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Making Response-Ability: Societal Readiness Assessment for Sustainability Governance

CeMoRe, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YW, UK
Politics, Philosophy, Religion, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YW, UK
Gridsquare, Kendal LA8 9PH, UK
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2023, 15(6), 5140;
Submission received: 31 October 2022 / Revised: 26 February 2023 / Accepted: 8 March 2023 / Published: 14 March 2023
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Next Steps for Governance of Sustainable Mobility Innovations)


Governance for net-zero mobility is complex and risky. In this paper, we discuss conceptual analysis and design research with more than 250 stakeholders in the governance of mobility transformations in the North of England. Two key findings are that governance actors need new methods to: (1) realise the value of dissensus, which resonates with debates in social and environmental accounting (SEA); and (2) to develop new skills to address complexity, risk, and social justice, defined as ‘response-abilities’ in feminist science and technology studies (STS). Combining insights from SEA and STS with our own research, we present a ‘Societal Readiness Assessment’ (SoRA) framework, which we have developed to support more inclusive sustainable mobility transformation. We discuss how SoRA might become a standard complement to the Technology Readiness Assessment and conclude by considering challenges and opportunities.

1. Introduction

Changing mobilities is risky for governance actors, because mobility is an existential need and societal flashpoint [1]. Dissensus and uncertainties affect many politicians’ willingness to commit to anything but ambitious goals [2]. For some, the gap between climate commitments and actions is the result of ‘organised hypocrisy’ [3], while Levin et al. call it a ‘policy-making tragedy’ where policy-makers become trapped by short-term horizons even when the implications of doing so are catastrophic [4]. A major driver in this crisis is that proponents of neoliberal ideologies and vested interests in fossil fuel dependency exploit political inertia to sow doubt [5], rationalise delay [6], and provide placebo solutions [7]. They are actively influencing policies and publics, as highlighted in the BBC documentary ‘Big Oil v the World’ (2022), where Exxon is shown to have suppressed its own research because it linked fossil fuel extraction with global warming [8]. This influence is visible even in positive policies, such as the US Inflation Reduction Act 2022 [9].
The troubles of governing socio-technical change are nothing new to science and technology studies (STS) scholars, who have long highlighted the complex, social, ethical, and political dimensions of science and innovation. They have traced the entanglements of fact and value, dissent, unanticipated consequences, and lobbying [8,10,11]. Nowotny, Scott and Gibbons found in 2001 that a deeper understanding of these complexities had inspired the emergence of ‘Mode-2’ knowledge production, recognising the links between science and society [12]. They call for a ‘Mode-2 society’, where knowledge production is more consciously embedded in problem contexts.
In dialogue with these early articulations of a responsible research and innovation agenda [13], Sheila Jasanoff outlined the need for ‘Technologies of Humility’ or ‘methods, or better yet institutionalized habits of thought, that try to come to grips with … the unknown, the uncertain, the ambiguous, and the uncontrollable’ [14]: 227. Technologies of humility encourage, firstly, reflection on the framing of risk, which can help avoid exclusion and hidden injustice, such as the consequences of delayed climate action for future generations. Secondly, technologies of humility invite participation in the consideration of vulnerability. An example is the involvement of drivers and residents in areas surrounding planned low-traffic neighbourhoods to explore unanticipated consequences of traffic displacement, congestion, and air pollution. Jasanoff’s third technology of humility is concerned with distribution. This encourages reflection on the ripple effects of governance decisions, bringing into view, for example, those who suffer from the extractive destruction needed to electrify automobility [15]. Finally, she suggests a focus on learning as a way to move beyond monocausal explanations and towards the civic deliberation of complex challenges. Social and environmental accounting (SEA) scholars, Brown and Tregidga [16,17], add that such methods for inclusion and dissent are not only moral, but also political imperatives, because ‘consensus politics has led to … post-politics’, a condition where democratic citizens are deprived of opportunities to ‘make their voices heard and choose between real alternatives’ (Mouffe 2013, in [17]: 2). Moreover, recognising the creative value of ‘dissensus in producing new social realities’ (ibid.), enables more innovative and ambitious mobility transformation.
In this paper, we connect calls for technologies of humility with debates about ‘societal readiness’. Societal readiness is all too often construed as a public deficit. Society could deliver 40–70% of low carbon transformation through demand reduction and behaviour change [18], but people are said to be ‘not ready’ for this. With critics of this often politically motivated ‘blaming’ of citizens, frequently reduced to consumers [2,19,20], we argue that leveraging technologies of humility for broader societal engagement requires a respecification of societal readiness. One of the participants in our research, a leader of the Zero Carbon Cumbria partnership of more than 90 businesses, third sector organisations, and local authorities, told us that societal change harbours ‘the opportunity for massive impact’, but requires ‘complex conversations, because … societal readiness is about both society to be ready to integrate innovation into their lives and innovations to be ready (and good!) for society and the climate.’ For Donna Haraway, these conversations need new skills or ‘response-abilities’, culminating in: ‘Habits of curiosity and compassion—responding to new knowledge by seeking to learn more, by feeling for those about whom you have learned, and by acting, insofar as possible, to reduce suffering’ [21]: 44–45.
Against this background, three questions arise: (1) who in the field of decarbonising mobility needs the new methods and institutionalised habits of thought Jasanoff recommends; (2) what form should such methods take; and (3) how might they become institutionalized? As part of the DecarboN8 project, we have engaged with over 250 stakeholders in the North of England, including rural and urban local authorities, Third Sector organisations, designers, planners, policy-makers, commercial innovators, researchers, and youth and citizen climate groups. Building on a sociological conceptual analysis, we have taken a design research approach to develop a Societal Readiness Assessment framework (SoRA) and methods for evaluating Societal Readiness Levels (SRL). In Section 2 we present our conceptual analysis and review related research to explore who needs technologies of humility for sustainable mobility governance. We outline our methodology in Section 3, and present SoRA in Section 4. Our discussion explores how to institutionalise SoRA in Section 5, and we conclude by considering challenges and opportunities.

2. Research Background

Governance has always been a matter of ‘muddling through’ [22,23], but now the pressure is on to design new ways of living [24]. This requires consideration of the ‘societal readiness’ of innovations not just the readiness of the public to ‘accept’ so-called ‘solutions’ [25]. However, systematic methods for analysing and increasing the societal readiness of low carbon innovation are missing. To ground our design of SoRA in existing research, and to explore who needs SoRA (most), we first reflect on the limitations of current conceptions of societal (2.1) and technology readiness (2.2). This leads into consideration of the ‘wicked’ nature of governance challenges for mobility transformation (2.3). ‘Wicked’ problems have inspired a turn to Mode-2 science and society (2.4). However, failures of Mode-2 society have produced a competing, dysfunctional, post-political post-truth discourse (2.5), and we argue that the dialogic dissent and new response-abilities that SoRA aims to support are critical for revitalising the democratic governance of mobility transformations (2.6).

