergent properties of complex social systems. To change theÂ practiceÂ it would therefore be necessary to focus not on the individual, nor on the practice itself, but on the complex systemÂ from which it emerged.Â But this raised the question, is it possible to deliberately act upon a complex social system in order to bring about such a change?Â
In order to testÂ thisÂ I decided toÂ employ a case study to influenceÂ howÂ audiences travel toÂ attend His Majestyâ€™s Theatre, a largeÂ theatre in Aberdeen,Â audienceÂ travel being a significantÂ but largely unmeasured source of carbon emissions for the cultural sector.Â ThroughÂ audienceÂ surveys and focus groupsÂ IÂ discoveredÂ thatÂ althoughÂ a highÂ 70% of people travelled to the theatre by car, for many driving was the least inconvenientÂ mode of transport rather than something they wished to do,Â emergent properties of the systemÂ such as lack of safety on the Aberdeen streetsÂ and mistiming of transport services and theatre performancesÂ putting them off taking the bus or train.Â Â
A â€˜behaviour changeâ€™ approach to this problem would have focused on the individuals,Â seeking to change the motivation to drive through increased information, financial or other incentives to use public transport etc. A complexityÂ approach led me toÂ bring togetherÂ three organisations that had agency to influence elements of the complex social system within which thisÂ practice ofÂ audience travel took place:Â the theatre management;Â Stagecoach, whichÂ runs the buses from Aberdeen to destinations inÂ Aberdeenshire;Â and Aberdeenshire Council.Â UsingÂ His Majestyâ€™sÂ knowledge from their box office data of when andÂ toÂ where people would be travelling, the bus companyâ€™s knowledge about bus travel and their resource of buses, drivers etc, and Aberdeenshireâ€™sÂ strategic role to promote sustainable travel and itsÂ ability to secure fundingÂ for the project, we ranÂ TheatreBus, providing servicesÂ toÂ popular destinationsÂ from right outside the theatre, guaranteed to leaveÂ at a time matched with the performance end.
Working onÂ the project revealed time and time againÂ characteristics of complex systems, some of whichÂ helpedÂ andÂ othersÂ hindered the projectâ€™s implementation,Â confirming the importance of complexity in considering such projects. ThisÂ has implications for howÂ future interventions are planned and evaluated. ItÂ also highlightedÂ thatÂ skillsÂ that I had developed as a theatre director and producer were essential to managing an intervention in aÂ complex social system: we in the arts areÂ comfortable with complexity â€“ we even seek it out!Â
This last point was informed by our interest at Creative Carbon Scotland in the work of the â€˜civic artistâ€™Â Frances WhiteheadÂ and her Embedded Artist Project and has encouraged our own work onÂ Embedded Artist ProjectsÂ (weâ€™re now involved in at least three relevant projects), development of theÂ Library of Creative Sustainability, and our Creative Europe projectÂ Cultural Adaptations, so the research has already led to practical outputs and â€˜impactâ€™, as the academic funders like to see!Â
AlthoughÂ TheatreBusÂ was a great success with those who used itÂ we didnâ€™t manage to change that many peopleâ€™s travel practices:Â all involved thought that this would haveÂ happened butÂ neededÂ a much longerÂ experiment. We didÂ howeverÂ manage to change the system in which travel took place.Â His Majestyâ€™s, which hadnâ€™t previously considered itself to be part of the transport planning system, recognised that,Â as the trigger for around 1m journeys per yearÂ and holding unique information about those travelling, it had a vital role to play. Stagecoach and Aberdeenshire similarlyÂ reconsidered their omission of travel-triggerers from their lists of partners to work with.Â Moreover, I learned a great deal about how to go about changing a complex social system, including the need forÂ collaborative and partnership workingÂ to achieve this,Â and some lessons this has for policymakers seeking â€˜behaviour changeâ€™.Â Perverse incentives within policy around climate change encourage Public BodiesÂ (such as local authorities, health trusts, higher and further education institutions etc)Â to focus on their own direct carbon emissions rather thanÂ emissions that they may not control but over which they have influence. Collaborative working is essentialÂ to address these emergent properties of the systems in which Public BodiesÂ play a major role.Â
My evaluation of theÂ TheatreBusÂ project pointedÂ to the need to consider complexity in the design, implementation and assessment of interventions in complex social systems. Collaborative working is hindered by some aspects of current policy and requiresÂ particular skills, including the willingness and ability to manage complexity.Â As I noted above,Â manyÂ cultural practitioners are trained and experienced inÂ handling complexity and might well be useful project managers for this sort ofÂ collaboration, butÂ wouldnâ€™t normally be considered for these roles. Perhaps they should be added to the list.Â
MyÂ thesis concludes with the following main recommendations for policymakers:Â
- Since all interventionsÂ seeking to achieve changes in individual â€˜behavioursâ€™Â will take place within the complex social system that is society, policy and policy making should fully acknowledge the implications of complexity theory.Â
- Policymakers and those implementing it could therefore benefit from learning about complexity theory in higher education and continuing professional development.Â
- Results of interventions in complex social systems have long lead-times and cannot be exactly replicated in other circumstances, no matter how similar. The assessment of success may therefore need to be different andÂ the range of acceptable evidence widened.Â
- Accordingly, methods of evaluating complex interventions in complex system need to be more widely developed.Â
- Public Bodies are important agents in complex social systems. Refocusing the Public Bodies Duties in the Climate Change Act, shifting Public Bodiesâ€™ attention away from reducing their own direct emissions to addressing societyâ€™s overall ones, would help achieve the overall carbon emissions reductions.Â
- A strong Duty to Collaborate, able to encourage Public Bodies to divert resources to relevant projects and to over-ride other less important duties, should be considered to help the Public Bodies in this change.Â
- Collaborative projects to intervene in complex social systems require particular skills, qualities and backgrounds from project managers and these may be found in people from a wider range of unexpected areas, including for example the arts.Â
This is aÂ veryÂ brief summary of my research and Iâ€™d be happy to discuss it further with anyone who is interested.Â And if you want to read the full 82,000 words, just let me know!Â
Finally, I couldnâ€™t have completed this project without the help of my collaborators at Stagecoach and Aberdeenshire Council and especially my supervisorsÂ Dr Claire HaggettandÂ Professor Nick Prior,Â and Andy Kite and Jane Spiersâ€Ž from Aberdeen Performing Arts. Enormous thanks to them all.
The post Benâ€™s Strategy Blog:Â Complexity theory,Â cultural practices and carbon reduction policyÂ Â appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.
Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.
In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.
We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.
Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:
Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the publicâ€™s emotions, values and ideas.
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