Summaries of the website's underlying scientific and practical insights are given below.
What are transitions?
Transitions or system innovations are fundamental changes in the way a society meets its basic needs. Examples that spring to mind are transport, food production, housing, energy supply or health care. These transitions take one or two generations to unfold.
One example is the transition in the Netherlands in the post war years from a country with a small-scale agricultural system of mixed farms to a large-scale and intensive regime with specialised agricultural holdings. It went togehter with rationalisation of production and mechanisation. Arable farming became separated from livestock farming and within these categories some holdings specialised, for instance in poultry breeding or laying. Production increased enormously. The Netherlands developed from a country that had experienced food shortages in the Second World War to become a textbook example of an agricultural exporting country.
The academic literature says that transitions bring new dominant practices in their wake; new fixed patterns of acting. But the literature also emphasises that transitions go hand in hand with a change in the structure or the regime within which these practices occur. A change in other words in dominant economic, scientific or technological and social views; a change in routines, in corporate or other institutional cultures, in the way tasks are allocated among market institutions, public authorities, the scientific community and civil society. The regime or structure includes the physical infrastructure as well.
The desire to produce sufficient food at low prices was a major driving force behind the transition in the Dutch agricultural sector and was a common goal in the post war years. The Dutch government encouraged agricultural transition through adjustments to the system in the form of product subsidies and through the financing of university education, research and agricultural extension services. The authorities worked closely with organisations representing the farming community and agricultural experts in the Lower House of Parliament. The group was called the ‘IJzeren Driehoek' or the Iron Triangle. Another group called the ‘OVO-drieluik' or the Golden Triangle promoted agricultural development through integrating education, extension services and research. It was was an important nexus in the development and dissemination of knowledge about the new intensive form of agriculture. The commercial infrastructure and the physical structure of the Rotterdam port were also important for the development of intensive livestock farming since farm holdings thus had easy access to cheap animal feed in the form of soya.
Sustainable development and transitions
Sustainable development brings transitions or system innovations in its wake. The sociologist Ulrich Beck has an explanation for this. His thesis is that contemporary practices are under pressure. These are practices that were aiming at progress and economic growth and were based on the principle of rational, universally applicable knowledge. They are under pressure because of their side effects, which include environmental pollution, exhaustion of natural resources and climate change. The side effects in fact have become controversial and a ‘political' issue.
Dutch intensive livestock farming' side effects include:
- Mineral surpluses that are connected with the import of soya for feed and the emission of greenhouse gasses by livestock
- Massive outbreaks of animal diseases such as fowl pest, foot and mouth disease, and BSE (mad cow disease) and Q fever with their repercussions for public health
- The occurrence of antibiotic resistant bacteria through the structural use of antibiotics.
The mineral surplus arising from manure problems has been a political item for a longer period. Animal diseases that give rise to public health problems and antibiotic resistance are increasingly becoming the subject of public debate. But also the remedying of animal diseases by keeping them indoors or mass killing is also becoming an issue. That is because of changing opinions in society about animal welfare, the fact that farming plays a less prominent role in the community and the social consequences of the isolation of contaminated farms in an urbanised country like the Netherlands. The pressure for change consequently grows.
Beck also says that the politicisation of the side effects, as in the case of Dutch livestock farming, results in Reflexive modernisation. By this he means radical changes in practices and in the allocation of tasks and dividing lines between for example different scientific disciplines, specialised ministries or sections of government and state, the market, the science community and civil society. This reflexive modernisation in other words involves a transition: the development of new practices as well as new structures and the relationship between the two.
Reflexive modernisation is also occurring in the agricultural domain. It is attended by the breakdown of old structures and the building of new ones. The manure problems in the 1980s for example triggered off the dismantling of the structures of the Golden Triangle and Iron Triangle mentioned earlier. Excesses on the subsidy front prompted a reform of European subsidies policy.
The multilayer perspective
An important perspective to understand and ‘steer' transition work that we use on this website is the multilevel perspective or multilayer model. It derives from research into technological innovations.
Figure 1: Multilayer model
The model demonstrates that transitions come about through changes in different layers. These layers reinforce each other:
- Niches with innovative, social, economic, technological or policy practices, that deviate and are protected from the dominant structure
- The regime: the structural layer that constitutes the context of common practice. This entails the institutions (sets of rules and procedures), physical infrastructure and culture including certain mental models
- The landscape: major social changes in the field of politics, culture and world views (such as globalisation and individualisation) or natural characteristics that are difficult to influence and usually change slowly. Landscape developments are the outcome of ideas and acts of a great many players.
Research into transitions or system innovation has furthermore led to the following suggestions for transition work.
Emphasis on experimenting
Historical research into transitions and technological innovation reveals the importance of transition experiments: niche projects that can potentially contribute to (learning about) a desired transition. That's why recommendations for transition work place great emphasis on experimenting. The transition experiments are connected with the developments at landscape level and with the changes to be brought about in the regime in accordance with the multilayer model.
The emphasis on experimenting derives further from the recognition that transitions involve uncertain, complex and dynamic processes. Many, diverse actors are needed for system innovations, from the different layers distinguished in the multilayer model, and often from different sectors and domains: from civil society (which include citizens and NGOs among others), the private sector, public authorities and the science community. They have to arrive at new coordinated agendas, bring together diverse kinds of knowledge and skills and review their mutual relationship. But partly because they operate autonomously the process that brings this about cannot be taken for granted. In these circumstances experiments offer a good opportunity of developing new practices and structures while searching and learning.
