Navigating a tangled web: how STEPS helped to build a community of new sustainability professionals

Participants at the 2017 Summer School use strands of wool to signify the paths they would take through ideas and practices as they pursue sustainable development.

This is the third in a series of impact stories from the STEPS Centre. It focuses on how STEPS has used its Summer School and other forms of training and engagement to build capacities and exchange ideas with researchers from around the world.

“…What is needed, perhaps even beyond new investments in science capacity, is investment in a new generation of professionals who are committed to and rewarded for cutting across the boundaries between the natural and social sciences, who can act as innovation brokers, and who can facilitate the processes by which diverse perspectives from poorer people are brought to bear on science and technology. No matter how much good science is generated, without new professionals, technologies will not meet the needs of the poor.”
Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones, The Slow Race (Demos paper), 2006

One of the central aims of the ESRC STEPS Centre is to link research, action and training to foster new skills and alliances to link science, innovation and society. In the 2006 pamphlet The Slow Race, Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones, who would go on to lead the STEPS Centre with Andy Stirling, identified several ways in which science and technology could work better for poor people through the engagement of citizens. What was needed was a new type of professional — one who could reach out beyond the lab, cut across disciplinary boundaries and understand diverse perspectives on complex problems.

This became a core part of the STEPS Centre’s mission. Alongside the research, STEPS has hosted a series of Visiting Fellows and developed MA and PhD programmes to train researchers to cross disciplinary boundaries — for example, going beyond veterinary science to study anthropology and the social dynamics of disease.

As the STEPS Centre’s research agenda and reach expanded, so did the need to exchange and explore these ideas with a larger group of people. Annual conferences were one way to do this around particular issues. Another was an extensive and busy programme of events and seminars, connecting the centre with a wide community of thinkers and practitioners.


Challenging pathways through the Summer School

Participants at the 2014 Summer School pause for discussion during a walkshop. Photo: Lukas Hermwille

Then in 2012, we began an international Summer School hosted at the Institute of Development Studies. This offered a way to explore questions across the whole range of the STEPS Centre’s ideas and methods. The aim was to provide useful ideas, methods and cases from the Centre’s work to a group of participants, either working on doctorates or having just finished — all at the point where they were transitioning from education to practice.

To do this, we recruited widely from around the world. Participants had worked in diverse fields from journalism, natural science, anthropology, activism and the NGO sector — but all with a commitment to sustainability and to going beyond traditional approaches.

Since 2012, the Summer School has attracted more than 250 participants from over 40 countries. Each year there are more than 250 applications for around 40 places.

Developing an interactive programme was crucial, not only to share ideas from STEPS, but also challenge them. At the core of the programme is a series of lectures —these range from talks on the STEPS pathways approach, to innovation and transitions, global governance and the Sustainable Development Goals, political questions around the Anthropocene, resource politics, methods and methodologies, uncertainty and foresight, policy processes and the political economy of transformations to sustainability.

Apart from lectures, the programme also incorporates spaces for discussion and personal and collective responses from participants — encouraging them to share their own experiences and ideas with each other. These include group discussion and feedback, as well as more ‘formal’ methods:

Rivers of Life — used at the start of the Summer School, this method invites participants to share their personal journeys up until this point. A ‘bus stop’ exercise, where participants think about which categories and disciplines they might belong to, also helps to break the ice.

World Café — this interactive format involves setting out a number of tables devoted to questions within a topic, and participants are invited to move from one table to another and discuss the questions with their peers.

Open Space — gathering to discuss a theme, then breaking down into separate groups before reconvening.

The African Farmer game — an interactive computer simulation, played in pairs, facilitated with a group discussion, to explore the uncertainties that farmers face, encouraging participants to talk about and reflect on how food and farming are connected to other environmental and social dynamics. The Summer Schools have also been important opportunities for us to get feedback on the game, and make improvements to it.

Walkshops — two separate half-day walks through the South Downs, initiated by a lecture, with guided questions and group discussions. Participants are free to join up with each other to discuss questions as they walk, and react to the landscape as well as the topic (this blogpost by Melissa Leach explores the rationale for using the approach). By going out of the ‘classroom’, the walkshops break down some of the hierarchies that can prevent open discussion, and allow participants time to range more freely and creatively around the topics.

