Research Towards a Sustainable Society

A report on the ICSCs July 4th Sustainability day workshop in Preston.

By Dr. Larry Reynolds, Institute of Citizenship, Society and Change.

Introduction: Sustainability Research and the Civic University

Given its institutional history, much of the work that UCLan does across all its faculties is deeply intertwined with the civic, public service and professional life of the region. The transition to a sustainable society poses challenges for practitioners, professionals and civil society groups across all these different sectors and policy areas. These will include healthcare, social services, education, housing, town planning and the police and criminal justice system, to name a few. Other ‘knowledge stakeholders’ around UCLan include industrial, scientific and commercial orhanisations – all of which at some level have sustainability targets. And crucially, beyond these professional social worlds UCLan researchers connect with a vast multitude of civil society, voluntary and community organisations.

ICSC and UCLan more generally have a concentration of expertise in the applied social sciences that serve these public, civic and community realms. The transition to a sustainable society is a common challenge that requires new forms of knowledge and practice across these different domains. Transdisciplinarity can be understood as not simply spanning different academic disciplines but stretching beyond them. It invites us engage as co-producers of knowledge with affected and interested parties outside the traditional enclosures of the academy and its disciplines. ICSC members have a track record of engaging the participation and perspectives of diverse community and civic groups, marginalised and excluded groups, public and third sector professional groups and more. Its membership and expertise places it in a good position to develop this distinctly social approach to sustainability.

The ICSC Sustainability Research Day Workshop

Research academics from across the different faculties, schools and disciplines represented within the Institute participated. During the day, five ICSC members gave presentations on aspects of existing and developing sustainability work, leading to detailed discussion, followed by sessions on horizon scanning and plans for new directions. All those attending are working on a range of questions that constitute the Institute’s ‘Sustainability Lens’. Together these research interests and capacities span the areas of food, health, transport, energy, community, wellbeing, place, cities and the built environment.

It became clear that ICSC members have considerable research capacities on the social dimensions of sustainability. In different ways, much of our research addresses the participation of communities, localities, stakeholders, civil society and diverse social groups, including the excluded and marginalised, in sustainability issues and transitions. The following provides a summary of what the workshop found out about the new institutes potential, supplemented by a survey of ICSC members publications and projects around sustainability.

Social Dimensions of Sustainability. the Civic Realm, Communities and Social Exclusion.

ICSC members have research projects that span the ‘big four’ sustainability issues: Transport, energy, food and climate. Across these different projects a common approach could be discerned, on the response of communities, civil society and the civic realm to these questions. Institute members have a wealth of experience from working with communities, marginalised groups, local authorities, the public sector and others around projects on local food, transport, health, the urban environment, energy, etc.

Methods and approaches – community, citizen and social perspectives on sustainability.

Members of the ICSC have experience of attempting to elicit these social and community based perspectives in a range of different modalities and via a range of methods. These include qualitative and quantitative social scientific research methods, including surveys and interviews as well as a range of group methods.

From the workshop (and from a survey of articles from the wider membership), a cluster of distinct but overlapping approaches are mentioned, including: deliberative democracy, participatory governance, public engagement, community visioning, social imaginaries, narratives, storytelling and social dreaming. Here the Institutes capacities range from methods that attempt to elicit rationales, arguments and opinion via deliberative modes, to attempts to understand how communities and individuals respond at other levels – in terms of emotion, affect, imagery, myth, narrative and the social imaginary. Institute members are associated with a number of innovations here, including storytelling and ‘phygital’ community artefacts, visual matrices and community visioning processes.

Expertise with a regional focus

Many ICSC members across the different topical areas and disciplines use case studies based in the North West. This means we can potentially offer integrated research programmes that examine how the crises of food systems, care, transport, energy health and wellbeing intersect in a particular locality, community or region.

ICSC sustainability fig 1

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