Interview from Alpbach: Stop praising innovation

Johanna Mair is a professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership at the Hertie School of Governance, Academic Editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review, Co-Director of the Global Innovation for Impact Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and Academic Co-Director Social Innovation and Change Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School. Mair is also a member of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, which holds its annual retreat this weekend on the sidelines of the European Forum Alpbach.

Johanna Mair ©Hertie School of Governance

At the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group retreat this weekend, you will be joining a discussion on governance and institutional transformation towards sustainability. What do you see as the biggest barriers to sustainable development?
Sustainability challenges typically require a concerted effort to achieve impact. We still lack the appropriate governance and accountability mechanisms that ensure implementation of well-intended strategies and commonly devised goals.

As an expert in social entrepreneurship and innovation, what new developments have you seen that you think could drive a transformation towards sustainability? Could you give examples of successful innovations that have taken hold?
We do see innovation on many fronts. Especially in governance technology has enabled a number of useful and helpful innovations that allow for more transparent and accountable processes. At the same time we still face enormous challenges that cannot be fixed by technology and require us to face deeply rooted relational and cultural problems. The prevalence of open defecation and lack of sanitary infrastructure in India is just one example.

Sometimes it seems like there are many great ideas, but adoption is slow. What do you think is necessary to make the leap from innovative idea to widespread practice?
“Most new ideas are bad ideas” as Jim March from Stanford University would say. We must stop praising innovation and start to think and act on linking innovation and scaling as two distinct process to create impact.  Innovation is an investment and creates the potential for impact. Scaling enacts and grows this potential and transforms innovation into tangible outcomes – improving the lives of marginalized people and communities and making progress on stubborn societal and environmental problems.

We have elaborated on this in our new book on “Innovation and Scaling for Impact – How Successful Social Enterprises Do It,”  which I co-wrote with  Christian Seelos.

How do innovation and governance go together? What are the challenges and opportunities for bringing new ideas into institutions and governments?
Governance needs to exert an enabling role. We need to craft and design governance systems that foster innovation. At the same time, governance systems need also make sure that the potential and usefulness of innovation can be tested along the way. This requires reflecting on markers of success that are process and not outcome focused.

The Alpbach-Laxenburg Group brings together leaders from business, and young entrepreneurs, along with government leaders and science experts. What do you think can be gained from a meeting of this type?
The most important outcome will be a shared understanding of priorities, pathways, and markers of success for this journey.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

More information
IIASA at the European Forum Alpbach 2017 and Alpbach-Laxenburg Group Retreat: 27-29 August 2017
Johanna Mair appearances at Alpbach: 19 August – 1 September

At the crossroads of scientific enlightenment and regression

By Daniel McMurray, BA LLB MIL Global Event Lead – Impact Hub, Managing Director & Global Head of Communications – Enterprise IQ Pty Ltd

“It is paradoxical, yet true, to say, that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations. Precisely one of the most gratifying results of intellectual evolution is the continuous opening up of new and greater prospects”.

– Nikola Tesla

It is hard not to feel that we live at a pivotal moment in history, with the world racing toward an epochal crossroad.

In one direction lies the path of reason, science, community and progress. A world where growing systemic challenges like climate change, resource scarcity, overpopulation, inequality, and environmental degradation can be addressed through logic, evidence, and rational, creative, and collaborative action. Where the ingenuity, collective genius, and relentless optimism of humanity can resolve complex problems such as poverty, disease, and ecological collapse, creating abundance of energy, health, education and well-being for all.

In the other direction, lies a different path. One of regression, unreason, and parochialism. A fact-free, fearful and frightening world of separation, science denialism, and superstition, ruled over by demagogues offering glib, unworkable solutions, convenient scapegoats to blame, and soothing illusory retreat into fragmented tribal realms.

Which path we collectively choose to follow will determine the trajectory of the 21st century and beyond. Will we choose the enlightened path of working together collectively, collaboratively, and consciously for the greater good? Or will we choose the path of darkness, disintegrating into unconscious, unreasonable and irrational behavior that hastens systemic collapse?

