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COVID-19 and Sustainability Transitions: A Real-Time Report from the Systems of Sustainable Consumption and Production Knowledge-Action Network

This community-developed blog post summarizes the recent activities of Future Earth’s Knowledge-Action Network of Systems of Sustainable Consumption and Production and their research engagement with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In mid-March, the leadership team of the Future Earth Knowledge-Action Network (KAN) on Systems of Sustainable Consumption and Production wrote a blog on the potential of the COVID-19 pandemic to catalyze sustainability transitions (also republished on the website of the International Science Council). The commentary generated a large amount of interest and prompted the organization of an interactive online Open Forum on March 26 that attracted over 300 participants (press release here). On the basis of this strong mobilization, the coordinating group carefully reviewed the contents of the resultant discussions, identified ten key themes, and invited participants to indicate their intent to join a corresponding slate of working groups.

The working groups subsequently assembled in a Slack workspace and in just two weeks have forged new collaborations and launched novel projects. Several of them are either developing — or preparing to develop — funding proposals to further propel these activities. There are additionally a number of cross-cutting undertakings devoted to conducting survey research, recording podcasts, and organizing webinars. To date, the overall initiative has attracted the support of the National Science Foundation-funded Social Science Extreme Events Research (SSEER) Network administered by the CONVERGE facility of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder (NSF Award #1841338) and become affiliated with the World Pandemic Research Network (WPRN 420052).

This account is a real-time report as of the end of April and is based on presentations during a videoconference held in recent days (a recording of this session is available here). We take this opportunity to invite additional members of the Future Earth community to participate.

  • Group 1.0 is focused on designing government action and recognizes that there is a large amount of activity already taking place on this issue with various entities disseminating policy briefs, manifestos, op-eds, and other commentaries that are mostly aimed at national governments. In an effort to identify how to most effectively contribute to emergent debates, the group has decided to develop and distribute an open letter (with actionable items) on how municipal governments could — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — facilitate social and technological innovation in terms of municipal infrastructures and services. The aim is to offer recommendations and to develop a compendium of ideas/cases on how cities could effectively invest stimulus money and catalyze changes in bureaucratic rule-making to simultaneously achieve multiple sustainability objectives.

  • Group 3.5 is organized around both novel lifestyle practices and new systems of sustainable consumption and production. The group kicked off its efforts by developing a pre-proposal for funding a project to enable community-based citizen dialogues on how to discourage the reassertion of prior household provisioning practices and to carry forward some of the innovative activities that have emerged over the past several weeks. In addition, participants have started to assemble a public survey to collect responses in a diverse number of countries on how everyday routines are changing — and are likely to continue to evolve in coming weeks and months. Finally, the working group is engaged in collecting the ongoing reflections of its own participants and those of other working groups as a way to document both the challenges and opportunities that they are experiencing in their own lives and to discover possible themes for future collaborative work.

  • The efforts of Group 5.5 bring together a unified focus on social solidarity and the care economy. Participants’ activities begin from the observation that the COVID-19 pandemic has made patently obvious the vast amount of unpaid domestic work that is an often hidden and unacknowledged part of everyday life. With the shut down of schools and the disruption of customary arrangements for managing paid unemployment and household responsibilities it has become impossible to avoid recognition of how essential the care economy is to the day-to-day functioning of the “real” economy. Large numbers of people have become newly sensitized, in particular, to the role of women in maintaining this sphere of essential production. At the same time, there is growing concern about how the coronavirus outbreak is exacerbating the incidence of gender-based violence. The working group is seeking to identify what can be learned from the current crisis about how different societies function and to explore strategies for advancing social solidarity and building trust in institutions.

  • Group 7 has devoted itself to investigating the impacts and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global South, where this regional demarcation is also understood as including people and places in the geographical North that are vulnerable and exploited. Deep inequality is found around the world, and faced with the possibility that the coronavirus outbreak will reproduce and aggravate existing inequalities, the working group aims to draw from sustainable development initiatives and/or practices to attract attention and support for action by national and local governments and communities. One objective is to collect cases of effective response in the global South that could inform activities elsewhere around the world. At the same time, the working group is focused on exploring more fundamental questions about the underlying systems and politics that make certain responses (im)possible.

  • Group 8 seeks to identify, to analyze, and to create the new narratives that shape how people make meanings in times of change, and what paths forward are collectively imagined. What stories have the power to inspire action for change, drawing upon positive principles and ideas such as mutual aid, care, commons, autonomy and sufficiency? How can communities shape their own locally adapted narratives and imaginaries, respecting diverse ways of being in the world? How can they resist sustainable narratives from being co-opted, branded, and sold as capitalism’s latest success story? The group also strives to provide narrative-related expertise and meta-analysis to other working groups.

  • Group 9 is engaged in developing several modes of comparative analyses with an angle cutting across the other groups. The activities include establishing a crowdsourced database/repository as a common resource of national/international data, special issues, academic articles, commentaries, opinion articles/blogs, documentaries, games/art projects/visuals, webinars, calls for action, calls for papers and presentations to collect sources from different perspectives, disciplines, and networks around COVID-19 pandemic and systems of sustainable consumption and production. To shed light on the various ways in which the coronavirus outbreak is being experienced in different locales, the group is collecting personal reflections on everyday practices to illuminate aspects of the crisis. Other activities include exploring the possibility of recording a series of podcasts as a way to share knowledge and insights.

  • The amelioration of complex problems at the interface between biophysical science and social practices requires collaboration and mutual engagement among key stakeholders and calls for mobilization of transdisciplinary research that draws on multiple types of knowledge. This is the task of Group 10 which seeks to forge understanding of the benefits of taking early action in the face of systemic risks (what are sometimes referred to as “wicked problems”), to co-design investigations to understand unfolding developments, to offer protocols for the co-production of knowledge, and to discuss reflexive ideas about the underlying tenets of transdisciplinary research.

