Insight 4: We need new forms of participation

3s-postcard4Sustainability must make new and improved forms of participation to allow society to engage better

We need to take society seriously in approaches to sustainable development. It’s not possible to move towards that goal without new forms of participation.

The world is becoming more globalized, connected and more fragmented and unequal. The relationship between science, technology and society is complex. We have to take into account this diversity of interests and factors.

Innovators creating processes to increase sustainability need to do things differently. They must respond better to the many ways society engages with sustainability and their reasons for doing so. Society needs to play its part by initiating and growing more grassroots innovations and better sharing them.

Some mainstream approaches to participation are good but we need to go further

There are many varied and emerging groups in society with different forms of engagement with sustainability. Mainstream social science methods and social forms struggle with this. To properly account for the social dimensions of sustainability we need to remake and transform participation.

Existing participatory practices take many different forms. These include citizen panels, polls, surveys and consultation events – often grounded in the ideals of deliberative democracy. However, these practices are often just seen as a means to an end. They assume there’s a single ‘public’ whose view, is waiting to be discovered. But really, multiple forms of knowledge and many publics exist.

We must stop depending solely on rigid approaches like opinion polls, deliberative processes and one-shot consultations. Instead, 3S celebrates the diversity of participation and pioneers new theoretical and practical approaches to societal engagement. We look at the multiple spaces where people engage with sustainability and promote interdisciplinary and critical reflection on public engagement.

3S is committed to understanding diverse forms of participation and to creating new ones

3S research aims to improve existing participatory practices and shows how they are framed and mediated. We’re also involved in developing innovative techniques such as Deliberative Mapping and Issue Mapping which reveal the diversity of public perspectives around a sustainability issue.

3S researchers look at the ways in which people routinely engage with technologies and innovations too. We’ve developed practice-oriented approaches to help understand broader patterns in the way people do things. This practical approach helps us grasp better practice in everyday life – for example, revealing the way people interact with energy or water when cooking.

Approaches like these help us understand why some unsustainable practices persist. If we know that, we can help identify what is needed to re-organise society in a more sustainable way. This contrasts with policy interventions which assume individuals will be more or less the same everywhere and so there will be no problem in trying to influence their individual behaviour through the same means.

Original 3S research has developed systemic understandings of participation around sustainability issues. We show how everyday practices, public engagement processes and grassroots innovations are both shaped by and contribute themselves to shaping broader systems.

When we look at whole systems like this, we can identify those broader forces which influence and limit society’s engagement with sustainability. We can also better understand why some voices are heard and some actions seen whilst others aren’t.