"It is time to use our capacity and introduce innovations that are sensitive to the fundamental bonds between social and ecological system." This is the gist of the third and final scientific paper produced for the recently held Stockholm Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability. Photo: A. Löf/Azote

Tipping towards sustainability

Science calls for ecologically literate innovation

It is a fascinating paradox that the same innovative capacity that has put us in the current environmental predicament is actually what can be used to push us out of it.

"It is time to use this capacity and introduce innovations that are sensitive to the fundamental bonds between social and ecological system."

This is the gist of the third and final scientific paper produced for the recently held Stockholm Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability.

The paper, which follows from two related ones on reconnecting to the Biosphere and how humans must go from hunter-gatherers to planetary stewards, was recently published in the scientific journal AMBIO.

Halting a steam-powered train of thought
Historically, humanity has placed great faith in technological innovation to help transform societies and improve the quality of life.

The most obvious example is the industrial revolution, while the most recent example is the fast-changing way we communicate across the world.

There are good reasons why we place faith in our capacity to innovate, because it has traditionally been associated with a better quality of life.

But we cannot deny that the last five decades or so of high innovation have also caused some serious damage to the planet.

Caugt in an ingenuity gap
The problems we are facing are so complex that some argue that we are caught in an 'ingenuity gap', where the world's problems have become so difficult to solve that we lack the ingenuity required to solve them.

But the outlook need not be too gloomy. Ongoing large-scale transformations in e.g. information technology, biotechnology and energy systems have huge potential to significantly improve our lives in a sustainable way. However, this can only happen if we start working with, instead of against, nature.

In order to boost our capacity to innovate in the interests of a more sustainable lifestyle, there needs to be support and, particularly in the private sector. This requires multi-level adaptive governance, tax incentives and sponsored experiments.

Examples of sponsored experiments include the Big Green Challenge in the UK issued by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). In this, communities were invited to come up with community-led responses to climate change. Of the proposals submitted, 100 received support to be developed into detailed plans and 10 were shortlisted to compete for the £1 million prize.

There are also enormous reservoirs for bottom-up learning and innovation in moments of crises. In fact, some of the best and most constructive innovations often come from disaster-hit (or disaster-prone) communities.

Studies in north-eastern Honduras after the powerful Hurricane Mitch in 1998 showed how the disaster led to substantial changes in land management. However, it was not established aid organisations that facilitated the change, but household-to-household, viral like initiatives that resulted in a shift to more equitable land distribution, protected forests and overall an increased resilience to cope with similar floods in the future.

Resilience scholars have also focused on the role of informal shadow networks — groups of stakeholders that work outside the fray of regulation and implementation in places where more formal networks and structures fail.

One of the most celebrated examples comes from Chile, where a combination of fisheries collapse and the move to democracy provided the opportunity to try out some new arrangements for managing fisheries. The experiments were based on informal partnerships and trust between fishers, scientists and managers.

Enormous opportunities
Overall, economic and technological solutions must become more ecologically literate and see the numerous planetary  opportunities in investing in sustainable use of ecosystems and their services.

This requires us to organise innovation and technology development in new ways that are more networked, open-sourced and inclusive.

Emerging social innovations and technological transformations involve enormous opportunities with huge potential to improve our lives in a sustainable way, but only if we incorporate knowledge of social-ecological systems and planetary boundaries in framing their future development.

References

Citation

Westley, F., Olsson, P., Folke, C., Homer-Dixon, T., Vredenburg, H., Loorbach, D. Thompson, J., Nilsson, M., Lambin, E., Sendzimir, J., Banerjee, B., Galaz, V., van der Leeuw, S. 2011. Tipping Toward Sustainability: Emerging Pathways of Transformation. In AMBIO, Vol. 40, Issue 7. Doi: 10.1007/s13280-011-0186-9

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