Dr Steven R. Smith


Academic and research departments

Centre for Environment and Sustainability.


My research project

My qualifications

M.Sc (DIC) Environmental Technology
Imperial College, University of London
B.Sc (Hons) Psychology
The Open University
B.Sc (Hons) Geography
Royal Holloway College, University of London

Affiliations and memberships

The Royal Society of Arts
Wellbeing Economy Alliance
Narratives Cluster


Research interests

Research collaborations


Smith, S. R. (2017) European Journal of Sustainable Development
Modelling "the expanding circle" of cooperation towards a sustainable futureCan human cooperation expand to the global scale in time to avert catastrophic climate change? Prospects for a sustainable future depend on binding commitments that respect biophysical limits, which in turn depend on political support and global/intergenerational levels of moral concern. Numerous studies in the social sciences indicate that transcending parochial, group-level cooperation to the global scale requires some form of unifying "superordinate goal". This research explores what this transformative humanitarian goal might consist of, and what factors most influence the dynamics of human cooperation. Two quantitative models of cooperative social dynamics are developed and analysed: 1) Historical - analysing the global growth of social insurance provision and the abolition of slavery, including their key structural (macro) predictors; 2) Experimental - analysing the dynamics of cooperation and the consideration of future generations in a multiplayer social dilemma game. Longitudinal growth curve modelling (LGCM) of these models’ data allows many variables to be simultaneously combined into a single group of path coefficients, represented as a network of relationships over time. Preliminary results in the historical model a) confirms the view that social complexity expands more rapidly than cooperation, b) The rate of acceleration of cooperation required to ensure sustainability within the available time greatly exceeds the historical trend.
Smith, S.R., and Christie, I. (2017) Proceedings of the European Social Simulation Association
. This extended abstract describes research being conducted at the Centre for Environment and Sus- tainability (CES) and the Centre for Research in Social Simulation (CRESS) at the University of Surrey, UK. An agent-based social simulation model (ABM) of a public goods game called Astro- Zoa is being developed in NetLogo to explore the dynamics of cooperation for a sustainable future. Specifically, this research aims to measure the rate of change of cooperation and altruism (as de- fined below) in a population over time and the relative importance of influencing factors. Once the essential features and functionality of the social simulation have been finalised, the model will be adapted into an online version of the game in which real players become participants in a social re- search experiment, and these results will in turn feed back to validate and refine the ABM. Results are intended to inform policy applications of the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Edu- cation (4), Climate Action (13), Peace, Justice and Institutions (16) and Partnerships (17).
Expanding the Circle of Cooperation Towards Sustainability: an ABM Using NetLogo
Smith, S.R., and Christie, I. (2019) Paradigms, Models, Scenarios and Practices for Strong Sustainability. University of Clermont Auverge, France.
Cooperation in an age of emergency? Climate action as the catalyst for rapid transition towards strong sustainability.Pathways to a just and strong sustainability are typically presented as transformative processes shaping a world that prioritises the ‘ecological imperative’ rather than the ‘growth imperative’; a world where people (including future people) and the natural ecosystems that support them come first. Advocates of such transitions envisage a world of polycentrically governed systems respecting planetary boundaries, ensuring the containment of aggregate human impacts within biophysical capacities at all levels, while ensuring standards of human well-being do not fall below decent social foundations. This scenario is most clearly embodied in Raworth’s (2017) Doughnut framework. Within this space, cooperating nations are likely to have become 'agnostic’ about growth - high-income nations having undergone a phase of sufficient absolute de-growth in order to fall within sustainable limits. However, in a period defined by its recent drift away from, rather than towards, global cooperation, it is difficult to imagine any theory of change, democratic or otherwise, that could rapidly lead to this transformed world of strong sustainability. The ‘civilising process’ - expanding trust, common values and moral concerns (using education, economic development and social connectivity) to the level at which enough people care enough about our common future - evolves over many generations. But there appears to be little time left to wait for gradual solutions. In this paper we argue that the widespread acknowledgement of a ‘climate emergency’ demanding radical, coordinated action on the basis of civilisational climate risk, can be the catalyst with the power to rapidly transform values, norms and political discourse. Ordinary people, concerned with the daily “tyrannies of the immediate”, need to become extraordinarily engaged by a compelling narrative that mobilises a global social movement - one that can sustain the political influence to overcome powerful ‘denialist’ and ‘delayer’ forces - and lay the longer-term foundations of a more complete ‘doughnut’ of strong sustainability. Although, for some, a reformist climate advocacy coalition operating within existing systems and populated by diverse actors from civil society, business and political actors, may seem inadequate to the larger, system-transformative task, in getting from here to there we have to think strategically, and urgently, about the all-important first step.
Smith, S.R. (2018) British Environmental Psychology Annual Conference
