Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

REFLECT | Thresholding sustainable transition

I’ve just completed a conference paper for the IPSA 25th World Congress of Political Science (Brisbane, 21-25 July) in which I examine the interplay of boundary bridging, policy mix and sustainable transitions in relaton to the interconnected planning domains (or transition arenas) of land use, infrastructure and transport. It’s challenging to enter these policy fields as they can seem captured by professional silos – planners, engineers and economists – who don’t always understand or participate in the dynamics of co-production and collaboration. I’ve written papers on transport and infrastructure from a narrative analysis of planning only to have them dismissed because the research is not grounded in engineering or transport economics. Disciplines, professions and systems become path dependent and narrative is a central aspect of reinforcing that as it shapes visions, policies and other political constructs.

The IPSA conference theme is borders and margins and my focus on boundary bridging – meaning boundary work, boundary organisations and boundary objects. The crux of boundary work is enabling intermediation and interaction for complex pathway development and shaping. The paper hangs off ideas of policy mix with particular focus on the policy mix at play in relation to the targets of zero net emissions by 2050, and 50% renewables and 30% reduction of emissions on 2005 levels by 2030. The projection of a low carbon economy has been noted in policy documents for at least a decade – 20% here, 30% there – it’s been a moving feast in a high greenhouse gas emitting state (and that doesn’t include the emissions from exported fossil fuel or not including emissions from gas in carbon footprint). Over the next two years the government will further develop policy for sustainable transition to release in 2020. This is dependent on the Federal Government of the day due to current Federal policy inertia, as Queensland joins other State Governments that made transition commitments.

Having now completed the paper, a few things have become apparent. At first look, the policy appears to be vacillating by delaying action despite the need for urgent change. Instead of long term strategic action from the outset, the policy casts out some short term ‘easy’ interventions – perhaps they are seeds, perhaps they are too short term, perhaps they are future problems. The logic of the policy remains enmeshed in the role decoupling and scale can play to continue economic growth but does not clearly define this. Layering policies, contradictions and allowing for drift are counterproductive and allow for contradictory policies. As such policies and governance can suffer a credibility and consistency gap.

When I first read the Transition Strategy, released in mid 2017, my initial response was that the window of opportunity has now closed and that the government delay will result in further lagging. While possibly the subject of another paper, it seemed like the Transition Strategy was also a victory for policy entrepreneurs and incumbents e.g. the emphasis on carbon capture and storage, the focus on particular agencies. However, despite the urgency of sustainable transition, my sense now is that the policy opens a window of opportunity until 2020. This is a critical juncture in which a diverse range of policy entrepreneurs and advocates to scrutinise the policy mix across the domains of land use, infrastructure and transport to guide and support emergent paths. This is not a time for policy-as-usual in which departmental staff and consultants work to the seams of policy scripts.

So in response to the conference theme of borders and margins two aspects of borders (edges, boundaries, thresholds, liminality, trangression etc) come to mind. First, this is a threshold moment – it opens a two year window of opportunity to draw the government and its departments into a more deliberate and constructive approach to sustainable transition. As a threshold moment, critical juncture or policy window, the government might address the need for shifts in governance and policy mix. It is a time to ‘do the work’. Second, it cannot do this unless there is more meaningful and reflexive approaches to interdisciplinary, intersectoral and interdepartmental knowledge production. In order for these to take shape to guide change and enable system learning, it is not enough for government departments to be delegated tasks as silos. This is where the boundary work and bridging comes into play. When departments formulate and package large consultancies to outsource policy implementation, as they often have in the past, many in a complex system are excluded and the larger consulting companies occupy the results. Transition needs innovation, learning and experiment – including policy learning, innovation and experiment.

One of the nine principles of transition management is recognition that content and process are inseparable – we might look at the current shape of the Transition Strategy and the policy mix as generally baseline content, but there is more to do in terms of process and narrative. In facilitation, for example, there is a practice called ‘holding space’ in which space is protected for exploration, preparing or readying, dialogue, and developing awareness. It is an idea explored creatively, for example, in the work of the Long Time, No See? project.  In relation to our current liminal transition moment, as a window, an idea of ‘thresholding space’ warrants exploration of diverse strategies for being and becoming in this breach. There is a need to reorient towards facilitation, experiment and learning as reflective practitioners breathing new life into reflexive systems.

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