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RESEARCH | Multi-Level Perspective

Sustainable transitions research has developed and introduced several core methods (or frameworks) including the Multi-Level Perspective (MLP) and Transitions Management. The MLP supports historical and system analysis of the co-evolutionary dynamics of socio-technical and transition pathways. The MLP is a heuristic that is ‘not a theory of everything’. However, the shortcomings of the MLP, such as lack of political and power sensitivity, have been noted by several critics and recognition of these contributes to research and other work based on the MLP. Heuristics, which are models, usually impose limitations and none of these limitations are insurmountable especially when additional and hybrid methods are integrated into research.

The MLP, as a heuristic for examining sustainable transitions in sustainable systems, is a foundational method in transitions research. It is both a descriptive and analytical framework for addressing socio-technological system innovation and radical change (Geels, 2002; Geels and Schot, 2007; Rip and Kemp, 1998). As an analytical framework, the MLP was developed by Rip and Kemp (1998) with significant subsequent research and development by Geels and collaborators (e.g. Geels 2002; Geels and Schot 2007) as a means for analysing socio-technical systems and system innovation. As a heuristic, it is not a blunt planning tool, but rather a framework for mapping complex and co-evolutionary relationships over time. It can be used in planning practice for examining temporal and spatial dynamics across the three levels and supporting environmental scanning and mapping potential sites of experiment and innovation within a transition management context.

The MLP involves macro, meso and micro levels of analysis, understood as landscape, regime and niche levels to represent system dynamics (Geels and Schot 2007) (Figure 1). The nested levels align with Giddens’ theory of structuration in which the binary of human action and social structure is displaced through recognition that social structures not only frame human action but are also resultant from human action (Giddens, 1984). In brief the MLP refers to dynamics and interactions between:

  • Landscape refers to exogenous conditions and structures that provide the context for actor interactions. They also exert pressure on regimes and can trigger the development of niches.
  • Regimes set out the rules or grammar of institutionally and infrastructurally embedded processes, technologies, skills, corporate cultures and artefacts. They tend towards incremental improvement along a constrained pathway and can resist change.
  • Niches are responsive to landscape dynamics. They are protected spaces where radical innovation develops and potentially disrupts regimes. Niches are sites of reflexivity, learning and linked to a vision. In their interactions with other levels, niches play a significant role in the constitution of pathways.

The interactions between the levels can result in tension and stresses which destabilise and trigger change, often seeking or settling into a subsequent stability (e.g., automobility). Geels and Schot (2007) also identify specific patterns of transition pathways that have been distilled as typologies.

Grin, Rotmans and Schot (2010a) propose that transitions are best served by process theories, like the MLP, and that narrative explanations reveal patterns and mechanisms. They argue that the MLP is a process theory that identifies the relationships between different processes at different levels. The MLP introduces a relational and explanatory approach to socio-technical transitions that accounts for co-evolutionary dynamics. In studies where researchers have sought to compare or bridge planning and transitions, significant differences between planning and transition narratives and outcomes were identified, significantly because planning plays a significant regime role in its approach to land use, automobility and infrastructure (Carroli, 2018; Driscoll, 2014; Malekpour et al., 2015; Späth and Rohracher, 2010; Truffer et al., 2010). Planning was identified as inhibiting transition and system learning despite acting as a context for experimentation and innovation.

A significant body of research has applied the MLP to urban and regional settings to examine the complex and co-evolutionary relations of urban and regional transition pathways. The application of the MLP in urban contexts has revealed tendencies in urban and regional planning that can inhibit and obstruct sustainable transitions. Planning plays a significant role in supporting stability in uncertainty as is experienced in many urban contexts. As planning supports piecemeal and incremental change, there is a need for innovation in planning and a need to meaningfully connect transitions and city-scale or region-scale thinking (Eames et al., 2013a).