A ‘conference’ at the end of the Summer School designed from scratch by groups of participants during the two weeks. For this, they are invited to go beyond traditional academic presentations to use creative formats and methods.

These have ranged from very intense sessions reflecting on personal feelings and memories of individuals’ careers; to group exercises on quantitative and qualitative methods; to lively games, music or role-plays exploring topics that arise during the Summer School. The very open format encourages groups to think creatively and laterally about how to explore ideas, and creates a memorable experience which stays with participants well beyond the end of the two weeks.


The programme also includes the STEPS Annual Lecture, free and open to the general public, with speakers including Achim Steiner, Harriet Bulkeley, Mike Hulme, Mariana Mazzucato, Michael Jacobs and Tim Jackson (you can view videos and slides from lectures on the STEPS website). In 2012 and 2013, we also held public debates linked to the Brighton Fringe Festival — one on action around Rio+20 and global development goals, and another on climate change, fuel poverty and social justice. These bring a wider public audience into contact with the Summer School and provide an opportunity for local audiences to hear from important thinkers and practitioners on pressing sustainability challenges.

Achim Steiner, incoming head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), gives the 2017 Annual Lecture at the University of Sussex.

A central theme in discussions each year is the link between scholarship and activism: how can critical, engaged research make a difference? In 2016, supported by a grant from the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, we ran a distinct group activity on research-activism. This resulted in an online Guide to Research & Activism.

Members of the group exploring research-activism links reflect on their experience at the Summer School in 2016.

What next?

The financial and time commitment for the Summer School are still a barrier for some. To share ideas with a wider audience, we have made much of the material from the Summer School available for free online.

The STEPS E-learning platform, launched this year, includes a ‘Pathways to Sustainability’ online course. The lectures are accompanied by reading lists, including open access readings where possible, and questions to guide reflection and onward study. The site is open access, and students can learn at their own pace, or instructors can use the materials to inform their own teaching.

We have also worked to create a network of STEPS Alumni drawn from past MA/PhD students, STEPS researchers and participants in the Summer School. This network, with around 300 members, is kept in touch with an annual newsletter and groups on Facebook and LinkedIn, and members regularly report meetups and chance encounters in far-flung places.

The Alumni network has been an invaluable way for us to stay in touch with a growing group of people working with STEPS ideas, who are now taking the pathways approach forward in new directions — examples are this paper on socio-technical transitions in energy, which built on the STEPS approach, a blog series on the Anthropocene featuring contributions from three alumni, writing on narratives about invasive species, and a paper looking at synergies between the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s ideas and the pathways approach.

Global Consortium: STEPS around the world

The STEPS Centre’s Pathways to Sustainability Global Consortium, launched in 2015, links the STEPS Centre in the UK with long-established partners around the world who connect research, policy and action on sustainability in Africa, Europe, Latin America, North America, China and South Asia. Many STEPS Alumni are now working in these hubs or connected to them in their work. We have launched a new website showcasing the work of the Global Consortium, with material sourced from all the hubs as they continue their work.

Participants from the six Consortium ‘hubs’ attend the Summer School, and continue to engage with STEPS afterwards through their work. We have linked our Summer School to the Pathways Network, a project run by the Global Consortium hubs, exploring how transformative spaces are created in 6 sites around the world. This encourages personal as well as professional links, crucial for working together in addressing the interlinked, global challenges of sustainability.

Since we started on this journey in 2006, the challenge of building new kinds of professional capacities and alliances that cut across academic disciplines and even go beyond academia itself, has become even more pressing. As the world confronts the challenges of the Sustainable Development Goals, the demand for new sustainability professionals is huge. The STEPS Summer School, linked to the STEPS Global Consortium has been one small contribution to this effort.


Find out more

Browse the STEPS Learning site, which includes an Open Access online course on Pathways to Sustainability and a resource on research/activism links.

For details of the STEPS Centre’s Annual Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability, and materials from previous years, visit the Summer School webpage.