At such a pivotal moment, the choice of “New Enlightenment” as the theme for the recent European Forum Alpbach was a timely, prescient and crucial framing.

Attending the forum with my European-based colleagues from Impact Hub – a globally connected network of social entrepreneurs, innovators, and change-makers as official partners for the event – inspired hope that the path of enlightenment, reason and collaborative action is fundamentally achievable.

Members of the Alpbach Laxenburg Group and Impact Hub hike in Alpbach, Austria in August 2016. © Matthias Silveri | IIASA

Members of the Alpbach Laxenburg Group and Impact Hub hike in Alpbach, Austria in August 2016. © Matthias Silveri | IIASA

One of the highlights of the event for our contingent was a facilitated hike into the Tyrolean alps with Pavel Kabat (Director General & CEO of IIASA) and other key thought leaders from the Alpbach Laxenburg Group – including Jeffrey Sachs (Director of The Earth Institute from Columbia University), Tarja Halonen (the former President of Finland), Björn Stigson (former President of the WBCSD), Justin Yifu L in (Director of the Centre for New Structural Economics at Peking University), Pascal Lamy (former Director-General of the WTO), and  many more cross-sectoral leaders from business, government, NGOs and civil society.

Gathered together in the scenic environs of the Boglalm Chalet, this diverse and eclectic group focused our discussion around how we can work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Professor Sachs’ definition of an “entrepreneur” struck a chord. He described entrepreneurs as those with the vision to take elements from diverse sources, creatively combining and re- combining in new ways, key insights from different sectors, research fields, technologies, or existing systems to present a new solution or way of thinking.

In that group, representing a mix of the established elite and the challengers of tomorrow, the old and the new from business, government, science, social enterprise, and civil society, it was refreshing to feel the positive energy and inspired thinking that can come from embracing and making space for an open, cross -pollination of ideas.

It brought to mind a universal truth – that humanity is at its best when we work together collaboratively, breaking down barriers, dissolving silos of thought and entrenched interests and, like Professor Sachs’ concept of real entrepreneurship, combining ideas in new, innovative and creative ways. The path of enlightenment is not the domain of any one group. Political leaders can’t fix things alone – lacking the power, methodologies, community currency, and instruments required. They need business leaders, scientists, innovators, and change-agents from the social sector and civil society to bridge the gaps in dialogue, bring fresh insights and recombine them in radically new ways.

As Albert Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. The path of enlightenment can only be reached through collaborative action. It is a conscious choice and one that we must come together to choose in order to avert catastrophe.

“Really, the only thing that makes sense is to strive for greater collective enlightenment”.

Elon Musk

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Turning Vienna into a city of science

Known to the world as a metropolis of music the science in Vienna does not receive the recognition and international visibility its excellence deserves. To change this would require not so much more money but a new mindset, agree two prominent players in scientific research in Vienna: Director General and CEO of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) Professor Dr. Pavel Kabat and President of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) Dr. Thomas Henzinger.

How does Vienna and its scientific research community benefit from the presence of the two institutions and vice versa?

Henzinger:  Vienna is a hub for scientific research in Europe. There are a number of universities and institutions in Vienna and they all have an important part to play in the research ecosystem. In the end this profits everybody because as the critical mass of research grows the easier it is to hire people. It’s like gravity — big centers attract more of the best researchers from around the world. The Science Ball is a — uniquely Viennese — sign of this. We are now firmly “on the map”, and in Vienna you show that by hosting a ball!

Kabat:  I agree. IIASA has a number of fruitful connections with Viennese institutions. For example, IIASA and OäW have worked together to organize a series of public lectures and debates with prominent scientists for the Viennese academic and political community.  Our scientific collaborations with researchers in Vienna and Austria as a whole are also very strong, and have resulted in the publication of over 1050 scientific papers since 2008.

The Science Ball, bringing together Vienna’s diverse scientific community.

Vienna is known as the “City of Music” because of its musical legacy, but why is science not also an important part of the city’s image?

