Co-Designing Games for Transformations Towards Sustainability

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* Master's Thesis: Co-Designing Games for Transformations Towards Sustainability: Connecting Practitioners with Alternative Socio-Economic and Governance Models. By Rok Kranjc. Universiteit Utrecht, Program: MSc Sustainable Development (Earth System Governance), 2017



"With social and sustainability goals being in conflict with the dominant "neoliberal" political economic narrative, numerous researchers and 'alternatives' practitioners around the world are currently working on a number of radical alternatives to socio-technical-ecological systems organization (e.g. commoning, circular economy), but there are yet still disconnects between these strands of thought and practice on the one hand, and non-expert practitioners as aspiring and/or active 'agents of change' on the other. Today, more and more attention is paid to narratives of and experiments around new logics and forms of (social) economy and governance, the acknowledgment of which may inform and open a wider set of possibilities for transformations towards sustainability (Longhurst et al., 2017). Much of the recent literature on transformations has also pointed towards foresight and more anticipatory forms of governance as playing a potentially pivotal facilitating role (Wolfram, Frantzseskaki & Maschmeyer, 2017; Fazey et al., 2017).

Additionally, in recent times there have been many developments in terms of more nuanced approaches to theorizing transition and/or transformation dynamics (e.g. Patterson et al., 2016). However, to date very little has been said about the prospects of linking alternative economic and governance models, critical theories around transformation dynamics, and foresight tools and techniques (Ahlqvist & Rhisiart, 2015).

The present thesis analyzes and explores socio-economic and governance alternatives, both in theory and practice, particularly in how they (can) relate to theoretizations of transformation dynamics and social innovation institutionalization processes, the politics and governance of transitions and/or transformations, and how various tools and techniques, and specifically those relating to foresight and games, might be developed and used with and by non-expert practitioners to engage with these alternatives in a way that produces new insights and (thus) opens up more informed transition and/or transformation (and, effectively, transformative) trajectories, pathways and projects of/for (co-)creation."


Theories of Change

"The institutionalization dynamics of commons-oriented political economic models, i.e., those that seek to go beyond the narrative of privatization and the usual dychotomy of a Leviathan diad of market and state, while largely overlooked in previous engagements with the concept (Van Laerhoven & Ostrom 2007; Ostrom, 2010), have in recent times been addressed both directly by some scholars articulating the institutions, modes and strategies of a 'commons transition' (e.g. P2P Foundation & Transnational Institute, 2017), as well as more generally through the parallel development of theoretical and practical engagements with transformative change and social innovation institutionalization processes (e.g. Haxeltine et al. 2016; Loorbach, 2007; Pel, 2015) and the critical issues (of inclusion, power, empowerment, etc.) concerning these. In this section I draw upon the literature review to briefly lay out and critically compare a number of selected theories, heuristics and practices concerning transitions and/or transformations; i.e. inquiries that strive to approach the question of agency and dynamics of transformations.

One widely established approach has been 'transition management' (e.g., Kemp, Loorbach & Rotmans, 2005; Loorbach, 2007; Scholz, 2017) and the 'multi-level perspective', a heuristic model distinguishing and articulating the complex dynamics between the 'niches', 'regimes', and 'landscape' levels of 'socio-technical systems' (Geels, 2010). Various recent iterations have been made upon this model, with infusions concerning the question of power in transitions (Avelino & Rotmans, 2009), a 'multi-actor' perspective (Avelino & Wittmayer, 2016), and closer attention to the politics of transitions and/or transformations (Avelino, Grin, Pel & Jhagroe, 2016; Patterson et al., 2016). These more recent and critical developments (Pel, Avelino & Jhagroe, 2016) notably seek to go beyond a rigid niche 'versus' regime dichotomy, aiming to take into account several critiques of the transition management approach itself, not least for its apparent 'post-political' tendencies and framings (Kenis, Bono & Mathijs, 2016). More nuanced accounts of transition and/or transformation dynamics have been called for, with one of the more prominent new approaches to the issue being the 'transformative social innovation theory (TRANSIT)' (Haxeltine et al., 2016) currently being developed at the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions in Rotterdam. This focus on 'social innovations', as “changes in social relations, involving new ways of doing, organizing, knowing and framing” (Longhurst et al., 2017: 2), has notably been applied to 'new economy' narratives and experiments, understood as “novel ways of organizing economic relations which might form the more fundamental transformation” (Ibid.) of economies, an approach which attempts to offer a distinctly more normative and anti-capitalist turn in transition studies.

