In advance of the World Social Science Forum I have been in Durban with an inspiring group of researchers and activists to discuss transformations to sustainability. It has been incredibly useful to share insights and perspectives over the past three days.
The workshop was organised by the International Social Science Council. With seven other groups, the STEPS Centre was selected from nearly one hundred applicants to join a workshop under the Council’s ‘Transformations for Sustainability’ programme, which forms part of the international ‘Future Earth’ platform. The programme will fund a set of ‘transformative knowledge networks’, which will work together to build a shared, and open body of knowledge for use by researchers and practitioners.
The workshop was facilitated by Margaret Krebs (Stanford University) and Valerie Brown (Australian National University), who brought her unparalleled thirty years of experience, guiding more than 300 social learning workshops across four continents.
We discussed approaches to workshop facilitation across diverse stakeholder groups holding different forms of knowledge and often divergent interests. We also learned and reflected on desired qualities of networks, and what would be most likely to lead to successful collaboration across the different groups represented.
Yesterday, some of the workshop participants took part in a panel that had been organised as part of the World Social Science Forum. The session, entitled ‘Social Transformation for a Just and Sustainable World’, heard a keynote from Valerie Brown, and then interventions from different TKN colleagues.
Bringing together different knowledge cultures
Valerie explained that she was talking about nothing less than a new step in human evolution, to a point when our collective understanding could be mobilised to address sustainability challenges. This required bringing together different knowledge cultures, and a move away from divisive ‘BUT/OR’ thinking towards a third space of ‘AND’ thinking where divergent viewpoints found a way to coexist.
In response, Uliana Pysmenna of the Ukraine National Academy of Sciences explained how they applying some of these ideas to political economy of energy transformations, Elvin Nyukuri (University of Nairobi) talked about their network’s focus on sustainability in coastal zones.
Marco Armiero (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) queried the possibility (and necessary desirability) of “AND” thinking and third spaces, pointing towards invevitable struggles, tensions and conflicts that characterise transformations to sustainability. And Anabel Marin (CENIT, Argentina) spoke of tensions and conflicts around the future of seeds and agriculture in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay).
Mutizwa Mukute (Garden Africa) talked about ‘T-learning’ (transgressive learning, as well as transformative learning). Rania Masri (Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship) continued the discussion, raising important points about the difficulty of working across all sides in the context of struggles in the Middle East.
David Iwaniec (Arizona State University) talked about his work on visioning sustainable cities, and Patrick Bond (University of KwaZulu-Natal) gave examples of the current challenges to social justice in South Africa.
Dilemmas in making alliances
The discussion touched on some of the differences in approaches that had been evident from the earlier days of the workshop (alongside enduring questions of who could/ should be included in purposive transformation processes). Do we try to work with actors whose behaviours are deeply contradictory to our understanding of sustainability (such as imperialist states or some multinationals), or do we focus our efforts on organising and mobilising across shared communities to challenge these (often powerfully dominant) groups?
Bringing a pathways approach perspective to the discussion, I suggested that often these dominant actors are wedded to pathways that – by their nature – remove the possibility of ‘AND’ thinking. They close down alternatives and are often incapable of co-existing with a diversity of other pathways, both as a result of their structures and the forms of knowledge that they engender.
There is a need, therefore, not only to seek a ‘third space’ that supports more sustainable alternatives to emerge, but also for struggles that focus on weakening those dominant actors (and pathways) that stand in the way of transformations to sustainability.