Speaking Across Boundaries: A Regulatory and Systems-Level Approach to Net Zero


Chad Andrews, Ph.D.

College of Optometrists of Ontario

Director of Research and Policy

Headshot of a white man with a short beard in front of some greenery
Disclaimer: The French version of this editorial has been auto-translated and has not been approved by the author.

Perhaps more than any other issue facing contemporary societies, the challenge of reaching net zero is the most daunting of our “wicked problems.” Coined by sociologists in the 1970s, “wicked problems” are social issues whose inherent complexity and reliance on social, human-centered thinking renders them difficult or impossible to solve. According to Zubin Austin, such problems “occur in complex, contradictory, and incoherent situations,” and their solutions often lead to “unintended consequences […] which cascade into further intractable problems.” 1 The dilemma of reaching net zero certainly checks all these boxes. 

As I suggested obliquely in an editorial last year, part of the complexity of climate change—and by extension net zerois also tied to the interaction of the distinct systems involved. From a systems theory perspective, the social and institutional systems required to combat climate change are both numerous and disparate: legal, financial, regulatory, governmental, policy-related, and more. And to further complicate matters, combating climate change requires these systems to not only work but to work together, and to do so effectively. It would not be unfair to suggest, perhaps, that all wicked problems require collaboration across systemic boundaries (contributing to their notoriously intractable nature). 

If it is true that reaching net zero is a wicked problem—perhaps the wicked problem—and that it is best described by the complex and asymmetrical systems involved, then it is also the case that solutions should address the issue systemically—that is, through a lens that recognizes and addresses interweaving and, in some cases, mutually exclusive social systems.

Approaches along these lines can take any number of forms, but focusing on the role of regulatory bodies seems particularly fertile. For example, Austin emphasizes the unique position of professional regulators (institutions that certify and regulate professionals such as physicians, engineers, etc.); for him, these bodies are positioned uniquely, both culturally and politically, with their arm’s length from political cycles and agendas allowing them to “almost exclusively leverage evidence, scientific consensus, and professional trust and credibility…”1 Additionally, the nature of professional regulation is de facto the practice of extending communication, collaboration, and regulation into other institutional and political spaces. To put it differently, professional regulation—and perhaps regulation in general—is fundamentally the act of deploying the principles and practices of regulation into different social systems; for instance, when a professional regulator develops new quality assurance principles, the professionals under this authority are asked to implement these changes into their own activities. And professional regulators interact with the political sphere as well; when, for instance, new legislation is being developed or implemented, it is often the case that regulatory bodies facilitate communication between professionals and policymakers, helping ensure that legislation is contemporary, relevant, and with a clear public benefit.  

Through a systems theory lens, what can be observed here is precisely the kind of system-to-system dynamic that marks climate change as “wicked.” Professional and other regulators must extend beyond their own institutional and social systems to do their work; it is inherent in the work of regulation. Regulators are therefore boundary transgressors, so to speak, and speaking across their systemic boundaries is at the heart of their function. Achieving net zero will require nothing less than a comprehensive and wide-ranging normalization of “speaking across boundaries.” 

But what does this look like in relation to Canada’s path to net zero? Approaches in the professional regulatory space that are either underway or plausible include:

  1. Incorporating carbon reduction strategies into regulatory practices and policies. Professional regulators can, for example, include carbon reduction into their educational and quality assurance programs, or offer certificates for low-carbon practice. Work in this area is already underway, and although this is a relatively low-impact strategy—the majority of carbon emissions come from the energy companies, not the activities of individual professionals—there is value in changing smaller practices, especially among influential social groups.
  2. Influencing legislative change. While professional regulators are not legislators and cannot engage directly in the process of passing acts into law, they do work closely with their governments to enforce acts and to develop frameworks for new legal infrastructure. In Canada, this work is typically restricted to modifying or updating the umbrella acts for professionals in each province, but there is some potential to either modify these acts with net zero in mind, or perhaps more optimistically, to work with governments on new and more innovative legal and policymaking efforts entirely.
  3. Communicating and raising awareness. Just as professional regulators are not legislators, it is also the case that they are not advocates, at least in the traditional sense of political advocacy. Austin captures some of this when discussing the “stay in your lane” element of professional regulation. That said, regulatory bodies communicate often with registrants and the public, and are often viewed as respected authorities who can be relied on to provide scientific and evidence-based information. There is a notable opportunity for regulators to contribute meaningfully to public awareness on subjects related to net zero, and to help shape a culture that is aware of and sensitive to the existential risk of climate change.
  4. Facilitating dialogue and policymaking across cultural and institutional lines. This is central to the notion of speaking across boundaries and carries the most potential for significant change. As suggested, professional regulators must collaborate and implement policy within diverse settings, positioning them idiosyncratically as mediators and facilitators capable of enabling discourse and spurring action across a range of social systems. It is not hard to imagine carbon reduction or net zero strategizing being incorporated into such discourse: under the umbrella of the Truth and Reconciliation, for example, Canadian regulators have already found ways to incorporate indigenous perspectives into their research and policymaking. With enough consensus, there is no reason—conceptually, at least—that net zero and related plans could not be positioned as an important pillar of regulatory dialogue and action. 

Distinct from other systems but simultaneously designed to influence and speak across systemic boundaries, professional regulators could very well play a crucial role in Canada’s path to net zero. What has been outlined is only a small sample of both nascent and potential activity. As Canada’s strategy continues to come into focus, these possibilities should be explored and expanded, and professional regulation should be considered an asset in any holistic or systemic approach to addressing the wicked problem of our times.  

1- https://meridian.allenpress.com/jmr/article/109/3/6/496967/Regulation-of-Wicked-Problems-Opportunities