Wicked problems, wicked solutions: system change for sustainability

Transition management as a guide for sustainability transitions

The existing economic model, based on infinite linear growth, has created various ecological problems, such as global warming, ocean acidification and accelerated species extinction. The ‘Western’ way of living has caused us to cross several planetary boundaries. In response, many concerned individuals argue for a “radical change” of the current system. Since the Earth Summit in 1992, it is widely recognised that we need to transition to a more sustainable society. In order to do so, we need to change the system1, as incremental change will not allow for the necessary fundamental shifts. While this all sounds promising, it raises important questions. After all, what should such a new system look like? And how can we transition from one system to another? Transition management, a relatively young field, has emerged in an attempt to answer these questions.

What is transition management?

Before delving into transition management, it is necessary to understand what transitions actually are. Transitions, as understood here, are processes of structural change that often take 25-50 years to fully take effect. Transitions take place in different societal sub-systems, such as energy, transportation, agriculture, housing, and health care, and are characterised by the emergence of a new culture, different structures, and disparate practices. Transitions occur as pressures increase within an existing system due to structural developments and small-scale innovations2. The Dutch Energy Transition3 epitomises such a transition. In response to a shift in the landscape, brought about by the Paris Agreement, Dutch policies aim at bringing about a fundamental shift from an energy system fully reliant on fossil fuels, to one where renewable energy sources take central stage.

Such transitions are the main focus of transition management. The aim of transition management is to analyse transitions in societal systems, and use the knowledge gained to support and accelerate transitions to a more sustainable system. It is considered to be a new approach to governance that draws from both complex systems theory and governance practices.2 Such sustainability transitions are deemed necessary in order to deal with the wicked problems that our societies face today.

How do transitions happen?

The transitioning process can be interpreted as a socio-technological development that takes place at different levels of society. In order to analyse how societal transitions occur, transition management uses the multilevel framework, illustrated in the figure below4.

Figure 1

The landscape reflects the overall societal context. It includes cultural and normative values, the political landscape, and demographic trends. At this level, change usually materialises very slowly.

The regime describes the existing system. Regimes can be interpreted as semi-coherent sets of rules that are upheld by different actors in society, ranging from the government to business and civil society. As such, regimes can be seen as stable systems that are well-coordinated and where different actors share common ideas on how things ought to be done. This stability is dynamic, which means that innovation happens but only incrementally.

The niche is the level where radical innovations are generated and developed. Niches are important, because this is essentially where the seeds for change are planted and where front-runners introduce their novel ideas and technologies.

Figure 1 shows that there is a nested hierarchy between the different levels. Regimes are nested within landscapes, and niches are embedded in regimes. Each of these levels are intimately linked and they interact with and exert influence on one another. Innovations are introduced as a response to problems that occur in existing regimes and they are shaped by the available knowledge, rules, and capabilities. Successful innovations at the niche level cannot bring about social change on their own, but they have to be strengthened by shifts at the regime level as well as in the socio-technological landscape (see figure 2).

Figure 2

Even though figure 2 seems to suggest that innovations are the starting point for systemic change, it is important to realise that developments at other levels could initiate such transitions.5 Shifts in the landscape could, for example, put pressure on a regime, which could create a window of opportunity for the introduction of a novel technology at the niche level. Geels (2002)4 elaborates further on the complexity of the interactions between the different levels. If interested, I would especially recommend you look at figure 5 in the referenced paper.

Why is it relevant today?

Transition management is more relevant than ever. Our society is moving into an unsustainable direction and we are increasingly recognizing the limits of the system based on fossil fuels and infinite growth. Issues like climate change and growing social inequalities pose challenges that cannot be solved by using the same thinking that created these issues in the first place. But if this is true, and we recognize that the dominant practices in existing regimes cross several social and ecological boundaries, how is it possible that these regimes continue to exist?

According to Loorbach6, this can partially explained by how we commonly approach problems. Generally, solutions are proposed by looking at issues in isolation. Consequently, innovations result in improvements of the existing system rather than cause fundamental change towards a more sustainable system. Investments in recycling provide a perfect example. After all, recycling systems depend on the perpetuation of the problem that they are trying to tackle. If one really wants to change course, the problem should be tackled at its source. Such optimisation and improvement processes within the existing regime actually reduce the likelihood of systemic change, as they partially alleviate existing tensions within a regime. Despite all this, it is often argued that we currently find ourselves in a period of transition. An increasing number of people is recognising the need for change and is organising themselves in niches where thing are done fundamentally different. A Tegenlicht broadcast discusses several promising examples (in Dutch), and DRIFT has published stories of several transformative projects. In contrast with numerous innovations that only intend to improve the existing system, these initiatives show that besides innovation-as-usual, there are people who try to change the system from the bottom up.

