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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.


Brown, H. S., Vergragt, P. J., Green, K., & Berchicci, L. (2004). Bounded socio-technical experiments (BSTEs): Higher order learning for transitions towards sustainable mobility. System Innovation and the Transition to Sustainability, 191–219. https://doi.org/10.4337/9781845423421.00021

David Tàbara, J., Frantzeskaki, N., Hölscher, K., Pedde, S., Kok, K., Lamperti, F., … Berry, P. (2018). Positive tipping points in a rapidly warming world. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 31, 120–129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2018.01.012

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

Grin, J., Rotmans, J., & Schot, J. (2010). Transitions To Sustainable Development: New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change. New York: Routledge.

Hermwille, L. (2016). The Role of Narratives in Socio-Technical Transitions: Fukushima and the Energy Regimes of Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom Accepted. Energy, Research and Social Science, 11, 237–246. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2015.11.001

Koehrsen, J. (2017). Boundary bridging arrangements: A boundary work approach to local energy transitions. Sustainability (Switzerland), 9(3), 1–23. https://doi.org/10.3390/su9030424

Loorbach, D. (2010). Transition management for sustainable development: a prescriptive, complexity-based governance framework. Governance, 23(1), 161–183. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0491.2009.01471.x

Loorbach, D., Frantzeskaki, N., & Avelino, F. (2017). Sustainability Transitions Research : Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 42(June), 1–28.

Moore, T., de Haan, F. J., Horne, R., & Gleeson, B. (Eds.). (2018). Urban Sustainability Transitions: Australian Cases – International Perspectives. Singapore: Springer. 2018

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).

Nevens, F., Frantzeskaki, N., Gorissen, L., & Loorbach, D. (2013). Urban Transition Labs: Co-creating transformative action for sustainable cities. Journal of Cleaner Production, 50, 111–122. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2012.12.001

Raven, R., Bosch, S. Van Den, & Weterings, R. (2010). Transitions and strategic niche management: towards a competence kit for practitioners. International Journal of Technology Management, 51(1), 57. https://doi.org/10.1504/IJTM.2010.033128

Rotmans, J., & Loorbach, D. (2010). Towards a Better Understanding of Transitions and Their Governance: A Systemic and Reflexive Approach. In John Grin, J. Rotmans, & J. Schot (Eds.), Transitions to sustainable development: New directions in the study of long term transformative change (pp. 105–222). New York: Routledge.

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

Thomas, R., & Bertolini, L. (2015). Policy transfer among planners in transit-oriented development. Town Planning Review, 86(5), 537–560. https://doi.org/10.3828/tpr.2015.32

Unruh, G., & Río, P. (2012). Unlocking the unsustainable institutional complex. In G. Marletto (Ed.), Creating a Sustainable Economy: An Institutional and Evolutionary Approach to Environmental Policy (pp. 232–255). Abingdon, Oxon, GBR: Routledge.

Voß, J.-P. P., Smith, A., & Grin, J. (2009). Designing long-term policy: Rethinking transition management. Policy Sciences, 42, 275–302. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-009-9103-5

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

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.


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

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.

RESEARCH | Socio-Technical Systems

The first of a series of posts introducing core themes in sustainable transitions, drawing from my PhD research examining relationships between sustainable transitions, regional planning and infrastructure systems.

The interaction of society and technology has been the subject of several schools of research and theory, including social studies of technology, social construction of technology and large technical systems, recognising that technologies are socially shaped or constructed. These all interrelate in that they identify a dynamic and dependent relationship between society and technology. That is, society and technology are not only highly dependent but also co-evolutionary. Socio-technical systems are agglomerations of artefacts, cultural, social, technological and organisational infrastructures, investments, regulations and processes. Socio-technical systems thinking is also applied to organisational development in recognition of the complex relationship between people and technology in organisations. The co-evolution of technology, society, and the relationships between them shapes complex socio-technical systems.

Geels (2004, p 900) argues that socio-technical systems encompass production, diffusion and use of technology in order to meet diverse societal functions and needs. Socio-technical systems are understood

in a somewhat abstract, functional sense as the linkages between elements necessary to fulfil societal functions (e.g. transport, communication, nutrition). As technology is a crucial element in modern societies to fulfil those functions, it makes sense to distinguish the production, distribution and use of technologies as sub-functions. To fulfil these sub-functions, the necessary elements can be characterised as resources. ST-systems thus consist of artefacts, knowledge, capital, labour, cultural meaning, etc.

Geels applies evolutionary economics to argue that social groups or actors carry and reproduce technological systems. Social practices are intrinsically connected to and constitutive of technological systems and through which rules, regimes and institutions constrain and enable social actors. Systemic and network relationships co-evolve with society and technology, including policy and institutional change

Sustainable transitions theory and research are attentive to large technical systems or socio-technological systems, which are formed through the interdependence and interaction of society and technologies, often as a system of systems. This includes infrastructure systems, such as transport and energy, as well as systems of production and consumption, such as food and health systems. In distinguishing the differences between infrastructure systems, socio-technological systems, and infrastructure, Frantzeskaki and Loorbach (2010) propose that infrastructure systems are a type of socio-technological system or large technical system and, given their networked and complex nature, are better described as ‘infrasystems’. Infrastructure refers to the hardware, the material elements of infrastructure systems, and infrasystems refers to both the hardware and software of the infrastructure system comprised of and mutually constituted by material, institutional and social elements and relations.

