onsdag 21 februari 2018

Turning black swans white (application)

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I'm on a sabbatical and I'm currently in Barcelona where I arrived 10 days ago. But, as Sherry Turkle  said in her book "Alone together": "a vacation usually means working from someplace picturesque. […] On vacation, one vacates a place, not a set of responsibilities".

To some extent I have been working "as usual" but from a different place and not seldom with daily (often multiple) conference calls about academic papers and other projects. That was especially true last week. I had a deadline for a research grant application on Wednesday February 14 and I spent a sizable part of the first week here in Barcelona in front of the computer, working together with my colleagues in Sweden in a race to perfectify our application, "Turning black swans white: Creating scenarios for envisioning sustainable futures" [Förvandla svarta svanar till vita: Att bygga scenarier för hållbara framtider]. The application was handed in to the Swedish Energy Agency's call "Humans, energy systems and society" (English-language call, pdf file):

"The purpose of this call is to produce knowledge that can lead to change and that address energy and societal challenges associated with transition to sustainable energy systems. ... The focus of the call is research that can ... help society to understand energy and climate issues in new ways. This includes ... research challenging existing knowledge and that open up for alternatives that today seems both unrealistic and uneconomic but that can help us to understand and apply ideas and solutions in new ways. ... Equally important is that this knowledge is used by society. Research shall be communicated in ways that increases the possibilities for actors to get a deeper understanding of change processes on energy and climate, and the effects of them."

I have no idea how our application will be received and judged but reading the text above, I kind of feel that, well, we nailed it. I'm the project leader and I was responsible for putting the application together. I worked together with my colleague Elina Eriksson and with Mikael Höök at Uppsala University. We also worked with Omställningsnätverket, the Swedish node of the international Transition Network and part of the money we apply for will be used to pay them to help us organize and lead workshops in different parts of Sweden. We more specifically worked on the application together with (chairwoman) Pella Thiel and (board member) Martin Hedberg and we also have a couple of project partners; Studiefrämjandet, Näringslivskontoret Region Jämtland/Härjedalen and Hållbar Utveckling Väst. We will hire a ph.d. student if our application is granted and we will know that sometime before the summer.

The application is (for once) written in Sweden but here's the English-language project summary:

"We are today not doing enough to reduce our use of fossil energy sources and our impact on the climate system. We need to develop shared goals to be able to transition to a sustainable society; share understandings, shared stories and shared ideas about how to solve the problems we face today and that simultaneously show and create an understanding for how necessary lifestyle changes can "land" in everyday practices. How can we explore images of future resilient and sustainable societies and move towards them? We will in this project develop new scenario methods and carry through workshops with "predecessors"/”innovators”, i.e. individuals and municipalities who already today do what we all should do tomorrow. The aim of the project is to develop policy recommendations that promote sustainable social development and to develop workshop materials that will be used by project partners (Transition Network Sweden and Studiefrämjandet) also after the research project had ended."

The black swans in the title of the application are explained here:

It is, regardless of the probability, wise from a security and resilience perspective to prepare society also against events that may be rare or unlikely but whose effects are huge (e.g. attempts to manipulate the general opinion or election results, problems with the power supply, oil crises, food shortages, trade embargos, military invasions etc.). Risk researcher Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to such events as "black swan events" (2001, 2007) and points out that by identifying and highlighting areas where we are vulnerable can "turn black swans into white", i.e. turn unpleasant surprises into predictable and manageable events. In terms of climate change as well as energy shortages, science shows with overwhelming clarity that they are both likely to have a major impact on society if we do not take appropriate measures.

We are also going to work with counterfactual scenarios (which I have written about several times just during the last weeks like here and here)! That's actually where our thinking started and while they are still important, their role in the application has somehow decreased as we have spend more time thinking about what it suitable to do in this particular application in relation to the call. But here's our take on counterfactual scenarios in this particular application:

"In order to create better conditions for consensus and to more easily imagine alternatives to what we currently take for granted, we will work with "contrafactual scenarios" in this project. Instead of discussing possible futures, we will discuss alternative todays that could-have-been and that takes the question "what would have happened if ...?" as their starting point. An example of a counterfactual scenario ("Coalworld") is described in the article "What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil"(Pargman et al. 2017b). We see counterfactual scenarios as an interesting method to free ourselves from established imaginings, mental lock-ins, path dependence and other phenomena that prevent us from thinking in new ways and of thinking beyond our own experiences and beyond past societal investments and (infra)structures. By using counterfactual scenarios, we can generate and explore possible futures by placing them in an alternative present. Counterfactual scenarios thus also become a powerful tool for norm critique and to imagine how things could have been, and consequently also a way of visualizing possible mechanisms for transition. By bringing together different actors in workshops to work out thoughts and ideas about "what would have happened if ..." and what we then should have done, we can also reach consensus about what we should do here and now."
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