Opening up democratic politics for sustainable development: reflections from STEPS America Latina


The event that launched STEPS América Latina earlier this month, ‘Opening up the development agenda’, was a great workshop. It’s rare for a meeting of this kind to be so diverse yet so coherent. And this is especially so, on a topic as challenging as the transforming of development.

Despite many differences in terms of nationality, background, discipline and empirical focus – spanning divides too often separating academia, policymaking and activism – some important broadly-shared implications could be discerned. I’ll try to sketch here some personal impressions – and some thoughts that these catalysed.

Of course, it would be impossible in just one short blog to do justice even to the overlaps – let alone to the many rich (and often inspiring) individual strands of discussion. It would be presumptuous of any single individual even to try to summarize. So, all I can offer is one subjective strand of thoughts prompted by what I have personally learned over the two days of debate.

Social and political discussions of sustainable development

Discussions began as they ended, in and around the social and political meanings of both sustainability and development. It was in posing crucial questions on these themes, that Valeria Arza got the conference going so well. She highlighted the aims of STEPS America Latina to help convene a space in which a diversity of often-excluded (and sometimes-fragmented) progressive perspectives can engage, on the politics of development for social justice and sustainability.

I think these kinds of explicitly social and political discussions of sustainable development are nowhere more disengaged than in Europe. And I believe from limited experience, that high-level debates in other northern and intergovernmental contexts are similarly lacking. Across much of the world, academic and policy elites tend to address the meanings of both sustainability and development as if these were effectively free from contending values and interests, or from considerations of power.

It seems clear from the diverse and vigorous discussions at this workshop of these neglected social and political dimensions of sustainable development, that Latin American critical analyses have much to offer more anaemic debates elsewhere.

Which way?

One powerful example of this, is the work that Anabel Marin reported on, focusing especially on seed production and resource management. In these fields as elsewhere, Anabel finds it one of the most serious challenges in contemporary global political discourse, that prevailing imaginings of sustainability and development are (to use her terms) so “singular and unifocal”.

This phrase refers to the one-directional understandings of development that conventionally dominate economics and politics. Discussion is typically about ‘leaders’ and ‘stragglers’; ‘first movers’, ‘fast followers’ and ‘latecomers’, ‘catching up’ or ‘leapfrogging’, ‘forging ahead’ or ‘falling behind’. But metaphors like these – and the analyses that follow them – make sense only in the context of some kind of one-track race. Attention is restricted to narrow queries over ‘how fast?’, ‘who wins?’ and ‘what risk?’ What gets neglected are broader political questions over ‘which way?’, ‘who says?’ and ‘why?’

I’d like for a moment to reinforce this point. In a growing global climate of ‘post-politics’ and ‘post-democracy’, high-level international debates on sustainable development are increasingly preoccupied with apparently exclusively scientific issues around ‘planetary boundaries’, ‘earth system governance’, ‘the Anthropocene’ and various kinds of ‘nexus’.

Efforts are made to constrain policy making using technical instruments of ‘sound science’, ‘evidence based decisions’, ‘risk assessment’, ‘environmental externalities’ or ‘ecosystem services’. Each purports to give objective prescriptions. Even ‘public dialogue’ and ‘ethical research’ are treated as if they were effectively apolitical. And the actions undertaken on this basis are also increasingly prescribed in terms of technology-based ‘solutions’ – like ‘smart cities’, ‘sustainable intensification’ or ‘responsible innovation’.

Ignoring politics and power

In these ways, global policy making on sustainability and development worldwide, is increasingly inhibited about acknowledging the formative roles played by political struggles and power relations and distributions of many kinds. There is a growing shyness about acknowleding power and politics. It is as if the main issues at stake are narrowly scientific in nature – and technical expertise sufficient to determine policy. An initial striking feature of discussions at this workshop, then, is that they were so entirely free of these fallacies.

Drawing on experience across Latin America and beyond, many speakers elaborated very graphically on this point. In short, conventional policy languages around sustainability and development fail to give balanced attention to the full diversity both of alternative directions for development and of alternative perspectives on these.

Across the board – in areas like agriculture, minerals, energy, construction, manufacturing, urban planning – the picture became repeatedly very clear. Those particular trajectories that emerge under incumbent interests in any given sector tend to be treated as if they are self-evident and inevitable. In this way, they become resistant to interrogation – suppressing responsibilities to acknowledge, let alone explore, alternatives or accountabilities.

