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RESEARCH | Pathway

Pathways are perhaps the most evocative and poetic of the sustainable transitions concepts presented in this series of explanatory posts. Pathways are embedded in and constitutive of sustainable transitions and the Multi-Level Perspective (MLP) as co-evolutionary processes that shape and are shaped by currents of change and resistance. The MLP supports researchers and policymakers to explore what opportunities, if any, exist and are emerging for interventions, niches, and transitions pathways. We are not on a pathway to transition, we are in a pathway for transition or change which is not deterministic (Geels and Schot, 2007).

The ‘pathways approach’ favours dynamic, transitional and long term strategy and action in uncertainty that is strongly linked to vision. This recognises, as Leach et al (2010) propose, that pathways indicate how “a given system changes over time, depending on the issue in question, [and] several different scales may be important, sometimes simultaneously and in overlapping ways”. Not only addressing multiple scales, pathways also address multiple timeframes, both historical and future timeframes. Planning is enmeshed in pathways but movement beyond planning into action is a necessity for change and movement. Drawing on the pathways approach, Frantzeskaki et al (2019) define pathways as:

bundles of strategies and actions that support the achievement of a long-term vision … The use of a long-term vision as the endpoint of the pathways provides strong guidance regarding the actions that need to be taken, and the pathways demonstrate the multitude of actions needed for a more sustainable future.

Pathways stress the relational and connected nature of sustainability domains in response to complex issues such as climate change. Geels and Schot’s (2007) typology of transition pathways highlights their relational dynamics by acknowledging that alignment between rules, institutions, actors and politics play a significant role in the multi-level momentum. They also propose that not all pathways are equal or steer a clear course with transitions potentially taking shape through multiple or sequential pathways. Pathways are non-linear, even contradictory, with unsustainable practices continuing while sustainable practices are introduced eg the prevalence of automobility and highway building while active and public transport infrastructure is introduced.

Socio-technological transitions involve examination of the interplay of path dependence and system innovation as well as the co-evolution of socio-ecological-technical systems and their socio-spatial context (Corvellec et al., 2013; Frantzeskaki and Loorbach, 2010; Tukker and Butter, 2007). Historical conditions influence pathways significantly. Martin (2010, p. 3) finds that “the combination of historical contingency and the emergence of self-reinforcing effects, steers a technology, industry or regional economy along one ‘path’ rather than another”. Transition pathways also reflect the language of path dependency and path creation as well as evolutionary and systems thinking ideas. Path dependence is extrapolated in economic, geographic and political theory to explain the emergence and stability of trajectories of industrial and technological development, particularly in regions as influenced by historic and place-based conditions.

With reference to complex adaptive systems, Garud, Kumaraswamy and Karnøe (2010) propose a theoretical perspective where path creation accounts for the ways in which conditions and boundaries are reflexively created by actors rather than historically given. In this framing of path creation, paths and agency are emergent and rely on sense-making, narrative and visioning. Instead of lock-in, Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction is evoked by the authors to articulate processes of renewal and revitalisation and generating options. Garud, Kumaraswamy and Karnøe (2010) clarify that path creation and path dependence are neither oppositional nor complementary, but play different roles in decision-making and policy processes as resources, actors and needs arise. The path creation perspective is useful for strategically and deliberately drawing out emergent phenomena.

Paths are complex phenomena and path constitution is a complex process which can benefit from protective spaces for experiment and exploration (Meyer and Schubert, 2007; Smith and Raven, 2012). A strong relationship between pathways and niche innovations can develop when landscapes are creating pressure and regimes are destabilised. In response to path dependent and locked-in situations, as Egyedi and Spirco (2011) note, strategic interventions addressing de-entrenchment, niche management, momentum, and alternative path creation have developed.

Given their basis in co-evolutionary non-linear pathways, transitions are described as fuzzy and messy involving combinations and recombinations of complex relations through tensions in stability and change, subjectivity and materiality, and agency and structure. Transition pathways that envision an inherently sustainable future, as distinct from a more sustainable future, are predicated on transformative momentum and capacity (Webb et al., 2018; Wolfram, 2016b). Transitions imply and necessitate unbinding traditional and resistant sectoral dynamics, including policy and planning, in order to reconfigure and reshape societal systems.


Corvellec, H., Campos, M. J. Z., & Zapata, P. (2013). Infrastructures, lock-in, and sustainable urban development: The case of waste incineration in the Göteborg Metropolitan Area. Journal of Cleaner Production, 50, 32–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2012.12.009

Egyedi, T., & Spirco, J. (2011). Standards in transitions: Catalyzing infrastructure change. Futures, 43(9), 947–960. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2011.06.004

Frantzeskaki, N., & Loorbach, D. (2010). Towards governing infrasystem transitions. Reinforcing lock-in or facilitating change? Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 77(8), 1292–1301. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2010.05.004

Frantzeskaki, N., Hölscher, K., Holman, I. P., Pedde, S., Jaeger, J., Kok, K., & Harrison, P. A. (2019). Transition pathways to sustainability in greater than 2 °C climate futures of Europe. Regional Environmental Change, 19(3), 777–789. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-019-01475-x

Garud, R., Kumaraswamy, A., & Karnøe, P. (2010). Path Dependence or Path Creation? Journal of Management Studies, 47(4), 760–774.

Geels, F. W., & Schot, J. (2007). Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, 36(August 2003), 399–417. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2007.01.003

Leach, M., Scoones, I., & Stirling, A. (2010). Dynamic sustainabilities: technology, environment, social justice. London: Earthscan.

Martin, R 2010, ‘Roepke lecture in economic geography—rethinking regional path dependence: beyond lock-in to evolution’, Economic Geography, Vol.86, No.1, pp.1–27.

Meyer, U., & Schubert, C. (2007). Eldorado: Integrating path dependency and path creation in a general understanding of path constitution. Science, Technology & Innovation Studies, 3(May), 23–44.

Smith, A., & Raven, R. (2012). What is protective space? Reconsidering niches in transitions to sustainability. Research Policy, 41(6), 1025–1036. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2011.12.012

Tukker, A., & Butter, M. (2007). Governance of sustainable transitions: about the 4(0) ways to change the world. Journal of Cleaner Production, 15(1), 94–103. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2005.08.016

Webb, R., Bai, X., Smith, M. S., Costanza, R., Griggs, D., Moglia, M., Neuman, M., Newman, P., Newton, P., Norman, B., Ryan, C., Schandl, H., Steffen, W., Tapper N., & Thomson, G. (2018). Sustainable urban systems: Co-design and framing for transformation. Ambio, 47(1), 57–77. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-017-0934-6

Wolfram, M. (2016b). Conceptualizing urban transformative capacity: A framework for research and policy. Cities, 51, 121–130. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2015.11.011

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