By ADRIAN SMITH, STEPS Centre member

The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg brought forward cross-cutting commitments to a ten-year framework of programmes on sustainable production and consumption systems (i.e. environmentally sound and socially just). An increasing number of governments, businesses and civil society groups are considering how reformed governance might bring such systems into being in areas such as energy, water, housing, food, mobility (e.g. UN Marrakesh-Process).

I co-organised a workshop in Berlin last week to explore the politics and governance implications of such ambitious goals. Commitments to system innovations are based on an understanding that sustainable development requires fundamental structural adaptations to the sociotechnical systems that service and co-constitute human needs. The innovation of more sustainable artefacts and practices cannot be effective without changes to the broader contexts in which they are produced and used.

The workshop brought together leading thinkers in the fields of governance studies and socio-technical transitions research. Many themes were discussed during the workshop, and each explored in a wide variety of cases, ranging from biofuels in Brasil, to the life cycle of electronic products, to sanitation reforms in Indian cities, to ambitions for renewable energy autarky in southern Austria, and many more.

Themes included how to think about systems reflexively, and ensure that any possibility for purposefully guiding their development avoids the technocratic pitfalls of earlier systems theories. Building on this was a re-consideration of the bases for democratic legitimacy in many of the fluid governance networks that are emerging to address persistent problems of unsustainability in key socio-technical systems around water, energy, housing, mobility, and so on.

Indeed, papers provided contrasting entry points to thinking about the make-up and extent of these systems. Some argued systems had to be considered as the emergent outcome of millions of every-day practices that effectively and perpetually re-make them. Attempts to transform the sustainability of water systems, for example, have to be re-framed and considered from the vantage point of final practices, such as showering, and consider how governance struggles to re-frame the meanings of these practices in more sustainable terms, and how these are co-produced by the provision of new elements, including mundane plumbing technologies, or new institutions for water provision.

Other papers took a more top-down view of their systems, and urged more synoptic overviews of the way governance engages with the complex configurations of institutions, technologies, actors, and environments. A strategic and synergistic portfolio of governance activities termed ‘transition management’ that emerged from the latter view was the subject of much debate.

Either view – whether objectifying systems analysis or constructivist practices research – places considerable demands upon the capacity of governance. The possibility of different participants in these systems of provision to have sufficient agency to overcome and remake the structural nature of the inter-locking relations that make up the system was a recurring theme at the workshop.

The organizers, which included Jan-Peter Voss from the Oeko Institut and John Grin from the University of Amsterdam are considering publishing a selection of the papers in a Special Issue journal.