Focus on learning
Besides experimenting the literature pays a lot of attention to learning. Researchers distinguish between the following types:
First and second order learning. One speaks of second order learning if people start rethinking their accepted truths. People develop these thought patterns through what they acquire from their social and cultural surroundings, their training and work. These are theoretical frameworks, deeply embedded convictions and values or worldviews. They determine how someone looks at a new problem. These ways of thinking also have a significant influence on the solutions that a person considers feasible. In the case of first order learning the mental model remains unchanged. First order learning normally results in limited changes in a person's perceptions and strategies. Second order learning creates room for more radical innovation because the mental model has changed and this is what occurs in the case of system innovations. See also the examples of first and second order learning.
Convergent learning and system learning. A system innovation can only take place if the actors involved change their roles and aims in conjunction. In the literature about transitions and learning this is referred to as convergent or congruent learning. For this actors will have to learn to see structural bottlenecks not as given facts but as challenges. There is still little known about the suitable conditions for convergent learning, although it is clear that a sense of urgency and mutual dependency are conducive to it.
The above ideas about transitions, structural innovation, experimenting and learning are reflected in the five central themes: the clusters vision creation, making an action plan, societal anchoring, monitoring and evaluation and using competences.
Quite a lot of the literature on transition explores the development of a vision or a long-term perspective. The long-term orientation helps people to extricate themselves from self-evident thought patterns and the straightjacket of the short term. The long-term perspective thus offers a sound reference point (Leitbild) for system innovative initiatives. The literature places emphasis here on the collective creation of a vision. It is through a joint process that those involved can learn about each other's mental models and become able to make adjustments to their deep convictions. The collective creation of a vision therefore supports more radical innovation rather than incremental renewal. The collective creation of a vision also helps in a practical sense because it can contribute to coordinating agendas and the strategies of those involved (convergent learning).
Making an action plan
Transitions always involve structure or regime change. Schumpeter spoke of ‘creative destruction', new structures ousting the old. It is not a smooth process as research into system innovations reveals. That means that attention has to be paid in your action plan to structural changes. Strategic work needs to be done on change-oriented coalitions to overcome resistance. Insights into resistance within regimes initially prompted some researchers to advocate organising renewal primarily outside the vested interest structures (politics). But it has meanwhile become clear that the involvement of regime players is desirable, both for the legitimacy of the radical changes involved in transitions, but also because of the power and resources that are needed for change. An action plan therefore is about the forms of suitable coalitions for renewal, coalitions whose composition will have to change in the course of time and according to need.
The step from experiment to more general new practices is not an automatic one. Research shows that there are a number of reasons for this:
- The experiments do not link up with the existing regime (the informal and formal rules, routines, protocols, knowledge, culture, roles and identity, the usual allocation of tasks between or within organisations)
- Management does not see the need or the urgency to work on institutional changes
- Changing the regime from outside the organisation is beyond the capacities of those who have taken the initiative for the experiment. Other people in other settings should take over the baton but will not automatically continue further with your ideas and experience. Even organisations that might want to experiment do not do it. The fact is that they do not know how. There is no money for a follow-up.
- A different government policy is needed to facilitate the new practices on a larger scale (such as new subsidy criteria, specific environmental rules, changes in government regulations about care). But the government is (still) not ready for this.
Knowledge about what can be done about this is limited, but is growing. That knowledge includes among other things insights into the dynamic of innovation systems, of the necessary combination of innovators and regime players and about the strategic use of landscape developments.
Monitoring and evaluation
First experiences with monitoring and evaluating system innovative initiatives show that the goals of these initiatives come up for discussion. There is a need to learn about making adjustments to the activities. This has to do with the dynamic and complex setting and the radical changes involved in system innovations. The focus of monitoring is also shifting. It is not just information about the planned and unplanned effects of one's own activities that is desirable for learning and making adjustments. Network analyses are also needed as well as information about niche experiments, and about the regime and landscape developments. The literature on the subject emphasises reflexive monitoring. This involves monitoring to learn and adjust and which is preferably a participatory process with those involved. It entails group reflection on the monitoring information and involves system learning and second order learning.
Transition work is pioneering because it is about radical and uncertain innovations in the long term. There are no ready-made blueprints or protocols. Support for the change is uncertain. That demands special competences of the people who do transition work. The Dutch Competence Centre for Transitions has done research into competences, skills and roles that are needed for transition work and linked these to the four preceding themes. Basic competences proved to be networking skills, great communicative capacity and powers of persuasion and ability to mobilise. Other specific competences include the ability to think in terms of systems, visionary power, observational skills, creative skills, sense of timing and persuasiveness.
Scientific publications can be found on the site of the Knowledge network for System Innovations and Transitions (KSI). Here you will find the legacy of six years of research by the knowledge network from 2004 to 2010. Or look at or www.transitionsnetwork.org, the website of the international Sustainability Transitions Research Network (STRN). The site www.sustainabilitytransitions.com has information on academic books on transitions, blogs, tweets and reactions from academics, students and professionals.