Taking up the nexus challenge

CAT lecturer Ruth Stevenson explores calls for a more radical and joined-up approach to food, water and energy, and finds that many of her students are already pioneering this approach.

Back in March of this year, I was delighted to be asked to deliver a presentation at ‘The Nexus Network’s Transforming Innovation Workshop’ in London. The theme was ‘Addressing nexus challenges with radical change’ and I was asked to present a short piece on my experiences of and research into the renewable energy industry in the UK, with a view to harnessing lessons for new nexus infrastructure developments.

What does this all mean? What exactly is ‘nexus’? The new Nexus 6X? Why would CAT be talking about smart phones? No, we weren’t, although some of the lessons aired in the workshop could well be relevant to smart phone developments!

Exploring complexity across sectors

The challenges that were being discussed were those around food, water and energy – the so-called ‘water-energy-food nexus’. The approach is based on the need to understand the interrelationships and complexities between these global requirements, where they are normally considered separately. It is argued that efforts to improve the sustainability in one area can create vulnerabilities in another if they are not considered together.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Nexus Network has been set up to bring together various academics, policy makers and citizens to share challenges and solutions. In doing so, they hope to break down sectoral barriers and improve the understanding of the complexities involved in delivering sustainable ‘transformation’ in food, water and energy systems across the world.

The Nexus Network has arranged a number of networking events and has funded some interesting projects. For instance in Ghana they supported a project aimed at overcoming the silo approach to biomass developments where ‘cleaner’ fuels and cook stoves have been promoted but uptake has been limited. The project aims to understand the reasons behind this and to approach the biomass challenge through the nexus of water, food and energy. As a result the project focuses on providing ‘bottom up’ insights into people’s daily household tasks or ‘practice’, where provision of food, water and energy are co-located and managed. The project is also assessing ways in which fuel use can be linked to local enterprise and waste management through using briquettes made from sewage waste for fuel and fertiliser.

Closer to home, a similar approach is being taken to understanding ‘kitchen practices’ in the UK –how water-energy-food-related practices are actually embedded in daily routines and are affected by the infrastructure that is available to support them.

Other projects focus on understanding how solutions applied in one domain such as energy can have consequences on water and agricultural security. In Ireland the network has supported a project focusing on food security, which involves policy makers and wider stakeholders in exploring future uncertainties and plausible futures for agriculture and rural development.

Seeking radical innovation

The workshop that I attended in March aimed to take a step back from some of the project work and try to look beyond a focus on ‘solutions’ to work out what truly radical innovation is required to deliver on these challenges.

Among the speakers was Sujatha Raman, Associate Professor in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Nottingham, who shared her experiences with biochar and biofuels use in India. Whilst addressing the debate of land-use for food vs land-use for fuel, she set out the case for moving beyond ideas of risk to more positive stories such as the resilience of the women who form cooperatives to develop their own water/energy nexus to support their practices.

Closer to home, Adrian Smith of the University of Essex gave some fascinating insights into the development of ‘radical innovations’ taking place in community-based design and fabrication workshops (variously known as ‘makerspaces’, ‘fablabs’ and ‘hackerspaces’). He argued that these provide a rich space for a new framing of grassroots activity, one which goes beyond using new technology towards more inclusive networked communities who share knowledge and skills. How these develop, particularly with the drive coming from strong entrepreneurial individualism would be of relevance to the nexus sustainability developments.

My own presentation was on the effect of strong single-policy discourses on the development of the renewable energy industry in the UK. The story of the industry was caught up closely with my own story of joining a renewable energy company in order to tackle climate change issues but finding myself lining up alongside large-scale developers against other environmentalists who were fighting for their sense of ‘fairness’ and equity both socially and environmentally (for example through concerns for landscape conservation or distribution of profits).

I was able to tell a cautionary tale to some of the younger and eager researchers in the room about how their desire to deliver on sustainability issues should sometimes be curbed by a little humility. Whilst obviously I still support the delivery of large-scale renewable energy, I would urge future nexus developments to focus more clearly on the discourse of ‘justice’, which may lead to more acceptable sustainability measures. My own work now focuses on smaller, community-scale developments, where justice can be (though isn’t always) central to their delivery.

At the workshop, Dipak Gyawali of the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology reiterated this in a different context. As Nepal’s Former Minister for Water Resources, he told the workshop how natural resource management processes in the Global South were often destined to fail due to a focus on “managerial perfection” and that alternative approaches through more decentralised, messy and participative methods often resulted in greater resilience on the ground.

The CAT approach

The afternoon sessions included ‘Transforming innovation as political struggle’ and ‘practical implications for institutions, governance and democracies’, which highlighted the importance of testing solutions and allowing room for things that don’t work (whilst learning lessons from these), as well as accommodating different approaches.

It was at this point that I started to think about CAT’s relationship to all of these issues, particularly the experimentation that CAT does so well, allowing room for testing and learning lessons from things that don’t quite go according to plan.

The interconnections that were being described in terms of nexus innovation are also part of CAT’s activities and ethos. The Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen report sets out to link the different silos in delivering on carbon reduction. Our MSc students study a broad range of subjects from politics, economics, ecosystems, behaviour change and social grassroots innovations to the details of a solar hot water system, how to measure U-values and how to build with straw. Making links across disciplines is what our Graduate School of the Environment students do best!

During the workshop there was a call from Dr. Frances Harris of the University of Hertfordshire for adaptable researchers with skills, attitudes and dispositions for trans-disciplinary research. Again, I started to realise that our students have that attitude and disposition already, and learn the skills to bring them together at CAT.

Our students come from arts, business, philosophy, archaeology, architecture and energy modelling backgrounds. They develop the trans-disciplinary skills through their studies and through engaging in amazingly wide ranging and in-depth discussions both in and out of the lecture theatres. They carry out research projects for their dissertation on topics ranging from the U- values in houses in Malaysia, the hygrothermal properties of lime-hemp and clay-hemp blocks, landscape requirements in cities for bird populations and structural resilience of post disaster shelters in the Philippines through to the metaphor analysis of environmental values and routes to sustainability through meditation.

As a part time academic, I am trained to critique. Sometimes I can be critical of CAT’s approaches – the dead ends and the ‘experiments’ – and I worry about the broad nature of our MSc courses. But I realised during this workshop that we should be proud of our achievements and our failures, we should cherish our student cohort who leave to spread positive stories about what they are doing and what can be done. So many of the calls for better understanding, better connectivity, more trans-disciplinary research and action, even my own call for humility, are already part of CAT’s activities and ethos. We should be celebrating our approach and our students, whilst continuing to engage in the deliberations over nexus challenges and radical transformations.

About the author

Ruth is a part time Senior lecturer at CAT, providing social science input to the team delivering Masters courses on Sustainability and Adaptation. Ruth specialises in new governance models required for energy, environmental and social resilience: understanding power, discourse and politics of sustainability transitions as well as focussing on environmental impacts of new technologies.

Find out more

For more on the Nexus Network see http://www.thenexusnetwork.org/

For more on CAT’s postgraduate degrees visit http://gse.cat.org.uk/. Applications are currently open for courses beginning in September 2017 – application deadline 1pm on 28th September.

This article first appeared in Clean Slate, CAT’s members’ magazine. Join us today to support our work and receive Clean Slate.