Sustainability Transitions

written by: Mark Swilling on Saturday, 01 September 2012. Posted in Footprints Blog

Copenhagen, 1 September 2012. The 3rd International Conference on Sustainability Transitions ended yesterday. We are now on our way to Naples, via London - arriving near mid-night today - not a pleasant thought.  Eve and I attended all three days. My presentation landed up in a session that included papers with little in common with my own, and because there were five papers we only had 15 minutes each. I had planned on 20, so I did not complete what I had to say - always an unsatisfying experience. 

As the title implies, this was the 3rd conference by a group of people who have over recent years developed a new framework for thinking about socio-technical transitions. Now known as the Multi-Level Perspective (MLP), it is a framework that has become extremely influential in European academic and policy circles. Its impact beyond Europe is almost non-existent - there was hardly anyone at the conference from developing countries. Case studies about issues in developing countries were usually presented by European researchers. 

The core group of academics who have contributed to and helped consolidate the MLP includes Frank Geels, Dirk Loorbach, Rene Kemp, Adrian Smith, Jeroen van den Berghe, Bernard Truffer, Markard and others. They were all present, dominating the panels. Geels tends to refer to the MLP as "my framework" and makes comments like "I am honoured and humbled by the way my framework is being used". The MLP is not uncontested - Jonathan Koehler from the Fraunhofer Institute was there using complexity theory to question claims that transitions can be managed. However, many others - established researchers and the up-and-coming Phd and post-doc students - are all using the MLP in many different ways to understand the dynamics of transition across many different sectors. 

The main advantage of the MLP is that it provides a useful conceptual language for making sense of a set of dynamics that we all know are underway but cant really think together integrated ways. However, on closer inspection many of its categories do not stand up to rigorous theoretical interrogation. In particular, it has limited space for questions of politics, power and the state; nor does it deal very well with questions of space and in particular cities. Nevertheless, if you are happy just using the key terms of the MLP - namely landscape, regime and niche - then one can quite usefully deal with key issues that worry many who are interested in transitions to more sustainable modes of production and consumption.  By landscape, the MLP means broader longer-term dynamics that shape the dynamics of everyday life, such as demographic change, climate change, technological change, patterns of economic growth, etc. Regimes refer to specific configurations of production and consumption structured by specific technologies, e.g. coal-fired energy systems; or private car based urban mobility; or prevailing water and sanitation systems; or a particular mode of producing, distributing and consuming food. These regimes dominate the current economy, but are under pressure from changing landscape dynamics. Niches are spaces where network actors coalesce to generate new technologies that respond to landscape pressures and possibly challenge existing regimes. All around us we know there are niche innovations popping up that challenge existing regimes, and we also know that many regimes are debating responses to both landscape pressures and niche innovations. The problem is that regimes suffer from technological 'lock in' that cuts them off from the broader dynamics of change. This, in a nutshell, is what the MLP is all about, and is applied across many different contexts, cases and sectors. 

Although I have been reading this material for about 2 years now, it was good to hear how others engage in discussions using the terms of the MLP. For Eve and I, it was interesting to compare our understanding of transitions from the Just Transitions book to the way others understand transition using the MLP. What was most striking of all is that sustainability is not really intrinsic to their framework. They are primarily interested in technological change and how this affects and is affected by society. Whereas for us our interest in transitions emerged from our deeper interest in sustainability. Although we largely wrote Just Transitions prior to any extensive reading about the MLP, using a different conceptual language we ended up addressing very similar issues. The Lynedoch story is clearly a niche, and the food system and cities are clearly regimes of a certain kind. However, our synthesis of the work by Perez, Gore, Evans and Fischer-Kowalski has generated an understanding of sustainability at the level of the global economy that the MLP clearly lacks. By integrating an understanding of metabolic flows into an understanding of socio-technical systems, I think the Just Transitions book makes an interesting contribution to the discussion. However, there is no evidence that our book is being read by the MLP community - this might change because Frank Geels has agreed to be a keynote speaker at the international conference on sustainable development that we are organising next year and which will take place at the Sustainability Institute. He said to me he will read the book before he comes so that he can understand the conference theme which is, of course, Just Transitions.