  • Group 11 is focused on developing insights on how the COVID-19 pandemic will drive changes in the organization of work. We have been seeing a very significant shift in videoconferencing and working from home, but these adjustments are best understood against a broader and more extensive pattern of adoption of various forms of digital automation — ranging from robotics to artificial intelligence to digital assistants. The activities of this working group will initially focus on the lives and lifestyles of so-called digital nomads who are worker-travelers who have in recent years developed location independent strategies for earning a livelihood in various locales around the world while performing remunerative forms of digital labor. These individuals have been heralded by some commentators as the vanguard of a new system of working and living, but there is little understanding at present of what the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak have been on them. A central thrust of this working group will be the distribution of a large-scale survey to several thousand current and former digital nomads to expose how they are managing in the face of the current crisis.

  • Finally, Group 12 is centered on circular economy and supply chains which are both central to the COVID-19 pandemic and offer numerous opportunities for learning. The group is linked to the KAN’s pre-existing Circular Economy Working Group which recently published a commentary on how sustainable production and supply chains are likely to be transformed due to the coronavirus outbreak. The article is part of the Elsevier Emergency Public Health Collection and was republished by the United States National Institute of Health. The working group is planning to hold an online Open Forum on May 13 at 8am EDT (UTC -4) with the theme “Equitable, Inclusive, and Environmentally Sound Circular Economy: Post COVID-19.” Interested individuals can register here. The work of this group and the outcomes of the Forum will be published as a series of edited books and special issues around the topic of the circular economy with special emphasis devoted to social equity, inclusiveness, technology, climate change and business/economics.

This overall initiative on the COVID-19 pandemic and sustainability transitions is designed to be dynamic and adaptive. Working groups will necessarily splinter and merge and participants (working both individually and in small groups) will identify new questions to pursue as time goes on. The process of exploration and collaboration is being conducted at present by over 100 people in a rapidly expanding Slack workspace and that number will rise and fall as novel ideas gain the attention of a diverse array of colleagues and less salient issues drop away. This is not a customary (or “normal”) research exercise conceived by one or two principal investigators who then recruit a team of mostly junior colleagues and organize the effort around previously conceived questions. Instead it is best understood as a form of “post-normal science” that is responding in highly unpredictable ways and is itself an emergent process. It is not for the faint of heart or for people who subscribe to more deeply rooted conventions about how scientific research should be carried out.

Such an undertaking does not lend itself to the pre-scripted and highly regimented research methods that we read about in textbooks, but we are going in the future to need to learn how to complement customary modes of knowledge acquisition with more open-ended and flexible forms of investigation. An explicit objective is that the current initiative to understand the behavioral and institutional dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic will open up opportunities to alternative futures that are more socially equitable and environmentally tenable. This aim, after all, is very much at the heart of sustainability science as it seeks to combine normativity with objectivity, local insights with global perspectives, and tacit understanding with scientific precision.

The next major milestone will be a virtual conference on May 27. This event is being designed to emulate to the extent possible the features of a conventional gathering with plenary speakers, parallel sessions, breakout rooms, coffee breaks, and cocktail receptions. We welcome the participation of both working group members and others who are just learning about this initiative for the first time. If you are interested in joining, do keep an eye out for the promotional announcements that will be forthcoming or send an e-mail message to administrative coordinator Esthi Zipori at ezipori@gmail.com.

 

Acknowledgements

The Future Earth Knowledge-Action Network (KAN) on Systems of Sustainable Consumption and Production is grateful for support from the Regional Centre for Future Earth in Asia based in Kyoto at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature. This initiative is receiving financial assistance from the COVID-19 Working Groups for Public Health and Social Sciences which is supported by the National Science Foundation-funded Social Science Extreme Events Research (SSEER) Network and the CONVERGE facility at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder (NSF Award #1841338). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF, SSEER, or CONVERGE.

 

Summary of Publications to Date

Bodenheimer, M. and J. Leidenberger. 2020. COVID-19 as a window of opportunity for sustainability transitions? Narratives and communication strategies beyond the pandemic. Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy, 16(1), in press.

Cohen, M., J. Sarkis, P. Schröder, M. Bengtsson, S. McGreevy, and P. Dewick. 2020. COVID-19 can help wealthier nations prepare for a sustainability transition. Future Earth Blog, March 13 (https://futureearth.org/2020/03/13/covid-19-can-help-wealthier-nations-prepare-for-a-sustainability-transition/).

Cohen, M. 2020. Does the COVID-19 outbreak mark the onset of a sustainable consumption transition? Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy 16(1):1-3 (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15487733.2020.1740472).

Cohen, M. 2020. The future of finance, economics, and sustainability in the post-COVID era. Taylor & Francis Blog, April 22 (https://think.taylorandfrancis.com/the-future-of-finance-economics-and-sustainability).

Goffman, E. 2020. In the wake of COVID-19, is glocalization our sustainability future? Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy 16(1), in press.

Markard, J. and D. Rosenbloom. 2020. A tale of two crises: COVID-19 and climate. Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy 16(1), in press.

Sarkis, J., M. Cohen, P. Dewick, and P. Schröder. 2020. A brave new world: lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic for transition to sustainable supply and production. Resources, Conservation, and Recycling 159, Article No. 104894 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344920302123).

Wells, P., W. Abouarghoub, S. Pettit, and A. Beresford. 2020. A socio-technical transitions perspective for assessing future sustainability following COVID-19. Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy 16(1), in press.