2.1. Ready or Not?

The 2015-16 car-free observatory reviewed 200 initiatives from 95 cities around the world, and found that they are powerful catalysts for more ‘liveable’ cities [26]. Our own explorations have seen ‘car-free’ spreading as a new norm for governing change in urban transport well before the COVID-19 pandemic [27], but mobility futures are unlikely to be literally ‘car-free’. It would be more appropriate to talk of postautomobility futures [28], which may include (combinations of) many innovations, such as active travel, mobility as a service (MaaS), ‘15-minute’ neighbourhoods, the smart city, and automated mobility [7,29,30], and people are ready for this. In 2018, 63% of Spanish citizens, for example, were in favour of ‘severely restricting’ cars from city centres, and the Spanish coalition government claimed an area of 472 hectares for a low emissions ‘Madrid Central’. In more recent efforts, the designers of nine low-traffic ‘superblocks’ in Barcelona found that ‘policy-specific beliefs, emotions, perceived process legitimacy and institutional trust were strongly associated to acceptance’ [31].
More broadly, a 2022 study of public attitudes towards climate change mitigation in 192 countries shows that the majority of those surveyed ‘are worried about climate change’ [32]: 9. Respondents in many areas also ‘think their governments are most responsible for reducing the pollution that causes climate change’ (ibid.: 14). The COVID-19-related restriction of travel delivered substantial reductions in CO2 emissions. A revolution in home working, car-free streets and plane-free skies, birdsong, and clean air meant that when social distancing allowed, people claimed the streets in ways that enabled more sociable and safer ways of enjoying life. Many local governments implemented pop-up cycling and walking infrastructures and there were high hopes that the pandemic ‘mega-disruption’ would act as ‘a catalyst for radical longer term policy change’ [33]. However, Marsden and Docherty find that inertia within the governance system, historical infrastructural, and land-use lock-ins that separate work from home, school, shopping, and leisure, require journeys as an integral part of millions of everyday lives, blocking lasting change. These systemic lock-ins also play a pivotal role in public responses. In Manchester, UK, the implementation of a clean air zone had to be halted due to social protests [34]. Businesses and residents made it clear that, for many (including taxi and delivery drivers, and trades people), low emission areas mean a loss of livelihood. Now, conspiracy theories suggest that 15 min city initiatives are a strategy to impose climate emergency surveillance and lock-downs [35]. In France, the ‘yellow vests’ have repeatedly caused disruption in response to policies of fuel duty rises, highlighting similar vulnerabilities. Additionally, in Madrid, the conservative People’s Party, which now controls the municipality, struck down the 2018 coalition’s low emissions zone [36].
Public and governance actors’ responses seem to flicker; ‘whack-a-mole governance’ [4] enrols populist ‘us and them’ narratives that pitch ‘the people’ against ‘the elites’. In an article entitled Bigger than Brexit: exploring right-wing populism and net-zero policies in the United Kingdom, Atkins [37] shows how fossil-fuel-backed thinktanks and lobbying groups previously linked to campaigns on Brexit and against COVID-19 restrictions are now using the media to reframe the UK’s ambitious net-zero goals as undemocratic, costly, and causally linked to the country’s cost of living crisis, when, actually, 43.6% of the electorate supported them in 2019 and rising energy bills are linked to the removal of decarbonisation policies. Research on the ‘misinformation machine’ that links these efforts finds that populations experiencing economic insecurity are particularly susceptible to antiregulatory narratives, even if it is against their interests [38]. Inglehart and Norris observe that ‘[i]n the long run, growing economic inequality is likely to bring a resurgence of mass support for government intervention—but for now, this is held in check by emotionally-hot cultural issues … that enable conservative politicians to draw the support of low-income voters’ [39]: 451. Car culture is one such issue.
‘Societal readiness’ for mobility transformation is clearly lacking. However, all too often it is framed as a binary question of individual responsibility—are the public ready to ‘accept’ (radical) decarbonising technological or policy innovations, or not? Are governance actors ready to broach the challenge? Answers, too, are binary—yes, or no. This frames ‘societal readiness’ as a matter of the acceptance of solutions, changing behaviour through education, nudging, or taxation, and guiding governance actors’ sense of responsibility through carbon budgets and ‘shopping lists’ of solutions. This is, at best, one-sided, at worst politically motivated to shore up unsustainable ways of living [2,19]. The quest for societal readiness as ‘acceptance’ is misleading [40,41,42]. Bellamy, for example, examines controversies around geo-engineering technologies for climate mitigation and adaptation, where he observes a ‘deficit of responsibly defined criteria for shaping governance propositions’ and advocates a more deliberative approach [40]: 155. Governments, local authorities, and communities affected by decarbonising innovations need methods to support the democratic assessment of the social value of ‘solutions’. However, instead, there is an emphasis on their technological and market ‘readiness’.

2.2. Technology Readiness Assessment

Technology Readiness Assessment and Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) were developed by NASA in the 1970s to measure the readiness of emerging space exploration technology for deployment. The tool was further developed by the U.S. Government to evaluate technologies against a set of descriptions that capture ‘incrementally higher levels of fidelity in terms of its form, the level of integration with other parts of the system, and its operating environment than the lower levels, until the final level where the actual operation of the technology is in its final form and proven through successful mission operations’ [43]. TRL have been adopted and adapted by different organisations, and span nine, in some cases 11 levels, as shown in Table 1 (definitions from [18,44,45]).
In the UK, TRLs were included as an Annex in the 2011 Science and Technology Committee’s Second Report on Technology and Innovation Centres, which debated the form that their innovation ‘Catapults’ would take. Since then, TRLs have been part of UK research funding calls [46]. In 2014, the US Department of Transportation brought a revised version of the scale for highways (‘TRL-H’) into use for its Exploratory Advance Research Programme, to encourage ‘high-risk, high-reward research’ [47]. In the Horizon Europe programme, the TRL scale is used to measure the progress of projects funded under key funding streams, including Horizon 2020 and the European Research Council [45]. It is interesting that the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (which is a key funder for net-zero transportation research in the UK) uses TRLs as going from ‘basic and applied research’ to ‘translational development’, and from ‘clinical evaluation and regulatory approval’ to ‘adoption and diffusion’ [48]. Although it seems worded for health innovations, this linear guidance is provided as a generic resource on the UK Research and Innovation Councils (UKRI) webpage. For the discussion at hand, it is particularly interesting to note that ‘real life conditions’ are only considered from TRL4.
Further, TRLs have been harnessed by the Connected Places Catapult, the UK’s ‘innovation accelerator for cities, transport and places’. This Catapult connects cutting-edge research with public sector leaders and businesses, with a focus on shaping the future of how people live, work, and travel through clean growth [49]. A significant aspect of their work is delivering the UK Department for Transport’s Accessibility-Technology Research and Innovation Grants (A-TRIG) to advance new products and services that can improve access to mobility, specifically aimed at developments from TRL 4 to 7.
The IPCC documents the use of TRL in the assessment of climate change mitigation technologies across all sectors, from agriculture to transport, and from electric vehicles to geo-engineering. It finds that ‘the usefulness of TRLs is limited by several factors’ [18]: 16-14. These include an inability to capture the applicability of complex systems, their ‘manufacturability, commercialization, or the readiness of organisations to implement innovations’ (ibid.), which points to uncertainties about societal readiness, or the capacity of ordinary people to desire and adopt technologies in ways that allow their effective operation. Moreover, technology assessment has an inherent technological bias, promoting technological ‘solutions’, where social innovation may be equally, if not more important.

