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Eeva Primmer, Mikael Hildén: Experimentation and sustainability: a paradox or an opportunity for institutional learning?

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16.11.2015 Eeva Primmer, Mikael Hildén
Kuva: Eeva Primmer
PhD Eeva Primmer is the Head of Environmental Governance Unit in SYKE. With a background in forestry, she is Docent in Environmental Policy. She actively searches for sustainable solutions and enjoys a good conversation, both at work and at leisure. Sometimes hyperactively. Tel: + 358 295 251 521, firstname.surname@ymparisto.fi

Finland’s Government programme places high expectations on experiments as a way to progress from austerity to growth. There is a feeling of impatience: we need an entrepreneurial spirit because there is an urgent need to find better ways of doing things. But what is better? For one, better could mean more sustainable. In other words, the new ways in which we start to operate should maintain the carrying capacity of our ecosystems and improve wellbeing in our society.

If we had full knowledge of all factors that lead to sustainability in the long run we would not need experiments, we could simply design and execute. But although we oftentimes know a fair amount about the immediate environmental and social impacts of our choices, we have limited understanding of the long-term future. Because we cannot design exact plans for the future, we experiment: we try out new solutions, we develop new technologies and we explore new ways of governing our activities. We establish pilots, we work with new partners and we seek new audiences, users, customers.

A seminar with Professor Stephen Zavestoski from the University of San Francisco and other environmental policy and sustainability transitions experts from Finland, the UK and India was held in SYKE on 14 October 2015. The presentations and discussions in the seminar showed that it is not a trivial task to bridge across experiments or to scale up experiments at local level to wider institutional change. The presenters highlighted the everyday commonsensical nature of experiments and that effort needs to be put into aggregating and communicating the lessons from incremental improvements in order to achieve radical changes in societies.

Mikael Hildén 172px
Professor Mikael Hildén is the Head of Climate Charge Strategic Programme in SYKE. He makes observations of the world and is keen on repairing simple mechanichal devices like bicycles. Tel: + 358 295 251 173, firstname.surname@ymparisto.fi

Local trials and tailored solutions can appear too unique, too ordinary or even too private. A fear of failure or external monitoring adds onto the fear of misplaced investments. For higher level decision-making, the challenge is to aggregate knowledge and to control currently understood risks, without suffocating the local level experimentation. Obviously, high risks should be identified and managed. For example, the risks of back-firing and accidents can be chartered and the experiments designed in such a way that the risks are manageable. All risks must be weighed against the potential sustainability improvements and the opportunities for learning.

In experimenting for innovation and institutional learning, temporariness and disappointment must be accepted. Failures may be one of the greatest sources of learning that experiments can provide, and the possibility of failure needs to be an integral part of a reflexive approach to governance. In cases where success is obvious, e.g., when a new heating system reduces costs, energy use and pollution, whilst creating local jobs, information sharing is easy and compelling, but it may miss crucial learning aspects for transferring or upscaling.

Clearly, the challenges of scaling up and institutionalizing technology or context specific experiments relate to knowledge management and sharing. Evaluations of success or failure, in particular with ecological and social sustainability criteria, should build on input from science and from those actors who can use the new solutions. Intermediaries between science, policy and private sector actors have an important role to play. A special issue in the Journal of Cleaner Production will explore these and other relevant topics on experiments.

The new experiments and institutional support structures launched by the Finnish Government will need the observations and experiences of us all. Transformative new solutions can only emerge through collaboration and communication. Importantly, they will require a combination of patience and entrepreneurship.

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