My specific interest in socio-technical systems lies in how urban and regional planning addresses infrastructure systems or large technical systems. Much of our experience of and relationship to cities and regions is shaped by infrastructure systems. Socio-technical systems, particularly large technical systems like infrastructure, exert significant force in socio-technical and spatial relations. They often anchor systems through stability and predictability – and this has impacts for policy and planning. Infrastructure systems are not homogenous and demonstrate significant variation and impacts across sectors. Markard (2010, p. 14) proposes that infrastructure sectors display six characteristics: “a high degree of capital intensity, long lifetimes of physical assets, an often dominant role of public utilities, intensive [and] sector-specific regulation and a high degree of systemness”. Large technical systems and socio-technical systems theory affirm three main patterns in infrastructure systems: distributive (from central node to user), accumulative (from users to central node) and communicative (multidirectional network flows). The large technical systems perspective acknowledges the burden infrastructure places on the environment and the issues it poses for sustainability and sustainable development. The expansion of infrastructure systems results in “ever deeper ecological penetration” and adverse effects on ecological metabolism and natural systems (Joerges, 1988). These large technical systems are often resource intensive and impose significant socio-ecological impacts.

Monstadt (2009) describes networked infrastructure systems as ‘ambivalent’ bearing both causes and solutions to environmental issues and resource scarcity. While environmental impact assessments and the like are integrated in infrastructure procurement and delivery processes, these do not provide the basis for deeper consideration of the interrelationship between infrastructures and environment that can lead to enhanced consideration of ecological and metabolic impacts and new evolutionary paths for infrastructure systems. With a tendency towards optimisation and materiality for eco-efficiency and eco-modernisation in redressing the socio-ecological impacts of these systems, radical reconfiguration and transformation of these systems through decentralisation of energy networks and alternative designs of other infrastructures is not common.

Because infrastructure systems are so costly and long-lived (and much has been written about infrastructural obduracy), urban and regional planning has a role to play in conditioning social and spatial dynamics associated with these systems over time and confer resources and services. As infrastructure patterns and configurations are spatial, they develop as part of complex urban and regional relations. Planning plays a role in both inhibiting and enabling change in these systems; and particularly due to a propensity to affirm existing socio-technical systems and spatial relations. The planning and design choices made in developing infrastructure systems are comprised of, and formative of, relationships that shape developmental and spatial pathways.

Large technical systems theory and studies refers to extensive, complex and massive systems of technology or ‘big technology’, such as infrastructure, which is ordinarily suggestive of networks. Such large systems are agglomerations of cultural, social, technological and organisational infrastructures and processes. Their ‘bigness’ also means that they involve high level decisions and negotiations on multiple social and spatial scales. The literature on large technical systems recognises that an assemblage of diverse elements comprise an interacting system that enables a society to function. Drawing on the large technical systems approach, Willems et al (2016) identify four stages of infrastructure development: establishment, expansion, maturity and renewal. The last stage presents windows of opportunity to address societal and environmental issues, engage with niche innovations and explore new pathways.

Cities and regions face adaptive challenges as infrastructure systems are dependent on diverse land uses, market dynamics and urban forms which are also difficult to change. Such challenges can fall to regional and urban planning to navigate, often coordinating and linking across diverse and disparate policy priorities in a system of multi-level governance, as is the case in Australia. Infrastructure systems have experienced widespread policy reforms including privatisation, market shocks and deregulation that impact sustainability, planning and delivery. While urban and regional planning is equipped to normatively address spatial problems, it is not especially adept at technology. It seems that planning relinquishes agency to technology – from analogue to digital technologies and networks – on the presumption of infrastructure as an engineered object occupying or intervening in space rather than entangled in a broad range of social, technological, economic, governance and ecological relationships.

Infrastructure systems are anchored in modernist and capitalist progress and growth narratives where they also play a significant and symbolic role in globalisation. Infrastructures act in networked, political and urban environments and are enmeshed in the construction and transformation of cities, regions and nation states. Because of the material, relational, political and socio-ecological role they play in industrial or urban metabolism, Monstadt (2009, p. 1926) proposes that major socio-ecological threats “can only be tackled through the transition of existing infrastructures”. Risks include the lack of alignment between policies and the condition of the infrastructure system, and the impacts of neoliberalism on market and system fragmentation (or splintering). This is particularly evident in Australia in relation to coal fired power stations at the end of their life where renewable energy is emerging as a superior and viable replacement but policy is failing to respond sufficiently. These tensions also emerge during disruptive dynamics, as is currently underway as smart technology interfaces with analogue technologies resulting in different types and configurations of services e.g. ‘mobility as a service’ (MaaS). Infrastructure systems are non-linear processes that involve significant variability and uncertainty in which those attributes are resources for productive debate, negotiation and innovation. A central argument in socio-technical systems and transitions thinking is that unless these infrastructure systems transition or transform, the socio-ecological problems in which they are implicated, and of which they are catalytic, will not only be ongoing but also escalate. Socio-technical systems perspectives are necessary for urban and regional planning for the creation of sustainable pathways in cities and regions.

Cited Works

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

Joerges, B. (1988). Large Technical Systems: Concepts and Issues. In R. Mayntz & T. P. Hughes (Eds.), The Development of Large Technical Systems. Frankfurt.

Markard, J. (2010). Transformation of Infrastructures: Sector Characteristics and Implications for Fundamental Change. Third Annual Conference on Competition and Regulation in Network Industries. https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)IS.1943-555X.0000056

Monstadt, J. (2009). Conceptualizing the political ecology of urban infrastructures: Insights from technology and urban studies. Environment and Planning A, 41(8), 1924–1942. https://doi.org/10.1068/a4145

Willems, J., Busscher, T., Hijdra, A., & Arts, J. (2016). Renewing infrastructure networks : new challenge , new approach ? Transportation Research Procedia, 14(0), 2497–2506. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trpro.2016.05.322