Applying the transition management approach to organize for a sustainable future

This article was written by two guest bloggers: Chris Roorda and Radina Vassileva, both working at the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions, the Netherlands


Cities offer a promising intervention level for decisive action to address sustainability challenges, especially in terms of policy and societal action. However, city officials are confronted with the limitations of the policy instruments available to them, which have proven insufficient to deal with the complexity of the challenges at hand; as aiming for a sustainable future requires searching for fundamentally new ways of thinking, working, and organizing. At the same time different actors across different domains and scale levels have daily practices that can contribute to a more sustainable future of their city. The question is how to connect the two; how to trigger and influence social dynamics aiming for sustainability?

In the context of the Interreg-funded MUSIC project (Mitigation in Urban Areas: Solutions for Innovative Cities), the cities Aberdeen (UK), Montreuil (FR), Ghent (BE), Ludwigsburg (DE) and Rotterdam (NL) found the answer in applying a transition management approach for working towards a low-carbon future. Following this approach, each city created space (both mental and physical) to go beyond the status quo in what is called the transition arena, a temporary setting, while involving a group of change agents from diverse backgrounds. Over the course of several arena meetings they worked together on structuring the transition challenge of their city, drafting visionary images, developing transition pathways and formulating a transition agenda that included short-term actions for a low-carbon future of the city.

What did it result in?

Participants and policy officials involved in the processes gained a better understanding of the complexity and societal context of the low-carbon challenge. Especially in Aberdeen, Ghent and Montreuil, they moved beyond a focus on energy or climate mitigation per se to include other relevant domains of urban policy making on the way to a low-carbon future. “[Transition management] allowed us to remove the institutional perspective of looking at things” and “replaced our ‘business-as-usual’ for looking more to the long-term”. In each city, the ideas developed were consolidated in a transition agenda, which summarized the framing of the problem, visionary images, pathways, and ideas for short-term actions which contribute to the envisioned sustainable future of their city. Five similar but different visions came out of the transition arena with various focus points ranging from an oil-dependent economy to a diverse economy with a diversity of employment’ (Aberdeen) to ‘consumer pushes the market’ (Ghent). The ideas, connections and energy that emerged during the processes provided for a fertile ground to create new initiatives and fresh collaborations aimed at the sustainable futures of their city, and in some cases they also resonated within the city administration and actors in the cities. Following the arena, 30 transition projects in the form of short-term projects, spin-off activities, ideas, as well as some failed experiments emerged from the five cities. Examples include ‘Celebrate the street’, a school energy efficiency and a transport project in Aberdeen. Beyond Scotland, the process generated FabLab (a workshop for digital fabrication) in Montreuil, valorisation of the sewage water in Ghent and the ‘sustainable shopping basket’ in Ludwigsburg.

The added value of transition management

While the process had not been always easy and even challenging at times, the transition management approach was a productive journey for all cities. Through the transition experiments and spin-off activities, the process offered arena participants and (through a ripple effect) a far more reaching group of people with a guiding perspective regarding the fundamental changes needed to reach a sustainable future for their city. It gave them the impulse to inspire new and enhance existing initiatives that contributed to their envisioned future.  Last but not least, it provided collective empowerment, as actors in the cities could more effectively build upon opportunities and tackle challenges on their path to becoming a sustainable city.

Practical lessons learned for the application of transition management in the urban context include that playing into local dynamics has clear benefits for both the city administration and the public. City administrations need to acknowledge, however, that they do not have full control over the situation and that the creation of mental and organizational space is crucial for the application of transition management or similar ‘open’ and reflexive approaches. Dealing with accountability is a delicate issue and should be approached as such, and the effects are intangible, indirect and long term, so a reflexive monitoring approach should be used to help ease and assess the results. Last but not least, the facilitation role is central to the approach and is a demanding one:  it does not mean ‘letting go’ of the process as such and doing less work, but rather it is a different type of engagement and working together, where co-creating with other non-traditional actors is at the center.

More detailed insights on the five cities in the MUSIC project can be found in this evaluation report. Based on these insights, DRIFT recently released its guidance manual on Transition Management in the Urban Context, which offers city officers a guideline on how to influence and accelerate a transition towards a low-carbon future. The guidance manual is available in English, German and French.