It is becoming clear that a global decarbonisation pathway to net-zero emissions needs to be achieved by mid-century, and that descent has to begin almost immediately (by 2020, according to the UN Secretary-General). So there ought to be a tremendous urgency here - and whether you choose to frame the issue in terms of a threat or an opportunity - we have to find ways of scaling up our enthusiasm for ending the fossil-fuel era. Part of my research addresses macro-scale questions, measuring for example the rate of expansion of historical social movements - such as the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement - and trying to extract from them key lessons for the climate and sustainability movement. have to understand what is going to work to engage and mobilise enough people to care enough about climate change, even though we know that it’s a wicked problem, one that as human beings we are psychologically poorly equipped for. Another part of my research looks at these psychological factors that might be applied to a climate movement narrative. And one aspect of this is experimental, with the aim to recruit on-line participants to play a multi-player public goods game called AstroZoa. AstroZoa is relevant to sustainability on Earth, but set in space. Similar in concept to the highly successful game Sea Hero Quest - which was for dementia research - AstroZoa will be an online game to help us understand social cooperation and altruism for sustainability. Players are astronauts in individual, solar-powered space pods. Players decide how much solar energy to spend on Player decisions are recorded as data, anonymised, and analysed in seeking to understand: 1) how quickly cooperation can expand; 2) what factors most influence this expansion; and 3) what is the most effective means to induce players to care about the colony’s survival for its own sake, beyond their own mission life? As in the real-life issue of climate disruption, this is therefore a collective action problem on an intergenerational scale. The literature on intergenerational public goods games and other forms of psychological experiments suggests there could be a variety of factors capable of motivating altruism for future generations, which the AstroZoa game will investigate further. Beyond its use as a research data-gathering exercise, we hope that AstroZoa will become an educational tool for learning about sustainability in schools and other settings.
What motivates players in an intergenerational public goods game to value the sustainability of future generations?We
  1. growing crystals to earn the most credits for themselves
  2. sharing energy with others to help them survive debris damage, which is costly in terms of energy for repairs (cooperative option) and
  3. salvaging abandoned space pods that will otherwise create additional debris hazards for future generations of players (altruistic option).
Smith, S. R., Christie, I., and Willis, R. (2020) Social tipping intervention strategies for rapid decarbonization need to consider how change happens
Otto et al.’s (1) evaluation of “social tipping interventions”(STIs) for accelerating a global transformation to carbon neutrality by 2050 is an important sociopolitical contribution to a debate that is all-too-often technocentric in focus. Otto et al.’s (1) expert panel identified six social tipping elements—within energy production/storage, human settlement, financial markets, norms and value systems, education, and information feedback—as candidates with the greatest potential to overcome incumbent interests and other “self-stabilizing mechanisms” (ref. 1, p. 2356) and trigger nonlinear carbon reductions. However, in considering how this “defining task for humanity” (ref. 1, p. 2354) is to be achieved, a deeper analysis of social change processes and social movement theory would be beneficial. All of the proposed STIs require radical government action, either at national or local level. In labeling their STIs as “starting points” (ref. 1, p. 2356) in the transformation process, Otto et al. thereby fail to ask: Who initiates deliberate, radical change in the collective interest?
Smith, S. R., and Christie, I. (2020) Cooperation in an Age of Emergency? Climate Action as the Catalyst for Rapid Transition Towards Strong Sustainability. . In A Diemer, E Nedelciu, M Schellens,M Morales and M Oostjdik, Paradigms, Models, Scenarios and Practices for Strong Sustainability (pp. 197 - -217). Paris. Oeconomia Editions.
In a period defined by its recent drift away from, rather than towards, global cooperation, it is difficult to imagine a theory of change, democratic or otherwise, that could bring about a global-scale, cooperative and peaceful transition to ‘strong sustainable development’ at the required speed. In this paper we argue that the widespread acknowledgement of a ‘climate emergency’ demanding radical, coordinated action on the basis of ‘civilisational climate risk’, can be the catalyst with the power to rapidly transform values, norms and political discourse. Citizens need to become extraordinarily engaged with a compelling narrative that mobilises a global movement, one that can sustain political influence and overcome powerful denialist and delayer forces and lay the foundations of a more complete ‘doughnut’ (Raworth, 2017) of strong sustainability. Although, for some, a reformist advocacy coalition operating within incumbent power structures and populated by diverse actors from civil society, business and politics, may seem inadequate to the larger, system-transformative task, in getting from here to there we have to think strategically, and urgently, about the all-important first step.
Smith, S. R., and Christie, I. (2021) Knowledge Integration in the Politics and Policy of Rapid Transitions to Net Zero Carbon: A Typology and Mapping Method for Climate Actors in the UK
The types of political and policy knowledge required to guide rapid transition to low-carbon economies remain largely disconnected in the fields of political science, psychology, and sociology. The composition and key features of the main actors involved, and their relationships have also not been systematically described. This paper attempts to address these knowledge gaps by proposing a new, integrative typology of actors involved in climate change mitigation policy in the United Kingdom (UK) and a method for mapping these actors and selecting their typological descriptors onto a 2D space. The mapping method enables stakeholders to visualise and evaluate the strength of support for the UK government’s net-zero-by-2050 “green growth” strategy and the tensions, challenges, and strategic opportunities potentially facing more radical alternatives. The methodology could be replicated for climate actors in other countries and, in principle, for any geographical scale or level of governance.