In similar ways, private (and other market and organizational) interests are breezily taken at face value, as if automatically aligned with ‘the public good’. The social values of privileged elites are uncritically claimed to be ‘consensual’. Government strategies are misleadingly asserted as if uniquely ‘science-based’. Questions of power are politely avoided. And the highly contingent results of analysis are reported in very precise ways – as if what is ‘optimal’ or ‘efficient’ can be expressed without any attention to uncertainties, ambiguities, sensitivities or determining conditions. By all these means, critical questions are suppressed.

So, it is in such ways that policy making on sustainability and/or development around the world is routinely referred to as simply ‘going forward’, without properly addressing questions of orientation. And if this technical language leaves any surviving criticism of the specific development trajectory that is thereby favoured, then this very specific critique is too often branded as if it were indiscriminately ‘anti-innovation’, ‘anti-development’ or ‘anti-progress’.

Not only was there none of any of these kinds of politics-suppression or power-denial at this meeting, but these pathologies were each very actively challenged. What so many speakers recognized in different ways, is that it is political choices and the dynamics of power that constitute not only how sustainability and development are designed and implemented and their impacts unfold, but also the ways in which their meanings are discussed and understood.

Branching pathways

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Pluralizing progress: diverse development possibilities as branching pathways

In short, sustainability and development were recognized not as some kind of one-track race, but as being more like the picture of ever-branching braids in the River Amazon, as shown in Benito Juarez’s wonderfully optimistic talk on the possible roles for fab-labs in the Amazon Basin. A version of this picture (this time from Iceland) is included as an illustration to the right.

And building on this picture of multiple pathways, Valeria Arza’s later research paper presented an innovative conceptual framework for thinking about properties of diversity and openness in sustainable development trajectories. By mapping these qualities more explicitly, Valeria showed in an intriguing way how to help recognize complexities in alternative development pathways – and make them more visible, accessible, and politically accountable.

In this (as in other) discussions, then, what also came out strongly at the meeting, is that it is only by embracing the more complex picture of complexity and plurality shown in the above image of branching flows, that space can be opened up for essential political discussions about social choices between contending development pathways.

Crucially, the scope and implications of such a picture of multiple alternatives are far wider than is even typically conceivable in conventional economic imaginings of ‘social choices’. This is not just about choosing between technological products for a particular use in existing markets. It is the very modes of usage and structuring of markets themselves that are at issue.

So, as Paula Peyloubet reminded very eloquently, the key questions are therefore not merely about “alternative development”, but concern much more fundamental “alternatives to development”. And the challenges in this regard are as pertinent in the Global North as in the Global South. Indeed, the neglect of power and politics described above as being more typical in the North, arguably make this analysis even more salient there, rather than less.

Many other talks built on this fundamental challenge of diversity and plurality, by focusing directly on the power-laden nature of knowledges and discourse, as well as the more material conditions of political choice.

And here there was another refreshing difference with much contemporary discussion of sustainability and development elsewhere. Rather than treating action and knowledge as separate (with the former following necessarily on the latter), speaker after speaker addressed understandings and practices together, as different aspects of a whole picture.

This came out very strongly, for instance, from the collaborative construction work reported by Paula Peyloubet in Patagonia and with the floating Fab Labs described by Benito Juarez in the Amazon. Here as in so many other examples, political action is not treated as if necessarily only following evidence and analysis, but is recognized also to frame the very ways in which knowledge is produced, interpreted and evaluated. Action constitutes understandings as much as the other way around. Critical research is a form of progressive political action.

Democratic struggle and open science

This point in turn led to an even more striking contrast between discussions at this workshop and those which I am more used to in northern and international settings. This concerns the central importance of democratic struggle. Here, Maristella Svampa outlined in inspiring ways how both sustainability and development are either about autonomously-driven kinds of democratic empowerment and emancipation – or they are about nothing. The crucial struggles are not about ‘how much inclusion?’, but about what this even means and to whom.

These theme was carried forward in Sarita Albagli’s compelling analysis of open science, where it became clear how democratic struggle is as relevant to knowledge as it is to action. The opening up of development and sustainability is not just about pursuing more diverse innovation pathways, but also about enabling more diverse understandings and appreciations of the possibilities and implications associated with each – and so respecting and embracing more plural ways of knowing, living and being.

It is here that another key message from Paula Peyloubet’s paper is especially important. Challenges of ‘democratic participation’ in alternative development pathways are only poorly addressed in the slippery and ambivalent terms of words like ‘engagement’, ‘deliberation’, ‘stakeholder’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘inclusion’. These claims are widely made, but rarely fully held to account. As a result, the processes referred to, can often be as much about legitimization as legitimacy.

