How can we stimulate action on collective behavior change toward sustainable futures?

by Grace Mbungu

Insights from the First KLASICA International Case Studies Symposium in Taipei

The first Knowledge, Learning, And Societal Change Alliance (KLASICA) Symposium, which took place on 21–24 November 2016, in Taipei, Taiwan was a stimulating and productive event. KLASICA is a new effort using the wide range of intellectual lenses of the natural and social sciences, the arts, and the humanities to understand conditions that enable or obstruct collective behavior change and societal transformation to just and equitable sustainable futures and to use the evolving understanding to foster that change.

The goal of the Taipei symposium was to learn from select cases about the enablers and barriers for collective behavior change toward sustainable futures and to identify ways in which the barriers could be addressed and enabling factors scaled within the case-specific context or other contexts. Nine case studies from Asian and Pacific island and isolated communities seeking just and equitable sustainable futures were considered for discussion. The cases were from India, Micronesia, Nepal, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and covered a variety of issues, including sustainable resource use and management in small islands, forests, and marine national parks; skill and capacity development; sustainable reduction of air pollution; transitioning to a low-carbon economy; maternal and child nutrition, and sustainable livelihoods.

The symposium was moderated by Ortwin Renn and Viola Gerlach from the IASS, who engaged 40 participants in rich, diverse, and interactive discussion during short interviews with case presenters and in plenary sessions. This was followed by in-depth discussions in six small groups. While there was broad guidance on how to go about the discussions and what kind of output was expected by the afternoon of day three, it was up to the groups to decide how to structure their own group discussion, document the collective outcomes, and present them to the entire group during plenary on day three. I found this freedom very appealing, as did many other participants, and in my view it was a major contributing factor to the success of the symposium.

Each group of 5–8 participants was assigned three cases, with each case being looked at by more than one group.

The group presentations were rich and diverse, with many emerging themes. Some of the points that stood out to me as important to consider when advancing collective behavior change processes toward sustainable futures include, but are not limited to:

  • The need to collectively identify and recognize all knowledge systems, cultural norms and values in each local context as well as to engage all stakeholders in making meaning of the established body of knowledge, values, and cultural norms to facilitate the identification of needs, challenges and available resources and opportunities to address them.
  • The establishment of collectively shared vision(s) on how to proceed in setting priorities, initiating processes, and sustaining progress for current and future generations.
  • Ensuring diverse and adequate representation of actors and institutions that catalyze and facilitate processes toward sustainable futures.
  • Identification and facilitation of optimal conditions in the relevant context (s) needed by various actors and institutions in order to act collectively to achieve the shared vison(s).
  • The need for all stakeholders to be aware, transparent, honest and up-front about the immediate and foreseen benefits, the foreseen and unforeseen risks (including social risks) and uncertain and or unintended consequences of actions that threaten livelihoods and general wellbeing, as well as the available opportunities to mitigate, or cope with them.
  • The need to build trust among all stakeholders involved and to foster a sense of ownership of the process and outcomes from the beginning and throughout the change process.

Overall, a total of 40 participants and six IASS colleagues were present for the entire duration of the symposium. Some students, faculty, and staff from Taiwan National University and Taiwan National Normal University were also present during plenary sessions. The symposium was co- organized by the KLASICA team at the IASS and colleagues from the Taiwan National University and Taiwan National Normal University and hosted by the Risk Society and Policy Research Center (RSPRC).

The symposium was complemented by numerous side-events and engagements. Personally, this was my first time in Taiwan and in Asia, in general. I found the people of Taipei to be kind, generous, honest, genuine, and very helpful. There were excellent dinners with mouthwatering Taiwanese dishes and teas, graced with the warmth of the Taiwanese people. As many readers will be able to confirm, these informal talks add considerable value to the outcomes of scholarly and scientific events, opening up opportunities for networking and future collaboration. I also had the pleasure to attend Ortwin Renn’s speech to the Taiwanese parliament (Legislative Yuan) on “Coping with systemic risks: implications for policy-making and risk communication”. There was energy and enthusiasm about the issues addressed from the policymakers, politicians, academics, practitioners and the general public in attendance.

To conclude, I witnessed the time, efforts, thoughts and work that went into putting together the event. And while new technologies have made it easier to organize such gatherings, nothing prepares you for what could happen on the ground when you bring together people from diverse academic disciplines, practices, cultures, and nations to discuss cases covering a range of issues from different locations. Of course, you do everything you can to plan for a meaningful and positive outcome, because you are convinced that there is value in approaching, for example, the issue of creating sustainable futures differently. But satisfying results are not only the product of good planning or of the conviction of the value and need of your endeavor. Indeed, they also dependent, to a large extent, on the cooperation and active engagement of the participants.

In the case of the Taipei Symposium, these worries were largely put to rest by the participants’ enthusiasm, commitment, and the shared common interest and vision of the need to identify opportunities and obstacles and ways to apply lessons learned collectively, at various levels in society, to generate interest and action toward just, fair, and sustainable futures. This commitment showed by the Symposium co-organizers at Taiwan National University and Taiwan National Normal University and all the participants is an indication of the interest and intention to confront with energy and optimism the challenges that lie ahead in developing processes that guarantee just, fair and equitable sustainable futures for all. My sincere thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the first KLASICA Symposium – from which I learned a great deal – such a success!


grace-mbungu
Grace Mbungu is a Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate at the IASS. Her doctoral study project looks at the contextual factors that support or hinder the sustainable transition from traditional cook stoves and fuels to clean, efficient and affordable cook stoves and fuels in the Kibera slum, in Nairobi, Kenya. She has worked with various organisations and institutions on issues of sustainable development and societal transformations, social justice, human rights, societal engagement and participation, and equitable access to basic needs and services in Kenya, the USA, and Germany. Grace has a Master of Public Administration (MPA) from Bowling Green State University (USA) and holds a BA in Political Science and Women’s Studies from the same institution. At the IASS, Grace supports the KLASICA Alliance team and was part of the Taiwan Symposium organising team.