A drop of oil is being poured into a bowl, symbolizing the need for policy reforms in governance to address climate change.

INOGOV workshop – March 2015, Helsinki

Mikael Hildén (SYKE, Helsinki)

The workshop was built on the idea of bringing together research focusing on experiments that aim at reducing dependence on fossil carbon or increase resilience and adaptive capacity.  The underlying question is the role experiments play in innovative climate change policy development and governance.

The workshop did not define experiments in any strict sense, but recognised that phenomena called experiments have been presented as tools offering potentially new knowledge, practices, networks and iconic examples for local, national and even international climate governance (Brown and Vergragt 2008; Schot and Geels 2008; Seyfang and Smith 2007; Hoffmann 2011; Bulkeley and Castán Broto 2012; Bulkeley et al. 2012).

The interest was not only in experiments as such, but also in their evaluation. Evaluation was emphasised to reflect opportunities for learning and general contributions to transitions towards a low-carbon (European Commission 2011) or sufficiently adapted society (IPCC WGII AR5 SPM 2014).

The workshop confirmed that experimentation has become a hot topic with buy in from researchers and governments alike.  From a total of 125 submitted abstracts 27 papers were selected for the workshop and grouped into five topics. Papers providing an overview and exploring theory were followed by a block of papers dealing with policy level experiments or the policy of experimenting. The block of papers examining local experiments brought out the greatest diversity in applications of the concept of experiments.  The papers on governing and designing experiments showed that there is a growing interest in how experiments should be designed to achieve particular goals. Finally, on a different note, a block of papers focused on the specific characteristics of adaptation to climate change and the possibilities for experimenting in that particular context. The grouping was not strict and overlaps and links between the papers was evident across the groups.

The papers of the workshop demonstrated that experimentation can be fruitfully analysed from very different angles such as governance experimentation (Jowell 2003; Sabel and Zeitlin 2010), socio-technical experimentation as part of sustainability transitions focusing on technological innovations and markets (Kemp et al. 1998; Schot and Geels 2008) and as “living laboratories” taking place at a local level (Bulkeley and Castán Broto 2012; Evans 2011). Some reported experiments could be seen to have links reflexive law (Teubner 1983, Ruhl 2011, Cumming 2013). All in all the current interest in experiments appear to hint at the emergence of an “experimental society” with a “culture of experiments” that echo ideas of Dewey (Vander Veen 2011).

Some of the workshop papers highlighted the scope for new empirical and theoretical analyses of experiments that would provide new insights into their wider environmental effectiveness, social and economic sustainability and learning that can contribute to system level transitions. The questions of the use of experiments for a wider policy purpose than simply solving local problems are essential, and a wide use of experimenting raises important issues of risks and duties. For example, what can be experimented with and who is to blame if a governance experiment goes wrong? Which temporary derogations can be given to existing rules? Who will bear the consequences and what “insurances” can be developed? The workshop papers also highlighted that all experiments leave a legacy, and in this sense they are never fully reversible. They will, at the very least, show that something is doable or that it is possible to identify reasons for a failure. After that, the world is never completely the same, if there is a willingness to learn from the experiment.

To achieve real changes in society a single experiment will not suffice – only multiple and repeated experiments in different places can build up a force of change. Crucial issues thus relate to learning and transferability. How can the experiences gained in one experiment be transferred to another? Some will argue that the context is so decisive that possibilities for duplication are limited, but we know from practical experience that policy solutions are copied and multiplied within and across sectors and countries.  The randomised control is not the only way to achieve reproducibility, and may not even be the most effective way to build a base from which to ‘upscale’ experiments. The mechanisms of these ‘upscaling’ processes and transitions are an area of considerable theoretical and practical interest.

The workshop highlighted that experiments are an interesting focal area for INOGOV. The special issues that will  emerge, in particular the one in the Journal of Cleaner Production will expand the ideas and opportunities further.


Brown HS, and Vergragt PJ. 2008. Bounded socio-technical experiments as agents of systemic change: The case of a zero-energy residential building. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 75(1): 107-130.

Bulkeley H, and Castán Broto V. 2012. Government by experiment? Global cities and the governing of climate change. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38(3):361–375.

Bulkeley, Harriet, Liliana Andonova, Karin Backstrand, Michele Betsill, Daniel Compagnon, Rosaleen Duffy, Matthew Hoffmann, Ans Kolk, David Levy, Peter Newell, Matthew Paterson, Phillip Pattberg, Stacy VanDeveer. 2012. “Governing Climate Change Transnationally: Assessing the Evidence from a Database of Sixty Initiatives,” Environment and Planning C 30: 591-612.

Cumming G. 2013. Scale mismatches and reflexive law. Ecology & Society 18(1):15.

European Commission 2011. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: A Roadmap for moving to a competitive low carbon economy in 2050. COM(2011)0112.

Evans JP. 2011. Resilience, ecology and adaptation in the experimental city. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(2):223-237.

Hoffmann. Matthew J. 2011. Climate Governance at the Crossroads: Experimenting with a Global Response after Kyoto Oxford University Press.

Jowell R. 2003. Trying It Out: The Role of ‘Pilots’ in Policy-Making. London: Cabinet Office.

Kemp R, Schot J, and Hoogma R. 1998. Regime shifts to sustainability through processes of niche formation: The approach of strategic niche management. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 10(2):175-195.

Ruhl JB. 2011. General design principles for resilience and adaptive capacity in legal systems – with applications to climate change adaptation. North Carolina Law Review 89(5):1373-1403.

Sabel CF, and Zeitlin J, editors. 2010. Experimentalist Governance in the European Union: Towards a New Architechture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schot J, and Geels FW. 2008. Strategic niche management and sustainable innovation journeys: theory, findings, research agenda, and policy. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 20(5):537-554.

Seyfang G, and Smith A. 2007. Grassroots innovations for sustainable development: Towards a new research and policy agenda. Environmental Politics 16(4):584-603.

Teubner G. 1983. Substantive and reflexive elements in modern law. Law and society review 17:239-286.

Vander Veen Z. 2011 John Dewey’s Experimental Politics: Inquiry and Legitimacy. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society    47: 158-181.


Photo credit: Shereen M/Flickr

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