And it follows further from Maristella’s and Sarita’s and Paula’s (and many other) papers, that instead of trying to confine democratic struggle within ever more restrictive procedures, what is needed is the enabling, catalyzing and energizing of grassroots collective action. Only this can truly challenge concentrated power, incumbent interests and entrenched dogmas. Yet in conventional, carefully-designed consensus-oriented procedures of ‘community engagement’ by invited stakeholders, dissensus, scepticism and dissent are as often evaded and suppressed as they are enabled or empowered.

Lessons from history

The importance of this central role for agonistic democratic struggle is arguably shown by the history of sustainability and development discourse themselves. It was only after decades of collective action by emancipatory social movements that these agendas have struggled even to the imperfect progressive forms represented in the current Sustainable Development Goals.

At every stage, around the world, imperatives of social justice and environmental protection have been resisted by mainstream technocratic academic and policy languages like those mentioned above. Likewise, have the kinds of grassroots solutions so well represented in this meeting, also been sidelined and suppressed by established interests in science, government and business.

This was the case going back decades, for instance, with many forms of renewable energy, ecological agriculture, grassroots construction and green production. This was why the original Brundtland Commission and Rio Convention themselves also emphasised the roles of more participatory democracy. Yet this emphasis is nowadays in danger of being drowned out by the more technical and expert-led notions of sustainable development.

And this message of this meeting is also reinforced by considering wider global history. Many of the other most important kinds of transformative progress (for instance for oppressed colonies, ethnicities, classes, occupations, genders and sexualities), were not driven primarily by orderly hierarchical policy procedures, but by emancipatory struggle and collective action depending on the creation of more openly and generally progressive political cultures.

In these ways, it was well appreciated at this workshop that the uprooting of the deeply entrenched forms of concentrated power and institutional lock-in embodied in incumbent development and innovation trajectories, involves a political force that cannot easily be borne by individual policy instruments, agency missions or even governance institutions.

No matter how well motivated or mandated, the precise metrics, polite policy etiquettes and orderly legitimation procedures favoured by elite and incumbent interests in science, business and government are not enough for the requisite forms of transformative change. They cannot bear the political load of the kind of transformative change that is required.

This is why alternative pathways are best opened up instead, by mobilising critical energies in nonviolent progressive ways. Only political cultures taken as a whole, can the necessary scale of political loadbearing be achieved without subversion.

So, if the potential for transformatively progressive forms of sustainability and development are to be realized, then, what this meeting made so clear – in diverse ways in different views and settings – are the global imperatives for knowledge and innovation democracies.

Slogans are not enough

But I wonder whether there might not also lie in this picture, challenges not only for incumbent institutions and interests, but also for the international critical perspectives represented so well at this meeting? This was made clear, for instance, in one of many crucial points coming out in Leslie Chan’s wonderful talk on open and collaborative science.

Warning of uncritical “euphoria” about the quality of “openness”, Leslie identified that blanket slogans are not enough. There is a need to think and act in more contextual and nuanced ways. And in other talks, the same points were made in relation to notions of inclusive process, grassroots technology, open source science and horizontal innovation.

In his own insightful analysis covering political-economic dimensions of these challenges, Jorge Katz developed on this point. Among other things, he challenged overly stylized distinctions between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ actions. And in a penetrating contribution on horizontal innovation, Veronica Robert reinforced this theme by urging the need to think of democratisation beyond simplified notions of ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ level processes. As both these and other speakers emphasized, the challenge is to reconcile these artificial divides.

For me, this prompted a thought that whether or not – and to whatever extent – individual such initiatives may actually deliver on progressive aims, depends not on intentions or labels, but on complex, fine-grain features of the context. When it comes to judging the progressive potential for all these kinds of critical engagements with power, the devil is often in the detail.

Exactly as emphasized by so many talks in relation to mainstream science and technology, then, (and illustrated in the picture of branching flows above), there is critical necessity to get beyond blanket categories and query the specific kinds and directions of change. What must be asked is: Why engage? Inclusive of whom? Participating how? Which grassroots? How open? What kind of horizontal? It is only in open, critical democratic environments, that these overarching questions can be properly addressed

Likewise, there may be similar dangers to those raised by Leslie Chan, in insufficiently critical dichotomies between private and public institutions. For defendable reasons, there may sometimes be a tendency in progressive quarters to romanticise the state. At one point for instance, a question was raised from the audience at the workshop about how to challenge the state. But (perhaps in understandable emphasis on the need for a strong state to defend against increasingly neoliberal pressures), this crucial question was never fully answered.

If this is a blind spot, then it is important to correct – because concentrated power and sectional interests are not a monopoly of under-regulated markets. Distributed small enterprises and emergent challenger firms can under many conditions also play a part in destabilizing incumbency and helping drive progressive change.

