Co-creation and agency in the Earth system

Two weeks ago, I attended the meeting of the European Society for Ecological Economics at Turku, Finland. The core topic of the conference was ‘co-creation’. Many people attending had no clear idea what that means, including myself. However, as I had been invited as a keynote speaker, in the recent months I invested some intellectual effort into developing my own approach to it. My keynote was devoted to ‘The Art of Co-Creation’. You can find my paper here, and also a science shot on Youtube.

Co-creation directly relates to the question of agency. In the narrower sense, which, in my perception, was prevalent in the Turku discussions, co-creation is about topics such as participatory modelling and democratic inclusion. That means, whereas in the standard policy process agency is often centred on certain organizations and networks of decision-makers and their advisers, a co-creative process would engage many more stakeholders and concerned parties. A typical example is the activation of grassroots level communities in biodiversity initiatives. This does not only involve decision-making as such, but also the activation of local knowledge.

My view on co-creation is much broader. For example, as ventilated on this blogsite, the question is how far technology co-creates outcomes of human action, so that agency is not only centred on humans, but networks of humans and artefacts (‘agencements’ in Actor-Network Theory). A most interesting issue is co-creation in the biosphere, because this ties up with the narrower meaning of co-creation.

There is no doubt that in ecological systems, the performance of the system is co-created by all entities that make it up. In this sense, the notion of ‘Anthropocene’ is indeed misleading, as we humans may have disproportionally strong impact on the biosphere, but that does not nullify the role of other biological entities as actors which respond to our action, and co-create the result of our actions. Now, the exciting question is, can we acknowledge the agency of other actors and include them in our own systems of deciding our actions? Can we imagine institutional designs that would allow for including other biological actors in our human body politic?

That question is strikingly akin to co-creation as participatory modelling or democratic inclusion. If the biosphere is co-created by all biological entities, how can we give them voice and recognize them as stakeholders of our own society and economy? There are two major problems that call for (co?)creative solutions.

The first is that we must establish institutional forms of representation. That might sound outlandish, since even our beloved pets cannot talk to us and vote over our decisions (although it seems that they have many communicative means to express their will and even subject our agency to their interests, see here). But in fact, it is straightforward if we create institutions in which other biological entities would be represented by humans: that is, legal persons and chartered organizations which would be based on pertinent constitutional rules and which have the legal responsibility of biosphere representation. This idea has been already explored by Bruno Latour, and I think that the only limitation is our own lack of imagination. After all, we treat physically non-existent beings as actors in our society, such as public corporations or endowments. Why not animals?

However, the second problem is how could human representatives of other biological beings communicate with them and fully understand their interests? There is small subfield in biology and behavioural ecology that tackles this issue, sometimes labelled ‘zoosemiotics’, and which goes back to Jakob von Uexkuell’s theory of ‘Umwelten’. This is a scientific way to reconstruct the worldview of other biological entities and may enable us to translate the semiotic systems of other species into our own. I think that this eventually integrates science and art, as discussed in my keynote. We must develop linguistic and other creative means to enable us imagining how other beings think and act.

To sum up, co-creation is indeed a powerful conceptual frame to elaborate new institutional forms of agency in the Earth system. In Hegelian terms, as I have argued elsewhere, this is creating a ‘second nature’. Only in such a comprehensive institutional approach, we can also regain control of the technosphere. In fact, we can even view the suggested institutional set-up as ‘social technology’ and hence a means to establish a co-creative relationship between biosphere and technosphere.

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