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Diversity and complexity at the nexus: Reflections from China

I was fortunate enough to participate recently in a three day workshop on the ‘Energy-Water-Climate Change Nexus in a Transitional Economy: Sustainability and Resilience’, held in Nanjing, China at the end of May. This was hosted jointly by Nanjing and Lancaster Universities and generously funded by the British Council, the Newton Fund and the National Natural Science Foundation of China. This blog summarises the work I presented as part of the Stepping Up project, and reflects (albeit belatedly!) on both the workshop and some of the conversations had throughout.


Governing diverse innovations: the case of anaerobic digestion

For my part, I presented work coming out of Stepping Up on diversity within nexus-relevant innovations (the slides of which can be found here). Complementing a growing number of scholarly efforts trying to understand issues ‘at the nexus’, the focus of Stepping Up is on innovation, or rather how innovation simultaneously addresses and jeopardises objectives across water, energy and food (WEF) systems. It uses a combination of case studies, complexity science, insights from innovation governance, and theories of transformation to bridge the gap between the practices of actors and broader processes of systemic change, as  relating both to system innovation - as is often described in terms of sociotechnical transition – as well as broader societal transformation. Only by maintaining a ‘deep depth of field’, i.e. holding both macro (sectoral, societal and global shifts) and micro (practices and politics of agents) aspects of change in focus, might we hope to develop insights of both strategic and pragmatic value.

One of the innovations we have selected as offering potentially valuable insights from a nexus perspective is that of anaerobic digestion (AD). AD covers a huge range of forms, scale, and applications, and thus involves a range of actors from across water, energy and food systems. This diversity makes it an interesting candidate as it translates into a range of nexus impacts, intensities and issues, and presents the possibility of understanding ‘the nexus’ from a number of angles.

But what does this diversity mean for the future of AD as a nexus-relevant innovation – and indeed for understanding innovations more broadly? The concept of Technological Innovation Systems provides a framework through which diversity can be explored in relation to specific aspects of innovation, the combination of which contribute to innovation as a whole. What diversity means in terms of two such functions (experimentation and market formation) can be briefly illustrated here.

For example, AD spans a variety of scales, involves a range of actors, and requires a diversity of feedstocks (including sewage, food waste, crop residues, domestic waste, dedicated crops). From an innovation perspective, this diversity would on one hand appear to be beneficial, not least because it demonstrates that experimentation is taking place within multiple niches, each of value to a distinct set of stakeholders. As something of a general-purpose technology, it can be tailored, rather than shoehorned, to fit the specific needs of actors. It also helps actors supportive of AD to align the technology with the interests of a broad set of actors and agendas, for example low carbon energy, and the diversification of farming.

On the other hand however, diverse activities translate to diverse sets of impacts across the WEF nexus: collecting, processing and digesting food waste is a completely different prospect to growing, harvesting and processing dedicated crops for AD. From a governance perspective, it can be difficult to design simple policy mechanisms without the risk of unintended or perverse outcomes.

However, discussions with stakeholders suggest that it is not diversity per se that is the problem; it is the ways in which negative outcomes are incentivised by the current regulatory environment. The market for AD has been established by energy policy mechanisms incentivising the production of electricity and latterly heat. For many practitioners this offers a welcome route to sustainably managing both energy and waste disposal costs – while also providing a valuable source of nutrients in the form of digestate.

As with all incentives through, there are unintended consequences that should be considered, all of which relate to the nexus. First, from an environmental perspective, ‘feedstock-neutral’ support for AD incentivises the use of feedstocks with the highest calorific values, i.e. dedicated crops, which has implications for the sustainable use of land, soil, and water. Second, from a social perspective, incentivising energy production can inadvertently incentivise the production of waste, for example through the crowding out of social motivation to reduce domestic waste by the (incentive-driven) system-wide motivations to generate waste. And third, from an economic perspective, incentivising energy regardless of its use can encourage rent-seeking activities, such as installing biogas boilers to produce heat surplus to requirements. This not only reduces available support for more ‘appropriate’ applications, but can harm public perception of AD as a whole.

All of these examples demonstrate ways in which focusing on energy can negatively impact other systems, and highlights how the governance of innovation must get better at nexus-thinking in considering a broad range of impacts across the nexus.


Context, complexity, and collaboration

Of course, this is only a small part of the picture, as was demonstrated by the impressive range of participants at the workshop seeking to understand nexus issues from a range of disciplines. Woven throughout however were discussions of the importance of context, and the challenges of understanding complexity in nexus analyses.

First, the workshop captured nicely the highly contextualised nature of nexus research. The projects presented varied hugely in terms of scalar focus, i.e. exploring nexus issues from global, regional, sectoral, organisational and individual perspectives and system focus, i.e. centering nexus issues on the pursuit of energy, water or climate objectives. The topic of the workshop itself brought into contrast the contextual differences between the UK and China not only in terms of the geographical and ecological settings in which nexus issues are placed, but also the social (economic, political and cultural) contexts in which nexus issues are understood and addressed. Such highly contextualised analyses of complex systems are intrinsically valuable in their respective contexts, but are also instrumental in contributing to more generalizable insights into nexus issues more broadly (see here for an excellent discussion on this).

One apparent disparity relates to philosophies of complexity across different geographical contexts. Much research and policy relating to the nexus in the UK is predicated on the assumption that complex systems are ultimately understandable, and controllable. In the case of China, the scale and complexity of water, energy and food systems, together with the opacity of decision-making by central government, makes it particularly clear that the futures of systems and their governance is fundamentally unknowable. As such, actors within water, energy and food systems (beyond those in central government) are perhaps strongly conditioned not to attempt to predict and control the future but instead to focus on ensuring they are nimble enough to adapt to changing circumstances.

Simultaneously, while much of the governance of food, energy and water systems takes place within central government, local authorities in fact wield considerable autonomy in how local decisions are made. The Chinese proverb of ‘天高皇帝远’, translated as ‘the heavens are high and the emperor is far away’, goes some way to capturing how local decision-making at the nexus in China can in theory respond to the need for pragmatic and context specific understandings of, and solutions to nexus issues.  Whether or not this potential for pragmatic nexus-related governance is grasped, however, depends strongly on other powerful political structures and imperatives, some of which continue to condition a default preference for a strong top-down planning approach.

Finally, the range of geographical and social contexts explored by workshop participants was mirrored by their diverse disciplinary backgrounds (with contributions for example grounded in sociology, economics, engineering, political science, hydrology etc…) and methodological approaches (employing, for example, economic and environmental modelling, complexity science, data visualisation). Such interdisciplinarity is increasingly seen as central to the description and prescription of complex problems, and although integrating diverse framings, methods and understandings is a challenge, it should also be seen as an opportunity to transform the way we think about complex problems. In the absence of the opportunities afforded by workshops such as these, the search for nexus solutions would be as siloed and parochial as the systems that create the problems in the first place.


Huge thanks to David Tyfield and James Suckling for their helpful comments on early drafts of this blog.

©Steppingup 2024