Alicia Harley

Ms. Alicia Harley
Weatherhead Center for International Affairs
1737 Cambridge Street, Room K219 
Cambridge, MA 02138
Group affiliation: Research Fellow

Alicia Harley is a doctoral candidate in Public Policy and a Doctoral Research Fellow in the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She is also a graduate student associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Alicia studies how institutions (rules, norms, culture and beliefs) shape innovation systems and how innovation systems can be reoriented to meet sustainable development goals. Her empirical research focuses on agriculture and food systems. She has projects on agriculture practices, water delivery technologies, and rural energy. As part of her fellowship in the sustainability science program she is working on two theory driven projects including one focused on conceptualizing the role of power and agency in sustainability science and a second on transitions to sustainable development. She uses a mix of qualitative and quantitative data, relying heavily on organizational behavior and institutional approaches in political science.

Alicia is the agriculture sector lead for the Initiative on Innovation and Access to Technologies for Sustainable Development.  Alicia received her BA in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard College in 2008. Alicia is a recipient of a Switzer Fellowship (2015), the inaugural Ray Goldberg Fellowship in Global food Systems (2015), a Giorgio Ruffolo Pre-doctoral Research Fellowship in Sustainability Science (2014), and a Fulbright Scholarship (2009). Her faculty host at Harvard is William Clark.

Conceptualizing Power in Sustainability Science

Sustainable development is a massively redistributional agenda. Achieving sustainable development goals asks nothing less than for the world to improve the well-being of people within and across generations, particularly for the poorest and most marginalized.  We argue that this agenda cannot be accomplished without changes in configurations of power governing social environmental systems (SES), including configuration of power over who has access to capital assets and control over production and consumption systems.

Scholarship on poverty and the environment has demonstrated clear feedback loops and complex interlinkages between poverty, inequality and environmental degradation (Ravnborg 2003; Duraiappah 1998). Research on collective action has shown that a lack of social capital can continually undermine a community’s ability to achieve a whole host of development goals (e.g., Ghai and Vivian 2004; Meinzen-Dick and Gregorio 2004). Without considering power and its effects on the discipline and practice of sustainability science, scholars and practitioners of sustainability science and sustainable development are almost sure to fail both in our scholarly pursuits and more importantly our real-world goals.

This project draws on a wide literature on power and agency in sociology, anthropology, philosophy and economics and integrates insights from these literatures into sustainability science. Recent work has attempted to integrate power into the study of SES (e.g., Hall et al. 2015; Boonstra 2016). This project diverges from these perspectives by taking a capital assets approach to sustainable development, defined as non-declining human well-being (Matson et al. 2016).

Transitions to Sustainable Development: Conceptualizing Transitions Theory in Sustainability Science 

This project grapples with the fundamental problem driven question of sustainability science: how to shift the current pathway of human development from one of declining inclusive human well-being onto new pathway(s) that lead to increasing inclusive human well-being for current and future generations.

We are focusing on a wide variety of literatures that address the issue of societal and socio-technical transitions. We aim to distill from these literatures insights applicable to the challenge of achieving goal oriented transitions toward sustainable development. These literatures include the technological transitions, innovation systems, transitions in social ecological systems, consumption and production systems, science and technology studies, technological histories, systems modeling, scenario modeling, technological backcasting and sustainability science. These literatures use different lenses and methods to look at societal and socio-technical transitions. Some are concerned with goal oriented transitions toward sustainable development and others study a wide variety of societal and socio-technical transitions without concern for particular endpoints. From each of these literatures we focus on the institutional mechanisms of change and the role of actors and agency undergirding transitions. Our objective is to integrate these insights into a model of sustainable development defined in terms of inclusive human-wellbeing to offer a broad theory of change for sustainability science.

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