Human development requires multidisciplinary engagement

Ilona M. Otto speaks about the importance of contributions from various disciplines, complex modelling tools and multidimensional approaches to address complex realities.

What do you think is at the core of a human development concept?

In my view, the core of human development is improving human well-being. Not in the sense of having more and more things, but in the sense of having a good quality of life: basic needs are satisfied, there is time to do things; at a collective scale, societies take care of the most vulnerable, leaving no one behind or alone; society provides this safety net. At the same time, it is also about taking care of nature, trying to keep a balance. Human development is a collective process in which we always try to improve.

Within the human context, I think education is very important – giving children equal chances to develop, to learn, to improve. If you look at what is happening at the moment, addressing inequalities is at the core of the issue. It is indeed difficult to imagine that in the 21st century we have people who are starving. I think it is just wrong that we collectively fail to satisfy basic needs, that people do not have enough food to fulfil their own bodily and metabolic needs – it impacts their whole life. I conducted some research about the impact of malnutrition on children: if children are undernourished at a young age and/or when pregnant women are undernourished, the negative impacts span their whole life. It is on this very basis that individuals are given equal chances: while acknowledging that not everyone will take up these opportunities or that they might not use them appropriately, it is about at least creating a pathway for everyone.

To what extent does your work fit into the human development concept? In particular, could you bring in your research on modelling human environmental systems?

I worked for a long time on climate change impact and adaptation but my most recent work is on the concept of human agency, rapid social change and social tipping. I think this is useful because it first recognizes that we all have a different degree of agency, that agencies are not distributed equally in society and that there is a collective aspect to agency. I think it was at the end of the 20th century that the rational choice paradigm emerged – if all individuals pursue their own interests it somehow adds to the collective good. Within the rational paradigm there is not much room for changing system rules. In the agency concept that I am exploring, you also have a collective or strategic agency where you act as a citizen, not only as a consumer, and you try to structure the social institutions, the rules and regulations, and also the collective involvement, to have more agency. An example of this is the Fridays for Future movement: if you are just one school child, your agency is very low, but if there are millions of school children on the street, then they cannot be ignored. Through this collective engagement you can change the structure of society and increase your agency and power.

In this modelling perspective, we also look at the minority-majority principle. There is some evidence that, in order to tip or change the dominant behaviour pattern or even technology, you do not need everyone in a society to follow the pattern, but only a small share of the population. In financial markets, this might be 10% and for social norms it is around 20–25%. While the percentage may vary for different areas, the idea is the same: a committed minority displaces the other pattern and manifests a commitment, and you can really make others follow this. This is, for instance, exactly the same phenomena used by populist movements – although it is not the whole of society involved, just a small group, they are committed, radical and they change the debate in society and maybe even some rules. This supports the same idea that you need an active minority that tries to change societal rules and institutions in a more desired direction.

The human development concept touches many different dimensions and we are looking at how to improve collaboration between and across disciplines and policy sectors. Do you think this approach is becoming the new ‘normal’ when dealing with multidimensional issues such as environmental change or development?

Yes, I think so. Addressing human development requires contributions from medicine, nutritional science, epidemiology, educational science, philosophy, psychology, etc. It all comes together and it has some value because it allows one to see the bigger picture. Therefore, it is very important to me to be able to work interdisciplinarily and with experts from other fields, because otherwise my research would be very limited. Especially in the environmental field, technical issues are very important, for instance the capacity to store water in an irrigation system or the speed of water flow. And it is the same with energy. You have to understand the physical properties of the resources you are dealing with, and it is a ‘must’ when you work on these kinds of subjects.

What are the main challenges in building a knowledge base that will be taken up in policy-making and decision-making?

