Ben’s Strategy Blog: Complexity theory, cultural practices and carbon reduction policy  

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 Edinburgh’s department of Sociology. Seven years later (it was very part-time!) I’ll be graduating in November. The subject of the PhD has both shaped and been shaped by the work of Creative Carbon Scotland, and I provide here a summary of Taking the Complexity Turn to Steer Carbon Reduction Policy: Applying practice theory, complexity theory and cultural practices to policies addressing climate change. (I can provide a version with references to anyone who wants one.) My practical research focused on increasing the sustainability of audience travel to His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen and relates to the useful skills and attributes that cultural practitioners can bring to work on climate change, even in non-arts settings. 

The Scottish Government has a problem.  

The Scottish Government has committed to an 80% cut in CO2-e emissions from the 1990 baseline by 2050 (to be increased to at least 90% in the Climate Change Bill scheduled for 2019). A 37.6% cut had been achieved by 2015, but largely through decarbonisation of the electricity supply, which has involved dealing with relatively few large companies in a field where regulation is seen as acceptable. Most of this low hanging fruit has now 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 organisations travel and transport goods, heat and power their homes, buildings and appliances, and changes to individuals’ diets. The Government broadly follows a commonly held view that individual behaviour is none of its business, and so thinks it has very limited control over these smaller ‘agents’. What is it to do? 

Behaviour change 

Since 2009 the Government’s policy has focused on behaviour change to achieve this reduction in the carbon emissions of individuals, and it set up a useful research programme to explore how to go about it. This revealed that such behaviour change is in fact difficult to bring about and seldom achieves the degree of change that is required for this enormous social, cultural and economic transition. The research 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 raises the issue of ‘rebound’, where financial savings made by improving energy efficiency are ‘recycled’ by consumers into increased consumption, reducing or removing the desired carbon reductions. Behaviour change is more complex than it might seem. 

‘Behaviour change’ is in fact a term that was seldom used in sociological writing before the 1970s: until then, government in the UK was openly involved in organising social change. In the early 70s the post-war consensus between government, unions, companies and society broke down and a post-Keynesian economics focused on individuals and their choices – rational choice theory – leading to the concentration on the ‘rational actor’ approach to individual behaviour change. A feature of this approach that continues today, although it has been partly undermined by the financial crisis, is the view that government should get out of the way and intervene in individuals’ decision making as little as possible. 

Relying on the Rational Actor 

Rational choice theory sees the human being as a ‘rational actor’, capable of making a 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 behaviours (and the influence of economics on policy is so strong that this doesn’t apply just to the economic sphere but has spread to thinking about social fields). Thus 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 ‘preferences’ that the individual uses to evaluate the various benefits on offer. 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.  

This focus on the rational choice theory of behaviour led to a host of theories about how to achieve behaviour change when governments wanted (most research was government led: government is of course quite a lot about influencing the activities of citizens). These include: 

  • Improving the individual’s knowledge so they would make ‘better’ choices; 
  • Widening the understanding of the personal benefit to include social, psychological and moral benefits, not just material ones; 
  • Considering longer term rather than just immediate benefits to be gained from a choice. 

The problems with rational choice theory are however both legion and well documented (search for Motivating Sustainable Consumption by Professor Tim Jackson, for example) and to address these the theories of behaviour became ever more complicated to the point where they seemed impossible to apply in practice. The behaviour change theories suffered similarly and a core problem is that individuals lack ‘agency’ – the ability to make changes when their actions are influenced by a complex web of other factors and agents. Other people, material things, habit, commercial, financial and social pressures, the weather etc all combine to intervene between what someone might want to do (or think they want to do) and what they actually end up doing.  


In an attempt to overcome these problems whilst avoiding seeming to interfere in individuals’ choices, both the US and UK governments leapt upon ‘Nudge’, a rag-bag of techniques owing a great deal to the marketing world’s success in changing behaviours. Nudge accepts that individuals don’t make very good rational choosers: we are influenced by all sorts of things (including of course marketing). Nudge therefore applies various techniques to help us choose ‘better’, and to some extent it works practically. There are however ethical questions about this ‘choice architecture’, as people are being manipulated without their knowing, whilst laws and regulations do it openly, but moreover the focus on the individual and his/her behaviour is not enough, and this forms part of the problem of what I call ‘the sheer muddle of everyday life’.  

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 doesn’t cycle), who I am going to meet there (cycling gear won’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?).  

