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.
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).
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.
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