Maps, territories, landscapes and moonscapes: three brilliant guides to the transformations

It’s easy to get lost, to feel lost, especially when you’re diving into new literature(s). Your supervisors can do just so much (mostly tell your thesis is not up to scratch (yet), or point you in the direction of some really good literature (institutional work, much?)

But for the bigger/biggest picture? Well, who has the time to keep abreast of all the stuff that’s out there. By luck, twitter and (cough) “good judgement” I’ve recently come across three superlative explanatory papers that tackle the “how are we supposed (to believe that we might still be able to) to get out of this mess” question.

They are, in order that I read them (drumroll please)

Lorbach et al. 2017. Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 42, pp.599-626.

de Gooyert et al. 2016. Sustainability transition dynamics: Towards overcoming policy resistance. Technological Forecasting & Social Change, Vol. 111, October, pp.135-45.

Patterson, et al. 2016. Exploring the governance and politics of transformations towards sustainability Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions Vol 24 Sept 2017, p.1-16

Loorbach et al do a great job explaining the intellectual origins of transitions (see my recent blog based on a Florian Kern seminar), and then walk the reader through socio-technical, socio-institutional, and socio-ecological transitions, which have in common notions of path dependencies, niches, experiments and governance. They point to three ways of dealing with agency (fancy academic speak for “who can do what to what effect”) – analytical, evaluative and experimental. They close out by trying to connect to Real World impacts, and “sustainability transitions research and its challenges.” Oh, and there are 172 references. Should help anyone needing something to procrastinate with from drafting their discussion chapter. Cough. Cough.

De Gooyert et al want to help with the problem of Power, something that transitions has a bit of a problem with.

“Despite these efforts, many implemented transition policies have not been able to meet expectations. This tendency of systems to defeat the policies that have been designed to improve them is known as ‘policy resistance’. This paper addresses the question how we can explain the persistence of policy resistance in the context of sustainability transitions, and aims to bring us a step further in the direction of identifying policies that support overcoming policy resistance.”

So, they’re making use of system dynamics and doing something rather clever – getting “experts”
in a room and asking them the Del Amitri question why “nothing ever happens”.

The methodology is novel, and limited – they know they will also have to ask the (un)civil society types. Whatever papers emerge from that will also be worth a very close read.

Btw, another paper on this that is worth a very close read is
Smink, M., Hekkert, M. and Negro, S. 2015. Keeping sustainable innovation on a leash? Exploring incumbents’ institutional strategies. Business Strategy and the Environment, Vol. 24, pp.86-101.

Patterson et al do a similar thing as de Gooyert et al, but on a bigger, hairier and more audacious scale. They take a theory/framework/whatevs and smash it up against transitions studies. But rather than systems dynamics, they plump for Earth Systems Governance.

What’s that. Well, they explain  -“The Earth System Governance (ESG) framework (Biermann et al., 2009) is highly relevant to the challenge of understanding and analysing the governance and politics of transformations towards sustainability. It comprises a matrix of key governance problems, and cross-cutting themes that are inherent to dealing with global sustainability problems.”

esg from patterson et al
Source:  Patterson et al

They smack ESG up against socio-technical transitions, social-ecological systems, sustainability pathways, and transformative adaptation.  And lots of interesting things “fall” out of that collision, (i.e. are the result of serious thinking and intellectual firepower)

They close out with some mildly important questions. Here’s a selection

• What are the short-term and long-term dynamics of transformations, and how can we observe when (or when not) transformations are occurring?
• How can transformative change and its feasibility be understood and analysed in an ex-ante sense?
•What are the sources of agency and roles for both state and non-state actors in enabling and supporting transformations?
• What drives transformations towards sustainability over long timeframes, and how do these drivers arise?
• What types of institutions and governance arrangements are needed to enable and shape transformations towards sustainability across multiple scales?
• What kinds of innovation in institutions and governance arrangements are needed in different problem domains, and how might this innovation arise and diffuse?
• How might ‘battles of institutional change’ (Chhotray and Stoker, 2009) play out, particularly when change is disruptive and met with strong resistance?
• How can policy and decision-making that is anticipatory and long-term be encouraged over short-termism?
•How might new norms, ethics and values needed to underpin transformations towards sustainability arise?
• How can accountability mechanisms be developed to ensure that actors who ‘should’ be responsible, actually are, both in the short term and longer-term?
• By which mechanisms can power inequalities be productively addressed to allow actors who are poorly represented to meaningfully participate in shaping transformation processes?
• How can powerful opposing interests and forces linked to existing path-dependencies be addressed?
•More broadly, “how do global and regional political economies influence transformations to sustainability in different domains?” (Future Earth, 2014b).

Fortunately, my thesis and my activism provide the final word on every. single. one. of these.  Oh yes…

I can’t possibly do these brilliant papers justice, or offer any incisive critique of them (yet- that’s way above my current paygrade, maybe always will be). At the moment my only – and mildly unfair- criticism would be is why they didn’t all exist three years ago when I was starting this bloody PhD. All I can do is urge other transitions/transformations scholars, at whatever stage, to give all three careful consideration.


Some observations about their commonalities

  • they are all group efforts, which tells you that being able to synthesise all this is beyond the effort of any individual, or set of individuals within a disciplinary silo (#banal)
  • they all take a ‘metatheoretical’ level, and don’t fall in love with a single theory as The Answer. Nor do they play defensive hierarchical games about whose Theory should be Top Dog. They’re not necessarily saying that we must resign ourselves forever to kludges, palimpsests and interdisciplinarity congalines, but just that right now, the fertile thing to do is to try to hold multiple objects up to multiple lenses at the same time (and that this is bloody difficult) (#alsobanal)
  • any theory that doesn’t account for the messinesses of power is a waste of everyone’s scarce time
  • at the moment, each seems to exist in the Ivory Tower and its near surrounds; if someone wants to pay me and my cartoonist mate Marc to rectify that, please do get in touch…

There’s some question over that “any map is good enough” anecdote, (and an answer).. Fortunately you don’t need “any” map –  these three will do…

Oh, and grok this on the question of power and transitions!!


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