Environmental #IST2015 – of ‘sustainability transitions’ and (beyond) the ivory tower

There’s nowt as practical as a good theory, as we sometimes say up north. If true, this  would make the University of Sussex one of the most practical places in the world about now.

The sixth istlogoInternational Sustainability Transitions‘ (IST) conference (the main event of this network) is taking place over 3 and a half thought-filled days. I write this blog with angry seagulls for accompaniment, on the morning of day 3, while I still have shreds of spare neuronal capacity.

Sustainability Transitions folks look at how ‘we’ (might) get from our state of using up resources and polluting the atmosphere/oceans quicker and quicker to the putative sunny uplands of a (non-growth?) economy that lives within its environmental means. What are the tools for transition? Who uses them, how and when?  What are the obstacles?  How does it all change over time? Are the theories and frameworks valid globally  or only locally?  The questions ramify…
Study of Sustainability Transitions have been going on for years (well, decades – it depends how you define it), but have special relevance now in the lead-up to conferences that look at climate change and new development goals.

Aware of the charge that this called all be dismissed as ivory tower chattering, the organisers have scheduled two keynotes already, one , on ‘Sustainability Transitions in EU policy‘ from the head of the European Environment Agency , Hans Bruyninckx [it may be career-limiting to say this, but that surname would be an awesome, if unlikely, score in Scrabble]’. The second, ‘In times of transition: the role of goal changers.‘ was by  Jan Rotmans (aside a gazillion other activities, he set up Urgenda, the citizens’ group that successfully sued the Dutch State for not reducing emissions as promised on  This was an entertaining post-Toffler-esque riff on tipping point indicators, ‘harmonica dynamics ‘and ‘front-runners, connectors, topplers and followers. (To share one of my own less-successful neologisms, we may need to get a little… transruptive).

Another keynote, ‘Transformations in global governance for sustainability‘, by Frank Biermann and sponsored by Future Earth, follows this afternoon.

I am hoping that in a not-too-future year we can have one on ‘Where’s My Jetpack?’ (which also happens to be the title of my friend Cameron Roberts erudite and interesting blog). Or perhaps ‘Scientific Progress Goes Boink‘.

All the hallmarks of a ”normal’ academic conference are here. (Writers such as David Lodge have had great fun with the rituals of these sorts of conferences, which are important status competition arenas for the academic tribe, and also (if you are REALLY cynical) a lek.] There are sage on the stage style presentations, question and answer sessions that go well and others that don’t (here’s my too-cynical take, with plaintive practical proposals, on that).

There have been some cracking good sessions that combine theory and practice in useful ways, with succinct answers to questions from panelists There have been other sessions that perhaps don’t reach those dizzying heights. There are times when the program is over-packed and people vote with their feet, and have an extended coffee break or natter in the corners (meeting old friends and making new ones, swapping gossip and proposing future work, are of course, the major draw for these events). As with many things in this life,, ‘what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.’

Personally the most ‘useful’ bits (so far) have been

a) the poster session (there are always too many proposed papers to fit into the schedule, so one way of keeping people happy/increasing opportunities for knowledge exchange is to have people make posters of istpostertheir research projects). My poster is on my efforts so far to ‘prove’ (in the French sense) and extend the awesome ‘Dialectic Issue LifeCycle Model‘ of Geels and Penna.
I had a bunch of very well-informed people telling me about the (unsavoury) nitty-gritty of the German ‘Energiewende’ (energy transformation)

b) the innovative ‘get-together-three-times-with-a-random-group-of-conference-attendees-and-propose-a-new-research-topic.

Given that sustainability transitions are about innovation (which usually starts at the ‘edges’) it’s good to see the organisers trying to if ‘institutionalise’ this, (or at least create the conditions of it being more likely!) Over the two sessions eight of us, going by the name of the ‘Grand Challengers’ have honed in the topic of ‘Funding the transition(s) – time-lines and tensions between state and private capital.‘ This afternoon we have to write a 250 word abstract and a tweet (bless you, twenty-first century).

The final session of the conference, on Friday afternoon, will hear back from the many groups (none with as cool a name as ours, to be sure) about the proposed topics.

As the carbon climbs, and oceans acidify and the species are disappeared, we humans will try to use the same brains and opposable thumbs that got us into this mess to get us out. It’s what we do.

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