Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

COMMENT | Any place for a ‘Chief Transitions Officer’?

In an article in Cities Today, John Krauss examines how resilience is placing new demands on planning and other built environment professions addressing urban challenges. Krauss calls for a new breed of professionals to deal with the complexity of issues facing our cities and communities. The article asks the question: How do we build infrastructure that is both resilient in itself and adds to a city’s overall resilience, by adapting to climate change and anticipating new shifts such as driverless transport, changing business models and demographic change?

The Rockefeller Foundation has successfully introduced a global campaign promoting resilience by supporting cities to employ a Chief Resilience Officer. This is important and commendable work, although the mix of new professional skills and knowledges shouldn’t stop there. Where resilience addresses the necessity of adapting to, responding to and recovering from shocks, such as extreme weather events, transitions makes it explicit that more systemic and long term change is needed. Having just endured another extreme weather event in Queensland, it seems somewhat self-defeating to end the discussion at resilience. A whole town is being evacuated in northern NSW because a levy, an infrastructural resilience initiative, isn’t high enough. How’s that cost-benefit analysis and governance process really measuring up?

How are we addressing transition other than a handful of throwaway sustainability and emissions targets? Throughout my research on sustainable transitions and infrastructure, I’ve been underwhelmed by many of the planning responses to transitions in Australia, particularly focused on Queensland. Yet, transitions are being explored, tested and trialed in many places around the world – not just the German energy transition, but experiments in transition management in the Netherlands, various urban labs, and transitions analysis of infrastructure systems elsewhere. Transitions prompt us to look to the very long term to design pathways for change and to engage the whole system in problem-solving, system innovation and path creation. It’s highly charged political and contested territory.

Sustainable transitions are understood in terms of socio-technological systems, such as infrastructure systems, and their impacts on economic and socio-economic activity to address ecological and socio-ecological priorities. Transition theory is an emerging and growing area of research, which envelops systems, evolutionary economics, governance, innovation and complexity theories Transitions occur through both incremental and multi-dimensional momentum towards radical change involving learning and experiment. Sustainable transitions involve system innovations that trigger whole-of-system changes, not just system improvements, as can be the result of urban and regional planning. Several research papers addressing transitions and infrastructure planning call for a rethinking of professional education.

Krauss calls for 10,000 Chief Resilience Officers worldwide, but that’s only part of the sustainability remix of our professions and their skills – and the role they play in urban and regional governance. There is also a case for a new breed of professional focusing on transitions, say a ‘Chief Transitions Officer’, to provide the kind of strategic and reflexive leadership that is much needed for addressing complex challenges like carbon and infrastructure lock-in.


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