Learning experimentation and accountability

Rather than prematurely trying to identify the 'best instrument' or the 'most efficient technology' to move towards a sustainable energy system, there is an ongoing need for flexibility, experimentation and learning. Rather than settle on solutions on the basis of costs (or cost projections), more effort should be expended on R&D and commercialisation of promising technologies, so as to drive down their costs.

In addition to such 'learning by doing' (see e.g. Gross, 2004; Klaassen et al., 2005) and 'learning by searching' (Sagar and van der Zwaan, 2006), we need new ways of organising our institutions and stimulating continuous processes of social learning (van de Kerkhof and Wieczorek, 2005). For example, an important lesson from the Dutch Sustainable Technologies Programme was that non-technological factors are important preconditions for sustainability: 'Often technologies are more or less available but the barriers are institutional, economical, and especially cultural' (Vergragt, 2005, p. 305). It has been acknowledged that although technology is seen as pivotal, 'there is a need for a goal-oriented, strategic, co-evolutionary, systems perspective, which stresses the dynamic interrelation between cultural, structural and technological innovation' (Weaver et al., 2000, p. 286).

Stimulating experiments is central to the government's strategy within the Dutch transition management approach (Box 7.2). This 'strategic niche management' involves 'experimentation with technological, economic, institutional and socio-cultural options which appear promising in view of the basket of final images' generated in visioning exercises (Rotmans et al., 2001a, p. 58). Technological niches can act as stepping stones to help create pathways from which a new socio-technical regime could emerge. Daring to experiment, learning from setbacks as well as successes and avoiding prematurely bringing technologies to market are key transition management principles (Rotmans et al., 2001a). In a similar vein the German advisory council on global change notes that 'the transformation of energy systems towards sustainability will not be achieved through any single strategy defined today. For worldwide transformation to succeed, it will need to be shaped in a stepwise and dynamic manner, for no one can predict today with sufficient certainty the technological, economic and social developments over the next 50-100 years' (WBGU, 2003, p. 216).

For socio-technical transitions to succeed, governments will need to learn better ways to facilitate changes in consumer behaviour, and to stimulate initiative by individuals and communities seeking more sustainable solutions. Industries will have to work together with consumers and the government to stimulate sustainable technological innovation. City and transport planners, architects and businesses will have to collaborate to minimise the need to travel. In short, sustainability transitions require that we develop new ways of organising our societies, learning from what works, from experiments and from best practice examples. This requires that we nurture a culture that is more accepting of failure; learning from failed experiments is just as valuable as learning from successes.

Social learning based on interaction and communication is vital for the legitimacy of policy: strong social support is needed for governments pursuing long-term radical policy objectives. Social learning of this kind will not arise spontaneously. In practice it will fall to governments to orchestrate participation. The state also has a key role to play in devolving decision making to the local level, while preventing the policy process from being captured by elite-dominated local politics (Bentley, 2003; Mulgan, 2003; Baber and Bartlett, 2005, p. 132).

A final insight from the transitions perspective is that while visioning, deliberation and decentralised experimentation are necessary, it will be a challenge to ensure accountability and clear allocation of responsibilities among the actors involved. Once policy decisions have been made and policies are in place, their impacts need to be monitored and evaluated to provide accountability and to enhance learning. There is a potential tension between the two broad objectives of learning and accountability (Geyer and Davies, 2000; Leeuw, 2002; Perrin, 2002b). For example, monitoring a single output indicator, such as carbon emissions, is a direct way to ensure accountability for achieving an objective. Questions may remain, however, as to whether an objective is worth pursuing, or perhaps whether the target is stringent enough. Monitoring does not explain the causal links between policy and outcomes, and therefore does little to explain why the targets were or were not met, or why unintended side effects may have arisen. Providing this type of information requires proper in-depth qualitative evaluations, ideally carried out through deliberative processes to maximise the possibility of learning.

The currently popular accountability-based performance measurement has been associated with the erosion of cultures of trust and cooperation (Perrin 2002a; 2002b). Top-down approaches to management often stifle rather than stimulate creativity and innovation. Media exposure focusing on success or failure in relation to targets can create an atmosphere in which emphasis is on justification instead of improvement. The temptation to cut corners or to distort data may become irresistible. This is highly counterproductive at a time when industrialised societies desperately need rapid learning, free experimentation and genuinely new solutions. These conditions are only likely to arise in a culture that values debate and is more ready to forgive and learn from specific failures (Perrin, 2002b; Davies, 2005).

Emission targets and carbon budgets are valuable as political signposts that give a sense of direction and thereby help in building visions. Translating these targets to measure performance across civil service operations, however, could prove counterproductive. An alternative could be to redefine accountability so as to reorientate it towards learning. Instead of simply measuring outcomes, 'accountability' would refer to a commitment to learning, adaptation and continuous improvement (Perrin, 2002a; Montague and Allerdings, 2005).

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