No ‘one size fits all’ approach for sustainable transitions

Published on
February 5, 2021

Different perspectives on transition science can supplement and strengthen one another in the transition to sustainable processes in government and private enterprise. Professor of Public Administration and Policy at Wageningen University and Research, Prof. Katrien Termeer, carried out research for Het Groene Brein into four perspectives within transition thinking and doing. She discovered that Dutch knowledge institutions have the same aim when it comes to transition thinking and doing, and supplement one another by placing a different focus.

The coronavirus crisis has made it clear that our world is not infinitely sustainable. Climate change is also becoming increasingly visible. The way in which we produce, work, travel and eat is no longer sustainable. It is clear that change is needed so that we can “build back better”.

The challenges of our time – climate change, inequality, exhaustion of raw materials – are large and complex and call for a different way of thinking and doing. And this is where transition science can help. Concepts from this science, such as transition, tipping point and system change, are not only heard during the Circular Economy Week 2021. They also crop up more and more frequently in the strategies of government and private enterprise. And not only within the framework of the circular economy, but also where energy supply, mobility or agriculture are involved.


Transition science as tool for change

Transition science – also sometimes called ‘transition thinking’ – is on the rise. This theory of social change is becoming increasingly attractive to innovators charged with a sustainability mission for government, industry or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This science provides something to hold on to in times of major change. On the one hand by helping to zoom out and thus obtain a clearer picture and understanding of social systems. On the other hand by zooming in and providing practical tools. Transition science conveys ideas of the best course of action and at what point sustainable change should be initiated or accelerated.

Various perspectives on transitions

Various Dutch knowledge institutions have different perspectives on transition thinking and doing. Wageningen University and Research is, for example, working on small wins. Prof. Katrien Termeer of the Public Administration and Policy Group carries out research into social system change in small, meaningful steps – or small wins. Another perspective is transition management (Erasmus University Rotterdam), where the focus is on broad changes within society. There are also innovation systems methods (Utrecht University), where research is focussed mainly on innovations, and sustainable market transformation (NewForesight and Nyenrode Business Universiteit), which looks at transitions within markets.

Together with researchers from each of the above perspectives, the Groene Brein investigated how these different approaches relate to one another. This has not been clear up to now. The visions have the same objective: “to accelerate the transition to a sustainable society”. Transitions are also regarded by each perspective as complex, unpredictable, and radical, and as something that occurs when people or groups of people have the feeling that the current situation is no longer sustainable. In all perspectives, an attractive future vision is considered vital, and transitions are regarded as processes rather than projects, for which available alternatives are crucial.

A perspective for each problem

There are a number of different approaches to achieve transitions. The small wins approach focuses on the positive approach of small steps towards transformations. In this way this approach prevents cynicism and the process becomes less overwhelming. The transition management approach focuses on the wider issue; it looks at the dynamics of the whole process and asks questions such as “why has this arisen over time and which ways of thinking and doing have caused this?”.

The sustainable market transformation approach on the other hand is less focused on the wide social transition process, and more on transformations of markets and social applications of innovations. And innovation systems (TIS) is an approach that looks at the origin of renewal and innovations, which results in concrete insights for strategy and policy. This approach is highly suitable for companies with questions like “What do we need, for example, to make offshore wind a success?” All these approaches therefore have different ways of transition thinking and doing and are suitable for other companies or governmental bodies