Kabat:  This is something close to my heart. IIASA is doing top-level science on transitions towards sustainability; the world is now at a cross-roads and we need to be taking steps in sectors from energy and water all the way to financial systems. Communicating this can be very difficult, so we are using new and unusual collaborations that are made possible by this fantastic Viennese environment. We are working with music, ballet, and the opera. We have partnered up with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, and with dancers from the State Opera to communicate these complex concepts. Science and the arts both have a vital part to play in Vienna’s past and future. I dream of a scientific tour through Vienna featuring collaborations between theatres, museums, and scientific institutions.

Henzinger:  There is a lot of history between the golden age of science in Vienna and today, and I think there is a large amount of effort and also a lot of progress in reviving Vienna as a city for science. Science by its very nature is one of the most borderless activities of humanity there is and it can only thrive in a completely open environment. It is no surprise that the glory days of science in Vienna were when it was the hub of a multi-national empire. I think we can only get back to that by becoming much more open-minded and much more international as a country.

The city of Vienna is not legally responsible for science funding, but it is a central research hub and the biggest university city in central Europe. What can the city do to improve its image as a center of scientific excellence?

Kabat:  I think a change is needed in the portrayal of Vienna as a whole. There is promotion of music, dance, and the arts. All these are great, but institutions like IST Austria and IIASA should also be used to show that Vienna really is one of the major science hubs of Europe and the world. Emphasizing this would require very little investment but would benefit both Vienna and science in the city. All the components are here, what it needs is a coordinated effort and a vision.

Henzinger:  Vienna has an enormous advantage in that is known as a fantastic place to live. The city needs to actively attract not only world-class researchers but all kinds of science-related businesses and organizations. Vienna as a whole must make concerted effort to advertise itself as an attractive location for students, companies, and professionals from all over the world.

Students do not know that if they come to study at Vienna University, for example, they may also be able to benefit from collaborations with scientists working IIASA and IST Austria, who may be able to advise or even co-supervise them. This dynamic and varied environment is a key part of what Vienna can offer, not only the individual institutions. The ball is the perfect step in that direction. It is very clearly an effort that transcends any particular institution.

Kabat:  We should continue this talk, not just with the two of us but with all leaders of Viennese scientific institutions, and the mayor, to have a free and frank discussion. Science brings a huge amount to the city of Vienna and it should be recognized. The ball, as you say, is an excellent occasion to bring together Vienna’s vibrant scientific community and celebrate it!

The city resilient – some systems thinking

By Bruce Beck, Imperial College London and Michael ThompsonIIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability (RPV) Program.

What do Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in London, the now glorious heritage of Islington’s housing stock, and the cable-car system in Kathmandu for getting milk supplies to that city, all have in common?

An aerial view of the Emirates Stadium and surrounding area (credit: Peter McDermott/CC BY-SA 2.0)

They are (or were) all transformative in their own way. All are commendable outcomes from the process of city governance that we argue will be essential for Coping with Change, the subject of our working paper for the Foresight Future of Cities project. Each is a primary case study in the analysis of our paper. We call this kind of governance ‘clumsiness’. It is something that does not evoke any sense of the familiar attributes of suaveness, elegance, and consensuality implied and valued in most other kinds of governance. So what, then, makes this thing with such an awkward, provocative name so relevant to the future of cities?

Before and after: Islington’s clumsy and resilient resurgence.

Imagine the city being buffeted about by all manner of social, economic, and natural disturbances over time. There will be times for taking risks with the city’s affairs, and times for avoiding them, or managing them, even just absorbing them – 4 mutually exclusive ways of apprehending how the world works, as it were, and 4 accompanying styles of coping.

In the financial industry, this risk typology has been referred to as the 4 seasons of risk. These are strategically and qualitatively different macroscopic regimes of system behaviour; coping with change between one and another of them is every bit as strategically significant. Conventionally, we recognise only 2 of these regimes: those giving rise to boom and bust in the economy. They reflect just 2 of the 4 ways of understanding the world and acting within it. The nub of the distinctive advantage of clumsiness over other forms of governance for coping with change and transformation is the richness of its (fourfold) diversity of perspective, from which may derive resilience and adaptability in the city’s response to any disturbance – big or small, economic, social, or natural.

