This post will serve as a conclusion to this series on sustainable transition theories and approaches – see other posts in this series here, here, and here. In this post I will, present again a definition of sustainability, reflect on the various theories presented throughout the series and will conclude about their implications for sustainability.
What is sustainability, sustainable development, and sustainable transition ?
Sustainability can be defined as the intersection of activities that favor social, environmental, and economic outcomes. In other words, these elements are referred to as the 3 P’s: people, planet, and profit. We think about sustainable systems as something that can continue for the long term with out depleting resources. In an iconic report from 1987, UN Commissioner Brundtland defined sustainable development as an action plan that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.” A transition in society is one that changes an existing system to provide a societal change. There can be a distinction made about the difference between innovation and transition. Innovation can be defined as the update or optimization of an existing system, however, sustainable transition takes it a step further to revolutionize or over through an existing system to create a new more sustainable norm.
This series has covered the following concepts and theories: Multilevel Perspective (MLP), Strategic Niche Management (SNM), Transition Management (TM), and Arenas of Development (AoD). The remainder of this post will recap what the different theories have in common and where they differ, as well as their contributions to sustainable design.
MLP + SNM
Within MLP, landscapes and regimes are perceived as stable. However I uncovered in the first theoretical post of this series, that the regime is made up of actors and therefore its stability is politicized and in reality can be quite fragile. In this case the network of actors attempts to conceal its self as a structure. MLP claims that sustainable transition is the outcome of the dynamics and interactions between the different structural levels. In the case of the food systems regime, it was uncovered that the regime is actually linked with a range of other regimes such as transport, energy, and water. Because these regimes are also vulnerable to the landscape pressure of climate change, it is vital to transition to a sustainable model within each of these regimes. SNM affords small scale visions and provides them the strategy and methodology allowing them to be upscaled.
As mentioned earlier, sustainability is the interplay between people, planet, and profit and therefore a sustainable food system model must stratify each of these elements. The MLP theory falls short of taking considerations of people into account, especially with the claim that individuals are not relevant to impact landscape level changes; they are only represented in the meso-level selection environment. Through SNM individuals have provided with the opportunity to selecting radical products as an alternative to the status quo and mainstream. In regards to the environmental consideration of MLP, it does consider environmental characteristics as part of the landscape pressure. In this way it is related to sustainability, and through SNM, strategies are provided to how to develop and introduce innovations to the market that will allow society to adapt to this pressure. SNM can be greatly related to economics, particularly regarding government shielding through tax breaks and subsidies. It can be argued though – is this really a sustainable model ? The goal of SNM is that at the niche level these innovations can get economic support, but then once they are upscaled and adopted into mainstream societal practices, they will be so engrained in everyday life that even without the support they will still survive.
TM aims at facilitating and enacting change and visionary processes over a long term period. The transition team is selected from the regime level of MLP and a group of frontrunner innovative actors are gathered to collaborate. This approach is quite utopian because it depends on a range of actors from different, potentially competing, organizations to reach a consensus and work together. TM can be compared to SNM in that it facilitates and fosters an incubation space for ideas and visions. There are transition experiments that are very similar to niches. They both have the primary goal of upscaling sustainable innovation.
A primary critique of the sustainability of TM is there is not strategy for how to deal with social conflicts or disagreements within the arena itself. This method will not be sustainable if actors cannot work together. Regarding environmental sustainability, TM is very effective at providing a method for developing radical and utopian ideals for the future. While this process is valuable for creating visions and helping them take off, it may be difficult to achieve such a vision over a long term incremental transition. Economic sustainability is not addressed within this concept, which might also be a drawback. With long-term change processes, there is often a large budget required for systemic level changes. Typically funds can come from donations or governments but within the TM theory and method, there is no description for how to gain such funds.
AoD is an actor and conflict driven strategy that aims at finding unconfigured spaces (junctions) and mediating their development through navigation of conflicts and strategic actor involvement. With this in mind, it is significant to point out AoD comes in where MLP falls short; within development, inclusion/exclusion of actors or actor constellations can be done as to strategically destabilize or restabilize regime dynamics. This theory contributes that within sustainable transitions, all outcomes are determined by actor networks and their interactions.
The concept of junction development can be quite socially sustainable in regards to increase urban livability and quality of life. However, it is important to consider the possibility of gentrification when thinking about and working with junctions. In regards to environmental sustainability, junctions can also offer positive contributions through the possibility of adding green spaces to cities thus increasing biodiversity and helping to lower carbon emissions, for example. Junction solutions aim at providing multifunctional solutions which can improve localization and thus local economy. However, economic optimization or cost efficiency may not a top priority of junction and arena development.
In conclusion, the transition theories described in this series have provided me with great insight into the realm of sustainable transitions and also allowed me to be reflective on their application, feasibility, as well as advantages and disadvantages. The application to the case of organic and local food systems transition provided me with tools to thoroughly analyze and understand the relevant ideas, networks, and other elements that comprise this complex concept. My understanding of the transition has greatly increased and my research and study have provided me with tools practical tools to apply to future projects in my career as a sustainable designer.
 (Brundtland, 1987)
Brundtland, G. H. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future.