A brilliant event – the “2nd PhDs in Transitions Conference: Theory and Practice“ – took place in Switzerland, last week. Organised by four enterprising PhD students, it was a 48 hour space for students at different stages of the process (from touching naive enthusiasm all the way through to night-sweat panic) to exchange ideas and advice, with a few older hands there to nudge and challenge as appropriate. And repeatedly transitioning from sobriety to merriness, obviously.
How many times do you go to a conference expecting to get useful feedback on your work, meet lots of like-minded and sympathetic potential-future colleagues, and have space to think about others’ work and how it might help your own, but come away disappointed? We’ve all been there – or will be there – an over-stuffed programme, with alpha (male) chest-beating displays and turf battles making conferring (the clue is in the name, that’s what a conference is for, no) that much more difficult, if not impossible.
All of the former and none of the latter was in evidence last week in Lausanne. Around 45 would/will-be-scholars of socio-technical transitions gathered to…. Wait, what is socio-technical transitions when it’s at home?’ I hear a reader ask – well, roughly, it’s a new academic field/sub-discipline/whatever you-want-to-call-it, where geographers, historians, economic modellers, innovation scholars, political scientists, technology geeks etc (try to) grapple with the how/when/why of societies moving from one way of organising things (food, transport, energy) to another. Within it you’ve got all sorts of competing rules-of-thumb (Multi-level perspective, transitions management, technological innovation systems, strategic niche management –
as many as there are grants for, basically).
Clear enough? Okay, … 45 PhD students got together to deliver powerpoint presentations, get feedback, engage in workshops, schmooze and drink (the latter activity constrained by the 7 quid pints of Switzerland).
The event was held near on the EPFL campus in Lausanne, within walking distance of Lake Geneva.
A building opposite the venue was under scaffolding, with a bright red banner advertising “FACT construction”, which will have annoyed any positivists who had stumbled in by mistake.
After registration of Swiss efficiency, day one started with a keynote/Q& A “Presenting different transition frameworks, history and application.” Too much to fully capture here, but this’
As per Kern and Markard (2016) on socio-technical transitions versus transitions you gotta see they’re value laden, public policies matter, power and politics are central (vested interests, winners and losers, coalitions and alliances), they’re complex, uncertain, long-term, context dependent and multidimensional. [tl:dr – it’s complicated, usually more complicated than you are willing or able to see, especially if you fall in love with a technology or a policy or a set of events. You gotta step back and try to see the wood for the trees. Which needs lotsa lenses. Good luck.]
There are various traps – with (young) scholars as the mice, the cheese being the technology/policy/concepts/set of events with which they become transfixed and the trap being the (intellectual) cage they might build for themselves.
- You might read (too much) literature (not systematically enough) and get hopelessly confused [this never happened to me, not at all.]
- You might raise issues in a paper and get beaten down by a senior scholar (“It’s all in my earlier writing”)
- You might end up ‘reinventing poor copies of old wheels (ad hoc theorising)
- You might end up getting sidelined by “mainstream” disciplines which ignore 20 years of spade work
- You might get caught up in too much jargon, a lack of definitions, the micro-macro confusion, (and not everything meso is much help with that), the structure-agency dilemma.
In the words of one of the presenters, you might end up “riding the same old horse, sometimes feeling it’s already dead.”
How to navigate these various Scyllae and Charbydises? Delineating systems, having better methodologies so the comparison of empirical studies becomes possible, staying woke to the normativity problem (i.e. normative motives don’t excuse sloppy methodology). We were urged to “build bridges but also stand on our own two legs”, to “be constructively critical and intermittently bold” to be “obsessed with methodological rigour.” In addition, not to be too naive in our normativity and to develop better policy advice.
One speaker argued that we need more studies of technologies NOT taking off, and of industrial decline. Further, we need to be able to look at exactly how strong a regime is (labelling it ‘semi-coherent’ might only deflect rather than resolve the problem).
Lunch was followed by two 90 minute sessions where three or four students presented their work for ten minutes, followed by ten minutes of Q and A (the chairs did a fine job, with no need for the clap clinic technique).
Those watching the presentations were invited to give their comments directly or via bright pink/yellow post-its. “That’s a meaningless gimmick that will fail” I thought, when it was explained. 100% wrong, of course – it worked a treat, and thanks to the six people who wrote down encouragement/advice [though not to the person who listed all those mouth-watering articles. Like I need distraction from WRITING.]
There were sessions with titles like “the diffusion of innovations and technologies”, “reflections on participation, changing contexts and experiments in energy transitions” and “participation and communities in transition processes.”
The day closed with an “Apero” (that’s Swiss for wine, beer and nibbles) and was followed by drinks in the city centre, with the Dutch dressed in Orange for King’s day.
Day two was two more sessions including “transitions’ spatiality and the role of cities” and “agency and power in transition processes”, with presenters using the advocacy coalition framework
and also the multiple streams approach
Three parallel workshops – “modelling in transition studies”, “Social Network Analysis in Transition studies” and “Applicability of transition frameworks in developing countries” were followed by lunch and a final session – “simulating the role of individuals in sustainability transitions” and “applying practice perspectives in transition research.”
Basically, the conference (far) exceeded the expectations of everyone I spoke to. Why did it work? IMHO because it was
- Well organised.
- Careful selection of attendees
- A ‘night before’ social
- Long enough breaks between sessions (half an hour) and a decent lunch break (90 mins on the first day and 60 on the second).
- The organisers had clearly thought about what they wanted to achieve
- Subtle and well-executed support from the invited ‘big beasts’ who knew exactly how and when to give us the benefit of their accrued experience (I would say wisdom, but that would be too sycophantic, even for me.)
- No gaudy or aggressive displays by anyone
What could have been better?
“Not much” is the short answer. Perhaps something on how to increase the impact of transitions scholarship in civil society (as opposed to simply giving presentations and keynotes to policy-makers) might have been a useful fourth workshop or discussion session? (It was planned, apparently, but wasn’t possible for personnel reasons). The only other “criticism” is that the bar has been set so very high for the third PhD student conference which (hopefully) will happen next year.
Unsolicited advice – PhD students in transition studies should beg borrow steal or blackmail in order to be able to come to the next one, wherever it is.
Good things to do in Lausanne- The lake, obvs. Three stops on the Metro from the Gare, at Ouchy-Olympique.
The pizza place opposite the station called Bella Vita. The horse, I am told, is lovely.
A final shout out – to all those who organised the first conference, in Greenwich, (building on the research agenda thing from IST 2015). Without your efforts to get the ball rolling, this Lausanne thing couldn’t have happened. Thanks!
UPDATE 30 April 2017- Thanks to Pete, who commented on this video on “anxiety, social class and who feels comfortable at top-down meetings” from 2013, with this link to “the conference manual“, which is brilliant and hilarious.
UPDATE Two – here, fwiw, is a blogpost I wrote about last year’s two day DPhil conference at SPRU