Väitös: A practice approach to experimental governance: Experiences from the intersection of everyday life and local experimentation

Senja Laakso

A practice approach to experimental governance: Experiences from the intersection of everyday life and local experimentation

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”It is a social contact. I get to see people – it makes food tastier. When I eat at home, alone, I sometimes don’t even have an appetite, and I think ‘is this worth it?”

This was told me by an old lady, who I met when I was having lunch, at school canteen in Jyväskylä, in November 2015. The leftover lunch service had been tested there for the first time two years earlier, as means to minimise food waste in local schools. Since then, the service has been made permanent in schools in Jyväskylä and the food waste, the original problem that the service tried to solve, has basically disappeared. The leftover lunch service quickly spread to more than 30 municipalities around Finland, but it was not as successful everywhere. Here in Helsinki, for instance, the service was tested for a short time in 2014, but the experiment ended soon. What made the service so successful especially in Jyväskylä?

“It was mentally demanding at first. You step in bus and you are not by yourself; you are in public. The day kind of starts earlier. It starts already when you walk to bus stop, when you are by the road. Your own car was a private space”.

This, in turn, is a quote from an interview with a participant in the project, in which households aimed at cutting their environmental impacts for four weeks’ time. She was supposed to use the bus instead of a car for commuting, as public transport is significantly more environmentally friendly option compared to private driving. Together with a number of other similar trials, the participants were supposed to act as examples of what a sustainable lifestyle could resemble, inspire other people, and provide insights for local policy making on barriers of changing consumption. The participants applied in the project and were eager to change their behaviour. Why, then, were these simple changes so difficult?

Experimentation has leaped onto the Finnish political agenda within the past couple of years and the word “experiment” has been strongly trending in the political discourse, as well as in research on sustainability transitions. Social, or real-life, experimentation has been identified as a novel way to promote sustainability. Especially cities and municipalities have adopted experimentation, and the culture of experimentation, as a way to engage citizens, renew governance processes, mainstream local innovations and to bring science closer to policy making. There are examples of networks of municipalities both nationally and internationally, from Carbon Neutral Municipalities and Finnish Sustainable Cities in Finland, to Transition Towns in the UK, and global network of C40 cities, to name some. These networks want to show leadership in finding solutions to urgent environmental problems, such as those of climate change and overuse of natural resources.

Social experimentation means testing new ideas, technologies and services in collaboration with municipal authorities, researchers, companies and local people. Experiments are often bounded in terms of time, space or people, and the attractiveness lies in the openness, reflexivity and opportunity for learning by doing. The central aim of experiments is to contribute to sustainability transitions – in other words, the aim is to scale up the outcomes and to solve societal challenges.

In Finland, many positive examples from experimentation already exist. In Jyväskylä, the Towards Resource Wisdom project was conducted between 2013 and 2015. The project was to a high degree based on experimentation, and it managed to bring sustainability issues to governance processes. Environmental indicators were more tightly linked to the City Strategy, the sustainability roadmap provided concrete steps towards goals to be achieved by 2050, and improvements have been made on many municipal services. The amount of passengers in public transport, for instance, increased by more than 10 % in a year, due to the lessons learned from the experiments.

On the other side of experimentation is that we cannot know the outcomes beforehand: how do people respond to free public transport trials, and does anyone come for a leftover lunch? How are new services and technologies embedded in the lives of residents, how are the outcomes diffused within and between communities of local people, and how are the lessons learned adopted in other contexts? Why do some experiments take off, and why others remain just experiments?

Sustainability experiments are often evaluated on the basis of their environmental performance: how much are the greenhouse gas emissions or the use of natural resources reduced during the experiments. But if we do not pay attention to people whose everyday lives the experiments intervene in, how can we know if these reductions are not only short-term, or if there are no rebound effects, because the environmental gains in one consumption area lead to increased consumption on some other area.

My doctoral dissertation explores these questions and aims to bridge the gap between experimental governance and everyday life. In the three case studies conducted on the Towards Resource Wisdom project in Jyväskylä, I focus on the outcomes of experiments from the perspective of practices and social dynamics maintaining these practices. How new technologies, services and lifestyles are tested and adopted, and how old practices are challenged and abandoned? And, more specifically, what does this mean from the viewpoint of experimentation and experimental governance?