2.3. Wicked, Super-Wicked, or Plain Complex?

Writing in 1973, Professor of the Science of Design Horst Rittel and colleague Melvin Webber, Professor of City Planning, coined the term “wicked problems” to describe how modern social policy problems—from healthcare to highway engineering—are complex, ill-defined, and ‘rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution’ [50]: 160. They stress that such problems are ‘never solved’, only to be ‘re-solved-over and over again’, and different from ‘problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions’ (ibid.). Rittel and Webber list 10 characteristics, and by exploring how these map onto challenges of governing net-zero compatible mobilities transformation, we can develop a deeper understanding of the gap between climate ambitions and actions:
  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem… The information needed to understand the problem depends upon one’s idea for solving it’ [50]: 161.
    Sustainability governance is shaped by different conceptions of solutions, each linked to a different way of understanding the problem. While many highway engineers see a need to build more roads and EV charging infrastructures, in Urry’s analysis, mobility governance has to aim for system change [51]. For the former, automobility is an unquestioned human need. For the latter, it is a historically contingent system combining: (1) the car made by iconic firms of 20th century capitalism; (2) sign-values such as speed, security, masculinity, status, and freedom; (3) a complex of industries from oil states to tourism, suburbian house building, and advertising; (4) land-use policies and global practices of automobility that subordinate other mobilities and shape childhood, work, family life, leisure and pleasure; (5) a dominant culture that holds mobility as central to the good life; and (6) unsustainable resource-use.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. In solving a chess problem or a mathematical equation, the problem solver knows when he [sic] has done his job. … Not so with planning problems … because there are no ends to the causal chains’ (p. 162).
    The definition of ‘net-zero’ mobility is contested, and even Geels and Turnheim (who take a more mechanistic view than Urry) show that in 2022 no country ‘has yet presented a realistic and feasible implementation policy plan’ [52]: xiii. They agree with Urry that mobility demands whole system reconfiguration. However, there is no clear end state for any of these reconfigurations when the problem could be considered solved.
  • ‘Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad’ (p. 162).
    Pangbourne et al.’s examination of MaaS, which integrates different modes of transport under digital service models, shows how this ‘solution’ has many ‘unanticipated and perverse outcomes ranging from changes in travel behaviour and attitudes to changes in land use and land value affecting urban form, as well as impacts on certain social groups’ [30]: 36. For example, MaaS Pay As You Go packages can disproportionately disadvantage the poor.
  • ‘There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution …’ (p. 163).
    Societal effects of mobility innovations often only emerge over time and after significant investment has been made. Pangbourne et al. and the car-free observatory’s findings illustrate this.
  • Each response to a wicked problem ‘is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly’ (p. 163).
    Opting for policies that rely on the electrification of automobility requires significant investment in infrastructures and could lock societies even deeper into automobility, where ‘EVs will claim much of the same urban spaces that green mobilities such as cycle lanes, bus lanes, and pedestrianization of cities also lay claim to …. A new battle over urban space—curbs, parking, buildings, and priority use of public streets—is likely to break out between EVs and green mobility’ [15]: 2003.
  • ‘Wicked problems do not have an … exhaustively describable set of potential solutions’ (p. 164).
    There is no one right ‘solution’ to net-zero compatible mobility. Urry forsees a postautomobility system where ‘[s]uddenly automobility disappears’, as a tipping point ‘will occur during the 21st century, when the steel and petroleum car system will finally be seen as a dinosaur’ (p. 36). Geels and Turnheim, in contrast, envisage that ‘electric vehicles are likely to substantially reconfigure parts of the passenger mobility system’ (p. 219). There are many possible innovations and combinations of innovations, but methods for assessment beyond TRL are lacking.
  • ‘Every wicked problem is essentially unique’ (p. 164).
    Mobility systems have very localised idiosyncracies, linked to topography, weather, demographics, and other complex factors. In the North of England, for example, the place-based carbon calculator created by the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions, shows that carbon emissions are socially diverse [53]. There are high emissions from prospering countryside life and ageing suburbanites. Urban communities, as well as challenged communities, have lower emissions. This diversity poses different challenges for different local authorities. Place-based solutions are needed (Figure 1). Again, criteria for assessment are lacking.
  • ‘Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem’ (p. 165).
    High-carbon automobility is still dominant, in no small part because land-use problems and investment decisions that separate work, education, and other public services from homes create systemic lock-ins, and car manufacturing and fossil fuel interests influence governments, media, and the public.
  • ‘The choice of explanation determines the nature of the resolution’ (p. 166).
    This is the flipside of characteristic 1. If high carbon mobility is seen as a problem of demand and choice of fuel, electric vehicles and more infrastructure will look like solutions. If it is seen as an effect of maladaptive automobility land-use patterns, 15 min neighbourhoods and many other innovations enter the frame.
  • ‘The planner has no right to be wrong’. Their decisions ‘matter a great deal to those people that are touched by those actions’ (p. 166).
    Many interventions are good or bad in highly consequential ways for different people. Planners and innovators are morally responsible, but there are also political consequences, as they may be accountable to elected members, who in turn depend on positive public opinion and votes.
Bruno Latour’s book, We Have Never Been Modern, provided a ground-breaking new perspective on Rittel and Webber’s wicked problems. Latour showed that the received idea of science as separate from society and politics had given rise to the extensive (but denied) practices of ‘mediation’ and ‘purification’ that purged or suppressed the interconnections and interdependencies, e.g., between perceptions of problems and solutions, in hybrid ‘imbroglios of science, politics, economy, law, religion, technology fiction’ [54]: 2. Rittel and Webber’s work was a first step in acknowledging these interconnections and seeking ways of dealing with them. Writing nearly 40 later, Levin et al. (2012) extended this work, arguing that climate change is an example of a new class of hybrid environmental ‘super-wicked problems’ [4] that add the following features:
‘Time is running out’ as ‘humanity may only have a small window in time to move from its carbon-intensive trajectory to avoid significant harm’ (p. 127).
Just a decade on from Levin et al.’s analysis, that window is closing [24], and the urgency of transformation complicates the governance of mobility transformation, because the goals become overwhelming. For example, the 2019 carbon budget for Cumbria lists a 79% reduction in residents’ travel for a net-zero target in 2037 [55].
‘Those seeking to end the problem are also causing it’, with even the most ‘environmentally-minded’ engaged in polluting practices and systems (p. 127).
A 2021 survey found that 78% of people surveyed in the US, UK, and seven other countries, are concerned about climate change. However, only 36% felt personally committed to taking action and only 17% felt that ‘people in their neighborhood are committed to preserving the environment and the planet’ [56]. Surveys like this often underpin public deficit definitions of ‘societal readiness’, which sidestep more complex questions about how ready and how ‘good’ the ‘solutions’ are for society.
There is ‘No central authority’. ‘[R]esponses require coordination not just among states, themselves in a variety of different circumstances, but also across different economic sectors and policy subsections at multiple political levels’ (p. 128).
Cumbria, for example, is part of a global tourism industry, welcoming 47 million visitors per year, multiplying the local population by a factor of 94 [57]. At peak times, cars dominate the landscape, impacting on the lives and livelihoods of those working and living in the area. To change such mobility patterns, coordination with national rail companies, global tour operators, as well as local service providers, is needed.
‘Policies discount the future irrationally’ (p. 128).
The catastrophic consequences of carbon emissions have long been known and the 194 parties at the 2015 Paris COP agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 °C. However, in 2022 the UK’s independent government advisory body, the Climate Change Commission, found that the surface transport sector is ‘significantly off track’. Only two of 10 indicators—sales of battery electric and other electric vehicles are ‘on track’. These real consequences of discourses of delay increase the burden and cost for future generations, irrationally discounting their right to a good life [6].
Together, these features of wicked and super-wicked problems explain some of the challenges of sustainability governance. However, if natural science problems are even more wicked than social policy problems, science, governance, and society, need to change.

