Collective Behavior Change Toward Sustainable Futures:
There have been many calls to address the urgent and critical challenges of changing human society to more sustainable practices in the face of accelerating global change. Remaining safely within the limits of essential resources and life-enabling conditions on Earth and transforming society to reach sustainable and equitable patterns of behavior in our increasingly populated and urban global society are expressed in the Planetary Boundaries discourse and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). Avoiding transgression of the boundaries and achieving the goals requires major societal transformations at multiple governance levels and spatial scales across the world.
The crucial question is how substantial changes in behaviors and practices of society at multiple levels of governance, sectors of society, and spatial scales can occur. What factors enable or inhibit such major transformation of society? How can the transformations best be fostered through inclusive deliberative democratic means?
These are the fundamental questions motivating the research of the international Knowledge, Learning, and Societal Change Alliance (www.KLASICA.org), which is based at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. Through the intellectual lenses of the natural and social sciences, arts, and humanities, KLASICA addresses the crucial questions of what is needed to enable and catalyze societal transformations – collective behavior changes (CBC) – toward sustainability with equity and justice in the social, economic, cultural, and political contexts that comprise human societies. KLASICA aims to produce results that both deepen our understanding of how CBC unfolds, based on real-world empirical studies, and how CBC to sustainability can be initiated and supported in many different settings. There have been many studies over decades on social movements (e.g., civil rights, women’s suffrage, labor movements, anti-war protests), but what KLASICA investigates are questions about social movements in pursuit of long-term sustainable outcomes for societies, which is a goal that is much less directly and apparently personal. The questions include how do movements form, create a sense of collective ownership, invest in social capital and capacity to collectively address changes towards sustainability, and develop productive processes and structures to meet these challenges.
As an alliance that is focused on research and actions, it is essential that KLASICA research is co-designed, knowledge co-produced, and shared openly with stakeholders at appropriate governance levels and locations. Thus, in addition to developing the conceptual basis and methods for research on CBC, case studies and mutual learning dialogues are at the heart of the agenda of KLASICA.
The Taipei Workshop
The Taipei KLASICA symposium, held at the Risk Society and Policy Research Center of National Taiwan University in November 2016, was the first of a series of symposia on case studies of CBC toward sustainable futures in different contexts and cultures. It focused on nine cases from the Asia and the Pacific Islands, including Viet Nam, Micronesia, Taiwan, Nepal, India, and the Philippines. This allowed the symposium participants, including those presenting the cases, to examine and compare cases from a large and diverse area that is exposed to substantial risks from climate change, as well as significant and rapid changes in demographic, social, economic, and consumption-production patterns.
The communities in the Asia-Pacific region that were discussed in the context of the case studies are mostly long-standing, well-defined communities or groups of communities. The following questions were central to the discussions in the symposium:
- Time: What temporal scales from short election cycles to generations are most significant in analyzing and discussing the change processes? What is needed for a process of behavior change to be coherent and consistent over different time scales?
- Space: Over what spatial scales is the community situated and how do distance and special locations (e.g., fishing areas, sacred spaces) affect the needs and perspectives of the community members?
- Actors: Who is engaged in the processes, who is not? Who leads the change process (“change agents”)? How are they chosen or take charge and how do they function? How do actors organize themselves and the group to become productive?
- Narratives; What narratives of individual or community identity (worldviews) were expressed and how did they affect the motivation for or against change? How can restraints of habit and conflicting narratives be surmounted or avoided to catalyze and foster sustainable practices?
- Impact: What does impact mean to the community and who is affected or not? Who decides whether a change process was successful and how is success assessed?
Based on the nine case studies and the questions above, a set of ten main lessons learned was collected.
- Combine bottom-up needs assessment with top-down raising of stakeholders’ awareness of opportunities and challenges in local contexts.
- Be aware of and sensitive to the cultural backgrounds, traditions, and the rationale of each actor or stakeholder group.
- Attend to local perspectives, while simultaneously integrating them into a larger global context.
- Build on group processes by taking advantage of and integrating occasions where groups already meet for developing an expanded network.
- (Co-)develop compelling narrative visions inspired by both scientific insights and local or traditional knowledge that resonate in the local culture and context.
- Co-develop economic and cultural perspectives that provide incentives for positive engagement for members of the society who may be potential losers when changes occur.
- Be sure to have sufficient support from key actors.
- Build enough capacity in skills, funds, incentives to sustain the process even after the initiating project or funding ends.
- Ensure that multiple perspectives are represented in proposed actions and solutions.
- Address the needs of the future by appropriately meeting the needs of the present.
The Way Forward
KLASICA is following up the preliminary observations from the 2016 Taipei case study symposium with a webinar series in 2017 and plans for further examination of case studies. The aim of the webinar series is to expand and deepen the conceptual and empirical results of collective behavioral change in local regions and to assemble a broad review of examples of CBC in pursuit of sustainable futures. Recordings of past webinars and notice of upcoming ones are available on the KLASICA website (www.KLASICA.org).
The KLASICA website is intended as a ‘living space’, bringing together a broad variety of information and content. It will provide information on the case studies, as well as observations and reflections around them. It will allow users to share guidance and lessons for other cases of collective behavior change, and it will allow the community to exchange, raise questions, debate open issues and find partners for future collaborations.
Finally, KLASICA will engage in empirical studies on collective behavior change in the field, to test the findings from the Taipei symposium and other sources as rigorously as possible and to refine the understanding of how change can be catalyzed and how long-term adaptive processes can be established. This next step will be essential for achieving KLASICA’s goals as an action-focused research network – a powerful, trans-disciplinary and international network that analyses and fosters knowledge, learning, and societal change.
In moving forward as indicated above, KLASICA will continue to expand its network of researchers and practitioners from all parts of the world in its aims to understand and catalyze positive collective behavior change toward sustainable futures in the world’s societies.