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Culture + Complexity + Change

RESEARCH | Sustainable Transitions

In the second post of the sustainable transitions explainers, the concept of sustainable transitions is introduced with some commentary about what it means for urban and regional planning.

Sustainable transitions are complex processes that aim to redirect societies, economies, places and industries to sustainable practices and relations over a long-term trajectory of social and system innovation. Sustainable transitions engage with the social, ecological and economic dimensions of society, including political and technological arenas, as interrelated and interdependent domains. Sustainable transitions refers to the radical changes needed to steer from our currently unsustainable systems to inherently sustainable systems. Ideas of circular economy and decarbonisation address and are constitutive of sustainable transitions and transformative dynamics. Transitions are:

“characterized by a combination of technical and societal/behavioural change, in a process of ‘coevolution’. Changes take place in the spheres of production, distribution and, crucially consumption and ways of life.” (Elzen et al 2004)

Happaerts (2016) distils four key attributes of sustainable transitions:

  • co-evolutionary dynamics
  • reflexivity and self-awareness
  • learning through experiment and innovation
  • ongoing open-ended processes of societal innovation.

While my own work is grounded in the socio-technical system aspects of sustainable transitions, focusing on infrastructure systems, other streams of transitions thinking address the socio-ecological, institutional, spatial and governance dimensions of transitions in terms of industrial, social, policy and governance innovation and transformation. More recently, ideas of SETS (Socio-Ecological-Technological Systems) have coalesced. Transition processes are inherently co-evolutionary and recognise the interrelated and complex dynamics that generate and obstruct change. Socio-technical configurations are one type of system that infers co-evolution between social and technological processes in which “socio-technical change is described as a process of shifting assemblies of associations and substitutions, a reweaving of elements” (Geels 2020). Sustainable transitions require fundamental change of structures, cultures and practices of a societal system. They involve multi-actor, multi-factor and multi-level dimensions.

As a relatively new field, transitions thinking and research problematises many of the trade-offs undertaken under the rubric of sustainable development. Transition theory is an emerging area of research which envelops systems, evolutionary economics, governance, innovation, and complexity theories (Markard, Raven, and Truffer 2012; Geels, Elzen, and Green 2004; Truffer 2008). Transitions thinking calls for more robust commitments to sustainability and futures through radical innovation and transitions pathways.

Even as nations, regions, cities and industries grapple with the complex challenges wrought of centuries of unsustainable industrialisation and growth, many remain bound to and dependent on those development and incumbent trajectories. This is not to say that cannot change, but that they are sufficiently stable to resist change. System innovations are also a prominent aspect of sustainable transitions as they can trigger whole-of-system changes, not just system improvements and optimisation which are prioritised in urban and regional planning (Smith, Stirling, and Berkhout 2005; Geels 2004a; Kemp and Loorbach 2005). Sustainable transitions are attentive to path development and transition pathways (Kemp and Loorbach, 2005, p. 5). As an evolutionary concept, paths are embedded in transitions, imbuing a processual dynamic and metaphor that in urban and regional contexts must address spatial and scalar perspectives.

Sustainable transitions offers a systemic and co-evolutionary way of thinking about and working on change. Transitions academic publishing has grown significantly over the last couple of decades. A search of the topic “sustainable transition” in the academic database, ScienceDirect, reveals less than 10 published research articles per year from 1996 to 2006 growing to 398 published research articles in 2019. The field is developing through academic journals, conferences, research networks and the like.

Urban and regional planning tends to be a government-led policy process affirming sustainable development, ecological protection, settlement pattern and growth management, and infrastructure coordination; these principles and processes intersect with sustainable transitions (Albrechts, 2012; Davidson and Arman, 2014; Searle and Bunker, 2010). Recent critiques of regional planning recognise its tendencies for linearity and lack of socio-technical systems perspective which can result in barriers to significant sustainable structural and systemic change (Bunker, 2012; Grin, Rotmans, and Schot, 2010a; Low and Astle, 2009). Propositions for renewed roles and aspirations for planning also emerge from research (Albrechts, 2008; Gleeson, 2012), implying learning and exploration in response to changing conditions rather than perpetuation of reactive and precautionary planning cultures (Birkeland, 2008; Malekpour et al., 2015). Such reflections on planning can provoke examination of the adequacy of planning to address the scale and magnitude of change and complexity in cities and regions.

Where planning tends to affirm stability, spatial management and incremental precautionary change (Birkeland, 2008; Malekpour et al., 2015; Steele and Ruming, 2012), sustainable transitions steers towards windows of opportunity for radical socio-technical alternatives and innovation over time (Loorbach and Shiroyama, 2016). Urban and regional environments are complex and multi-scalar; planning is not only situated within these contexts, it also shapes them (de Roo et al., 2012).

As a policy domain embedded in a policy mix, planning has a role to play in sustainable transitions and the spatial dynamics of sustainable transitions. Planning is a highly institutionalised lever for ensuring stability, and research reveals that planning often affirms incumbency and resists change. Some of this resistance is enacted through incrementalism, shaping selection processes and lack of reflexivity. As examination of urban and regional transition is undertaken and transition visions are articulated, this presents opportunities for planning for innovation, reconfiguration and learning. Planning and planners can reflexively reconfigure selection environments that prioritise and institutionalise sustainable technologies and practices.  

