Grand Challenges and Robust Action

Tackling Grand Challenges Pragmatically: Robust Action Revisited

My latest paper — Tackling Grand Challenges Pragmatically: Robust Action Revisited — is now available online. Co-authored with Fabrizio Ferraro (IESE Business School in Bacelona) and Dror Etzion (McGill University in Montreal), in the paper we theorize a novel approach to addressing the world’s grand challenges based on the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism and the sociological concept of robust action. Grounded in prior empirical organizational research, we identify three robust strategies that organizations can employ in tackling issues such as climate change and poverty alleviation: participatory architecture, multivocal inscriptions and distributed experimentation. We demonstrate how these strategies operate, the manner in which they are linked, the outcomes they generate, and why they are applicable for resolving grand challenges. We conclude by discussing our contributions to research on robust action and grand challenges, as well as some implications for research on stakeholder theory, institutional theory and theories of valuation.

For those without access to a university library, the paper is available through ResearchGate.

SONGS Meets the Market

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) is an inoperative nuclear power plant on the Pacific coast of the United States, near San Diego, California. The plant was closed in June 2013 and is in the early stages of being decommissioned. According to Think Progress, the decommissioning process will go on for at least two decades, and the radioactive waste will be stored onsite for the foreseeable future.

Southern California Edison owns 78.2% of the plant; San Diego Gas & Electric Company 20%; and the City of Riverside Utilities Department 1.8%. The plant’s first unit, Unit 1, operated from 1968 to 1992. Unit 2 was started in 1983 and Unit 3 started in 1984. Units 2 and 3 underwent upgrades in 2009 and 2010 that were intended to last 20 years. However, both reactors had to be shut down in January 2012 due to premature wear found on over 3,000 tubes in replacement steam generators that had been installed in 2010 and 2011.

SCE announced on June 7, 2013 that it would “permanently retire” Unit 2 and Unit 3, citing “continuing uncertainty about when or if SONGS might return to service” and noting that ongoing regulatory and “administrative processes and appeals” would likely cause any tentative restart plans to be delayed for “more than a year.”

Some 100,000 people live within ten miles of SONGS and nearly nine million within 50 miles. In an effort “to keep residents engaged in the decommissioning process” Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Company recently organized a Community Engagement Panel. The first meeting was held in late March, and attended by around 300 people. David Victor, director of the University of California San Diego Laboratory on International Law and Regulation, chaired the panel “because of his proven leadership abilities and experience bringing together diverse groups of stakeholders.”

At first blush, this account suggests a real effort is being made to cultivate a public space for fostering discussion and debate among interested social groups. This idea resonates with the notion of “hybrid forums” proposed by Callon and colleagues as a solution to the governance of complex socio-technical issues (e.g., Callon et al., 2009; Callon and Rabeharisoa, 2003). Forums, “because they are open spaces where groups can come together to discuss technical options involving the collective,” and hybrid, “because the groups involved and the spokespersons claiming to represent them are heterogeneous, including experts, politicians, technicians and laypersons who consider themselves involved. They are also hybrid because the questions and problems taken up are addressed at different levels in a variety of domains, from ethics to economic” (Callon et al., 2009, p. 18).

Some of my work has explored and theorized the potential role of hybrid forums. For example, in “Boundaries, Breaches, and Bridges: The Case of Climategate,” we consider the possibility of hybrid forums in the context of climate science and concerns related to climate change. In “Metatheoretical Perspectives on Sustainability Journeys: Evolutionary, Relational and Durational,” we propose the possibility of hybrid forums as an approach to sustainability-related policy formulation and governance.

In addition to signalling a possibly interesting case study of hybrid forums in the making, there was another quote in the Think Progress that caught my eye, on a completely different topic. The quote comes from an earlier piece by Joe Romm, and has to do with the role of markets.

The countries where nuclear has dead-ended are market-based economies where the nuclear industry has simply been unable to deliver a competitive product.

I’ve been studying nuclear power for several years now. For instance, in “Categorization by Association: Nuclear Technology and Emission Free Electricity,” we studied the ongoing efforts to (re)categorize nuclear power from 1945 to 2010. More recently I have been studying the diverse and continuing responses to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown by countries around the world. In the course of this work, one of the discourses that I have found really fascinating relates to the role of markets in nuclear power. Last fall, the topic even came up during class discussions with MBA students.

Some time ago, I blogged that “the preponderance of the evidence from both the US and the rest of the world suggests that heavy governmental subsidies, loan guarantees and/or liability exemptions — either explicitly or de facto — are essential to the development of nuclear power. By comparison, all of the literature I have read on the topic suggests that the market has yet to build a single nuclear plant.”

Romm’s recent quote re-contextualizes this basic thesis, but pivots the emphasis from reactor construction to “dead-ends” (a well-known possibility in any innovation journey; see Van de Ven, Polley, Garud & Venkataraman, 1999). The SONGS experience is yet one more example of the role of the market in nuclear power. It shows that while markets cannot build nuclear power plants, they can “dead-end” them.

Whether this market performativity is a good or a bad thing, is another question entirely…


Callon, M., Lascoumes, P., & Barthe, Y. 2009. Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Callon, M., & Rabeharisoa, V. 2003. Research “in the Wild” and the Shaping of New Social Identities. Technology in Society, 25: 193–204.

Garud, R., & Gehman, J. 2012. Metatheoretical Perspectives on Sustainability Journeys: Evolutionary, Relational and Durational. Research Policy, 41: 980–995.

Garud, R., Gehman, J., & Karnøe, P. 2010. Categorization by Association: Nuclear Technology and Emission-Free Electricity. Research in the Sociology of Work, 21: 51–93.

Garud, R., Gehman, J., & Karunakaran, A. 2014. Boundaries, Breaches, and Bridges: The Case of Climategate. Research Policy, 43: 60–73.

Van de Ven, A. H., Polley, D. E., Garud, R., & Venkataraman, S. 1999. The Innovation Journey. New York: Oxford University Press.