Dr Sabine Weiland (Université Catholique de Lille)

Reflexive governance is a way of dealing with complex (‘wicked’) problems, such as climate change or sustainable development in general, which is suitable to foster (structural) innovations. Reflexivity refers to procedures to organise recursive feedback relations between distributed steering activities that involve actors from various levels of governance and/or epistemic backgrounds. The aim is that the involved actors reflect on and possibly adapt their cognitive and normative beliefs to bring about more sustainable policies. This would include that the actors reflect about their own interests, preferences and identities. Insofar reflexivity can be seen as a source of innovation in policies, such as climate policy, to achieve provision of public goods.

Reflexive governance, in turn, can be understood as institutional and procedural setting to foster reflexivity among actors. It may help to overcome structurally embedded ignorance of specialised institutions and organisations with regard to the external effects of their own operations. It is not only consideration of the effects of societal routines and practices that must be improved, but also reflexive arrangements are needed to encourage participants to gain a reflexive stance toward the construction of governance objects. This in turn allows to critically opening up and making discursive the existing shapes and mutual alignment of the societal institutions and actors in processes of climate governance, or sustainable development in general.

How should reflexive governance arrangements be built so that they are able to foster structural learning among the actors? In my Short‐term Scientific Mission at the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), I explored the nexus reflexivity – learning – innovation in theoretical terms as well as the mechanisms that bring about policy innovation. The question is how the actors involved in collective action and problem‐solving can be supported in operating a revision of the assumptions guiding their problem descriptions and their choice of solutions. Such revision can be triggered by requesting from these actors two things: an exercise in reconstruction and an exercise in political imagination (1).

As regards the exercise in reconstruction, the actors have to create the background conditions that ensure that the preferences expressed will be questioned by an explicit examination of their genesis. For that reason, learning‐based governance theories have to be complemented by an approach focused on the capacities of the actors. The ability of actors to engage in such processes cannot be merely postulated, it must be affirmatively created. Creating the capacities does not only mean to provide actors with resources, and to enhance their ability to influence the processes in which they are engaged. The important task is for these actors to understand how they may contribute to identifying solutions to new problems, for which not only their past knowledge is inadequate but also their past positioning and their preferences. In other words, the reflexive governance approach insists on the need to empower actors in a very specific way: by encouraging them to scrutinise existing identities and traditional definitions of interests. The reflexive governance approach is also demanding in the sense that it turns its attention to the future, to the actors’ expectations, and emphasises the need to broaden political imagination. It does so by encouraging actors to reflect upon possible futures by getting rid of constraining institutional frameworks and the narrow range of possibilities such frameworks allow. This imaginative outlook to future developments is also important to overcome current unsustainable structures.

Besides exploring the reflexivity‐learning‐innovation nexus, the challenge is to link the rather theoretically driven topic with empirical knowledge on how climate policy functions. A focus of my future work will therefore be on the analysis of policy instruments actually employed in climate governance that reveal traces of reflexivity, and to systematise them in a typology.

I spent a Short‐Term Scientific Mission at the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) in Helsinki in April 2016.

(1) De Schutter, O., Lenoble, J. (Eds.), 2010. Reflexive Governance: Redefining the Public Interest in a Pluralistic World. Oxford: Hart.


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