Relatedly, Pel (2015) criticizes the evolutionary economics approaches to understanding the dynamics of 'capture' found in transition dynamics and argues for a more dialectical perspective (Pel, 2015; see also Pel et al., 2016). This perspective posits that "the ambiguity and evolution of capture are crucial and closely related aspects", which "becomes apparent through the possible 'inflections' through which initial capture may be followed by radicalization" (Pel, 2015: 4). Pel (2015) offers the well-known metaphor of the Trojan Horse to illustrate a counter-example to seeing innovation capture dynamics as they have been overly simplified by one-sided evolutionary economics perspectives. The Trojan Horse "exemplifies the latent transformative force that innovations may have, only emerging after and through capture" (2015: 6).

Paying close attention to such co-optation dynamics has also been an emphasis of some recent scholarship around 'commons-based peer production' (Kostakis & Stavroulakis, 2013). Kostakis & Stavroulakis (2013), in their formulation of the concept of the 'parody of the commons', critique Yochai Benkler's 'naive' account of 'commons-based peer production' (Benkler, 2003), and problematize the co-optation of commons-oriented political economic models. Similarly, Bauwens & Kostakis (2014) propose the concept of a 'netharchical capitalism' as a name that encapsulates the seemingly ineliminable lock-ins, path-dependencies, and co-optation dynamics produced by capitalisms' hegemonic tendencies. However, these accounts could be criticized following Pel's (2015) argument for a more dialectical perspective to innovation capture – i.e. the so-called 'parody of the commons' and 'netharchical capitalism' may be seen as a rather 'fatalist' conception and framing of agency and dynamics of transformations.

Apart from these theoretizations coming from a transition studies tradition, other approaches to conceptualizing change have been proposed, one of which may be found in the 'theory of emancipatory transformation' (Wright 2010, 273), coming from a more political sociological tradition. According to Wright, the theory offers the tools to examine and compare 'ruptural', 'interstitial' and 'symbiotic' strategies or processes of social transformations, in the context of their wider systemic transformation functions. While his consideration of 'ruptural strategies builds on the hypothesis that any attempt at transcending capitalism necessarily entails a decisive rupture, or break with existing institutions and societal structures, the ideas of interstitial and symbiotic strategies build on the premise of a gradual and maintained socialinstitutional metamorphosis, without necessarily a 'moment' of systemic discontinuity (Wright 2010, 303). His formulation of a 'theory of emancipatory social transformation' focuses on 'real utopias' as a key concept, and component/driver of transformations, pointing towards a profound reshaping of various social institutions, and not on abstract formulations of 'the good life'. He puts forward participatory city budgeting, Wikipedia, cooperatives, and Universal Basic Income as examples of these 'real utopias'; a concept that arguably closely resembles that of 'social innovation' coming from the transition studies tradition. Similarly, discussions have arisen about the frictions between 'ruptural' or 'radical change' conceptions of transformations, and more 'incrementalist' views; seeking a hybrid or mid-way with, for example, with the notion of 'radical incrementalist' strategies (Göpel, 2016), i.e. a consciously incrementalist approach operating with an overarching vision of a possible desired future. This approach to the question of the purposeful attempts to influence or steer transformation processes is arguably much in line with Pel's (2015) dialectical perspective. Transformative agency, following a radical incrementalist lens, “requires intense work of an often highly political character and the acceptance that it takes time. Seeking to change a system too swiftly or too drastically is likely to create self-defensive or destabilizing reactions. The art of system innovation therefore entails finding the right steps and measures at the right time, and also being prepared to deal with unexpected results” (Göpel, 2016: 7). What may be seen as a highly related concept here is also that of disruptive innovation (Westley, 2011). A pertinent question with such conceivable approaches to the question of transformations towards sustainability is how might such theories be used as heuristic models that may structure transformation-oriented thinking, tool-building and action. One particularly useful model here may be that developed by Riddell & Moore (2015), concerning the scaling of systemic social innovation. They conceptualize the scaling of social innovation as a three-partite process: scaling up (i.e., impacting laws and policy – changing institutions at the level or policy, rules and laws), scaling out (i.e., impacting greater numbers – replication and dissemination, increasing number of people and communities impacted), and scaling deep (i.e. impacting cultural roots – changing relationships, cultural values and beliefs, hearts and minds) (Ridell & Moore, 2015: 3).