And for their part, national agencies, intergovernmental bodies, civil society organizations and cross-sector partnerships can often prove little less susceptible to concentrated power than private corporations. Indeed, these may sometimes serve as legitimizing fronts for deeply entrenched, but less visible, political, economic and cultural interests.

If regressive social patterns of concentrated power and privileged agency were somehow to be made visible, then it follows from Jorge Katz’s and Veronica Robert’s points that they are unlikely to take the form of neatly labelled ‘sectors’ or ‘levels’ of governance. Nor would they necessarily be well described by broad distinctions between ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’, macro/micro … or ‘public’, ‘private’ and civil society. The key dynamics occur at every scale.

Branches and patterns of power

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If we could see power… the complex rhizomes of structuring agency

I wonder whether this shows the value of appreciating complex cross-scale relational dynamics of power – as highlighted by writers like Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Isabelle Stengers? For me, this illuminates that dynamics of power – and resources for transformation – are better understood as branching ‘rhizomes’ of ‘structuring agency’ than as rigidly-layered structures.

In this view, power lies at every level and scale, in gradients and flows of asymmetrically structuring agency. These pervade every social structure and context, defying the orderly hierarchical pictures that appear in so many textbooks and reports. The reasons such tractable organized visions are favoured so much by academics and policy makers, perhaps lies in the support they provide for claims to control. What is really going on is more like surfing privilege than exercising control.

Actual patterns of power and agency, then, are arguably not rigidly structured or stratified, but ‘fractal’ in nature – displaying similar patterns on every scale. So, if change is to be engaged with in ways that address the complex branching pathways illustrated above, then power needs to be challenged – and progressive action undertaken – in ways resembling the familiar root-like patterns arising from other complex adaptive systems and shown (purely illustratively drawing on neural activity and cosmic processes) in the picture above.

The reason I mention these more abstract thoughts prompted by discussions at the workshop, is that they yield a number of possible practical consequences. If it is to escape merely ritual and symbolic forms, then substantively-transformative progressive collective action may be less effective in the form of set-piece confrontations and formulaic challenges suggested in cherished slogans. The pervasive dynamics of power illustrated above, means these are too readily subverted.

What may be more effective is a diversity of mutually-aligned distributed moves like ‘trojan horses’, ‘political judo’, and ‘civilizing hypocrisies’. I’ll return to this below.

Collaboration across disciplines

Addressing these kinds of move, Judith Sutz joined those mentioned already, by looking back on the history of the Córdoba Manifesto in order to explore and inspire new thinking on the roles of academics and universities in these processes of struggle – combining critical research and collective action with the aimed of opening up more effective knowledge and innovation democracies. And as Judith and many others emphasized, nonacademic knowledges are as crucial to these efforts as those that are more formally codified (and appropriated) in universities.

Too many inspiring projects to enumerate here, exemplified in practice, how these kinds of transdisciplinary collaboration can work to help open up alternative development pathways to sustainability. Often highlighting the crucial roles of small communities, these were deeply collaborative initiatives combining research and activism. Embodying many of the ‘rhizomic’ kinds of moves mentioned above, these work not by informing circumscribed policy debates merely with ‘evidence’, but act more materially by directly helping to shape wider politics.

This was the case for instance, in the work reported by Benito Juarez Velez in bringing new maker cultures into service of oppressed indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. It is also exemplified in the inspiring legal activism described by Roberta Ramos, collaboratively developing community protocols for resource management practices that empower local people. And further illustrated in the compelling citizen science initiatives discussed in the paper by Mariano Fressoli and Valeria Arza.

In the very different environment of electrical engineering for advanced manufacturing, a similar effect is admirably demonstrated by the more open software licensing models developed by Pablo Ridolfi and colleagues in the Computadora Industrial Abierta Argentina (CIAA). And the same dynamics are being wonderfully played out in the challenge to powerful global food regimes, by the US-based Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), so motivatingly described by Claire Luby.

As with so many other initiatives described over the two days, these interventions defy classification as ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’. Exemplifying links between ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ scales, each illustrates different kinds of reconciliations of the two. All combine knowledge production with political action. And every one involves academic research engaged in equal collaborations with nonacademic communities in order to help make visible and give a louder voice to vulnerable and excluded interests.

And to a return to a point made earlier in discussing Leslie Chan’s work, all of these actions involve compromise. Each is a complex dance with power and vested interests in diverse settings. So, if any engagement with incumbent state or market structures were to be regarded as impure, with all that is sought being symbolic challenge, then the collectively transformative potential of these kinds of initiative would be rendered impossible, even before they started.