Cited works

Albrechts, L. (2008). Spatial Planning as Transformative Practice. Ruimte En Planning, 3, 1–10.
Albrechts, L. (2012). Reframing strategic spatial planning by using a coproduction perspective. Planning Theory, 12(1), 46–63. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473095212452722
Barnes, J., Durrant, R., Kern, F., & MacKerron, G. (2018). The institutionalisation of sustainable practices in cities: how initiatives shape local selection environments. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 29(April), 68–80. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2018.04.003
Birkeland, J. (2008). Positive Development: From vicious circles to virtuous circles through built environment design. London: Earthscan.
Bunker, R. (2012). Reviewing the Path Dependency in Australian Metropolitan Planning. Urban Policy and Research, 30(4), 443–452. https://doi.org/10.1080/08111146.2012.700638
Davidson, K., & Arman, M. (2014). Planning for sustainability: an assessment of recent metropolitan planning strategies and urban policy in Australia. Australian Planner, (June), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1080/07293682.2013.877508
de Roo, G., Hillier, J., & Van Wezemael, J. (2012). Complexity and Spatial Planning: Introducing Systems, Assemblages and Simulations. In G. de Roo, J. Hillier, & J. Van Wezemael (Eds.), Complexity and Planning: Systems, Assemblages and Simulations (pp. 1–33). Abingdon, Oxon, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Elzen, B., Geels, F. W., & Green, K. (2004). Transitions to sustainability: lessons learned and remaining challenges. In B. Elzen, F. W. Geels, & K. Green (Eds.), System Innovation and the Transition to Sustainability (pp. 282–300). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Geels, F.W., Elzen, B., & Green, K. (2004). General introduction : system innovation and transitions to sustainability. In B. Elzen, F. Geels, & K. Green (Eds.), System Innovation and the Transition to Sustainability (pp. 1–16). Cheltenham, UK: Greenleaf Publishing Ltd.
Geels, F. W. (2002). Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research Policy, 31, 1257–1274. https://doi.org/doi:10.1016/S0048-7333(02)00062-8
Geels, Frank W. (2004). Understanding system innovations: a critical literature review and a conceptual synthesis. In B. Elzen, F. W. Geels, & K. Green (Eds.), System Innovation and the Transition to Sustainability (pp. 19–47). Cheltenham, UK: Greenleaf Publishing Ltd.
Gleeson, B. (2012). “Make No Little Plans”: Anatomy of Planning Ambition and Prospect. Geographical Research, 50(3), 242–255. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-5871.2011.00728.x
Grin, J., Rotmans, J., & Schot, J. (2010). From persistent problems to system innovations and transitions. In Transitions to sustainable development: New directions in the study of long term transformative change (pp. 1–10). https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203856598
Happaerts, S. (2016). Discourse and Practice of Transitions in International Policy-making on Resource Efficiency in the EU. In Hans Gunter Brauch, U. O. Spring, J. Grin, & J. Scheffan (Eds.), Handbook on Sustainability Transition and Sustainable Peace (pp. 869–884). Springer.
Kemp, R., & Loorbach, D. A. (2005). Dutch Policies to Manage the Transition to Sustainable Energy. Jahrbuch Okologische Okonomik, 123–151.
Loorbach, D., & Shiroyama, H. (2016). The Challenge of Sustainable Urban Development and Transforming Cities. In D. Loorbach, J. M. Wittmayer, H. Shiroyama, J. Fujino, & S. Mizuguchi (Eds.), Governance of Urban Sustainability Transitions (pp. 3–32). Tokyo: Springer.
Low, N., & Astle, R. (2009). Path dependence in urban transport: an institutional analysis of urban passenger transport in Melbourne, Australia, 1956–2006. Transport Policy, 16, 47–58. https://doi.org/doi:10.1016/j.tranpol.2009.02.010
Malekpour, S., Brown, R. R., & de Haan, F. J. (2015). Strategic planning of urban infrastructure for environmental sustainability: Understanding the past to intervene for the future. Cities, 46, 67–75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2015.05.003
Markard, J., Raven, R., & Truffer, B. (2012). Sustainability transitions: An emerging field of research and its prospects. Research Policy, 41(6), 955–967. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2012.02.013
Searle, G., & Bunker, R. (2010). Metropolitan strategic planning: An Australian paradigm? Planning Theory, 9(3), 163–180. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473095209357873
Smith, A., Stirling, A., & Berkhout, F. (2005). The governance of sustainable socio-technical transitions. Research Policy, 34(10), 1491–1510. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2005.07.005
Steele, W., & Ruming, K. J. (2012). Flexibility versus Certainty: Unsettling the Land-use Planning Shibboleth in Australia. Planning Practice and Research, 27(2), 155–176. https://doi.org/10.1080/02697459.2012.662670
Truffer, B. (2008). Society, technology, and region: Contributions from the social study of technology to economic geography. Environment and Planning A, 40(4), 966–985.

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