In June 2009, a group of scientists organized a 1st International Conference on Sustainability Transitions in Amsterdam. Presenters came not only from all over Europe but also from US, Asia and Australia with some 100 papers being presented on a broad range of aspects of the governance and scientific analysis of sustainability transitions. The success of the conference confirmed that there is now a critical mass of researchers in Europe and beyond who are actively working on various aspects of sustainability transitions. A networking meeting held directly after the conference agreed to pursue the objective of setting up a networking programme for research on sustainability transitions. This development can be seen as part of a broader trend within the research community that is leading to the exploration of the contours of a new science of sustainability.
Why transitions research?
The emergence of persistent sustainability problems in such sectors as energy, transport, water and food have turned the attention of scholars from various scientific communities to the ways in which society could combine economic and social development with the reduction of its pressure on the environment. A shared idea among these scholars is that due to the specific characteristics of the sustainability problems (ambiguous, complex) incremental change in prevailing systems will not suffice. There is a need for transformative change at the systems level, including major changes in production, consumption that were conceptualized as ‘sustainability transitions’.
What is transitions research?
Transitions research is a new approach to sustainable development (SD) and is drawing on several inputs: complexity theory, integrated assessment, STS, innovation studies, history, governance studies, reflexive modernization, but is also developing its own core set of questions and theories. Major research efforts of a number of European research institutes in recent years have advanced knowledge of transitions to sustainability, particularly in the field of a broad understanding of how major, radical transformations unfold and what drives them. We have learned that change involves more than technology alone. Rather, technical changes need to be seen in their institutional and social context, generating the notion of ‘socio-technical (s-t) systems’, which are often stable and path dependent, and therefore difficult to change. Under certain conditions and over time, the relationships within s-t systems can become reconfigured and replaced in a process that may be called a system innovation or a transition.
Why a new network?
In recent years a number of national-level research programs and research networks have been set-up in various European countries (e.g., the KSI research network on system innovations in the Netherlands). As the findings of the first national-level research projects start to emerge in some countries, and new research is initiated in others, the time is right to begin a process of exchanging and comparing the new knowledge that is being rapidly gained in this emerging science of sustainable development building on some initial steps taken on this route. Transitions to sustainability may turn out to be strongly context specific: dependent on the configurations of sectors and need areas, on national policy contexts and cultural aspects as well as on specific political contexts. It is therefore of great interest to explore the varied governance challenges that transitions to sustainability imply in different contexts. This is going to require an extensive program of joint research initiatives on sustainability transitions in the coming years. To realise this ambition, a networking capacity will be required that can: facilitate exchange and mutual learning, support the emerging community of researchers working on sustainability transitions, facilitate an interface with the policy process and practitioners at regional and European levels, and identify and secure resources for joint research initiatives. In brief then, this is the rationale for a new research network on sustainability transitions.
In Europe, many fields of research, such as innovation and governance research already have well-established networks. What is currently missing however is a network program that brings together researchers with a common interest in sustainability transitions but from a variety of different research fields: industrial transformation, innovation and socio-technical transitions; integrated assessment; sustainability assessment; governance of SD (political science); policy appraisal community; researchers working on reflexive governance; the resilience community; the ecological economics community; groups of energy-, environment- and sustainability- modelers; and a core sustainability transitions community.
What type of topics does the network covers?
The network aims to do sustainability transitions research covering a variety of domains including energy, mobility, housing, agriculture, water and the build environment. Research is organized around seven themes: (a) synthesizing perspectives and approaches to transitions; (b) governance, power and politics; (c) implementation strategies; (d) civil society, culture and social movements in transitions; (d) firms and industry; (e) geography of transitions; (e) modeling of transitions. More information about these themes can be found in the research agenda.
How do you become a member?
Membership to the network is free. You can apply for membership here.