Making diversity visible

And so at the end of this discussion, a final key theme is raised. For all of the projects discuss at this meeting seem to me in different ways to be about making diversity visible – both in knowledge and practice. Whether the highlighted diversities are political, economic, institutional, technological, epistemic or cultural, each is suppressed by overbearing processes of closure in development and sustainability described at the beginning of this account.

This is where much scope is offered by mapping approaches like that pioneered in Valeria Arza. Here, diversity is highlighted not in instrumental or technical terms as an end in itself, but as a means to catalyse deeper political debate and enable wider collective actions to fulfil goals of sustainable development: social justice, human wellbeing and environmental integrity.

Crucially, where diversity is made more explicit in these ways, then it too can be better held to account. Only by illuminating different notions of diversity under contrasting perspectives, can the “singular and unifocal” forms of lock-in criticized by Anabel Marin be opened up – and greater space won for onward democratic struggle.

Trojan horses and ‘civilising hypocrisies’

And here – in the spirit of a further ‘trojan horse’ strategy, there may under some circumstances emerges a perhaps surprising ally: mainstream science itself. For – as many talks also made clear – science is (like other practices and institutions) a dance with incumbent power. And in this struggle, the political implications can face both ways.

For instance, the talk by Mariano Fressoli very cogently contrasted mainstream or traditional science, with the open science represented by transdisciplinary citizen research. In this view, it may sometimes seem that conventional disciplinary science is always necessarily regressive. Many papers at this workshop leave little doubt how deeply implicated elite science has become with entrenched political and economic interests.

But in the spirit highlighted by Leslie Chan of being alert to the nuance of context, a potent opportunity for transformation may lie in transcending this dichotomy. After all, the disciplines and practices of mainstream natural science, were themselves pioneered partly as a way of diversifying and democratizing knowledge production in the face of prevailing (then religious) doctrine and dogma.

Although rarely fulfilled in practice, this was where even mainstream scientific values may come in, of communitarian collaboration, open publishing, access to all, organised skepticism and the authority only of experiment. As the motto of the British Royal Society has it: “nullius in verba” – not on authority. Where these qualities are upheld as aspirations rather than as claims, then they can fultil the progressive function of what John Elster recognized as “civilising hypocrisies”… another of the kinds of distributed knowing doing mentioned above.


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The politics of murmuration: a metaphor for collective culturing of progressive transformation?

Here at the end, we come to the third image that sprung to mind when thinking through the deep and fertile implications of this workshop. How might we envisage the modes of change that might most likely to lead to progressive transformations of the kinds so inspiringly sought in these discussions? How might the deeply-rooted power configurations illustrated in the root-like flows pictured earlier, be engaged with so as to open up the diversity of multiple pathways with which this account began?

Here, a remark made by Claire Luby struck a particular chord. In recounting the formidable practical challenges of establishing new – potentially global – models for open source seed exchange, Claire emphasized key weaknesses of a formal legal approach. Reliance on these rigid structures is vulnerable to subversion, co-option and the debilitating squandering of scarce resources. Instead, the OSSI initiative decided on more ethical language for reproducing its aims and principles.

To me, this chimes with the point that came up earlier in my account of the workshop – that all the great progressive transformations of the past were primarily driven not by established power elites acting through formal structures, but by distributed social movements reshaping the encompassing cultures.

Like flocking behaviours illustrated in the above picture, then, transformative (sometimes rapid) forms of progress can be achieved without aspiring to hierarchical control, or even an artificial separation between ‘knowledge’ and ‘action’. In all their inspirational commitment, richness and diversity the many initiatives and perspectives discussed at this workshop may exemplify exactly such murmurations in distributed ‘knowing doings’: the ‘trojan horses’, ‘political judo’, and ‘civilizing hypocrisies’ mentioned above.

STEPS América Latina: joining the politics of knowledge and action

And – as Valeria Arza said in introducing the workshop – this is where the new global STEPS Consortium is trying to help play a role. By serving to extend and refine relationships between longstanding movements in different regions and continents, the Consortium is trying to strengthen solidarities, develop new tools and practices and make old ones more accessible.

This work is about joining the politics of knowledge and action. Striving to illuminate and nurture social and technological diversity of many kinds, our shared hope is that an alternative development might be realized, in which a plurality of pathways to sustainability may more truly address the imperatives of social justice and environmental integrity.

By these means, the aim of the STEPS Consortium is to join others in pressuring and catalysing more open political spaces for democratic struggle – helping to enable the most marginalised and vulnerable people to assert their own interests. In this work – thanks to all who contributed – this STEPS América Latina meeting was a fantastic grounding and inspiration.

Read more about the event

STEPS América Launch: opening up the development agenda