Are alternative visions missing from the debates about sustainability transitions?

by Kasper Ampe, Michael Kriechbaum and Sofie Sandin

In June 2018 we attended the IST (International Sustainability Transitions) conference in Manchester. It was a repeat visit for all of us, but this time we left the conference rather puzzled – with the STEPS Centre’s summer school in the back of our minds.

In the summer school, we’d explored themes like innovation, power, the directionality of change and how to create, build and support pathways to sustainability. A few weeks later, we found ourselves in the midst of the IST conference, a yearly event convened by the STRN (Sustainability Transitions Research Network), which brings together about 1500 researchers from different backgrounds.

The network takes as a starting point:

“… the recognition that many environmental problems, such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, resource depletion (clean water, oil, forests, fish stocks), are grand challenges, which relate to unsustainable consumption and production patterns in socio-technical systems such as electricity, heat, buildings, mobility and agro-food. These problems cannot be addressed by incremental improvements, but require shifts to new kinds of systems, shifts which are called sustainability transitions.” (STRN research agenda, 2017, p. 5).

This radical research agenda can be traced back to the emergence of the field about twenty years ago. Its origins are also in evolutionary economics, the sociology of innovation, science & technology studies and institutional theory.

Today, the field forms a great way to analyse processes of stability and change in sustainability transitions. Three main frameworks, sometimes mistakenly called theories, help to do so: the multi-level perspective, strategic niche management and technological innovation systems. In turn, a series of disciplines have contributed to the network and, more generally, to sustainability transitions in the real world.

Beyond single innovations

However, we did leave the IST conference with an unfulfilled feeling. While the organisers had underlined the centrality of whole-system change and the need to reconfigure consumption and production patterns, a lot of the work presented still emphasised single, technological innovations. This kind of research is of course valuable, but we should not celebrate every technological innovation that promises sustainability.

Instead, the technological innovation should be placed in a context – in a vision – where its role in the system is made apparent. Although transitions may not be steered, we should be aware of the path we are on, and which vision it is taking us to.

For example, transitions are shaped by particular social groups and their ideas, interests and institutions. While it may perfectly be that a coalition succeeds in replacing a fossil fuel system by renewables, questions still remain on the political and economic structures underlying this new system. Moreover, the sustainability transitions field has underlined non-technological innovations and the relevance of end-users, justice, social movements, culture, policy and power. Let’s acknowledge these findings to foster fundamental whole system change and to avoid the trap of technological fixes.

What does complexity do to transitions?

Furthermore, sustainability transitions are complex processes because they involve co-evolving social, ecological and technological processes. By recognising complexity, unpredictability and uncertainty in our results, we recognise that we with certainty cannot know how transitions develop over time.

For example, the quantification of beliefs or interpretations to predict socio-technical change is interesting, but caution is needed when framing the results – not least because beliefs and interpretations are relational and contextual. While we are impressed by how our community embraces complexity, we also feel that there is a need to be more sensible with regard to framing and presenting our findings as causal and universal.

Disruption and politics

So, our research practice – and sustainability transitions in themselves – may come with a political nature, which should not come as a surprise. A sustainability transition sustains, disrupts or reconfigures existing systems and power relations. To us, it felt like this issue was sidestepped every now and then in the conference.

Framing our findings as objective and neutral implicitly rules out alternative pathways and might thereby well preserve existing power relations. This may not be in line with the community’s plea to understand sustainability transitions as “shifts to new kind of systems” (STRN research agenda, 2017, p. 5).

From this perspective, we argue that it is important for anyone in the network to recognise the multiple potential outcomes of sustainability transitions. A few basic, yet normative, questions could help: who is being ‘transitioned’, by whom, to what ends and with what effects?

In our view then, an essential component of transition research is an interpretation of sustainability as a point of departure – along with discussing the speed, direction and depth of the required transition.

Let’s start these conversations today!

One comment:

  1. Hi Kasper, Michael and Sofie!

    I loved reading your blog. As a fellow STEPS Sumemr School 2018 Alumni I have also been trying to use the lenses and framings from the STEPS Centre in work going forward. This is a great example of applying some of that thinking in a slightly different, but closely related field. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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