From transitions to Big Transitions, from science to scientivism, and from dynamics to agency

An approachable bunch of theorists, empiricists, and some practitioners from various fields convened at the 5th International Sustainability Transitions Conference in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Most of the influential thinkers in the field were there, partaking in a carefully designed programme that centered on developments at the fringes of the fields of ‘sustainability transitions’ and ‘technology innovation systems’ research. The programme was a testament to just how much has happened in the last decade since transitions theory was first introduced as a theory of socio-technical change. Transitions theory has gone from analysis of past technology transitions and ongoing regime dynamics to setting out experiments and policy strategies for a transition to more sustainable socio-technical systems and sub-systems within society.  For those of you who weren’t there, I shall attempt to produce an unabashedly personal take on some key conclusions and challenges emerging from this fantastic event, with some thoughts on implications for community energy.  

The number of people working on collective action and bottom-up driven societal change is growing, now shifting their attention from the microdynamics within these niches to how these niches interact, influence and are influenced by dominant and established elements in the socio-technical system. Oddly enough, there is as of yet no explicit treatment of how the scale and locality of production and consumption on the one hand relates to social and environmental impacts on the other. There was little engagement with the post financial crisis debate over distribution of capital ownership and power currently ongoing in the political economy sphere, nor with rural development research. So while community energy is very popular among academics, we are clearly guilty of not explaining why we are forwarding this as a desirable way of organizing production and consumption in society. Tine de Moor was able to place current burgeoning local co-operative action in historical perspective, showing that there have been two previous waves in Dutch history when citizens took matters into their own hands. She suggests co-operative action arose in response to periods of rapid free market development, when citizens felt that markets no longer addressed their needs and the government had to a large extent left them to their own devices. While successful niches over time become established actors within socio-technical regimes, temporal niches can clearly serve to influence and rectify the nature of the regime. If we apply this logic to community energy and extrapolate to the longer term future, community energy initiatives may invariably grow and transform into larger established market players, potentially losing the individuals, structures and resources that thrive on political contestation as they do so. Alternatively, they may exist only fleetingly to ‘rectify’ energy governance in their favour. While we are a very long way off from any of these scenarios here in Scotland or most other countries in the world, it is worth reflecting on what our future energy economy should look like and why, not least to understand what each community energy project in Scotland is working towards.

The literature is getting more ambitious, and the first papers on intersectoral dynamics (for instance between energy, mobility and agriculture) and scaling-up of bottom-up initiatives are appearing. We were urged by Johan Schot to shift from analyses with single product or technology scopes (‘transitions’) to integrated systems change (‘big transitions’). Slowly but surely, the sustainability transitions field seems to be drawing in researchers from as far as organizational management, business management, political economy, education, institutional theory, evolutionary economics, and agent-based modelling, many of them young researchers driven by the desire to embrace normative and holistic systems perspectives that enable us to attach criteria for the quality, direction and rate of societal change.

As the sustainability transitions community shifts from what to how questions, academics are also talking more about whether and how research translates to impact, and the divide between theory and practice is narrowing. Given the role of financial innovation in niche activities (including community energy initiatives), we are likely to see further contributions from business management and finance to sustainability transitions research. There is a growing focus on practice oriented research methods, with academics actively engaging in social experiments or action research. Others focus on formulation of policy strategies that encourage policy makers to go from reactive to proactive and adaptive policy, and from static objective-oriented legislation focused on rectifying technology-induced externalities to dynamic process-oriented policy that facilitates innovation. Compared to other fields in social science, transitions management has been quite successful at influencing policy strategies, notably in the UK and the Netherlands. However, recent evidence suggests that advocating broad policy strategies may not be enough. For instance, the Netherlands was the first country to integrate transition management into policy, but is among the member states that is unlikely to make its 2020 renewable energy targets. People I spoke to attributed this predominantly to the governments unwavering commitment and dependence on the gas industry. Consequently, the sustainability transitions community has started reaching out to theories focused on understanding agency and policy processes, in order to understand political constraints on ‘windows of opportunity’ for change.

Next year IST will take place in Brighton, closer to home. See you there?


Anna is a Research Associate at Scene Consulting

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