Clumsiness is most assuredly deeply participatory. Its process is assiduously supportive of robust, noisy, disputatious debate: witness the gyrations in the Arsenal, Islington, and (especially so) Kathmandu case studies. This is exactly as one should expect of any meaningful engagement among the city’s stakeholders: the public-sector agencies, community activists, private-sector businesses, and so on, all with their own vested interests. The 4 ways of seeing the world are mutually opposed; each is sustained in its opposition to the others, as will be the shaping of their aspirations for the future. Each needs the challenges from the others, not least to avoid the ‘group-think’ in governance that is of such considerable concern to government in managing financial risk.

At the peak of deliberative quality in governance, all 4 outlooks are granted access and responsiveness in the debate, in the process of clumsiness, in other words, in coming to a decision or policy — with ever higher social consent. And in the clumsiest of outcomes, each opposing group gets more of what it wants, and less of what it does not want, at least for a while, until everything about the city’s affairs is revisited once again, as the various seasons of risk come around, each holding sway in turn. As we say in our working paper, clumsiness is why village communities in the Himalayas and Swiss Alps have remained viable over the centuries, without destroying either themselves (‘man’) or their environments (‘nature’) – sustainability par excellence, in other words.

So now we must ask: can cities be viable and sustainable in the same way as these mountain villages? In particular, how can the city’s built environment – the infrastructure that mediates between nature and man, the natural and human environments – be made resilient and adaptable, especially in an ecological sense? Thus might we possess this much prized attribute of systems behaviour in each of the natural, built, and human environments, and in a mutually reinforcing manner. What role might clumsiness have in all of this?

In closing our working paper, where we “connect the systemic dots” of our entire argument, we touch upon a computational foresight study in seeking a smarter urban metabolism for London. The fourfold typology of clumsiness is employed to define future target aspirations for the city (quantitatively expressed, under gross uncertainty). These should be the distant outcomes of the fourfold narratives of how the world is believed to work and what it is that each attaching vested interest much wants – and decidedly does not want. An inverse sensitivity analysis (redolent of a computational backcasting) identifies what is key (and what redundant) to the ‘reachability’ (or not) of each of the 4 sets of aspirations for the distant future. Imagine then the urine-separating toilet (UST) as the clumsy solution to a smarter metabolism for London – a smarter way, that is, of the city’s processing of the resource flows of water, energy, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus passing through its social-economic life. Rather more grandly put, imagine instead the UST as a “privileged, non-foreclosing policy-technology innovation” for today!

Well now … if clumsiness is such a jolly good thing, what else might it do for us and our cities? We submit it promises the prospect of greater resilience and adaptability in the governance of innovation ecosystems, extending thus the lines of evidence recounted for re-invigoration of the industrial economy of NE Ohio in Katz & Bradley’s recent (2013) book Metropolitan Revolution. ‘Resilience’ and ‘ecosystem’ are (for now) ubiquitous in our everyday language. But no-one, as far as we are aware, has thought of applying the immensely rich notion of ecological resilience to orchestrating the creative and clumsy affairs of an innovation ecosystem. We are currently examining this.

Read the full report

Featured image by Peter McDermott. Used under Creative Commons.

For further information on the Foresight Future of Cities project visit:

Envisioning a better global future: Reporting back from the World in 2050 launch meeting

By Joost Vervoort, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

“Vision is the most vital step in the policy process. If we don’t know where we want to go, it makes little difference that we make great progress. Yet vision is not only missing almost entirely from policy discussions; it is missing from our whole culture.” Donella Meadows 

In the face of increasing human pressures on the planet, in a time that is now described as the Anthropocene, the need to finding pathways toward a sustainable and just global future is critical. In 2015, the world’s nations agree on a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – aiming to subscribe to a global narrative on a desired future of human development in all its dimensions.

