19 September, 2016

Royal Geographical Society - Institute of British Geographers - Session Follow-up, entry from Dr. Kirsty Blackstock

We had a great session at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society with Institute of British Geographers in London earlier this month with presentations from Tom Becker/Rob Krueger, Kirsty Blackstock, Susannah Bunce, and Olivia Bina (see earlier blog entry for details). Thank you to everyone who attended!
Over the next weeks we will post some follow-ups to give our readers more detail. First, in this series of follow-ups is an entry from Dr. Kirsty Blackstock of the James Hutton Institute.

Quantitative Story Telling at the European Commission: new method, same challenges for nexus policy studies
by Dr. Kirsty Blackstock
Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences
James Hutton Institute

Recently, I participated in an session organised by Constance Carr and Markus Hesse entitled, “Be constructive! Situating sustainability research at the nexus of positivism and reflective positionality” during the RGS-IBG 2016 conference on ‘Nexus Thinking’. During this session, I told a story about telling a story. My story was about how quantitative methods and data are used in processes of understanding and making sense of our world, about the role of stories and numbers in the processes of knowledge production (and reproduction). Neatly following the provocative paper about how to avoid the essentialism of science-policy interfaces, I talked about a new project that I’m embarking on with colleagues from around Europe and beyond. The project is called MAGIC (Moving Towards Adaptive Governance in Complexity: Informing Nexus Security). MAGIC uses the idea of ‘Quantitative Story Telling’ (QST). 
The idea of QST draws attention to the dynamic processes and relationships involved in the full modelling cycle, from the very initial framing and definition of the problem to model, through which variables to combine, the generation of quantitative results and how these are legitimated, interpreted and used (or not used) in decision making processes. We plan to apply this approach to case studies of water, energy and food nexus across different scales, looking at European Union Policy implementation and innovations developed to respond to nexus challenges. At the heart of the QST is the bio-economic accounting approach called MuSIASEM. This framework draws attention to the role of material flows and funds in the ways in which we configure our societies, and the environmental, social and economic impacts of these configurations. QST asks us to explicitly stop and critically reflect on the stories we tell about living in our worlds, both our current situation and the futures that we seek. The approach follows the principles of ‘post-normal science’, to be used when ‘facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent’ (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993). Thus, QST recognises the role of values and perceptions in framing the problem to model and interpreting results of the model. It draws attention to production and use of scientific evidence and argues for an ‘extended peer review’ of the quality of modelling through engaging non-academic stakeholders who have their own expertise to bring to each stage of the QST process. As such, the approach should not really be considered as ‘new’ given the legacy of critical quantitative and spatial methodologies from 1960’s and 1970’s, but unfortunately, post-normal approaches seem still to be rare. We offer our application of QST to challenge dominant discourses about the water, energy and food nexus. We also seek to go beyond the standard technological responses suggested as solutions to these challenges, given that such responses tend to be rooted in the neo-liberal discourses of efficiency and ecological modernism. However, our challenge is to offer a more progressive alternative that recognises the constraining and creative drivers of history, context, pluralistic motivations and multiple perspectives on success. 
MAGIC is funded under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 689669. James Hutton Institute is partly funded by funded by the Rural & Environment Science & Analytical Services Division of the Scottish Government. The work reflects only the author's view and the above funders not responsible for any use that may be made of the information this blog contains.

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