Transdisciplinary methods for energy-water-food nexus

On 19 November 2015, Dr Enda Hayes and I attended the Scales, levels and spaces of nexus conference in London. We went to a number of workshops and lectures which covered questions such as: how to have more fun with less stuff, how to engage busy MPs with nexus issues, and will the increase in efficiency lead to a reduction in demand?

We learnt that:

    • we can get away from consumerism, but only once we reach the middle-class status;
    • in order to engage with politicians, academics need to use more accessible language, e.g. ‘cross-cutting issues’ instead of ‘nexus’;
    • more efficient energy and water will lead to a decrease in price and therefore increased demand (Jevons Paradox).

From the point of view of my PhD topic (I will be quantifying nexus pathways for low carbon Bristol), I found Prof Andy Stirling’s ‘Transdisciplinary nexus methods’ study was the most informative.

Stirling reviewed over 100 methodological approaches, which could be used in nexus-related research. Then, he mapped the procedures on two axes according to ‘broadening’ vs. ‘narrowing’ inputs and ‘closing down’ vs. ‘opening up’ outputs (Fig 1).

Fig.1. Range of nexus-related methods classified according to openness of outputs and broadness of inputs.

Stirling’s analysis recommended working towards broadening inputs and opening up outputs (Fig 2). Therefore the best-suited methods would be, for example, participatory appraisal or multicriteria mapping.

Fig.2. Results of “opening up” and “broadening” – as recommended by Stirling. Presented methods lead to more democratic nexus-related research and appraisal.
Fig.2. Results of “opening up” and “broadening” – as recommended by Stirling. Presented methods lead to more democratic nexus-related research and appraisal.

The presentation left the audience (including myself) with a number of questions. On one hand, methods reviewed were by definition well known and established social science frameworks suitable for nexus studies. However, what about the novel systems thinking-based approaches themselves? How about looking at the other academic disciplines which also tackle cross-cutting issues, such as ecology or engineering? Moreover, there was no mention of the fact that nexus challenges inherently require robust modelling.

Judging from the course of the day, it seemed like a call for modelling was one of the key recommendations of the event. This is both exciting and concerning news. Exciting, as my own PhD topic might turn out to be a hotbed of innovation. Concerning because even the most experienced luminaries in the field couldn’t come up with satisfactory answers to the question of nexus modelling. However, I hope that by this time next year ecologists, engineers and social scientists will be in fully operational cross-pollination mode. Ultimately, exchanging, sharing and merging methodologies is the key for synergy and the primary condition for robust nexus modelling.