Getting hotter: Learning from the failure of field-building events to create action on climate change

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 11.21.04 AMSocial innovation is often defined by an interest in tackling complex social problems by engaging diverse stakeholders: Easy to say but difficult to achieve in practice.

Aside from the logistical challenges of bringing different people together, there is the even harder task of getting them to work together – to build what academics call a “field” – a shared way for individuals and organizations to relate to each other.

The research on field-building (largely focused on industries and professions) demonstrates the importance of rules, norms, collaboration and the work of institutional entrepreneurs. It also highlights the importance of organized events.

Events can be catalytic. They can offer the space for people with very different ways of thinking to mix and explore new ideas. This process can lead to new relationships, patterns of thinking and behaving.

And yet, despite their potential, they remain relatively under-explored. Until now. Researchers Elke Schüßler, Charles-Clements Ruling and Bettina Wittneben* decided to concentrate on one of the most contested issues of our time – climate change – and explore the role of field-building events. Their particular interest – why these events had appeared to so dramatically fail.

Glacial Progress

It started with such promise. In 1997 a special annual UN event – known as a Conference of Parties – established the Kyoto Protocol: a commitment by industrial countries to legally binding greenhouse gas reduction targets. But, by 2009, 18 Conference of Parties later, there are little grounds for optimism.

 “Why despite the widespread agreement on the urgency of mitigating climate change and of developing adaptation mechanisms, powerful actors still seem unwilling and unable to subscribe to a single course of action and to provide an effective solution?”

The researchers decided to study each Conference to see if they could understand why. What they found were two key characteristics of field-building events associated with catalytic change that were already established in the literature:

  •  “Interactional Openness” – the idea that being in the same space with diverse people can stimulate knowledge exchange, learning and trusting relationships; and
  • Temporal Boundness” – the importance of putting a time limit on interactions with different people to spark creative conversations.

For example, delegates identified the importance of the Conferences as unique, temporary places/spaces to mix with different people/views (government, business, NGOs, the media) and identify common ground that was able to create what were seen as milestone agreements at Kyoto and Bali.

But what the researchers also identified is that these event characteristics – interactional openness and temporal boundness – are not as fixed as they might appear in the literature; they can vary and they interact. This variance and interplay over time can significantly influence the prospect of catalytic change.

Regular or High Stake Events

By studying all 18 conferences, the researchers identify two types of events – “regular” and “high stakes”.

The high stakes Conferences had a higher sense of temporal boundness. These events marked milestones in the negotiation process with high expectations that a substantial outcome would be reached. They attracted considerable media attention. Governments were expected to make political commitments and observers (the NGO community) used the opportunity to gain visibility. But this heightened sense of urgency and deadlines had an effect on limiting interactional openness.

Being under a spotlight, interactions were more formal – government delegates had to concentrate on meeting deadlines and the formal negotiation process – and the “side events” – designed to create spaces to mix diverse participants to support the treaty process – became platforms largely for NGO groups to network with each other and promote a broader range of issues not focused on the treaty.

In contrast, the researchers also identified “regular” events where the emphasis was more on interactional openness. In these events there was less pressure on negotiators to defend their positions on issues and far less visibility to the wider public. The consequence was that these events enabled multiple formal and informal opportunities for participant exchange.

It’s not that one of these different types of events – regular and high stakes – was necessarily more important to catalytic change as both types of events were seen to create shifts in rules, positions and understandings. The issue was around how they combined over time.

Exploring the Combination

You might think that the combination of regular events that enable participants to mingle and build trust with a few high stakes events to give some focus would be an ideal combination.  It certainly was at the start. The researchers found that this was a great combination – trust-building and momentum.

Over time, however, the distinctive contribution of each event diminished as each event became less open and temporally bounded. This wasn’t because of a shortage of diverse participants but that groups became more siloed – increasingly tribal – and the Conferences became platforms for the participants own projects and agendas rather than engaging in dialogue with other parties.

It certainly didn’t help that the US pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005, leading to lots of parallel processes and technical complexity.

The overall result was that the Conferences became less about change and more about maintaining positions:

 “in the field of climate policy, this means that more and more actors find COP [Conference] participation useful for their purposes, but their activity is increasingly disconnected from the issue of mitigating climate change”.