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 and Nudging might influence my behaviour to some degree, it can’t actually address 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 by any combination of frightening cycling conditions, discouraging social norms, expensive, inconvenient buses and cheap, convenient car parking. 

Practice Theory 

From early this century another approach to behaviours was taking shape. Practice Theory moves up a level from the individual to the social, considering that rather than individuals choosing to ‘behave’ in a particular way, ‘practices’ exist in society outwith the individual and individuals ‘perform’ or ‘enact’ them, constantly re-interpreting the practices in their performance of them and so strengthening and reinforcing them in a dynamic way.  

This is exemplified well by the practice of daily showering. When I grew up, daily showering was unheard of and indeed impossible: it is a function of everything from showers existing in people’s homes, a good source of hot water and warm bathrooms to a social expectation of frequent showering, even the existence of shower gel – a whole complex of technological, social, commercial and practical factors, some of which didn’t apply in the 1970s. Today no-one chooses to be a daily showerer, but the combination of all those factors makes it a very common practice in UK life. Daily showering therefore exists outside of the individual but many individuals perform it, changing and influencing the practice as they do so. A useful diagram from Elizabeth Shove’s influential paper helps here: 

Shove's 'Pinning Power Showering in Place' (taken from Shove ‘Converging Conventions of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience’

Figure 1: Shove’s ‘Pinning Power Showering in Place’ (taken from Shove ‘Converging Conventions of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience’. Journal of Consumer Policy, 2003 (26), pp395-418

Practice Theory has influenced the Scottish Government’s approach to behaviour change, whilst not quite removing from it the focus on the individual: the Government promotes the Individual, Social and Material (or ISM) Model, which asks users to think about all the different factors in the different areas that might lead to individuals’ ‘behaviours’ to consider how to change them. And Practice Theory has a great deal to offer – I find it a compelling description of how people come to 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, it is almost totally silent on how to deliberately change existing practices or create new ones. Indeed some of the main proponents of Practice Theory in the UK argue that seeking to bring about a transition is fundamentally problematic as it perhaps wrongly assumes that there is an agreed state to transition to. I understand their concerns but argue that since the democratically elected Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Climate Change Act including its targets in 2009, we do have an agreed endpoint we want to reach, and the discussion is more about how we achieve those carbon reductions. 

Complexity Theory 

Complexity theory, which derives from the natural sciences and mathematics, is often expressed in language similar to that used to describe practice theory, and it may offer a solution to this problem of how to apply practice theory practically, as it were. In very brief terms, complexity theory holds that complex systems – as distinct from merely complicated ones – are open systems consisting of many 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. They 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 at fairly short 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. There 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. 

As a result of the feedbacks, the interactions and their non-linearity, complex systems are not in equilibrium – a particularly important change from a view of science, economics and other disciplines that have traditionally assumed a tendency towards stability and equilibrium. Complex systems have a history: not only do they develop and change over time, but their present and future are determined by their past. Crucially for this discussion, complex systems have ‘emergent properties’: properties of the whole system, not individual elements therein, which cannot be foreseen just by looking at the individual parts.  

Complexity theory is usually applied to the natural world and physics, but there is a growing view that it can be used to describe complex social systems, in that phenomena seen in society can be understood as emergent properties of the complex social system that is society. Thus traffic congestion can be seen as an emergent property of a system in which car driving seems cheap and convenient, public transport is unfashionable, expensive or inconvenient, road systems are designed for outmoded traffic patterns and utility companies have a disconnected approach to planning roadworks.   

I argued that practices – the result of a complex combination of technological, social, historical and other factors – could usefully be seen as emergent properties of complex social systems. To change the practice it would therefore be necessary to focus not on the individual, nor on the practice itself, but on the complex system from which it emerged. But this raised the question, is it possible to deliberately act upon a complex social system in order to bring about such a change? 


In order to test this I decided to employ a case study to influence how audiences travel to attend His Majesty’s Theatre, a large theatre in Aberdeen, audience travel being a significant but largely unmeasured source of carbon emissions for the cultural sector. Through audience surveys and focus groups I discovered that although a high 70% of people travelled to the theatre by car, for many driving was the least inconvenient mode of transport rather than something they wished to do, emergent properties of the system such as lack of safety on the Aberdeen streets and mistiming of transport services and theatre performances putting them off taking the bus or train.  

