The roles and use of prospective knowledge practices in sustainability-related transitions : a realist evaluation and pragmatist synthesis

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This thesis proposes the concept of prospective knowledge practices (PKPs) and investigates their use in sustainability-related transition contexts. An evaluative case study is presented, examining the use of PKPs in, and related to, the “futures forums” convened by staff from CSIRO, Australia’s peak research agency. A futures forum is a participatory scenario intervention used to explore energy transition-related topics and options. PKPs, and related attempts to explore or “use” the future, are common in transition contexts but too little research has evaluated their utility and impact. Similarly, the limited investigation of day-to-day practices and associated intensive work during futures forum-like processes (e.g. work carried out to manage conflict or protect scientific credibility) calls for research using a knowledge practices lens. This thesis notes that PKPs are typically used as interventions. Guided by this, the study initially used an evaluation approach termed realist evaluation to investigate intervention theories articulated by CSIRO staff. Formal theories guided further explanatory analysis of the intervention outcomes. Finally, the case was related to relevant transition concepts and theories to consider whether the case supports them. Based on the realist evaluation, I argue that the limited, variable, and often unintended intervention outcomes can be partly explained by intervention theory deficiencies. I also identify potential improvements to these theories. Further case analysis identified additional causal mechanisms, contextual factors and associated practices that help to account for the identified intervention outcomes and participants’ experiences. Related chapters – examining PKPs as social activities, PKPs as political practices, and an alternative perspective on reasoning – can also inform intervention theories and enhance practice. This case analysis informs a central claim: by investigating the social, political, and reasoning dimensions of PKPs we can better understand both their potential functions and limitations. I argue that the net effect of the identified mechanisms and contextual factors constrained the roles and impacts of the futures forums. Finally, I build on the case to offer prescriptions for enhancing the use of PKPs in transitions. Key elements of pragmatist philosophy and associated action theories are utilised to synthesise and build-on case themes. This pragmatist perspective calls for reflection on routines and habits, which this thesis shows can be informed by evaluative inquiry. It also calls for greater attention to how PKPs “cash out” in action, experience, and with respect to present exigencies. The prescriptions should be widely transferable given the characteristics of knowledge practices commonly used in transition contexts.
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