This theme explores grassroots transitions to sustainability, alternative enterprise forms, investment models for sustainable prosperity, and the range of political institutions related to the ‘ecological state’.

Image: CC BY-NC-ND :: Carla / Flickr :: modernbias.com

We will look at innovative activities related to sustainable prosperity in local communities, within organisations and businesses, and within the state. There will be a focus on examining the forms of governance and institutions at local, regional, national and international scales. We understand governance here as the processes by which rules and actions are produced, sustained and regulated, and the way in which these are enacted through institutions in the public, private and third sectors. This will provide insights into how such transitions and innovations have emerged, the challenges and tensions faced, and the ways in which individuals, communities, organisations and governments can navigate their way to alternatives. The research will be shaped by a dialogue with our partners including Social Enterprise UK, Aldersgate Group, World Futures Council, Social Enterprise UK, Finance Innovation Lab, and UNEP.

P1 :: Grassroots Transitions – Prefiguring Sustainability

Since the second wave of grassroots environmentalism emerged in Western societies in the 1970s, environmentalists have pursued grassroots initiatives in a way that prefigures what a sustainable society would be like in practice. This research will explore the dynamics of associational activity directed at sustainability and examine the complex relationship between formal governmental systems and social movement initiatives. It will do this through exploring traditions of small scale sustainability initiatives and the contested meanings to local community members and environmental activists. Prefiguration here is taken to refer to experimentation and creation of alternative social norms or ‘conduct’, and their diffusion. We will explore these issues in a range of place based communities recognising the wide range of current community activities (Transition Town Movements, community energy, waste management, city farms etc). In recent years these ‘prefigurative projects’ have often been closely connected to public institutions through funding and collaborative planning and community engagement. This necessary engagement with the state has been the source of dilemmas and tensions within activist communities. The research will use qualitative methods (archival work, semi-structured interviews and observation) and social network analysis to map relations between grassroots groups, other parts of civil society and political bodies.

P2 :: Alternative organisational forms

While much debate is focused on large corporates, there is a need for further research on alternative ‘hybrid’ models that pose a challenge to conventional models of business combining the logics and practices of the commercial sector with a core social and environmental mission. Early research suggests that these initiatives are diverse, hybrid and fluid in character, involving multiple levels and layered patterns of governance. This research will first develop a classification of these alternative models and explore the interplay between different values and perspectives within organisations. The research will examine the social, environmental and organisational performance of these new models paying particular attention to procedures for accounting and measuring environmental and social value. Such issues are not without contestation both within organisations and with their wider stakeholders, therefore requiring attention to the power relations and issues of agency. Drawing on a longitudinal database of alternative business models developed at Middlesex since 2004, 10 qualitative case studies will be used to explore the success or failure of different organisational forms in sectors relating to the Nexus of environmental challenges and interdependencies relevant for sustainable prosperity. The case studies will also explore how different organisational logics shape innovation and affect scaling.

P3 :: Investment for sustainable prosperity

This project will examine different alternative investment models for sustainable prosperity. While most small organisations tend to rely on their own funds, there is a growing industry of ethical and social investors. While some of these forms are similar to conventional investment models, others are radically different. We will examine ethical funds, community shares, ‘crowd funding’ approaches and other forms of innovative lending and equity, to understand how investment practices relevant to sustainability are shaped by aspects of the changing regulatory environment, such as company law reform and corporate reporting. We will examine the use of social/ethical investment by organisations and how different forms of investment shape strategy and missions. We will also explore the experiences of those who are aware of potential sources but unable to secure investment.

We will draw on both qualitative and quantitative analysis of both investors and investees. Quantitative analysis will be conducted on the use of social investment by social enterprises, drawing on existing data sets such as the SEUK biannual social enterprise survey of over 800 organisations which has been made available to the investigators. In depth ethnographic approaches will be used for one social investor and one investee. This will be complemented with case studies of 5 social investors and 10 investees.

P4 :: Governance and institutions for sustainable prosperity at the micro and macro scale

Building on the other projects in this theme, we will explore the implications of redefining prosperity on forms of governance in general, and democracy in particular. This research will contribute to the debate about the ‘green state’ and assess how political institutions, culture and practices both challenge sustainable prosperity and create space for alternatives. Sustainable prosperity raises particular questions for the nature of democracy in the context of the need for urgent action related to averting environmental disaster, and the need to intellectual freedoms that challenge dominant interests and present social and political alternatives. It will do this at a range of scales from the very local, to national and international institutions.

The transition to sustainability requires a general ethos of questioning, pushing boundaries, reflexivity and opening up new horizons. Such open, participatory and inclusive forms of governance allow processes of reflection, with a range of different voices. The relationship between democracy, reflexivity and sustainability is hence closely interrelated yet poorly understood. We will explore the different process innovations and approaches to deliberative democracy, recognising that such political cultural processes are both potential inhibitors of change and a potential enabler. We will examine the nature of existing structures of democracy as they relate to different dimension of sustainability and resource use. This work would consider the institutional structure and governance interactions between public, private and third sector actors at a variety of scales.

We will also investigate the different attempts to move towards sustainability through institutional arrangements, constitutional provisions, and general duties in legislation, at the level of the nation-state and devolved administration. This work will be carried out through desk research and interviews, and in dialogue with others to make connections with the literature about “the ecological (or environmental) state”. It will also feed into the Centre’s Sustainable Prosperity Dialogue through exploring the relationships between environmental thought and democracy.