Practice theory steers the attention to practices. Our mundane routines – how we eat, travel to work and keep our homes warm – are not just a result of our attitudes or values, but expressions of social phenomena. Having lunch, for example, is a personal act, but this individual performance is nevertheless connected to wider cultural and social norms, standards, and systems of provision. Despite each of us having – or not having – lunch on our own ways, we all know what it means, and we might have a daily routine with certain time, place and company for eating. Through these daily performances, we maintain the collective practice as an entity.

These mundane practices constitute a fabric of our everyday life. Practice of driving a car, for instance, is formed of elements, such as infrastructure and technologies, meanings related to convenience or independence, and competences of following traffic rules. By shared elements, the everyday practices of commuting, shopping, working and cooking form an interconnected system in which changes in one practice also change surrounding practices. Giving up the practice of driving changes the ways we do grocery shopping, and we might end up working from home more – which increases our household energy use through many practices.

Practices as entities change slowly: they have a path of development, and we all take part in reproducing these practices. They are also maintained by institutions, socio-technical systems and cultural conventions. However, practices do change – private driving has been the main mode of mobility for only some decades, and meat used to belong only in the special dinners. People constantly perform practices in different ways and change the ways they do things. The challenge is to steer collective practices onto a new, more sustainable pathways, and to accelerate this shift, as we cannot afford to wait for decades.

What is important is that everyday practices are always social. Not only in the way that we all know what it means to have lunch or that we all use Facebook to keep in touch with our friends. But also in the way that the practices are always performed in relation to others: norms and expectations in the community are not easily challenged and being different from others is often avoided. Instead of focusing on changing individual skills, motivations and behaviours, experiments and interventions should acknowledge the social dynamics and interplay behind each performance, and the normalities that these performances reproduce and maintain.

To get back to the lady having leftover lunch at the school, her experiences are one key to understanding the emergence and diffusion of new practices. For her, as well as other diners I interviewed in one of my case studies, leftover lunch provided a substitute to the practice they had not been able to perform: that of eating together. For the lonely people, the lunch provided a healthy meal that they couldn’t afford, or have competences to cook by themselves. The school canteen provided a space for meeting other people, and the lunch event was a reason to leave home every day. As the service was important for them, they told about it to their neighbours and this made the leftover lunch what it is today: a social meal for people in the neighbourhood that also helps to address the problem of food waste.

When it comes to experiences from testing bus use or other more sustainable means of transport, the starting point for experimentation was rather different. The scattered infrastructures, rhythms of the day, and expectations related to car ownership and use, have made the car as the most convenient option to fulfil the daily mobility needs in many places. A complex of practices formed around the car is difficult to intervene in, and despite efforts to promote public transport, the car is still often perceived as a necessity. Trials, like giving up cars for free travel cards to buses that I analysed in one of my case studies, have a number of different outcomes depending on the surrounding practices and communities of practice, despite participants’ equal willingness to steer their mobility towards a more sustainable path.

A practice approach to change attempts, by means of experimentation, opens up the dynamics of individual performances and wider entities of which these performances are part of. This is an important avenue for understanding how changes in practices might emerge, diffuse and stabilise. Although testing new technologies or services might be exciting and fun, engaging in sustainable everyday practices, such as using a bus instead of a car, might not be as straightforward. The practice needs to take root within the community to stabilise, and efforts of individual frontrunners alone might not be enough. This is something worth considering, as we need to collectively change our routines and give up unsustainable practices to mitigate climate change and overuse of natural resources in time.

Practice theory aims to find a midway between individualist and structuralist approaches. This does not mean, however, that the role of individuals or structures is neglected. As my case studies show, participants are by no means only passive targets of change initiatives, but active partakers, and they can have a significant role for the outcomes of experiments. They take the experiment and modify it to better accommodate it in the system of practices that comprise their everyday lives. A trial aiming to make bus use more attractive might end up increasing walking and cycling instead, and experiment with strong environmental focus such as minimising food waste might become a daily social event for the diners. It is also important to acknowledge that practices are performed within the prevailing system: if the public transportation is insufficient, no monetary incentive, environmental motivation or new skills are enough to establish a routine of bus use.