2.4. Rethinking Science and the Failure of Mode-2 Society

Nowotny et al.’s book, Rethinking Science (2001), is a landmark Zeitdiagnosis that suggests just that. Unlike many STS scholars, who focus on how science is shaped by society, Nowotny et al. focus on how, in the late 20th century, societies were beginning to better address the imbroglios of nature-culture with new ways of knowledge production, and how this could be improved. They observe a pragmatic cultural transformation after the Second World War, when societies realized that scientists’ ‘problem-choice needed to accommodate demands for utility’ [12]: 122. This led to ‘weakly contextualised’ science, where ‘internal’ selection criteria related to ‘the structure of a particular field’ could remain segregated from, ‘external’ criteria such as ‘social, economic, political and cultural benefits’ [12]: 122–123. Weakly contextualized scientific ‘truth … had broad appeal because it seemed to take arbitrariness out of rulership’ [58]: 756. ‘[P]ublics at opposing ends of the political spectrum could all agree on the importance of science for policy or … public facts’ (ibid.). This cultural transformation also made it clear that public facts were ‘shot through with values in at least four ways’, including: (1) they entail choices over whose experiential realities matter; (2) they ‘entail value judgements about the right way to deploy expertise in society’; (3) they ‘reduce the space for democratic engagement by appealing to exogenous [scientific] standards of rightness, even though these have proved … to be deeply value-laden’; and (4) then deny the ‘historically intimate connections between public fact-making and the rise of modern democracy’ [58]: 752. Despite these frictions, weakly contextualized science was a powerful progressive force. It enabled grassroot movements to put environmental harm, often experienced by marginalized people, on scientific and policy agendas. This created ‘a powerful “epistemic network” [claiming] … their “right” … to participate in decision-making’ [12]: 133. Significant environmental regulation has been an important outcome. However, weakly contextualized knowledge production often remains at far remove from people’s experience, allowing continued separation of science from contexts of application and implication.
For example, the UKRI funds scientists to trial self-driving vehicles in selected real world contexts as part of a Future of Mobility programme to ‘reduce the UK’s carbon footprint from transport’ [59]. However, the funding does not require the participation of citizens who would be impacted by the technology (e.g., taxi and delivery drivers). For Nowotny et al., such weak contextualization of science does not go far enough; ‘strong contextualization’ with closer integration between different science disciplines and everyday contextual knowledge and experience is needed, because the ‘dominant logic of the industrial age, namely that [society] can control the risks it produces, is breaking down’ [12]: 14. Nowotny et al. argue that to define a new relationship between science, governance and society, we need to develop Mode-2 society through:
  • Strong commitment to social justice, because ‘Mode-2 society will lead to … greater volatility, increased uncertainties—and, inevitably, less equality’ [12]: 252.
  • The active pursuit of a democratization of knowledge (ibid.).
  • The strong contextualization of research and innovation beyond the context of application, into contexts of implication, where intended and unanticipated, good and bad consequences are felt (p. 253).
  • A greater flexibility in institutions that generate knowledge, such as universities and research labs (p. 255).
  • Action that addresses people’s experience in contexts of application and contexts of implication in research and innovation (p. 257).
  • The production of socially robust knowledge with ‘a strong “reality content”, that is, be closer to actual practices and their rapid changes than the traditional timeless images of Science and its Pursuit of Truth’ (p. 258).
  • Public accountability. Mode-2 society needs science to enter the agora, a public domain where ‘science meets and interacts with many more agents’ (p. 260).
However, two decades on, Mode-2 society seems to have failed. Most significantly, inequality has increased dramatically; in France (the only European country that has an official indicator), 10.2% of households experienced transport poverty in 2014, and Martiskainen et al. link the ‘disproportionate impact of rises in fuel prices on low-income households’ to the French ‘yellow vest’ protests in 2019 [60]: 5. Additionally, while science has entered the agora, climate change misinformation has rocketed.
King et al. observe that electric vehicles (EV) are the focus of a particularly pernicious misinformation battle [61], reflecting, in our terms, that EVs are not sufficiently ready or good for society, even though 2021 saw more than 6.6 million EVs on the road [62]. Further, EVs have reached high technology readiness levels, where analysts argue that the main ‘readiness bottleneck is commercialization, safety, and integration parameters’ [63]. There are many concerns about hidden embodied carbon generated in the production of EVs. The trend for consumers to buy (multiple) new electric SUV, the fact that electricity is not carbon-free, the need to mine rare earths, often in countries with poor human rights records, and the competition for space with active travel, are all issues that, we would argue, limit the societal readiness of EV—leading analysts such as Henderson to conclude that ‘EVs are not the answer’ [15]. In a functioning Mode-2 society with strongly contextualized practices of knowledge production, these considerations would inspire more ambitious EV innovation. For example, small shared EV pods incorporated into MaaS provision could articulate sustainable postautomobility futures, where people do not have to own a car. However, instead, ‘ineffective electric vehicles’ has become a powerful misinformation meme with ‘high-traction posts claiming that “rich metropolitan elites” aim to make driving unaffordable for ordinary people’ [61]: 23. King et al. show that the authors of such messages seek to deny, delay, and deceive to ‘actively promote continued use of fossil fuels’ (p. 94). This leads some analysts to suggest that we have entered a ‘post-truth’ era, where the proliferation of misinformation leads to a loss of trust in science, experts, and institutions.

