Solution-oriented science: what’s your problem?

Matthew Niederhauser counterfeit paradises
Photo: Matthew Niederhauser (2015)
Jul 2015

Attending a multidisciplinary conference opened up new ways of understanding urbanization in the Global South, writes hydrologist Perrine Hamel.

Global change science is by essence multidisciplinary: it grows from the cross-pollination between a broad range of natural and social sciences. But one group of disciplines, the humanities, is often left outside of this conversation.  What is their place in the research on global change?

Last month I participated in a conference on the idea of Urban 'Beyond Measure' organized by Henrik Ernstson and Jia-Ching Chen at Stanford University. The aim of the meeting was to engage a cross-disciplinary dialogue on the “registers” used to study cities in the global South: anthropologists, sociologists, medical doctors and environmental engineers were asked to reflect on their perspectives and methods to characterize the urban environment.

I was interested in the idea straight away, but became really intrigued after reading a couple of publications from the sociologists invited to the conference: the fact that I had to check the meaning of every tenth word certainly baffled me, and I tried to find comfort in the idea that they might do the same with my work!

I spoke on integrated urban water management and urban ecosystem services: two concepts that are gaining traction in urban planning, in the global North and South, for their holistic perspective on urban management.

Integrated urban water management is becoming mainstream in many Western cities, with significant leadership from Australia, and has great potential for developing countries.

The concept of urban ecosystem services has emerged more recently but rapidly gained traction in the urban planning circles. The idea that natural spaces or “green infrastructure” provide cities with various services (e.g. air purification, water infiltration, carbon sequestration, micro-climate regulation) is proposed as an analytical tool for urban design[1], both to optimize the supply of urban services (water, transport, energy), but also as a way to foreground environmental justice issues[2].

I presented the urban ecosystem services science as an example of  “solution-oriented” global change science, which is by essence multidisciplinary: addressing the major socio-ecological challenges of the Anthropocene will require that social scientists and natural scientists to talk to each other.

But here is the biggest insight from this conference: in studying global change, all science need not be interdisciplinary, and it need not be solution-oriented. There is also room for the humanities and insights from place-based studies – in a form that is rarely praised by research programmes originating within the natural sciences[3].

A different “way of knowing”

A useful distinction to make here is not so much the natural vs. social science, but rather about “nomothetic science” and “idiographic science”. A reflection on these two approaches (nomothetic, aiming to discover general laws, vs. idiographic, focusing on specificities and studying objects as unique systems) helps see how the humanities and natural and social sciences are connected.

In global change science, there is often this implicit assumption that we need to think globally and that social sciences will help us understand the variables that are “place-based”. This is true to some extent, and both social sciences and the humanities will certainly produce “actionable” knowledge, with context-specific insights that will inform the process and outcomes of a project.

Yet through conversations with anthropologists and sociologists at the conference, I realized that the global science perspective often reduces the scope of science to an instrumental use: building models to predict, compare, evaluate, etc.

It seems that an idiographic approach can be profoundly insightful helping us to think critically about our problem solving approach and questioning our cognitive models.

In applying our ways of thinking to different places, like when we use an ecosystem services framework to a previously unstudied place in the global South, questions arise. What assumptions are behind management frameworks and what do they leave unexplored or unquantified? Is knowledge co-production a Western construct, and in which measure should it part of the solution in every single place?

Some legitimacy questions are raised, especially when we work in foreign cultures. But also, maybe more practically, these insights serve to interrogate our mental models, our theories of change, and also what is likely to “work”. The performance of a project very much depends on the “ways of knowing”, the methodological approaches scientists use in their disciplines.

From Mumbai’s classrooms to Beijing’s farming lands

I will share two examples to illustrate this point. A couple of years ago, Anne Rademacher (an anthropologist participating in the conference), was working on the concept of ‘green’ urban design in Mumbai. An urban planner or engineer would have looked for master plans, maps, various metrics that would confirm or infirm a trend in the way green infrastructure was managed. As an anthropologist, Anne went to Mumbai and took a course at the institute that delivered the diploma for ‘green’ urban designers. Analyzing students’ training, perspectives and aspirations, she uncovered invaluable aspects of the ecology of the city. For example, how the market of real estate pressured this young generation of “green” urban planners to come up with solutions that were placed outside the city, where the financial stakes are lower. These insights, I would argue, can hardly be gained in positivist science.

Different city, different approach. Two conference participants, Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald used photographs and films to ‘register’ the new form of urbanization in China. Their painting of the cities results in a powerful means to analyze our preconceptions about Beijing. Pictures of the massive encroachments on farming lands around the city, for example, portray the dynamics of urbanization that would probably change the way an urban planner measures and manages urban nature.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop thinking globally and only from a place-based perspective. Global indicators (see for example the EPI developed by Yale), or socio-ecological metrics to help develop environmental programs definitely serve a purpose in a hyperconnected world.

But to some extent, we all realize that there are things that are beyond measure in our scientific approach – and that these determine the success of our solution-oriented endeavours. The humanities can help disentangle these questions. I thank the conference organizers Henrik Ernstson and JC Chen for reminding us that multidisciplinarity can go beyond the social sciences department and reach the humanities!