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From Sustainability to Transformation: Dynamics and diversity in reflexive governance of vulnerability


  • Andy Stirling

    () (SPRU, University of Sussex, UK)


"This paper slightly amends a concluding chapter in the above book on ‘vulnerability in technological cultures’. It offers a personal view of key governance implications of this fruitful concept. Picking up earlier arguments, technological vulnerability is seen in a dual fashion – both in terms of the vulnerability of particular technological trajectories to subversion by powerful incumbent interests, as well as the vulnerability of societies and ecologies to the effects of technology. Either way (in common with other kinds of vulnerability), those interests which tend to be most adversely affected by these dynamics, are those that are already most disadvantaged. The argument begins by pointing out that governance institutions and discourses around Sustainability hold particular significance for this challenge. By contrast with prevailing (simply emergent) notions of progress, Sustainability constitutes political space and traction for more assertively publicly-deliberated normative frames. These in turn help enable greater social agency concerning the appropriate orientations for innovation pathways that pay greater respect to qualities of ecological integrity, social equity and human wellbeing. Beyond these normative dimensions, however, Sustainability also focuses attention on diverse possible dynamics of vulnerability. Distinguishing between styles of agency variously conceived as controlling or responsive, and temporal patterns perceivable as episodic shock or cumulative stress, four distinct dynamic properties are resolved (stability, durability, resilience and robustness). Each holds contrasting practical implications for governance institutions and instruments. But all address vulnerabilities in a fashion that assumes a normative interest in maintaining a given trajectory. The contrasting face of vulnerability also requires attention to an alternative normative aim: that of disrupting a given trajectory. Here, the same four dimensions of agency and temporality highlight four corresponding dynamics of disruption (transduction, transition, transilience and transformation). If governance is to escape from the powerful conditioning effects of incumbent interests, this framework may offer a basis for greater critical reflexivity over contrasting normativities and dynamics of vulnerability. So, the paper ends with a brief exploration of the implications for three interlinked aspects of diversity – involving the ‘opening up’ of ways in which technological trajectories are: epistemically understood; normatively appreciated; and ontologically performed in practice. It is argued that taking the dual faces of technological vulnerability seriously, requires attending more symmetrically to these essential conditions for more distributed and relational forms of social reflexivity. Only by this means, is it possible to escape not only the diverse ways in which incumbent concentrations of power close down technological trajectories themselves, but also the plural ways in which the general dynamics of technological vulnerability can even be imagined."

Suggested Citation

  • Andy Stirling, 2014. "From Sustainability to Transformation: Dynamics and diversity in reflexive governance of vulnerability," SPRU Working Paper Series 2014-06, SPRU - Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex.
  • Handle: RePEc:sru:ssewps:2014-06

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    Cited by:

    1. Patricia Romero-Lankao & Daniel M. Gnatz & Olga Wilhelmi & Mary Hayden, 2016. "Urban Sustainability and Resilience: From Theory to Practice," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 8(12), pages 1-19, November.
    2. Johansson, Bengt & Jonsson, Daniel K. & Veibäck, Ester & Sonnsjö, Hannes, 2016. "Assessing the capabilites to manage risks in energy systems–analytical perspectives and frameworks with a starting point in Swedish experiences," Energy, Elsevier, vol. 116(P1), pages 429-435.
    3. Månsson, André & Johansson, Bengt & Nilsson, Lars J., 2014. "Assessing energy security: An overview of commonly used methodologies," Energy, Elsevier, vol. 73(C), pages 1-14.

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