2.5. Post-Truth and the Value of Dissent

Rethinking science necessitates a dialogue about whose truths matter. If public facts are shot through with value, it is important to ask whose values should count and how this should be decided. However, the failure of Mode-2 society has created a vacuum where this question has, instead, ignited a fight over ‘particular truths…, especially the devastating reality of climate change’ [58]: 752. These truths are ‘irrelevant’ for many people, at best ‘diverting attention from more immediate problems; at worst, [purported to be], … fabricated to serve the deep state’s interests’ (ibid.).
In a thoughtful argument for the greater recognition of the value of dissensus, Brown suggests that ‘[p]rivileging supposed neutrality, impartiality and consensus creates a democratic deficit which leads to disaffection with politics’, making people more susceptible to populist manipulation and misinformation [16]: 319. Misinformation analysts such as King et al. recommend the stronger ‘debunking’ of false information. However, drawing on theorists of democracy Jaques Ranciere and Chantal Mouffe, Brown argues that disagreement is, in fact, a potent resource in the politics of climate change. Consensus-politics constructs dissent as problematic, an expression of antagonistic, combative opposition. However, agonistic politics does not construe those who hold different views ‘as an enemy to be destroyed, but as an “adversary”, i.e., somebody whose ideas we combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into question’ (p. 321). The concerns voiced by opponents of low-emission zones, for example, are real and point to the systemic lock-ins of car culture and the unequal effects of measures that are good for some and bad for others. As the place-based carbon calculator shows, for some, car dependence is a precious privilege; for others it is a form of mobility poverty [53,64]. This friction should be addressed.
It seems that there are now hyper-wicked problems arising from the failure of Mode-2 society to deal democratically with the entanglement of public fact and value, spelling new trouble for sustainability governance:
The manipulation of public opinion through misinformation and populist riling of ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’ pit ‘alternative fact’ against ‘fact’.
STS insights into the social coproduction of fact and value and the failure of Mode-2 society could, in fact, be seen to have enabled Donald Trump’s senior counselor Kellyanne Conway’s unforgettable phrase ‘alternative facts’ [58]: 760. However, debunking such ‘alternative facts’, even if it is based on good science, denies the crux of the matter: a lack of ‘socially robust knowledge with strong reality content’. Rather than seek to impose fact over ‘alternative fact’, agonistic dialogue is needed.
The erosion of democracy through the destruction of democratic institutions.
Exploring how public fact and value have become so dysfunctionally entangled, Jasanoff and Simmet show that the ‘failure to frame issues in ways that meaningfully connect to people’ [58]: 760 has allowed populists to ‘hijack democracy’, deny weakly contextualized science, and dismantle democratic institutions such as the US Environmental Protection Agency. Stronger democratic protection of institutions is needed.
Declarations of post-politics and post-truth divert attention from the need for democratic dialogue over fact and value.
Jasanoff and Simmet argue that with terms such as post-politics and post-truth ‘it is liberals, … who now have lost sight of the value-laden social contexts of truth claims’ [58]: 761, ‘preferring to represent the conflict … as a struggle between truth and lies rather than a struggle between alternative imaginations of democracy’ [58]: 760.
These features deepen the failures of Mode-2 society, but also confirm the need for it. The 2022 IPCC WG III report finds that ‘employing social justice as an orienting principle can increase the political feasibility of low-carbon policies’ [18]: 3–114; and UN Secretary António Guterres’ repeat warnings that our responses to climate change are ‘inconsistent with human survival’ [65] underline that humanity, as a species and as a value, need technologies of humility for more inclusive democratic governance of low-carbon transformation and knowledge production. However, while all humanity might need them, not all want them, as the above discussion shows, paradoxically precisely because technologies of humility can bridge the gap between climate ambitions, people’s lived experience, and political action, by addressing the challenges of (super-/hyper-)wicked problems and social justice. The 17 features we have identified show that it is those who are affected by planners’ actions, who are suffering negative consequences, whose realities are not recognised, the young and unborn whose futures are irrationally discounted, and those who are subject to manipulation, along with responsible governance actors, need technologies of humility the most to consider vulnerabilities, the framing and distribution of risks, and to learn together. The question must then be asked: how should they use them?

2.6. Response-Ability: A Way Out of ‘Muddling Through’?

Lindblom argued that governance inevitably entails ‘muddling through’, because it ‘assumes intellectual capacities and sources of information that men [sic] simply do not possess’ [22]: 80. The discussion above shows that it is not just a lack of information and intellectual capacities, but a lack of social, societal, and political capacities to manage the entanglement of public fact and value, risks and vulnerabilities democratically. However, collective responsibility, in Grimpe et al.’s words ‘is not a paradise on earth. It is hard work and does not imply ideal solutions for everybody, once and for all; and it may still result in harmful outcomes….’ [66]: 2972. Technologies of humility can build capacities for dissent, but how to make it constructively agonistic and productive of socially robust knowledge?
In many ways, we are all quite well versed in how to get along and work together—we know the basics—or at least most of us think we do. Listen, do not interrupt, try to be open to revising your thinking, etc., even if we do not always adhere to these principles. However, what ‘we’ know less about is how to collaborate through friction, ignorance, and dissent—sometimes, the easiest thing is to ignore, shout over, disengage, or faction off those who take a different view. Or, in the pursuit of consensus, we may engineer things to ensure we ask only those we regard as likeminded. Totalitarianism can achieve social acceptance and foster ‘collaboration’ [67], but questions about social acceptability and social justice should be contested openly, interpreted, and negotiated, with room for experimentation and learning. Dissent comes from the Latin dissentire, which means to “differ in sentiment”. If we are to successfully tackle climate change, then we must act together, and acting together will inevitably entail grappling with a diverse assortment of feelings, opinions, and circumstances. ‘Dialogue’, said Freire and Macedo [68]: 380 is ‘a way of knowing and should never be viewed as a mere tactic‘ to achieve consent. Jasanoff’s technologies of humility enable dialogic dissent, because they recognize the importance of broad-based participation. We must then ask: how should dialogue be conducted between diverse adversaries?
Haraway’s neologism of response-ability holds critical guidance. For her, response-ability combines a set of skills to ‘stay with the trouble’ of science-society entanglements, which ‘requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal [beings] entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings’ [69]: 1. It demands a respectful mode of listening and responding to others, to ‘hold in regard, to respond, to look back reciprocally, to notice, to pay attention, to have courteous regard for, to esteem’ [70]: 19. It provides an orientation for imagining low-carbon mobility futures together where, in Escobar’s terms ‘another possible is possible’ [71], and mobility is recognized as a complex existential individual and societal value where change needs careful attention to its complex multiscalar systemic dynamics.
Technologies of humility, combined with Haraway’s response-abilities are a way of augmenting human intellect by generating not just more information, but also new participatory modes of knowledge production and participation in the consideration of vulnerabilities, the framing and distribution of risks, and collaborative learning. For citizens, consumers, and governance actors to ‘take’ responsibility for climate action, they need technologies of humility that allow them to make response-abilities. We must then ask what form should methods for making response-abilities take?

