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Moving Towards Adaptive Governance in Complexity: Informing Nexus Security

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - MAGIC (Moving Towards Adaptive Governance in Complexity: Informing Nexus Security)

Reporting period: 2018-12-01 to 2020-09-30

MAGIC has contributed to the implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth by testing the robustness and the quality of the policy and innovation narratives about the state and trends in the water, energy, food and environment (WEFE) Nexus in Europe.
To this purpose, MAGIC has focused on key components of the EU’s sustainability strategies, showing how they are deeply entangled. Our approach has involved checking the feasibility, viability, security (openness) and desirability of the metabolic pattern of socio-ecological systems as the underlying theoretical concept and doing so across spatial scales, i.e. pan-EU, Member States and selected regions. MAGIC has studied the narratives underlying Nexus policies: i.e. the initial identification and framing of the problem, the choice of models through which variables and data are combined to generate quantitative results, and how these are legitimated, interpreted and used (or not used) in decision-making processes. In this process, MAGIC has developed and tested the method of Quantitative Story-Telling (QST), a co-creation approach for scientists and policy-makers designed to improve the interactions across the science-policy interface.
This appraisal was carried out for 5 policy domains (CAP, energy, water, environment, circular economy) and 7 innovations/policy solutions (biofuels, electric vehicles, shale gas extraction, green bonds, alternative water sources, saving water in irrigation, environmental protection measures). These cases highlighted the challenges of policy integration, the preference for technical “silver bullet” solutions within production systems rather than looking at the need for transformative changes to societal demands, the inadequacy of reductionism when dealing with complex issues, and that assessing sustainability at an EU level omits the EU’s impacts elsewhere.
A key outcome of MAGIC is that many WEFE Nexus issues to a high degree involve “uncomfortable knowledge”, i.e. knowledge that is in tension with or contradicts prevailing narratives currently used to inform the sustainability discussion. Such knowledge is particularly valuable for its potential to guide institutional innovation and change.
MAGIC has provided a novel formal analytical framework, MuSIASEM, as well as a conceptual interface for use in co-creation with policy actors through QST. This enabled the project to translate concepts from complexity theory into practical options for analysis of specific sustainability issues without resorting to over simplification (or hypocognition). MuSIASEM explores different yet tightly interrelated sustainability criteria of resource nexus management in a diversity of WEFE Nexus policy domains:
• Feasibility: external constraints, biosphere
• Viability: internal constraints, societal organization
• Security: level of openness, externalization
• Desirability: social acceptability, fairness.
The relevance of MuSIASEM to policy and practice has been most clearly demonstrated in the assessments of nexus security in the EU. This quantified the degree to which the EU is dependent on resources from beyond its borders which may not always be available with only moderate scarcity. The analysis highlighted the potential for the EU to generate adverse environmental impact in other social-ecological systems through increased demand for livestock feeds. The analyses also explored the trade-offs across nexus dimensions of policy options and implications for European and global sustainability and climate change goals. The European Environment Agency as well as the national environmental protection agencies of the Member States have shown interest in the use of MuSIASEM framework and the QST procedure as part of State of the Environment reporting and horizon scanning for issues such as food security. Outcomes of policy-relevant analyses with MuSIASEM have also informed EC public consultations (e.g. on circular economy, CAP, biodiversity), science-policy events and EU Learn training.
MAGIC has also critically reviewed proposed solutions in the WEFE Nexus policy domains. This reduced the uncertainties about their opportunities and limitations to address climate change. The feasible scale of the assessed technological solutions will not suffice to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. For all innovations the need for energy investments in infrastructure to deliver savings in emissions means that the assumptions of the EU rapidly achieving carbon neutrality through technological change alone are overly optimistic. A modal shift in social practices is needed to accompany the technological transition to a fossil free economy.
MAGIC also identified potential ways to improve the process of Nexus innovation assessment by analyzing the innovations through two separate lenses: (a) innovations perceived as material artefacts/processes/infrastructures, which may be more or less feasible, viable and desirable, and (b) innovations perceived as imaginaries invoked to reconcile and resolve tensions between conflicting legitimate policy targets, providing so-called “win-win solutions”. An innovation may be highly desirable as an imaginary that solves policy problems while unfeasible or unviable as a material artefact. This discrepancy produces a liability that could and should be addressed ex ante. The results have also contributed to create an awareness of tensions in nexus governance and indicate the need for institutional change.
The project outcomes demonstrate that when dealing with complex sustainability issues it is impossible to generate an uncontested problem structuring that will definitively lead to “the optimal solution”. Scientific investigation alone cannot tell us what the best thing to do is. Experience from MAGIC indicates that there needs to be a conceptual change to a strategy of governance IN complexity rather than governance OF complexity (which can often just mean ignoring complexity in favor of “solving” an apparently more tractable problem but which leaves the fundamental issues untouched). Governance IN complexity means replacing the concept of evidence-based policies with that of QST: i.e. checking on the robustness, usefulness and fairness of the narratives used to discuss, define, evaluate and select policies. The theoretical foundation of QST is post normal science, which acknowledges the unavoidable presence of scientific uncertainty and value plurality in sustainability discussions. MAGIC has thus opened the path towards a new way of structuring the analysis of the implications of WEFE Nexus security. In this approach, researchers, decision makers and other social actors form an extended peer community guaranteeing the quality of the problem structuring of selected sustainability concerns. QST ensures that the scientific inputs fit into socially mediated modes of decision-making rather than supplant them.
The project has made visible the urgent need to replace irresponsible and ungovernable elements of policy narratives in the WEFE Nexus (e.g. MAGIC has therefore explored how the insights given by post-normal science can overcome the institutional resistance to change. Obviously, one single research project cannot by itself change European institutions of governance. However, the project did produce some concrete advice on how to move towards adaptive governance in complexity.
Stages of the Quantitative Story-Telling (QST) approach to sustainability analysis
Schematization of the MuSIASEM accounting framework