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In sustainable transitions thinking, vision is necessary for shaping and directing pathways and guiding experiments. Visioning is also an integral element of urban and regional planning. The role of vision in planning and sustainable transitions differs in that planning tends to propose an end-state achieved through incremental actions where transitions proposes that “a change trajectory towards a more sustainable society … initiated by an appealing and inspiring vision. A vision entails images and a narrative of desirable systems based on shared principles of sustainable development” (Nevens et al 2013). Transitions approaches are not well integrated into regular policy processes and transitions visions and agendas are developed in a ‘shadow track’ (Nevens et al 2013). Sustainability visions are generally imposed by government although some autonomous groups are aiming to raise awareness of alternative visions (Grin et al 2010). Hajer and Versteeg (2005) propose that “concepts such as sustainable development […] are not and cannot simply be imposed in a top-down way, but are continuously contested in a struggle about their meaning, interpretation and implementation”. All visioning must account for and reflect on these struggles.

In transitions work, visions, vision-building and visioning are essential for inducing systemic, rather than incremental, shifts and innovations that shape a transition pathway or radical departure from current socio-ecological-technical pathways. In planning, a preference for incremental change prevails. Brown et al (2004) observe that incremental innovation often results in the longer-term path being comprised of “opportunistic attempts to develop short-term solutions to pressing problems”. Incrementalism results in “solving small problems without explicitly attempting to work towards a long-term vision” (Elzen et al 2004). A gap between planning vision, planning practice and plan implementation has been identified in much research.

Vision – and long-term vision – provide the basis for structuring and prioritising action and experimentation. Article 10 of the Paris Agreement acknowledges the role of long-term vision in relation to “fully realizing technology development and transfer in order to improve resilience to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”. While highlighting technological change, it does not address the socio-cultural dimensions and co-evolutionary process of these trajectories.

Vision-building and vision, not only provide a sense of the direction of movement, but also enables exploration and evaluation of next steps and brings diverse stakeholders together. Some transitions thinking proposes that frontrunners should develop vision. However, this proposition has been critiqued on the grounds of elitism and power imbalances. These criticisms have engendered greater emphasis placed on the participation of heterogeneous stakeholders in developing vision. In transitions, the visioning process is not intended to facilitate consensus but rather to acknowledge both agreement and disagreement in charting pathways and policy (Elzen et al 2004). However, as Hermwille (2016) argues the mechanisms of visioning can catalyse contestations often involving resistance from vested interests and necessitating intermediation. Despite this, visions also have a role to play as interpretively flexible boundary objects which can draw disparate stakeholders together (Koehrsen 2017).

In many urban and regional planning processes business and government tend to capture visioning and planning and dominate the sustainability narrative; resulting in trade-offs between ecological, social and economic needs. Some planning processes in Australia have developed long-term visions. Despite its long-term vision and sustainability outlook, Melbourne 2030 has “failed to guide successful outcomes” and affirmed existing land-use and socio-technical regimes, largely due to a lack of political support and political interference on behalf of vested interests which saw the growth boundary amended several times (Morrissey et al 2018). Many media reports outline conditions of underservicing, lack of amenity and disconnection in outer Melbourne growth areas. Current modelling mechanisms on which planning relies do not allow for radically different possibilities and configurations.

In Transition Management (TM), a model for governing transition processes in policy and industry arenas, visioning is part of the cycle of learning-by-doing that also includes action and evaluation (Loorbach 2010; Voß et al 2009). Vision-building involves creating conditions for learning and reflexivity. Some contention about whether transitions can be planned and coordinated from the outset is also evident in the literature. Geels and Schot (2007) argue that “every transition becomes coordinated at some point through the alignment of visions and activities of different groups. This convergence is an achievement that emerges during transitions”. Transitions are often underway before the processes of vision, action and evaluation come into play.

Morrissey et al (2018) propose that TM principles can inform planning approaches and identify three arenas for learning.

a more future-oriented and inclusive debate is required, firstly, on the goals of public policy; secondly, on the concepts, visions and rationale used for the development of this policy; and thirdly on the pathways to achieve outcomes through reflexive governance methods.

International case studies also document the role of vision and visioning in urban and regional transitions, often with reference to transition management experiments and initiatives. Such visions are not commensurate with those in urban and regional planning. In Rotmans and Loorbach’s (2010) case study of Parkstad Limburg (Netherlands) the vision was distinct from the regional planning blueprint, and “was perceived to form an integrative frame for further development of the region and regional policies”. In developing a vision for Parkstad Limburg in transition, several differences between a transitions approach and a regional planning approach. The transition process was independent of regular policy and sought an open and societal vision. Rotmans and Loorbach (2010) found that “unlike a blueprint for regional planning, this vision was perceived to form an integrative frame for further development of the region and regional policies”. Frantzeskaki and Tefrati (2016) propose “a legitimised and socially embraced long-term sustainability vision” is needed for a city and to guide larger city scale action. In their case study of transition in Aberdeen (UK), they found that a vision that appeals to policy officers, may not be meaningful to citizens and other actors and that participatory visioning is necessary. In considering whether the processes that typify planning – ie “long drawn-out procedures and long-term visions with a fixed final view” – Thomas and Bertolini (2015) question its ongoing suitability and adaptability. For Voß et al (2009), there is a need for “new forms of long-term policy design aim at inducing and instituting societal learning”. Such long term policy requires new methodologies and approaches.

The relationship between vision, interaction and expectations is also widely discussed in the literature (Raven et al 2010). For example, Unruh and Rio (2012) stress that shared visions establish targets which provide signals for intense interactions between actors (or learning-by-interacting). This can “lead to higher-order learning and, in turn, help to shape their vision”. Consequently, “a vision does not provide a single ‘end-point’ in systems trajectories, but only an open-ended desirable state that demands continuous improvement and reframing” (David Tàbara et al 2018).

The role of vision in guiding multiple sustainable transition pathways relates to transition scenarios that highlight the possibilities for radical or transformative change (See Smith et al 2005). In setting out an agenda for sustainable transitions research, Loorbach et al (2017) affirm that visioning is a necessary and important driver and that:

the vision itself should not be overstated as there are often many different visions competing in a context where all sorts of uncertainties and seemingly random events might take over. The role of visions in transition governance is thus mainly to motivate, coordinate, and empower actions on the short term and medium term.

Given the processual nature of sustainable transitions theory and models, attention remains on the process and reflexivity of visioning and vision-building as a locus for learning, empowerment and co-evolution.


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