This post was co-authored by Fredric Bauer (Lund University) and Aniek Hebinck (Wageningen University).
The Summer School run by the STEPS Centre has become one of the centre’s annual highlights by bringing together young researchers to explore the intricate world of pathways to sustainability. Co-owned by the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) and the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, the centre combines topics of development and innovation in its research and teaching.
During two very intensive weeks in Spring, we and 40 other PhD students and young researchers coming from 31 countries spent our time studying, thinking, discussing, and debating ‘pathways to sustainability’. Central to these debates were the politics and framings of sustainable transitions in global settings, e.g. cases discussed were agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, water in India, and renewable energy in Europe. Between lectures given by distinguished academics such as Ian Scoones, Andy Stirling, Melissa Leach, Lyla Mehta, and Johan Schot on specific methods and research topics, the summer school also provided ample opportunity to engage in discussions with the other participants as well as STEPS faculty during ‘walkshops’ (walking workshops) and other activities.
Photo: Andy Stirling discussing the politics of knowledge with the summer school participants during one of the walkshops.
Aiming to conceptualise sustainability in an increasingly complex and dynamic world while linking environmental integrity and social justice, scholars at the STEPS Centre have developed the ‘pathways approach’. Although there are many similarities between this approach and the literature on socio-technical transitions, e.g. a focus on the possibilities of creating different futures, the pathways approach has embedded elements of action research, in contrast to most of transition research. The pathways approach has therefore been used many times to highlight issues related to grassroots development initiatives. Reflecting on our own experiences in doing research, discussions in the summer school tended to come back to the issue of sustainability being an inherently political concept – one that is not just focused on low carbon technologies but also on issues of participation and power. Thus, any transition or pathway that aims to support a certain sustainability discourse must also confront the needs, values and interests of those groups excluded by that discourse.
The summer school made us appreciate the complexity of decision-making for transformative change, as well as the need to incorporate an understanding of this complexity into decision-making processes. What goes hand in hand with this understanding of complexity, is the emphasis on a need for a multiplicity of pathways. Through the summer school, we have expanded our knowledge about methodologies that are able to capture those pathways that may easily be hidden or marginalized by dominant actors and interests. Having the chance to learn about new methods such as multicriteria mapping and Q method, and discuss them with scholars who have experience using them was really a great inspiration for future research projects.
Besides academic insights, the summer school was also an excellent way to expand our networks with like-minded young scholars working with transitions and pathways to sustainability all over the world – and of course, it was also great fun! Having the chance to end the long days with a pint in the IDS bar, enjoying a barbecue together, and exploring Brighton together was fabulous. As the summer school takes place during the Brighton Festival, it is also a good opportunity to experience some of the city and the British culture.
If you are interested in the thoughts of some of the other participants on the summer school, you should also watch this short video with testimonials.
The coming summer school
The fifth annual summer school will take place in May 2016. We would really encourage all PhD students interested in increasing their understanding of the complexity of sustainability transitions to apply (deadline for application is 27 January). A small word of advice: although the summer school is usually blessed with gorgeous weather, you might just run into some ‘English Summer’ so don’t forget your umbrella!
Fredric Bauer is a PhD student at Lund University, Sweden, studying the role of incumbent actors in sustainability transitions, focusing on the chemical industry.
Aniek Hebinck is a junior researcher in sustainable food practices at Wageningen University and explores urban food governance and food security in the project TRANSMANGO.