I see that there is a need, and I am leading an EU project on cascading climate change risks, including systemic risks like those spreading from one area to another or from one sector to another. We were asked recently to prepare a policy brief for the European Commission about systemic risk in the context of the COVID-19 crisis on what it means for trade networks, international security and financial networks. I think in many countries or regions politicians are actively searching for this kind of new knowledge, especially if you see the limitations of classical economics in particular, where you do not have crises. Instead, you have a linear system that continuously develops in some direction, so if you come across a crisis then you do not know how to address it. Therefore, you need more interdisciplinary approaches, which oftentimes actually come from physics, and you also need complex modelling tools. Even the integrated assessments that are used in the environmental sciences are based on economic models and are derived from the classical economics in a rational choice theory, with the idea that you have a number of populations in the model that are all equal agents, for example they have the same energy use, same demand for food, etc., but this is not true in real life. More detailed, complex and agent-based models allow you to have more social differentiation and to look at networks between agents in the models. This is very important because you can see regime shifts, and you are able to reproduce them in the modelling work. Whereas when you use standard modelling approaches you don’t have a regime shift, a crisis or any kind of system change.

Of course, politics is a complex process and it is important to have different pressures to deliver the expertise, for example some pressure from non-governmental organizations and citizen groups, or to have regular press coverage. But there is also the problem of timescale: politicians tend to work with a short- to medium-term perspective. The issue related to this point is that societies lack political vision. It takes a lot of courage to say, “We are facing a crisis, which we need to deal with. Potentially, the next few years will be hard, and this is a challenge for our generation.”

You did mention the COVID-19 situation, which is interesting when you look at the science-policy nexus. What do you observe and how does it impact our understanding of human development? Does it shed light on aspects that we may have overlooked?

I think it does change a lot. I mentioned that many people and decision-makers have a linear perspective of ‘always more’ – having a more interconnected world where we travel more and more, with more and more globalization. But suddenly, you see that there are systemic risks in the system. For example, if you have this interconnected world, you have a higher likelihood that there will be a crisis, which can spread across the networks rapidly, affecting other areas; this could be a crime or a disease that you do not know how to react to. You have something small that happened locally but it affects the whole globe and so you have to think in the broader context of our global system, and recreate the system to make it more resilient to such systemic risks.

Another dimension is environmental health because there are scientists, including myself, who point out that this has not emerged from nowhere. We are trespassing across natural boundaries, for example we have less and less natural protected areas, people are getting closer to wild species, and this increases the likelihood that you might get some unknown diseases and that it might spread to the rest of society. Fortunately, more people are becoming aware of the environment and its importance and they note that we are biological beings who live within the environment and that we cannot separate ourselves from it, because we are part of it, and that we have to respect the natural boundaries. People are becoming more aware of those connections.

In addition, due to the crisis, people are realizing what is actually important in life. They might not worry about having several pairs of shoes but instead worry about getting food, having access to water and electricity as well as access to schools and hospitals. This has helped us re-evaluate and assess what is really important in life.

This links very strongly with your definition of human development, including the things we value and care about. Do you wish to add anything that we may have not covered?

Yes, in line with this, I must underline how key it is to address inequalities. The role of national governments should be redefined: they should be protecting the most vulnerable and creating public goods such as healthcare and educational systems. In addition, companies and very wealthy people should fall under some sort of obligation to contribute more and take care of the less fortunate in society.

Would you say the main issue here is one of solidarity?

Yes, that is one of the main issues, cooperation and providing chances. Indeed, if you have bad luck and you are sick and have no medical insurance, then you struggle to survive. Providing those basic life chances, opportunities and services is very important.


Dr Ilona M. Otto is a Professor in Societal Impact of Climate Change at the Wegener Center for Climate and Global Change, University of Graz, Austria. She coordinates two international projects at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK): Cascading Climate Risks: Towards Adaptive and Resilient European Societies (CASCADES) and A Boost for Rural Lignite Regions (REBOOST). Her research interests include: human agency; social tipping and non-linear changes in socio-economic systems; environmental inequalities; cascading climate risks.

Cover image by Yogendra Joshi on Flickr

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