Beyond ‘Nature-based Solutions’: The Concept of Co-creative Technology

A new journal has been launched: ‘Nature Based Solutions’. This raises the stakes for a concept that originally had no scientific status but emerged as a policy formula, similar to the earlier notion of ‘ecosystem services’. Ecological economics features many newly coined expressions that straddle the scientific and the policy communities, mainly because there is a need for attractive buzz-words that focus attention and help to mobilize all kinds of stakeholders to jump on the eco-train. However, as Confucius already admonished, names matter, and we should set them right, because otherwise thoughts and action get confused.

I already expressed my doubts about the concept in an earlier post. However, given the centrality of the notion in recent policy documents and funding schemes worldwide, we must take it seriously and work out a precise meaning. I will do that in two moves, first destructive and deconstructive, and the constructive, presenting a new definition of NBS.

The editorial of the new journal introduces NBS as follows.

Nature-based solutions (NBS) represent a holistic approach to adaptation and resilience building of social-ecological-technological systems with equal reliance upon social, environmental and economic pillars. The harnessing of nature and natural processes via NBS implementation can strengthen a system’s capacity to deal with multiple and interconnected challenges. Nature-based solutions can provide integrated, multifunctional solutions to critical societal challenges by delivering multiple primary benefits and co-benefits through the provision of ecosystem services. Nature-based solutions inherently enhance ecosystem quality and biological diversity, and planning of NBS needs to involve stakeholders in collaborative NBS design, implementation and evaluation processes.

As such, the concept is further described as an ‘umbrella concept’ that covers the older catchwords such as ecosystem services and nature capital.

Obviously, the concept is geared towards the topical domains of sustainability and climate change. This does not capture all the actual uses of the term, which includes many measures that mainly focus on human well-being, such as improving access to nature to improve human health. Indeed, the definition leaves open whether ‘the system’ stays at the centre or the ‘societal challenge’. This conceptual vagueness hides the key issue that I highlighted in earlier posts: Is NBS a geocentric or an anthropocentric notion? More practically, is the main goal of NBS to improve system resilience, sustainability and survival, or is it devoted to human needs in the first place (from which the need for systemic sustainability may be derived, yet on a secondary level)? Indeed, the clear focus on human needs is a key element of the ecosystem services notion: ‘services’ is services to humans. But what is a ‘solution’?

The term ‘solution’ cannot claim scientific status but belongs to the world of management practice (‘consider it solved’ says the ad). There is the use in mathematics, for sure, but generally, if we talk about ‘solutions’ we must ask, solution for which kind of problem, and how? At a closer look, the common uses of ‘solution’ often refer to what NBS factually is: a technology or technique how do things in order to solve a problem. Now, it is amazing that the editorial does not mention the term ‘technology’ at all: But that’s what all NBS are, a specific type of technology.

Let us therefore change wording, in a Confucian move: ‘Nature-based technology’. How is technology commonly defined? A defining feature of technology is harnessing mechanisms in nature by human design to solve certain problems. Hence, we may conclude that all human technology is a nature-based solution! The steam engine exploits physical laws and burns coal produced by natural processes: A nature-based solution to the societal challenge to get things moved speedily across spatial distances at low costs. Obviously, this is not what the editorial has in mind. Where is the catch?

Let us first pin down that NBS is technology. This is important, as we therefore clearly identify NBS as being a part of the technosphere. Even if we do not refer to human needs as target of problem-solving, human design remains essential. Our next deconstructive step is to consider the term ‘nature’. You must not be a fan of Bruno Latour to recognize that this reference leads the discussion on a very slippery slope, and in fact one might even claim that ‘nature’ as a term should be avoided in any serious scientific discourse.

Think of human agriculture. Isn’t all agriculture an NBS? The societal challenge is feeding growing human populations, and we harness nature to solve the problem. In the future, we may produce artificial food, hence eschewing this NBS. But until today, we rely on nature. Again, the authors of the editorial surely will disagree. Indeed, the example shows the way how to resolve the conceptual mess. The chicken in the automated chicken farm are still organisms, but have lost most of their species-characteristic ways of living: They have become a literal ‘bio-technological’ artefact that is part of industrialized food processing, hence of the technosphere. Calling this a ‘nature based solution’ would make mockery of the concept. Yet, the case still fits, unless we clearly argue, as the editorial at least implicitly does, that the key criterion of identifying NBS is that human needs do not stay at the forefront.