Attempts to break the deadlock by ratcheting up pressure for commitments appeared to backfire. By 2009, at the Copenhagen Conference, there was very limited interaction between governments and NGOs and the disconnect was amplified by a strong media presence – the world saw a picture of high stakes, uncertainty and distrust within an organization designed for inclusion and progress.

So what?

What might be the implications of this piece of research for those interested in social innovation?

For those organizing social innovation events this research might cause some reflection.

The pressure to organize a high profile event that “gets something done” (i.e. a higher level of temporal boundness) may bomb if the foundations of trust haven’t been built between diverse participants beforehand in less publicly visible settings.

Equally, simply convening diverse people in a low-key way (i.e. a higher level of interactive openness) may fail to deliver results if there is no expectation of making commitments.

This research also has implications for those that organize regular events – repeatedly inviting diverse groups to participate on a topic.

If the hope is that these events will cumulatively lead to higher levels of performance – i.e. the development of a shared objective – this research should be a salient reminder than it is not inevitable. Over time, a series of events may more likely lead to maintaining individual agendas rather than disrupting them.

The findings also highlight the importance of critically reviewing events over time. Often events are managed and evaluated as single episodes. Instead those seeking to change hearts and minds may need to think in terms of a “series” and identify whether the balance of events is both building trust (regular events) and momentum (high stakes events).  If the trajectory is introversion, then the researchers suggest introducing disruptive elements – for example “unconferences” and “BarCamps” – to try to get things back on track.

These findings should be encouraging to those who have organized an event and found that, although important connections were established, no major decisions were made. They might have laid critical foundations for a breakthrough follow up event.

Finally, as with all research, there are dangers in overly generalizing from a single case.  Climate change is an extreme example as it’s a transnational problem. For most social innovation events the issues are much more local. This research, however, has identified core characteristics of catalytic events and knowing these dynamics could help social innovators to design events with greater impact.

* Schüßler, E., Rüling, C., & Wittneben, B., (In Press). On melting summits: The limitations of field-configuring events as catalysts of change in transnational climate policy, Academy of Management Journal.

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2 responses

  1. Interesting article on the dynamics of field configuration through episodic events.

    As I read your post, two things came to mind.

    First, I think a Weickian lens adds some interesting perspective. When the movement begins, there is a lot of uncertainty about what the issues are, who the players are, what interests are at stake, etc. As your post highlights, the initial set of catalytic events create spaces characterized by temporal boundedness and interactional openness where sensemaking can proceed.

    The common understanding that emerge, however, are (sometimes?, often?) bounded and contested; the different subgroups participating in the larger event ‘space’ potentially develop very different sets of understandings and agendas. As these local within-group understandings (and coalitions) start to coalesce, less and less between-group sensemaking takes place – leading to the process ‘stalls’ that the authors highlight.

    At this point, the events seem to transform into framing contests – e.g., Kaplan (2008).

    The question, then, is how to keep sensemaking ‘live’ as the events and participants become more regular – more institutionalized. The very regularity of the events seems to generate its own predictability, which accelerates the closures leading to process stalls. I think your comments about ‘unconferences’, etc. are a step in the right direction, but they risk becoming just as institutionalized. I’m not sure what the answers are, but I do think that this is key to understanding the dynamics of the process.

    Second, and somewhat paradoxically, the initial success these events have at garnering attention seems somewhat self-destructive in that the presence of media pressures participants towards closure. It is interesting to speculate about how ‘accountability’ affects the dynamics of the sensemaking process when some of the participants are agents (as opposed to principals). The kinds of events the authors describe are mixed – the politicians are classic agents, but the NGOs are more like (corporate) principals. The media presence pressures the agents towards closure that may be at odds with goals of the social entrepreneurs who are seeking to create an open space for sensemaking.

  2. Thanks Brian – great points – and you articulate the question much better than I did – “how to keep sensemaking ‘live’ as the events and participants become more regular – more institutionalized?”. Re: the role of how accountability affects the dynamics of sensemaking – that’s an interesting question especially as governments/NGOs interactions are increasingly expected to be open to outside review. This could so reduce “shadow organizing” – the interactions that are less scrutinized, public, transparent etc but important to sensemaking – so that exploring contested ideas becomes impossible within existing organizations. A consequence might be that diverse organizations in a contested domain find more “underground” places to interact, seek/create new intermediaries to provide spaces of immunity, hire people from the “other camp”, or simply don’t bother :). Thanks again, Graham

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