Notably, the literature review yielded an identification of many other approaches to the question of agency and dynamics of transformations, which are not included in this section. Other possible approaches include the socio-ecological systems (SES) perspective (for a comparison of socio-technical systems, and SES perspectives, see Patterson et al. 2016), as well as more classical social science engagements. Fazey et al. (2017) for example in their outlining of theories of change relevant to the transformation sciences agenda, propose 'new institutionalism' and other perspectives (see Fazey et al., 2017: 4–5). Generally, very few conceptions of change examined used the post-political critique as a framework of either/both as reflexive self-critique, or use as a theory of change in its own right."

The Iaione/Foster Quintuple Helix approach to commons governance

"According to Iaione (2016: 426–427), collaborative governance requires a polycentric "quintuple helix" approach, i.e. a structure of distributed networks that could forge new relationships among government, knowledge institutions, industry, nonprofits, social innovators and citizens, and encourage the collective power of these groups. In essence, according to Iaione, the challenge is to, in a constitutive and unequivocally political process, transcend the Leviathan diad of market and state, with actors coalescing and co-articulating a new 'Partner' (Kostakis & Bauwens 2014), 'Enabling', or 'Facilitator' (Foster & Iaione 20166) state. Relatedly, a prime example of a concrete multi-stakeholder supported prototype of a collaborative commons institutionalization process (at the urban level) today is the so-called 'Co-Mantova' process experimented with in Italy, however such projects are springing up in cities throughout Europe. Other prominent examples include the city of Bologna (see Iaione, 2016), and a commons transition plan for the Belgian city of Ghent (Bauwens & Onzia, 2017). Notably, the urban commons covered by the new regulation in the city of Bologna includes mainly public spaces, urban green spaces and abandoned or squatted buildings or areas (Iaione 2016::424). According to the project initiator, such steps or 'nudges' are necessary for "city inhabitants to start a collaboration with the local government to undertake, through a civic pact, the care and regeneration of the urban commons across the city" (Ibid.), a strategy which can arguably lead to an increase in overall salience and legitimacy of urban commons visions and approaches to economy and governance.

The 'prefigurative' and largely theoretical models put forward by Iaione (2016) and Foster & Iaione (2016) remain some of the only examples of real-world experimentation to date. Furthermore, the authors' insistence on a 'quintuple helix' model does not yet explicitly address the question of how roles and responsibilities might qualitatively transform over time with such forms of collaboration, i.e. the question if these models represent a 'transformation in governance', 'transformation of governance', or 'transformation of governance' (Patterson et al., 2016) remains a critical one. Such a lack of empirical studies on “how diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales” (Ostrom, 2010: 9) is a key knowledge gap identified."

Synthesis: The role of games in social change

"While the emerging discourses concerning a 'new economy' and more egalitarian modes of governance on the surface appear to diverge, seem largely disconnected, and contestable, on the basis of the literature review and (partial, attempted) synthesis I would argue that it is precisely the imaginaries, power plays and dynamics of a hegemonic neoliberalism that obfuscate their potential complementary nature as part and parcel of an emerging and qualitatively different institutional logic. To a growing number of researchers and alternatives practitioners, these emerging socio-economic and political alternatives are seen as a multitude of interstitial, prefigurative, complimentary and/or overlapping, organizational and functional, value, ethics, rights, technology and science based principles of an arguably very possible new mode of (open, inherently pluralist) collaborative enterprise, one that could do very well in building upon and be normatively orientated towards co-evolving theories, practices, knowledge and imaginaries inspired by the notion of 'the commons'.

In exploring the theories of change literature, and foresight practice, I came to the conclusion that these may indeed represent crucial tools to enable non-expert practitioners to operate with such alternatives and apply them in their efforts toward more sustainable and egalitarian ideals concerning political economy and society more generally. Specifically, games especially seem to lend themselves to engage in such complex topics in both a serious and playful manner.

Throughout the analysis, two questions came to mind that I sought to explore with the subsequent practical part of the thesis, which notably are in themselves represent a kind of theory, and speculative praxis, of (social, political) transformation:

1. Can games, and specific methods of game and/or game content co-development, serve as a boundary object between the world of alternatives (e.g. theorists, alternatives practitioners, institutional designers, radical experimenters) on the one hand, and practitioners dealing with incumbent institutions, actors, and power dynamics on the other; in order to foster new insights, strategies and 'interventionist' designs (as 'novel attractors') that could serve to support their 'ontological agency' and 'transformative capacity'?

2. How might the various new economy and governance models, as well as foresight tools and practices be operationalized, or 'gamified', within a game-type environment – both as a learning tool that familiarizes players with radical alternatives and more anticipatory modes of governance, and for engaging with futures-making more generally; thus offering a kind of suite of 'self-referential design fictions' that may ultimately lead to their own realization via subsequent further co-design and placebased experimentation?"