Is organic agriculture an NBS for feeding growing human populations? I think that there are good reasons for defending this case, considering the first sentence of the editorial referring to the three pillars, social, environmental, and economic. If you agree, it follows that the new concept ‘nature based technology’ would include much more than originally intended by its protagonists.

But let me turn to my final destructive move. This is the meaning of ‘system’ and the related challenges. Who identifies the challenges? Who are stakeholders? The eco-policy community has a strong penchant envisaging local communities, indigenous people, concerned citizens and similar groups, for example, resulting in a corresponding focus in funding schemes on marginalized or vulnerable groups. But that smacks of a new kind of exclusion by expert judgement, a phenomenon that is driving Trumpism, populism and all kinds of backlashes against progressive policies all over the world. Yes, even the investment banker is a stakeholder of the system. There is a delusion about ‘the system’ which is politically naïve. I remember a famous Chinese eco-architect boasting that his NBS even made real estate much more valuable! But that is exactly the issue: Many NBS operate in systemic contexts where they might even reinforce those systemic properties that have created the challenges in the first place.

It’s time to move to my constructive argument. I propose the following short definition of NBS:

NBS is the catchword for ‘technology that mediates co-creation of biosphere and technosphere’.

We start out from recognizing the fundamental systemic cleavage that is papered over if we talk indiscriminately of ‘social-ecological-technological systems’ while also using the term ‘nature’. I do not refer to nature, but to the well-defined scientific notion of biosphere. Technology mediates between the two in many ways, as the chicken farm example shows: Here, the technosphere usurps the biosphere, without any co-creative relationship, despite ‘harnessing’ biosphere mechanisms. Is the eco- and animal friendly chicken farm a co-creative technology? I would suggest, yes. It is a technology because the chicken have been genetically modified via breeding, and because they live in human-designed environments, such as being protected against predators. But at the same time, humans respect their way of living and contribute to their flourishing. The chicken help to nourish humans, and hence both sides stay in a co-creative relationship.

The systemic perspective implies that we do not primarily refer to human needs and societal challenges in understanding co-creative technology. In the definition, humans are only indirectly present as designers of technology, and here is where their perceived needs and challenges come into play. But the systemic view also implies that we humans must recognize that these needs and challenges are themselves systemic phenomena beyond our control, and, more specifically, that we might succumb to systemic dynamics that eventually erode co-creative relations between technosphere and biosphere. This comes to the fore if we consider co-creation in the direction of technosphere: How does human-designed technology mobilize the biosphere in shaping the technosphere? In a previous post, I introduced one example: Moving from mere ‘greening’ of cities to genuinely ‘rewildering’ urban ecosystems. More practically, making ecosystem design a primary criterion in urban design, and treating human needs only as a constraint for the range of possible co-creative designs.

A flaw of many NBS is that they do not explicitly refer to systemic interdependencies, which often also undermines their sustainability: For example, NBS may rely on public funding, and simply collapse once this is running out. This also contributes to the widespread scaling problems: Single projects may succeed, but scaling up doesn’t work, because systemic forces work against this. So, what is the key to foster, scale-up and sustain co-creative technologies? We must recognize the performative dimensions of technologies, in the sense that technology is not just a ‘solution’, but also changes the values, habits and ways of thinking, individually and collectively, and that at the same time the latter also shape the way how humans employ the technology.

Hence, a key question in designing co-creative technologies is how and to which effect these affect the performative mechanisms in the societal context. This has been recognized as a problem in the debate over eco-system services for long: What is the effect if we quantify them in dollar terms? The original inventors thought that this will just help making the case for eco-friendly and sustainable policies. But once the figures are on the table, investors may flock in, literally capitalizing on the concept. Any kind of co-creative technology must also change the performative dynamics in the society in which it is embedded. By implication, value change matters crucially: After all, a ‘nature-based solution’ must change the way how people feel and think about ‘nature’.

To conclude, I suggest that a major focus in research on co-creative technology should be its performative dynamics that links human action with systemic contexts. This performative dynamics is the key for understanding the long-run impact on meeting critical challenges such as climate change.

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