The notion of practices as constellations of elements help us to think about consumption more holistically, instead of targeting only separate elements. Our food practices or everyday mobility are not only about the materials, such as food, vehicles and spaces for eating, or competences of knowing how to prepare meals or use the bus. The results from the case studies show that meanings and emotions are crucial in the process of change. However, these elements of practices are often underestimated in experimentation. This may lead to only partial understanding on the impacts of experiments and their potential to trigger changes and diffuse.

The field of experimental governance is becoming more and more diverse: the experiments are not only about introducing technical innovations such as rooftop solar panels and their joint procurement, or financial incentives for buying electric cars. Experiments cover also a variety of social innovations and new ways to promote existing services.

In Turku and Tampere, The Finnish National Railway Company experiments a Door-to-Door service that enables the use of all local public transport with one ticket. In Ikaalinen, elderly people living by themselves get visits from a chef, who cooks a dinner and provides some company over a meal, and in Helsinki, students live with the aged people in exchange for housing. In Vantaa, the Sustainable Meal concept aims to promote sales of more environmentally friendly meals in events and restaurants. And in Jyväskylä, schools promote sustainable eating by serving local food and organising leftover lunches. Public transport authority has conducted tens of trials to make bus use more attractive to users, and housing companies promote community spirit in apartment houses, by involving residents in decision making. Climate families and Future households have demonstrated sustainable lifestyles in Jyväskylä, Joensuu and Lempäälä, among other places.

These are only a few examples of experiments that aim to promote sustainability at the local level and happen outside the traditional channels and top-down regulation, but in co-operation with municipal authorities, organisations and residents also at the grassroots level.

As the number and variety of experiments is growing, there is also a growing need for analysing the outcomes of experimentation. Providing practical frameworks for design and evaluation is important, also because not all people conducting experiments have the needed expertise. Organisers and other stakeholders should consider what they try to achieve by an experiment, how it contributes in sustainability aims, and what kind of expectations different people have towards the experiment.

Our study on climate governance experiments shows that not all experimental processes follow the same steps, and that they can still contribute to transitions. Each experiment can be valuable as such, whether the aim is to gain more knowledge, change behaviour, develop the ways municipal services are organised, or to create a model that is easily replicated in other contexts. Figuring out, what are the goals of an experiment, and for what it is used, helps in setting the conditions for success. Vague aims like “contributing to carbon neutrality” are easier to achieve, if some concrete steps in terms of environmental performance and other means, are stated on the way.

In addition, there are often different expectations for the desired outcomes. The municipal authorities may aim to develop the local governance processes, funders are keen to know the mainstreaming potential of new products and services and other stakeholders are interested to gain lessons for the future initiatives. For the participants, scaling up or disseminating the lessons learned, or even achieving the maximal reductions in carbon footprints, might not be the main aim of experimentation. For them, the issues of testing new, exciting options, finding solutions to everyday challenges, and having new experiences, might be of main importance. Acknowledging these different positions might lead to more fruitful learning among all actors.

“We never ended up using the buses or car sharing during the project. But actually, we started to plan a co-housing project here in Jyväskylä, with shared cars and spaces and so on. I realised that we need a community to do sustainable things, and I decided to found one.”

Experiments are not an all-powerful solution to mitigate climate change or other environmental problems, but they can be a new tool in search for means to trigger practices onto a more sustainable path. At their best, experiments can address multiple issues simultaneously, as in the case of the leftover lunch service. Or, as in the case of public transport experiments, they may not end up as expected, but nevertheless contribute to improvements in mobility in the region. Or they can demonstrate sustainable lifestyles, foster familiarity on environmental issues, and provide seeds for change for the future, as the previous quote from a participant illustrates, when I interviewed her six months after the end of the experiment.

This dissertation has brought up the perspective of the participants in experimentation, and their experiences at the intersection of everyday practices and experiments intervening them.

To conclude, everyday life is a complex system of practices that are constantly negotiated in relation to the social context, material requirements, and experimentation that brings new kind of deliberation and environmental awareness to the performances of practices. Even if sustainability transitions require fundamental systemic changes, studying performances can open up the contextual factors and micro-politics that have relevance especially in local climate governance aims. A practice approach provides a theoretical toolkit to analyse the elements of which each practice consists of, the links between practices and the path dependencies that these organisations maintain. These dynamics can help to gain a more comprehensive understanding on the outcomes of experiments.