"The attempt at conceptual synthesis and application in this thesis may be seen as stretching the boundaries of interdisciplinarity, and to some degree, transdisciplinarity. That said, the wicked systemic challenges we face, and the limited time frames associated, I argue necessitates such levels of endeavour, also in the form of post-normal approaches (Funtowicz & Ravetz, 2003), and perhaps going even beyond (Ravetz 2006; Ravetz & Ravetz, 2016). At the outset I acknowledge that any attempt at such synthesis of an array of seemingly disparate and incommensurable research epistemologies almost necessarily runs the risk of creating an intractable mosaic of loosely connected ideas that is not immediately operable as a fullyfledged research and practice. Some, indeed a substantial amount of depth has notably been sacrificed in this thesis for the sake of breadth, to some degree or another.

During the course of this thesis, I sought to engage with an expansive literature, which at times, or most of the time, produced feelings of overwhelmedness, and a lot of internal frictions, and reflections on myself as a human being and my role in this world. One's thought processes, the assumptions we work with, in our daily lives, fundamentally shape our world, and our work, which extends to our agency as a fundamental constituent of other's (socialimaginary) worlds, and the 'Earth system' itself. As part of my overarching ambition to 'change the world' for the better, thinking as integratively and at the same time reflexively as I could muster, I found myself approaching the thesis project, on several occasions, with the following question in mind, perhaps even counter-productively, and perilously: 'What does it take – what kind of imaginaries, vocabularies, what kinds of articulations and visions, and, perhaps most importantly, what sorts of tools and generally 'Possible' forms of engagement, can foster the social transformations of our worlds, while taking into account, as far as we are humanly-cognitively able, all the challenges, complexities and dynamics associated? It is my hope that the inklings of a theoretical framework, heuristic and methodological prototype presented in this thesis, along with the 'knowledge commons pool' put forward, may be found useful to other researchers and practitioners in supporting their transformative aspirations, ambitions and capacities. This attempt to offer a kind of prototypical 'researcher's and practitioners' toolbox', one that may help in bridging worlds of alternative socioeconomic and governance models, transformations/transformative research, and transdisciplinary foresight and design practice together, offers less a new theory than a (re)discovery and attempted synthesis of insights coming from multiple authors, strands of thinking and practice, past and present, inextricably coupled with my own personal background, interests, ambitions, and 'wild' theories about change and limitations/possibilities of agency.

At the very least, the scouring of, and attempts to 'bring into conversation' this expansive literature, also my means of methodological experimentation in an applied case study; will offer a knowledge base to think about the roles of researchers today and enacting transformations in a more integrative, 'synergistic' way. I would argue, today, we need individuals, teams, communities of practice to engage analytically, critically, theoretically, deconstructively, reconstructively, generatively, strategically, reflexively and unequivocally politically with questions such as outlined here, and in dealing with any intellectual pursuit in the names of sustainability, justice, and resilience. With the proper rigour, and equally importantly, effective (modes of) communication and co-creation, lessons learned can then be operationalized as instruments of empowerment and emancipation. There are daunting tasks still ahead of us, but we shall, we must prevail, on account of the infinite possibilities that our serendipitous existence holds.

Here I should like to offer also a rather personal, but should none the less be stated reflection – that is, my rather poor time management. I apologise to the reader if at times the text and the structuration of the arguments and overall connections was/is not very clear. I hope that the outlines were made to a sufficient degree that others may follow me and the like-minded in these ambitions and aspirations. We live, and we learn."

Future directions

"In the near future, I expect to write and publish several articles on the themes discussed throughout this thesis. I would also like to continue to work on the game prototype developed and related endeavors in the capacities that I may. I should notably like to pursue avenues of integrating in such games the aspect of 'seeds', using existing databases of exciting projects and experiments being undertaken today all around the world. Especially exciting to myself seem the prospects of 'experiential scenarios'/'experiential futures'/'speculative designs', as a kind of neo-'situationist' strategy and exercise of an ethics, values, 'good science' based ontological agency. If games can indeed be such 'situationist' 'boundary objects', I should like to explore the possibilities also of translating these models into open source digital and analog tools, with interfaces where either existing materials or new ones can be shared, generated, curated, and fed into new iterations of games and integrated in their (possibly, 'anticipatory' polycentric governance) meta-structures. This, again, comes close to notion of a 'global foresight system'; or, 'global foresight commons', as a reincarnation of Buckminster Fuller's plea and idea for a 'World game'."