Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg, and the school strike: the case to include social movements in science, technology and innovation policymaking

Thinking & Analysis

As London sizzled in an unexpected Easter heatwave, climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the hundreds of people who had taken to the streets as part of the Extinction Rebellion protest. For ten days, protesters blockaded parts of London demanding that the UK government do more to tackle climate change, with over a thousand people being arrested for acts of civil disobedience.  This followed on from thousands of school students across the world, inspired by Greta Thunberg, who have been striking over the last year in protest against their governments’ lack of response to global warming.

Social movements have always played an important part in demanding and envisioning social change. Within movements such as the school strike and Extinction Rebellion, there are calls for transformation and radical departures from “business as usual”;  Extinction Rebellion calls for the UK government to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, and Greta Thunberg has frequently called for a global systems change to address climate change. Such demands are bold challenges to governments and to the way in which we understand technology and innovation; they are visions of sociotechnical transformation. To achieve these visions, we will need new approaches to innovation in order to transition to new sustainable sociotechnical systems, rather than focusing upon economic growth and technological development at any cost.

How can governments respond to social movements like Extinction Rebellion and the school strike? Viewed from a Frame 3 lens, the inclusion of social movements in policymaking and experimentation is crucial for transformative change. Social movements and other civil society actors have traditionally been excluded from the arena of policymaking in science, technology and innovation, but in order to create participatory and democratic policymaking processes a diverse range of voices from beyond politics must be included.

TIPC team member Dr. Matias Ramirez has written about the potential of social movements, saying that such horizontal and radical movements are “often working on transformative–related projects that are at times underfunded because of the higher risk they represent or because they challenge certain agendas favoured by elites or incumbents. And yet it is often from within these movements that alternatives emerge.”  Dr. Ramirez is part of the TIPC team exploring the role of social movements in policymaking, especially in Colombia where civil society actors such as social movements, NGOs, academics, business owners and other citizens were asked to participate in co-creating transformative approaches to address the Sustainable Development Goals in Colombia.

Addressing the Sustainable Development Goals requires paying attention to niches that have the potential to challenge the current incumbent sociotechnical regime.  Social movements often have close associations with niche and experimental technologies, such as grassroots mobility schemes or community-owned energy models. Many social movements, like Extinction Rebellion, articulate a new narrative that envisions these niches as the answer to systems transformation. Viewed form a Gramscian perspective, these counter-narratives have a hollowing-out effect on hegemonic narratives that have historically dominated mainstream thought. It is interesting to see how Extinction Rebellion’s actions over the Easter period have quadrupled their support, as more and more people accept the legitimacy of this new narrative.

It is through discussion and dialogue with heterogeneous actors, such as social movements, that policymakers can achieve transformative change, recognising that such discussions will involve significant moments of conflict. Conflict is important in consensus building, in order to ensure that differences of opinion have been expressed and acknowledged. There are many social movements, such as the gilet jaunes in France, who have also expressed anger at how reductions to carbon emissions often hit those on low-incomes hardest. Without the participation of all voices, and the spaces for consensus and conflict, approaches that tackle both climate change and deep-rooted inequality will not be reached. In May, TIPC will be hosting its first “Transformative Innovation Learning Journey”, an immersive training course for global policymakers held at the University of Sussex.  Participants will be exploring tools to include the voices of non-traditional actors, and also exploring the links between strategic niche management and social movements.

Commenting on Extinction rebellion, Dr. Ramirez has said “Social movements are essential for moving the transformation agenda forward and overcoming incumbent resistance to greater levels of social justice and reduction of inequalities that are inherent in current unsustainable systems. The participation of thousands of people during the Extinction Rebellion movement in London has galvanised the debate and discussion on climate change action and (inaction). It is hoped that it will harbinger greater and broader participation in grassroots social movements for social change.”

Extinction Rebellion has met Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with what they have termed as disappointing results. The Committee for Climate Change will release their advice to the government this week, which will determine the direction the UK will take in the coming years. It remains to be seen whether spaces for long-term dialogue with social movements and other civil society actors can be created, in order for the UK to address the urgent challenges posed by the climate emergency.