Photo Credit: E. van de Grift

Vervoort, center, speaks with Tanzanian policy makers at a workshop organized as part of CCAFS’ PACCA project (Policy Action for Climate Change Adaptation). The scenarios used in this workshop were developed with regional stakeholders and quantified by IIASA’s GLOBIOM model and IFPRI’s IMPACT model. Photo Credit: E. van de Grift

The World in 2050 project aims to support the vision of the SDGs by quantifying it and assessing its feasibility through model simulations covering a range of development and environmental dimensions. The goal is to use top science to show that a better world is possible, and explore what transformations and trade-offs are needed to achieve that future. The world’s top modelling groups on population, energy, food, water, technology and other sectors have been invited to join forces for this project.

At a first meeting at IIASA in Laxenburg from 10 to 12 March 2015, the project organizers brought together world-leading modelling teams as well as representatives of global organizations like the OECD, the IMF, the Global Environment Facility and the World Energy Council. A number of us also had experience with using future scenarios for policy and strategy development.

The meeting had two purposes: to outline a way forward for the project, and to allow modelling teams to update each other on their most recent work. Excellent presentations on many dimensions of global change led many to believe that the combination of these modelling efforts would be able to provide a strong exploration of the feasibility of the SDGs. Recommendations were also made to find ways to integrate highly relevant, but not easily quantifiable, dimensions of human development, such as conflict, governance, cultural and value changes and issues of gender inequality. Other challenges that were highlighted had to do with the fact that the future is fundamentally uncertain, and systems models can have difficulty anticipating the impacts of future drivers that are not part of the current scope of concern. The solution to such challenges can be a reflexive approach to integrating model simulation and qualitative information, such as stories about future pathways, that can try to take such dimensions and uncertainties into account and also make clear what they don’t capture.

The launch workshop for the World in 2050 project involved researchers from a number of key institutions. Credit: Matthias Silveri / IIASA

The launch workshop for the World in 2050 project involved researchers from a number of key institutions. Credit: Matthias Silveri / IIASA

What I saw as perhaps the key conversation in the meeting, however, is one that characterizes many discussions about how to productively engage with the challenges of the future. Is it better to build one unifying vision, or to develop many different future scenarios from the perspectives of a wide range of actors? In the context of the World in 2050 project, developing a single, quantified vision for the SDGs has the benefit of harnessing the power of the best global change research to create a powerful, deeply examined notion that a better world is possible, supported by the voices of global-level organizations. An alternative approach that we discussed was to engage regional and national decision-makers first and build and quantify a diversity of visions and pathways from the perspectives of these actors. The benefit of this approach is that national and regional decision makers may be more likely to perceive this quantitative visioning  as useful, and that there is space for and ownership of diverse notions of a better future based on different sets of values.

The leaders of the World in 2050 project took these considerations into account and proposed a way forward: focus on a single global, quantified vision first, to kick-start dialogues about the feasibility of a transformative future at the global level by providing top-level science. Jeffrey Sachs, as one of the project leaders, argued that the SDGs will already involve many interactive processes that allow for a diversity of ideas and conversations at national and regional levels on how to achieve these goals; and that rather than trying to support all SDG-related work, the World in 2050 project would have the most complementary value if it provided its clear, quantified global vision first. Then, a next phase of the project will be to connect to global regions and to national-level processes and find out how the insights from the project can be used. Many of us in the meeting indicated that we have strong networks at regional and national levels that can support this phase. From the beginning of the global modelling project, Sachs and colleagues already envision a strong need to have regional diversity in the analysis, to make sure its results are relevant at that level.

”Also clear from the discussions was that this vision should not just be aimed at policy makers, but that it should speak powerfully to people in all walks of life. Widespread public support for such a vision could be a strong contributor to political momentum. Several speakers referred to the impact of the 1972 “Limits to Growth” study, which, though controversial, stimulated thinking and action around environmental change and sustainability worldwide. Innovative communication approaches that powerfully engage people with the vision will be crucial – if future visions can be made real in an experiential sense, they have a much stronger chance of changing behavior and decisions.

