The ‘Middle-out’ Approach to Climate Change


It’s fashionable today to push for bottom-up approaches for addressing all major problems. However, authors of a new book argue for a middle-out approach that takes advantages of learnings and experience of leadership from the top and blend it with ground realities. Here’s a peek into the idea:

Given the scale and speed of global climate change and its attendant socio-ecological disruptions, there is an urgent need to begin identifying successful sustainable development strategies across multiple social, geog]raphical and temporal scales. In this scenario neither top-down nor do bottom-up approaches alone have the ability to produce the needed insight. One possible solution to this puzzle is “middle-out” approach.

The “middle-out” approach does not call for new institutions bridging these extremes. Middle-out refers instead to a system of information flow wherein lessons learned in the previously isolated and closed-loop community-based experiments is aggregated and organized. With access to this information, top-down decision-makers can more effectively support strategies relevant to local contexts and community-based actors, who previously relied on ad hoc networks to learning anecdotally from one another, can more systematically learn directly from one another.

In short, the middle out approach relies on aggregation of case studies and other reports of community-based sustainability experiments to develop a knowledge base for community-based sustainability experimentation processes that can be leveraged by a wide range of decision-makers and actors at multiple levels. The “middle-out” platform will create a space for both top- and bottom-level stakeholders to combine the power of the descriptive richness of qualitative case studies with the analytical power of natural language processing and other information science tools. This strategy holds the potential to bring to bear substantial yet untapped knowledge in sustainable development strategies. The virtual “middle-out” space is possible because of present rapid diffusion and access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) in developing countries like India and Bangladesh.

What is unique about the middle-out approach is its focus on what is essentially an information management system capable of capturing knowledge emerging out of bottom-up small experiments and integrate it with top-down knowledge, strategies and resources. The middle-out approach aims to overcome the gap between the historically dominant top-down approach to sustainable development and the more recent emphasis on bottom-up approaches in which solutions emerge and are implemented by communities.

These ideas are part of publications by Zavestoski S. & Swarnakar P. (2017). Neither ‘Top-down’ nor ‘Bottom-up’: A ‘Middle-out‘ Alternative to Sustainable Development. ‘Bottom-Up‘ Approaches in Governance and Adaptation for Sustainable Development: Case Studies from India and Bangladesh, 315. Edited by P. Swarnakar, S. Zavestoski & B. K. Pattnaik. SAGE Publications, New Delhi.

Advantages of The Platform

  • Geographically isolated communities can more easily exchange information and knowledge.
  • National or state level policy makers can be more strategic in applying top-down strategies by learning from previously inaccessible and disconnected knowledge that emerges from communities.
  • The World Bank, ADB and other financial institutions that direct funding through state and national governments towards poverty eradication and sustainable development can see more transparently the justifications of decisions about why, when, where and how to fund specific initiatives, especially at the grassroots where large institutions seldom apply their resources directly.
  • The middle-out approach can reduce the costs of obtaining community level feedback because the middle-out framework itself generates reports on the experiences of communities engaging in sustainable development initiatives.
  • The middle-out approach complements rather than replaces the existing top-down and bottom-up approaches to sustainable development governance. Case studies are valuable in providing micro-level contextual knowledge, but at the same generalizing across cases is problematic because each case study represents a sample size of one. Our middle-out approach proposes to aggregate large numbers of case studies and then apply qualitative big data analysis techniques that can produce topics, categories, and tags to represent them, that can make generalization across the cases possible.
  • The most important feature of middle out approach is that it accumulates indigenous and traditional knowledge that would otherwise be underutilized or even lost.
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