Princeton (2011)

Princeton (2011)

Socio-technical Transitions, Social Practices, and the New Economics: Meeting the Challenges of a Constrained World

Mountain Lakes House, Princeton, New Jersey
April 15-16, 2011

The Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI) is a knowledge network of more than 150 scholars and practitioners working on issues at the locus of material consumption, human fulfillment, lifestyle satisfaction, and macroeconomic and technological change. SCORAI grew out of a series of 2008 seminars at the Boston-based Tellus Institute and convened an inaugural workshop in 2009 at Clark University in Worcester, MA. Selected papers from this event are scheduled for publication in a forthcoming special issue of the journal Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy.

Motivation and Background
During the past year, debates about the desirability of economic growth have gained new visibility in countries of the global North and different approaches for pursuing personal and societal well-being have become part of research and policy agendas. The future vision that guides this work is grounded in three broad tenets: the search for alternatives to consumerism and individualism as societal organizing principles, the design of economic models that are less reliant on consumer spending and personal debt, and the pursuit of more equitable distributions of income and work (to enable tradeoffs of goods consumption for leisure time and community engagement). This view also recognizes that developing countries need economic and consumption growth, but these goals should be mediated by “green” technology and other sustainable practices.

The above ideas have begun to engage growing numbers of academics and activists and governments have started to consider new policy initiatives. For instance, in coming months global attention will increasingly be directed toward the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), and preparations for this event will focus on the problems inherent in the prevailing economic growth paradigm and the design of alternatives that are more consistent with conceptions of global equity and sustainability.

Aims and Objectives
These developments prompt announcement of plans for a second SCORAI workshop on April 15-16, 2011 at the Mountain Lakes House in Princeton, New Jersey. The event aims to bridge three distinct approaches to research on sustainable consumption. In the first instance, work on socio-technical transitions emphasizes technological innovation and diffusion and the co-evolution of technologies, societal institutions, and culture, but is relatively silent on economic and political context and the nature of technology-human behavior interactions. In contrast, work on social practices centers on the mutual interactions between technology and ordinary daily human behavior and examines how more resource-intensive social practices emerge in response to technological innovations, but scholars pay less attention to the evolution of new technologies from a complex system perspective or issues pertaining to prevailing economic or political contexts. From yet another angle, studies in the political economy of consumption give prominence to the institutional factors that shape prevailing modes of consumption, but this work in the so-called “new economics” has to date devoted much less attention to the role of technology.

The workshop seeks to forge intellectual bridges among these three perspectives, with the goal of enriching each one through novel framings, new analytical lenses, and development of a shared language. The workshop will integrate perspectives from ongoing research in several fields including innovation studies, sociology of social practices, and ecological macroeconomics. The aim is to deepen the body of knowledge on how consumption patterns evolve in a technological society, and the role of policy interventions, grassroots initiatives, small-scale experiments, social movements, and market actors in affecting changes that are consistent with the requirements of the twenty-first century.

Indicative Research Questions
The following is an indicative list of some of the specific questions that the workshop will consider:

  • What are the most useful ways to theorize the contemporary international system of production and consumption? How effectively do current discussions of globalization capture evolving North-South relations?
  • What role do institutions, economic and political structures, power relationships, the media, and education play in supporting prevailing modes of production and consumption? Why are current configurations so resistant to change?
  • What can we learn from analyses of historical shifts in lifestyles, social practices, cultural attitudes, and consumption norms?
  • What are the prospects of (and the preconditions for) public acceptance in affluent countries of tradeoffs between material and energy consumption and leisure time and community engagement?
  • Can envisioned changes in North-South relations be harmonized to promote societal development while fostering sustainability?
  • What is the potential role of “green” technologies to contribute to sustainable infrastructures (i.e., mobility, buildings, agriculture, and others) and to motivate changes in prevalent lifestyles?
  • How can national economic and technology policies be designed to encourage more sustainable consumption?
  • What role can small-scale experiments in lifestyles and novel socio-technical systems play as “laboratories” for social learning? How can the scalability and leverage of these initiatives be enhanced?

The Mountain Lakes House is situated in a woodlands setting just one mile from downtown Princeton and accessible from area airports (Newark International Airport being the most convenient). Several hotels are within proximate distance and more detailed information on accommodation will be provided to the authors of accepted abstracts.

Abstract Submission and Review
To facilitate close engagement and interaction, the workshop will be strictly limited to thirty people. Prospective participants should send an initial expression of interest to Maurie Cohen ( A 300-word abstract is due by September 30. The SCORAI executive board will review the abstracts and communicate its decisions by November 15. Authors of accepted abstracts will be required to submit a full draft of their paper by February 15, 2011 to ensure sufficient time for circulation prior to the workshop.