Collaborations across international networks
The World in 2050 project plans to build on the excellent simulation-based work on transformation pathways toward SDGs done by the Dutch Environment Assessment Agency.

It will be very interesting to see the global vision take shape and to help connect it to regional and national action and strategy. With IIASA colleagues from the GLOBIOM team, the CGIAR’s Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security program is helping decision makers in Africa, Asia and Latin America develop better policies using socio-economic and climate scenarios, and from our experience, working with future pathways that are inspiring as well as feasible is very attractive to governments and other actors.

Other interactions with complementary projects can be explored – for instance, the “Bright Spots – Seeds of a Good Anthropocene”  project takes an  opposite, bottom-up approach to future visioning – collecting local “seed” practices with global, transformative potential and combining them to foster dialogues about a better Anthropocene. A similar process for bottom-up transformation pathways on the future of food in Europe also involves IIASA researchers.

Meadows, Donella, J. Randers and D. Meadows. Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books, 1972.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Six questions for Simon Levin

Princeton University Professor Simon Levin—IIASA council chair 2003-2008–has won numerous awards for his interdisciplinary research in environmental sciences, economics, and evolutionary biology. On 10 November, Levin gave a public lecture at IIASA, at which he was named an IIASA Distinguished Visiting Fellow

Simon Levin speaks at the fifth OeAW/IIASA Public Lecture in Laxenburg on 10 November. Credit: IIASA/Matthias Silveri

Simon Levin speaks at the fifth IIASA/OeAW Public Lecture in Laxenburg on 10 November. Credit: IIASA/Matthias Silveri

IIASA: Your research explores issues such as environmental degradation, human inequality, and climate change. Why are global problems such as these so difficult to address?
Simon Levin: To a large extent, many of these are problems not well addressed in market-based systems. The problem is that for public goods and common-pool resources, the incentives for individual actions are misaligned with the interests of society.   Equity gaps and discounting of the future add to these problems, and make it difficult to achieve consensus, especially at global levels for which the feedback loops associated with individual and local actions are weak.

What kinds of approaches are needed to understand such complex, global environmental and social problems?
Certainly we need systems approaches to deal with the linkages and scaling problems within these complex adaptive systems.  We need interdisciplinarity, and we need more study of how to achieve cooperation at national and international levels.  These are all problems central to the agenda of IIASA.

What new insights has your research brought to these problems?
I have long been impressed with the power of using what we learn in one set of systems to address analogous problems in others, and have benefited greatly from what I have learned from colleagues in other disciplines.   I feel that I have been able to get a great deal of mileage out of translating and adapting those lessons to environmental problems, and feel that my ecological and evolutionary perspective in particular, and what I have learned from how evolution has dealt with challenges, has allowed me to bring useful perspectives to the management of coupled biological and socioeconomic systems.

How can models of complex environmental systems inform our understanding of human systems such as the economy?
We learn from such systems what makes them robust, and what makes them vulnerable to collapse; the importance of diversity, redundancy, and modularity to the ability of systems to adapt in variable environments; the importance of flexible and adaptive governance.

Credit: PhotonQ via Flickr

“We learn from [environmental] systems what makes them robust, and what makes them vulnerable to collapse” Credit: PhotonQ via Flickr

What can studies of cooperation in nature tell us about cooperation in human societies?
Cooperation in nature is strongest in small groups; and as those groups become larger, agreements, social norms and institutions become increasingly important.  Nobel Prize winner  Elinor Ostrom led in adapting those principles to the management of small societies, and I agree with her on the importance of polycentricity—building  up from smaller agreements—in addressing global environmental problems.

How can we apply such findings to find practical solutions for the problems we face?
We need research, but we also need partners outside of science.  Increasingly, business leaders have looked to biological systems for models as to how they can deal with challenges; we now similarly need to partner with government leaders if we are to address the grand challenges in achieving a sustainable future.

Watch the full lecture