Pinning car travel in place -Bus services and timetables difficult to understand, street parking expensive, poor evening bus service, unpleasant atmosphere on union street, high bus fares, bus station not very nice, drunks on buses, dark seedy streets on walk to bus station, oil city: strong car focus, discount car park deal with theatre tickets - with apologies to Elizabeth Shove

Figure 2: Twist’s ‘Pinning car travel in place’, 2018

A ‘behaviour change’ approach to this problem would have focused on the individuals, seeking to change the motivation to drive through increased information, financial or other incentives to use public transport etc. A complexity approach led me to bring together three organisations that had agency to influence elements of the complex social system within which this practice of audience travel took place: the theatre management; Stagecoach, which runs the buses from Aberdeen to destinations in Aberdeenshire; and Aberdeenshire Council. Using His Majesty’s knowledge from their box office data of when and to where people would be travelling, the bus company’s knowledge about bus travel and their resource of buses, drivers etc, and Aberdeenshire’s strategic role to promote sustainable travel and its ability to secure funding for the project, we ran TheatreBus, providing services to popular destinations from right outside the theatre, guaranteed to leave at a time matched with the performance end.

Working on the project revealed time and time again characteristics of complex systems, some of which helped and others hindered the project’s implementation, confirming the importance of complexity in considering such projects. This has implications for how future interventions are planned and evaluated. It also highlighted that skills that I had developed as a theatre director and producer were essential to managing an intervention in a complex social system: we in the arts are comfortable with complexity – we even seek it out! 

Ben’s Strategy Blog: Complexity theory, cultural practices and carbon reduction policy  

Figure 3: A simplified map of the complex system within which audience members travel to His Majesty’s

This last point was informed by our interest at Creative Carbon Scotland in the work of the ‘civic artist’ Frances Whitehead and her Embedded Artist Project and has encouraged our own work on Embedded Artist Projects (we’re now involved in at least three relevant projects), development of the Library of Creative Sustainability, and our Creative Europe project Cultural Adaptations, so the research has already led to practical outputs and ‘impact’, as the academic funders like to see! 

Although TheatreBus was a great success with those who used it we didn’t manage to change that many people’s travel practices: all involved thought that this would have happened but needed a much longer experiment. We did however manage to change the system in which travel took place. His Majesty’s, which hadn’t previously considered itself to be part of the transport planning system, recognised that, as the trigger for around 1m journeys per year and holding unique information about those travelling, it had a vital role to play. Stagecoach and Aberdeenshire similarly reconsidered their omission of travel-triggerers from their lists of partners to work with. Moreover, I learned a great deal about how to go about changing a complex social system, including the need for collaborative and partnership working to achieve this, and some lessons this has for policymakers seeking ‘behaviour change’. Perverse incentives within policy around climate change encourage Public Bodies (such as local authorities, health trusts, higher and further education institutions etc) to focus on their own direct carbon emissions rather than emissions that they may not control but over which they have influence. Collaborative working is essential to address these emergent properties of the systems in which Public Bodies play a major role. 


My evaluation of the TheatreBus project pointed 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 requires particular skills, including the willingness and ability to manage complexity. As I noted above, many cultural practitioners are trained and experienced in handling complexity and might well be useful project managers for this sort of collaboration, but wouldn’t normally be considered for these roles. Perhaps they should be added to the list. 

My thesis concludes with the following main recommendations for policymakers: 

  1. Since all interventions seeking to achieve changes in individual ‘behaviours’ will take place within the complex social system that is society, policy and policy making should fully acknowledge the implications of complexity theory. 
  1. Policymakers and those implementing it could therefore benefit from learning about complexity theory in higher education and continuing professional development. 
  1. 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 and the range of acceptable evidence widened. 
  1. Accordingly, methods of evaluating complex interventions in complex system need to be more widely developed. 
  1. Public Bodies are important agents in complex social systems. Refocusing the Public Bodies Duties in the Climate Change Act, shifting Public Bodies’ attention away from reducing their own direct emissions to addressing society’s overall ones, would help achieve the overall carbon emissions reductions. 
  1. 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. 
  1. 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. 

This is a very brief summary of my research and I’d be happy to discuss it further with anyone who is interested. And if you want to read the full 82,000 words, just let me know! 


Finally, I couldn’t have completed this project without the help of my collaborators at Stagecoach and Aberdeenshire Council and especially my supervisors Dr Claire Haggettand Professor Nick Prior,  and Andy Kite and Jane Spiers‎ from Aberdeen Performing Arts. Enormous thanks to them all.

The post Ben’s Strategy Blog: Complexity theory, cultural practices and carbon reduction policy   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 public’s emotions, values and ideas.

Go to Creative Carbon Scotland

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