The levels of the MLP are not conceptualised as spatial, place-based or scalar (Coenen et al., 2012; Raven, Schot, and Berkhout, 2012). While some analyses correlate the levels with geographic scales (Hansen and Coenen, 2014), the levels of landscape, regime and niche do not naturally correlate to the spatial scales of global, regional and local and cannot be assumed to be spatially or scale sensitive. For example, niches such as research institutes or labs can function as global networks and organisations. In applying the MLP, the sustainable transition of socio-technical systems can be steered or guided (Kemp and Van Lente, 2011) and innovations can, over time and space, emerge from the niche level to disrupt and compete with established technologies and practices at the regime level, often as a result of landscape pressures, learning and shocks (Kern, 2012). Importantly, experiments alone are not constitutive of emergent transitions or niches, nor do they necessarily create the conditions for transitions. Consequently, niches and experiments require momentum to breakthrough and catalyse change. Research indicates that many urban experiments have lacked momentum (Morrissey et al, 2018).

The sustainable transitions field is a rapidly growing field of theory and research. When I started my PhD in 2015, much research was reliant on the MLP and it seemed like a relevant framework to apply to the planning arena given other critiques of planning as path dependent and lacking socio-technical awareness. When I submitted my PhD, the MLP was still relevant but I observed that the field was moving beyond and complimenting the MLP through hybridised and new approaches. In a recent lecture, Professor Niki Frantzeskaki encouraged researchers to be more challenging and innovative in their approaches and analysis as well as in defining their problem spaces.

References

Carroli, L. (2018). Planning roles in infrastructure system transitions: A review of research bridging socio-technical transitions and planning. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 29, 81-89. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2018.06.001

Coenen, L., Benneworth, P., & Truffer, B. (2012). Toward a spatial perspective on sustainability transitions. Research Policy, 41(6), 968–979. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2012.02.014

Driscoll, P. A. (2014). Breaking Carbon Lock-In: Path Dependencies in Large-Scale Transportation Infrastructure Projects. Planning Practice & Research, 29(3), 317–330. https://doi.org/10.1080/02697459.2014.929847

Eames, M., Dixon, T., May, T., & Hunt, M. (2013b). City futures: exploring urban retrofit and sustainable transitions. Building Research & Information, 41(5), 504–516. https://doi.org/10.1080/09613218.2013.805063

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, F. W., & Schot, J. (2007b). Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, 36(3), 399–417. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2007.01.003

Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Bristol: Polity.

Grin, J, Rotmans, J., & Schot, J. (2010). Transitions to Sustainable Development. London: Routledge.

Hansen, T., & Coenen, L. (2014). The geography of sustainability transitions: Review, synthesis and reflections on an emergent research field. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2014.11.001

Kemp, R., & Van Lente, H. (2011). The dual challenge of sustainability transitions. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 1, 121–124. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2011.04.001

Kern, F. (2012). Using the multi-level perspective on socio-technical transitions to assess innovation policy. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 79(2), 298–310. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2011.07.004

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

Morrissey, J. E., Moloney, S., & Moore, T. (2018). Strategic Spatial Planning and Urban Transition: Revaluing Planning and Locating Sustainability Trajectories. In Niki Frantzeskaki, V. Castán Broto, L. Coenen, & D. Loorbach (Eds.), Urban Sustainability Transitions: Australian Cases – International Perspectives (pp. 53–72).

Raven, R., Schot, J., & Berkhout, F. (2012). Space and scale in socio-Technical transitions. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 4, 63–78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2012.08.001

Rip, A., & Kemp, R. (1998). Technological change. In S. Rayner & E. . Malone (Eds.), Human Choices and Climate Change, vol. 2. (Vol. 2, pp. 327–399). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02887432

Späth, P., & Rohracher, H. (2010). “Energy regions”: The transformative power of regional discourses on socio-technical futures. Research Policy, 39(4), 449–458. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2010.01.017

Truffer, B., Störmer, E., Maurer, M., & Ruef, A. (2010). Local strategic planning processes and sustainability transitions in infrastructure sectors. Environmental Policy and Governance, 20(4), 258–269. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/eet.550

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