3. Materials and Methods: Making Response-Abilities through SoRA

Before we describe the Societal Readiness Assessment (SoRA) methods we have developed, we will briefly describe our own methods. When we joined DecarboN8, a network project to decarbonize surface transport in the North of England, funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Science Research Council in 2019, we took the opportunity to design SoRA as a technology of humility. Embedding a small design research project into the DecarboN8 seed funding programme, workshops, and meetings with diverse stakeholders allowed us to create prototype methods and engage network participants in their formative evaluation through using them. This design research builds on long-standing engagement with practitioners and industry in the public safety sector, where ethical concerns about new digital mobile communications technologies led to a collaboration with one of the authors. Through creative workshops, and discussion with stakeholders, Monika Büscher led the development of the platform (accessed on 5 February 2023), which combines an overview of ethical challenges for digital innovation in public safety communications with resources for ethical impact assessment [72]. This has become a resource for R&D projects in public safety communications, including the precommercial public procurement project, BroadWay, where 11 EU governments sought to foster responsible digital innovation in public safety communications, and the first research programme on cross-sector 6G innovation, including transport and security [73,74]. It has inspired projects in artificial intelligence in healthcare [75] and education. The work also engendered discussions about societal readiness and responsible research and innovation in the climate emergency. Leading the Societal Readiness and Social Acceptance Theme in the DecarboN8 project provided an opportunity to explore how systematic attention to the societal readiness of low-carbon mobility innovations could be supported.
DecarboN8 has funded 15 seed-corn projects focused on place-based decarbonization of surface transport in the North of England. In addition, the project has run a series of workshops on specific themes, ranging from ‘Connecting carbon targets to actions’ to ‘Place-based decarbonisation’ and ‘Cumbria 2037 Mobility Futures’. Our SoRA design research started in September 2019 with the formation of a ‘Stakeholder Reference Group’ (SRG) and a set of creative workshops that examined desirable transport futures. Members of the SRG were recruited by inviting Third Sector, business, and local government representatives from the DecarboN8 network to a creative workshop. The criteria for selection included the variety of the groups that interested parties represented. Four agreed to form the SRG and facilitate consideration of the interests of particular key stakeholder groups in the design of SoRA, including young people through the Yorkshire and Humber Youth Climate Assembly, small and medium sized businesses, local authorities, and Third Sector transport groups. The SRG has accompanied the researchers’ efforts throughout the DecarboN8 project, acting as a sounding board, a facilitator of relationships, and co-design group. Participants for other research activities were recruited through open invitations to events organized by the DecarboN8 project and follow-on activities from these open events, including:
  • Interviews and group discussions;
  • Visioning, scenario building and back-casting workshops;
  • Project reviews combining societal and market readiness assessment;
  • SoRA self-evaluations;
  • Panel discussions;
  • SoRA co-design workshops;
  • Formative evaluations of SoRA.
Over four years we have worked with more than 250 participants with different backgrounds. Figure 2 shows a breakdown of participants by type and Table S1 provides an overview of activities.
‘Design research’ combines ‘design thinking’, that is, ways of thinking about how systemic configurations of people, practices, places, processes, and technologies, could be ‘better’ and what ‘better’ might mean for the different parties, with making (experimental) products or services [76]. We have used qualitative and creative methods to explore the challenges different actors face in the governance of mobility transition, including discussions with diverse stakeholders and creative visioning, scenario and back-casting workshops (Figure 3) [77,78], and participatory co-design and the formative evaluation of SoRA methods to experiment with ways of addressing these challenges [77].
We have embedded questions about the societal readiness of proposed innovations in calls for DecarboN8 seed projects and reviews of these projects. In collaboration with the Connected Places Catapult (CPC), for example, we have experimented with integration between SoRA and market readiness assessment in selecting DecarboN8 seed projects for commercialisation support from the CPC. The experimental use of different SoRA methods in DecarboN8 workshops focused on how developers of innovations such as 15 min city designs, or low-carbon mobility visions for Cumbria, could use SoRA to improve the societal readiness of their innovations. Formative evaluations of SoRA with participants have informed the design of the framework and its methods.
Supporting the validity of our insights and design decisions, a number of deeper collaborations emerged from these engagements, including: collaboration with the CPC to explore how SoRA could complement technology readiness assessment and RRI methods in CPC projects; the incorporation of SoRA in the process of articulating visions for a Zero Carbon Cumbria (Figure 3); and a paid consultancy to develop equality, diversity, and inclusivity in the design of low-traffic neighbourhoods.
Using grounded theory [80], we have analysed insights from our qualitative and creative work, coding participants’ contributions as expressions of different kinds of struggles in governing mobility transformation, and relating this to the 17 challenges as criteria identified in the ongoing conceptual analysis described in Section 2. Our design research is, in essence, a form of Mode-2 social science, because it engages people embedded in the context of application and implication in the production of knowledge and outcomes. We have also used Donald Schön’s model of reflection-in-action—an ongoing dialogue between researchers, diverse stakeholders, and the situation of governing innovative sustainable mobility to design SoRA—and reflection-on-action—stepping back to reflect on how SoRA might impact on the governance of sustainable mobility transformation [81]. By progressively translating our growing understanding into prototype SoRA methods, we have completed three iterations. The current prototype and additional information is available at (accessed on 5 February 2023). Here, we focus on the conceptual motivations (outlined in Section 2) and the current design of SoRA (described in Section 4). A key question is what form methods for SoRA should take.

4. Outcomes

SoRA is a ‘technology of humility’ designed to support innovation in decarbonizing transport through an iterative process of societal readiness assessment (Figure 4) with methods that facilitate the achievement of high levels of societal readiness of low-carbon mobility innovations. SoRA’s key principles are:
  • Social good—innovations should contribute to and promote societies’ well-being;
  • Equity—widening access to innovation and the inclusion of stakeholders in a process of place-based innovation;
  • Utility—seeking to maximise the ease for people to productively incorporate the innovation into good living;
  • Decarbonising efficacy—reducing the use of carbon and improving environmental conditions in line with the Paris 2015 agreements.
Figure 4. SoRA process, methods, and resources.
Figure 4. SoRA process, methods, and resources.
Sustainability 15 05140 g004
Prospective users are parties with an interest in decarbonizing transport, including rural and urban local authorities, Third Sector organisations, designers, planners, policy-makers, commercial innovators, researchers, and youth and citizen climate groups. They would usually start with an SRL self-assessment, for example by using the SRL dashboard (Figure 5) and SoRA ‘capacity mapping’ tool (Figure 6) to reflexively evaluate the societal readiness of their innovation. These processes prompt recommendations to explore challenges, opportunities, and unanticipated consequences in the context of application and implication in a deeper way and from diverse perspectives. Recommendations may include establishing and working with a Stakeholder Reference Group, conducting stakeholder and value mapping, co-design, visioning, and scenario building and back-casting activities (further detail on these below).
Users who have engaged in the codesign of SoRA so far (local authority officers, commercial developers of innovations, Third Sector organisations, community climate monitoring groups, National Park Authorities, policy-makers, researchers, and the CPC) have come to SoRA with an array of innovations, including:
  • Ideas for technologies and services that do not yet exist, or only exist in research prototypes, e.g., hydrogen vehicles;
  • Experimental implementations and pilots, including e-scooter trials, electric and autonomous vehicles, MaaS;
  • Expanded and new ways of using existing technologies, such as cargo-bikes, bicycles and cycle lanes, 15 min city designs;
  • Policy innovations such as clean air zones, the consideration of embodied emissions, and life cycle carbon emissions in infrastructure policies;
  • Social innovation, including walking bus schemes, carbon literacy education programmes, and shared mobility;
  • Methods, such as carbon budgeting, climate assemblies, and societal readiness assessment.
We also envisage that research funders such as the UKRI could utilize SoRA upstream to enable deeper and more systematic attention to social innovation in research and development, for example, by specifying expected SRL.
The SRL dashboard (Figure 4) is currently a prototype that invites users to complete a questionnaire that probes knowledge and commitment to societal readiness principles. Responses are coded using a spreadsheet key that suggests an SRL on a scale of 1–9 (Table 2), also identifying areas for improvement and recommendations for activities to develop societal readiness. An interactive online version is under development. The aim of the dashboard is not to objectively calculate a level of societal readiness, but to support a dialogue and exploration of what societal readiness could and should mean in relation to the specific innovation and its contexts of application and implication. The dashboard can be used by all the different parties with an interest in the innovation, and it usually delivers different SRL, depending on the users’ perspective. This makes it an infrastructure for dialogic dissent.
SoRA capacity mapping builds on self-assessment, encouraging users to explore the societal readiness of innovations they are developing, or considering to procure or invest in, in more depth. Focusing on objectives, processes, impacts, and the integration or ‘fit’ of the innovation to its contexts produces a spider-graph to iteratively reflect and seek further dialogue with stakeholders to develop the societal readiness of the innovation, or to challenge innovators to do so.
To allow governance actors to render their decarbonizing ambitions into desired SRL for tender documents, procurement, and evaluation processes, and to help innovators to articulate and practically translate SRL ambitions into design and implementation, we have created a basket of methods. After a self-assessment, users may decide to establish a Stakeholder Reference Group, who may conduct an SRG SRL assessment for internal discussion. When proposing their decarbonizing innovations to a local authority or a National Park Authority’s procurement tender, innovators may also receive a ‘client’ SRL assessment based on the commissioning body’s interpretation of the proposed innovation. Diverging results should be discussed in an SRL dialogue. Throughout, users can utilise a variety of tools adapted to enhance the societal readiness of their innovation by enabling participation and dialogic dissent about vulnerabilities, the framing and distribution of risks, and collaborative learning. These include:
SoRA Stakeholder Mapping, which adapts existing stakeholder mapping methods [82] to provide a structured way to explore who should be included in the development of the innovation in terms of the influence, interest, or power that they hold, or the impact that the innovation might have on them.
SoRA Value Mapping, which develops techniques to capture the diverse interests, values, and expectations that different stakeholders have [83]. This allows different parties to understand the sources of potential friction as well as opportunities for synergies.
SoRA Visioning are creative methods to develop scenarios of low-carbon mobility futures [79] (Figure 3).
SoRA Back-casting methods that take future scenarios as a starting point for a mapping of events and changes that would enable that future, drawing on a range of creative methods [78] (Figure 3).
SoRA Travelling Tales—an interactive card game designed to allow players to experience transport innovations by stepping into the shoes of diverse users, such as those experiencing mobility poverty, disability, or discrimination. For example, 40% of blind and partially-sighted people were ‘unable to make all the journeys that they want or need to make’ in 2018 [84], and a 2015 EU survey ‘showed that 40% of LGBT+ people … were afraid of accessing [public] transport because of fear of how they might be treated’ [85]. Travelling Tales facilitates a playful exploration of how marginalised stakeholders may experience the innovation and how their participation could be enhanced.
Reflective Questions developed in collaboration with the DecarboN8 SRG are intended to stimulate reflection, discussion, and challenge taken for granted assumptions (available at, accessed on 5 February 2023). They should be adapted to the specific innovation and contexts under assessment.
SoRA can be used in a self-guided way or users can request the facilitation of SoRA workshops and Action Learning Set programmes by members of the SoRA team. SoRA should not be employed as a ‘recipe’ to secure certain outcomes through following a linear trajectory of box-ticking against predefined actions and deliverables. The SoRA process critically involves dialogue, iteration, negotiation, and the interpretation of results, criteria, and methods, as part of dialogic dissent. The paths between societal readiness levels are multiple, varied, and sometimes surprising.
SoRA translates our analysis in Section 2 and especially Jasanoff’s technologies of humility and Haraway’s response-abilities into a practical methodology for the coproduction of a form of Mode-2 sustainability governance. The work has received much input from actors who are in positions to feed such methods into institutional processes, such as the Connected Places Catapult, the Zero Carbon Cumbria Partnership, regional youth climate leaders in Yorkshire, Humber and Cumbria, the Copeland Climate Monitoring Group, and others. We must then ask, how should SoRA be institutionalised?