Concluding remarks

Transitions, as discussed before, bring about structural change towards a new regime. Such transitions are never without setbacks and difficulties. There are different actors involved who often have different interests. Change is inevitably met with resistance from strong parties whose power, money, and interests are vested in maintaining the existing system. On top of that, short-term interests often trump long-term interests. Even though transitions are difficult and clearly do not happen overnight, this discussion also gives some hope. Often, the wicked problems that the current generation faces seem so vast that individual efforts appear to make little difference. However, change is initiated at the niche level, and every effort, however small, can potentially create another crack that will eventually cause the system to burst.

1. Briney, A. (2014, Jun 27). Six trategies for creating system change for a sustainable future. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/planetary-boundaries/about-the-research/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html

2. Loorbach, D. (2009). Transition management for sustainable development: a prescriptive, complexity-based governance framework. Dutch Research Institute for Transitions.

3. Ministry of Economic Affairs. (2016). Energy report: transition to sustainable energy. Retrieved from https://www.government.nl/documents/reports/2016/04/28/energy-report-transition-tot-sustainable-energy

4. Geels, F. W. (2002). Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research Policy, 31, 1257-1274. 

5. Smith, A., Voß, J., & Grin, J. (2010). Innovation studies and sustainability transitions: the allure of the multi-level perspective and its challenges. Research Policy, 39(4), 435-448. doi: 10.1016/j.respol.2010.01.023

6. Mommers, J. (2015, June 8). Hoe duurzaamheid een duurzame samenleving in de weg staat (en wat eraan te doen). De Correspondent. Retrieved from https://decorrespondent.nl/2898/hoe-duurzaamheid-een-duurzame-samenleving-in-de-weg-staat-en-wat-eraan-te-doen/842650842726-fafc26b4

2 thoughts on “Wicked problems, wicked solutions: system change for sustainability

  1. Hey Julia, I found your piece particularly interesting after both guest lectures yesterday form Sem Oxenaar and Marjan Minnesma. In the beginning of her presentation, Marjan explained that the way in which Urgenda works is deeply rooted in transitions theory. At the same time, I was very much struck with the ‘hands-on’ mentality she expressed during her lecture. Instead of ‘waiting’ for technological niches to come about, she actively steps towards different stakeholders in different economic sectors, like mobility and heavy industry, and actively starts looking for new technological innovations, but also cooperation and transitions towards different scales of deployment of different technologies. This is very different that the quintessential idea a lot of people have about innovation and change, which is that market demand and investments kind of determines where we can expect innovation. Marjan shows that a lot of it has to do with ‘showing that it is possible’, which is maybe the very idea of creating a niche. I thought especially the example of her giving Tata steel the idea to work together with a paper factory very telling. When I hear Marjan talk, I especially think about how important it is there are people like her to show ‘the way’, but I was wondering how that fits into transition theory. I think my question to you is, what is the place of personal leadership of people like Marjan in this picture you sketch in your blogpost? Transitions are described as large society-scale impacts (but with systems of different scales), but at the same time, Marjan emphasized that personal leadership and taking individual steps is critical. What is the importance of leadership, or individual agents that drive transitions like Urgenda, in a theory that emphasizes the holistic nature of systemic change? In your conclusion you emphasize that changes stem from creating new niches. Is leadership about creating niches, or upscaling these niches or both? In that sense, how useful is the ‘systemic’ and ‘complexity’ lens for transition issues?


  2. Hi Pjotr, I like the link you drew with last week’s guest lectures. Indeed, both drew heavily on the concepts underlying transition theory, and I think Marjan Minnesma very eloquently showed the importance of change-agents in bringing about transitions. When reading about the topic, I came across several examples of niche-innovations that aimed at disrupting the existing system. One of the most important elements and drivers of such niches are innovative individuals, so-called change-agents, who look at the situation before them and see that things can also be done differently. Such individuals who recognize opportunities and can think outside of the box or approach problems with a different lens are necessary for bringing about niche innovations. In that sense, I do believe leadership, or sustainable leadership to be more precise, is really closely related to the creation of niches. I do not necessarily think that sustainable leadership is about ‘creating’ the niche-innovation per se, but I think leadership is required to let those innovations ‘take off’. It could be that great innovation are introduced but without effective leadership, those niches will not get the necessary attention and will not scale up to create disruptions at the regime level. Still, I think the systemic and complexity lens that you refer to are necessary to understand transition management because effective leadership ultimately depends on an understanding of the complex societal system within which one operates and within which one wants to bring about change. To be an effective leader, it is necessary to understand these complex societal processes in order to create or recognize windows of opportunities that make the scaling up of niche innovations possible.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s