5. Discussion: Trojan Horse or Seedball?

The emergence of Mode-2 science is a recognition of the complex, ‘wicked’ nature of problems generated through modern ways of life. However, the transition towards Mode-2 society is incomplete, and this plays a significant role in the proliferation of misinformation and an emotive, manipulative climate discourse and politics. As a technology of humility set of ‘methods, or better yet institutionalized habits of thought’ ([14]: 227), SoRA aims to challenge the politics of knowledge production, innovation, and governance for mobility transformations, and enable more agonistic and democratic realisation of Mode-2 climate science and society. In an ideal world, we would like SoRA to become a standard approach to the assessment of the ‘societal readiness level’ of innovations, complementing and challenging TRL, market readiness, systems readiness, and other forms of technology assessment. Does this make SoRA a trojan horse? In some respects, yes, because by offering support to de-risk the governance of low-carbon innovation through a more inclusive, participatory, and circumspect iterative process of building innovations that are more ready for society, and by enabling local authorities and other users to make response-abilities that then also force others to do the same, to demand innovations with higher SRL and monitor performance, SoRA challenges existing forms of governing sustainability transformation based on TRL.
This intervention is important because it is critical to address social and mobility justice in climate change mitigation and adaptation [86]. Growing numbers of people worldwide live in mobility poverty [60,86,87]. In some cases, the ‘left behind’ are becoming an ‘unnecessariat’ who completely fall off the radar for many commercial and political actors [88]. These are people on many local authorities’ doorsteps, and, as life-chances melt away, effects ripple out. Nationally and globally, inequalities and the ethical, social, and political problems that arise from marginalisation are linked to a loss of civility, bringing populist ‘post-politics’ or ‘anti-politics’ [67], where, under a permanent sense of crisis, civil apathy, polarisation, and desperation divide and disrupt, complicating climate governance even further. We are happy to radically challenge dysfunctional models of governance from within with processes attuned to complex or ‘super/hyper-wicked’ problems and Mode-2 science and society.
However, SoRA is also a more creative and generative way of infrastructuring for dialogic dissent and collaborative learning. This suggests a seedball as a more appropriate metaphor. A seedball is an orb comprised of different seeds, clay, soil, and water. SoRA, like a seedball, is a varied mixture of seeds designed to be generative of innovations that are good for society, useful for people, appropriable, and effective in decarbonizing mobile ways of life in an inclusive way. When creating a seedball, sometimes gardeners might conduct a germination test on the different types of seed, which is a bit like doing a Technology Readiness Assessment. The seed, or the technology, might germinate and function well in isolation (on kitchen towel or in the laboratory), but there is no way of knowing how they will fare in situ. It is impossible to predict the outcome. In the same way that one cannot force an ecosystem’s ‘acceptance’ of a seed, one cannot predict uptake of a technology such as EVs by conducting a Technology Readiness Assessment. SoRA is designed to enable experimentation and dialogue that can inform sustainability governance focused on where and how innovations may flourish, and how communities can flourish in and through mobility transformations. The outcome cannot be known, but upon contact with their place of landing, the provocations of subjecting innovations to societal readiness assessment will constructively challenge the collectives that are needed to enact ‘good’ mobility transformations. We therefore suggest that institutionalising new habits of thought through SoRA should be an organic process of doing SoRA. This can also challenge misinformation by engaging society in knowledge production and making new stories about mobile lives and the mobility systems that are needed to enable them.

6. Conclusions

In this paper, we have analysed some of the reasons why governance for net-zero compatible mobility is complex and risky. Citizens and local, national, and global governance actors bear great responsibility to take action but are faced with many ‘wicked’ challenges, ranging from the amorphous complexity of mobility transformation to climate change misinformation and political manipulation. We have discussed conceptual sociological analysis and design research with more than 250 stakeholders in the governance of mobility transformations in the North of England. By tracing the emergence of Mode-2 science and the failure of Mode-2 society, we have shown that a greater appreciation of the creative value of dissent, and new skills for understanding and responding to complexity, risk, and social justice are needed, defined as ‘response-abilities’ in feminist science and technology studies. Combining these insights with our own research, we have presented a ‘Societal Readiness Assessment’ (SoRA) framework and methods to make response-abilities and realise the creative value of dissent in changing mobility systems.
In response to the three questions we raised at the beginning of this paper, humanity needs such technologies of humility, because the ‘dominant logic of the industrial age, namely that [society] can control the risks it produces, is breaking down’ [12]: 14. Not all relevant actors want them, and the fearsome momentum of the climate ‘misinformation machine’ is a challenge. However, SoRA can take the form of an infrastructure for dialogic dissent, enable agonistic democracy, and creative production of alternative social realities and socially robust climate knowledge and action. It is difficult to turn such technologies of humility into ‘institutionalized habits of thought’ ([14]: 227), but by aligning SoRA with existing methods of technology assessment, and simultaneously challenging their limitations, we hope to prepare the ground for new practices and standards for attending to the social and political dimensions of climate science, commitments and actions.
Further, SoRA could be strengthened and extended. It has been codesigned, but it has not been tested in a systematic way. There are many practical challenges. Many of its prospective users, for example local authority officers, are working under extreme pressures in terms of resources, time, expectations, and political struggles. Users of SoRA need guidance and facilitation, but our team is small. We are addressing these challenges by developing a self-service, and a modular structure to the process, as well as training materials. There are also many opportunities, as the approach is gaining interest from other areas of innovation. While SoRA is currently focused on decarbonising mobility and has been developed with stakeholders in the North of England, it is already linked to the isITethical platform. There is currently no integration with ethical impact assessment, for example, specifically related to the digital dimension of ‘smart’ mobility innovation. However, the fact that there are opportunities to expand SoRA suggests to us that SoRA has the potential to grow into a technology of hope, embedding attention to social justice, social good, and ethics, in responses to the climate emergency and thereby challenge climate antipolitics.

Supplementary Materials

The following supporting information can be downloaded at:, Table S1: DecarboN8 SoRA research participants and activities.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, M.B., N.S. and C.C.; methodology, M.B., N.S., C.C. and A.K.; analysis, M.B., C.C. and A.K.; investigation, M.B., N.S., C.C. and A.K.; writing—original draft preparation, M.B., N.S., C.C. and A.K.; writing—review and editing, M.B., C.C. and A.K.; project administration, M.B.; funding acquisition, M.B. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was funded through the DecarboN8 project, which received funding from the UK EPSRC Energy Programme, grant agreement EP/S032002/1, recording of a conversation with the Regional Youth Climate Assembly was funded by the 2022 Lancaster University Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Environmental Solutions Discipline Hopping Award.

Institutional Review Board Statement

The study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki, and approved by the Institutional Review Boards (or Ethics Committees) of Leeds and Lancaster University (A103748/IRS7023 18 September 2019).

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.


We would like to acknowledge the generous contributions from participants in the research. We thank the editors of this journal for their patience and encouragement, our anonymous reviewers for their insightful suggestions, Greg Marsden and our colleagues in DecarboN8 for their comments on earlier versions of this paper and four years of inspiring collaborations, Nuri Kwon, Naomi Jacobs, Namita Manohar, Maitreyee Kshirsagar, Lara Salinas, Maria Alejandra Lujan Escalante, Sofia Kallimasioti, and NiftyFox for design and visualisations.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest. The funders had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript; or in the decision to publish the results.


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Figure 1. Part of Northern England in the place-based carbon calculator, accessed on 2 February 2023 (GNU Affero General Public License v3.0).
Figure 1. Part of Northern England in the place-based carbon calculator, accessed on 2 February 2023 (GNU Affero General Public License v3.0).
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Figure 2. Participants by type.
Figure 2. Participants by type.
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Figure 3. A page from the Cumbria Mobility Transformation 2037 ‘instant journal’ produced by workshop participants [79] (left) and a mock newspaper report on future policy decisions from a DecarboN8 back-casting workshop in 2020 (right).
Figure 3. A page from the Cumbria Mobility Transformation 2037 ‘instant journal’ produced by workshop participants [79] (left) and a mock newspaper report on future policy decisions from a DecarboN8 back-casting workshop in 2020 (right).
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Figure 5. SRL dashboard.
Figure 5. SRL dashboard.
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Figure 6. SoRA capacity mapping.
Figure 6. SoRA capacity mapping.
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Table 1. Technology Readiness Level descriptions.
Table 1. Technology Readiness Level descriptions.
TRL Description NASAHorizon 2020IPCC
TRL 1Basic principles observed.Basic principles observed.Initial idea (basic principles defined).
TRL 2Technology concept and/or application formulated.Technology concept formulated.Application formulated (technology concept and application of solution formulated).
TRL 3Analytical and experimental critical function and/or characteristic proof of concept.Experimental proof of concept. Concept needs validation (solutions need to be prototyped and applied).
TRL 4Component and/or breadboard validation in laboratory environment. Technology validated in laboratory. Early prototype (proven in test conditions).
TRL 5Component and/or breadboard validation in relevant environment.Technology validated in relevant environment (industrially relevant environment in the case of key enabling technologies).Full prototype at scale (components proven in conditions to be deployed).
TRL 6System/subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment (ground or space).Technology demonstrated in relevant environment (industrially relevant environment in the case of key enabling technologies).Full prototype at scale (prototype proven as scale in conditions to be deployed).
TRL 7System prototype demonstration in a space environment.System prototype demonstration in operational environment.Precommercial demonstration (solutions working in expected conditions).
TRL 8Actual system completed and ‘flight qualified’ through test and demonstration (ground or space). System complete and qualified. First of a kind commercial (commercial demonstration, full scale deployment in final form).
TRL 9Actual system ‘flight proven’ through successful mission operations.Actual system proven in operational environment (competitive manufacturing in the case of key enabling technologies; or in space). Commercial operation in early environment (solution is commercial[sic] available, needs evolutionary improvement to stay competitive).
TRL 10 Integration needed at scale (solution is commercial and competitive but needs further integration efforts).
TRL 11 Proof of stability reached (predictable growth).
Table 2. Societal readiness levels.
Table 2. Societal readiness levels.
SRL 1Basic principles of societal readiness and social good defined.
SRL 2Innovation-specific societal readiness concept formulated.
SRL 3Societal readiness concept evaluated with stakeholders.
SRL 4Societal readiness of prototypes evaluated with diverse stakeholders in test conditions.
SRL 5Societal readiness of prototypes evaluated with diverse stakeholders in a limited way in everyday life.
SRL 6Societal readiness of prototypes evaluated with diverse stakeholders examining full range of dissent through dialogue.
SRL 7Demonstration of societal readiness and social good through experiment and formative evaluation with stakeholders in expected conditions.
SRL 8Appropriation into everyday lives at a limited scale with demonstrable societal readiness and social good.
SRL 9Innovation integrated into a diversity of everyday lives, as part of ‘good life’ and other society systems.
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Büscher, M.; Cronshaw, C.; Kirkbride, A.; Spurling, N. Making Response-Ability: Societal Readiness Assessment for Sustainability Governance. Sustainability 2023, 15, 5140.

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Büscher M, Cronshaw C, Kirkbride A, Spurling N. Making Response-Ability: Societal Readiness Assessment for Sustainability Governance. Sustainability. 2023; 15(6):5140.

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Büscher, Monika, Cronan Cronshaw, Alistair Kirkbride, and Nicola Spurling. 2023. "Making Response-Ability: Societal Readiness Assessment for Sustainability Governance" Sustainability 15, no. 6: 5140.

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