As noted in other recent posts I’ve been familiarising myself with an emerging field of research called sustainability transitions research (e.g. here, here). ‘Transition management’ (TM) is one approach that has been explored and researched at the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT). I’ve noted the concept of transition management in some of my papers (e.g. here) but I have often wondered what all the fuss is about and whether it has much substance.
Some further thinking on TM was prompted this week by reviewing a recently published paper by DRIFT researchers entitled ‘Transition management: taking stock from governance experimentation’. This is an important TM paper because key researchers from DRIFT, in particular Derk Loorbach, are reflecting on the past 15 years of developing and applying TM theories and concepts.
The paper is notable for its honest reflection. For instance, they note that the TM approach has not yet been successful in “achieving the aspired large scale systemic changes” (p.63), although little discussion of why is provided in the paper. They also note the potential for downsides and unintended consequences from applying TM principles, such as from the focus on only engaging and involving “frontrunners” (broadly smaller innovative actors and some established change-inclined actors). The paper considers other “issues of power, politics, manageability and normativity” (p. 50)
The paper expresses what they consider to be the core hypothesis underlying TM. That is:
“The (collective) understanding of the origin, nature, and dynamics of transitions in particular domains will enable actors to better anticipate and adapt to those dynamics so as to influence their speed and direction” (p. 49).
Some further statements on the underlying approach are provided, such as:
“Key to transition management is the empowerment of frontrunners (pioneers, innovative niche players)… [by] providing them with multiple resources in order to be better equipped to play the power games with the regime” (p. 61).
“[Transition management] boils down to creating space for frontrunners in transition arenas” (p.54).
“In practice, transition management comes down to a combination of developing around a common understanding of a transition challenge and a shared ambition to drive it towards sustainability” (p.53).
The paper also emphasises social learning, development of informal networks, and what they term the “mental, social and physical space” required for novel thinking and experiments. The latter aspect is sometimes referred to as “protected space”.
Coming back to the statement in the paper that TM projects have had some success in enabling (limited) social innovation but not “large scale systemic changes” this suggests a key question: what is wrong with transition management? The core TM hypothesis suggests two possibilities: 1) there are flaws in the “understanding of the origin, nature, and dynamics of transitions”; and/or 2) there have been problems (and/or have been limitations to-date) applying this theory to “enable actors to better anticipate and adapt to those dynamics so as to influence their speed and direction”.
What’s particularly striking about TM is the reliance on generic transition theory which is often referred to using terms such as “patterns” and “dynamics”. To achieve this general perspective TM researchers depend heavily on theories of complex adaptive systems and key concepts such as “regimes” and argue that these apply to all possible foci of TM projects. This is a huge assumption which is one part of what seems wrong with TM. I’ll say more about this towards the end of this post.
Second, Loorbach et al argue that TM “starts with people, individuals who seek more fundamental alternatives” (p. 53) and, linked with this, that “transition governance builds on the adaptive and transformative capabilities of actors” (p.51). However, TM has very little to say about what these capabilities are, how they’re utilised and what’s required for such actors to have this high degree of agency. Instead TM seems to assume that if you get “frontrunners” in a room together in a so-called “transition arena” they’ll (seemingly) magically develop inspirational visions, come to a common understanding of a problem or transition challenge, and have a shared ambition for solving it (see the earlier quotation above). I doubt things work out this way in the vast majority of cases. Perhaps this aspect of TM is a reflection of the commonly reported consensual character of Dutch society (TM was developed by Dutch researchers). However, there is some acknowledgement of these issues in terms of the “uncertain and contested” (p. 50) aspects of societal transitions.
Similarly, vague references are made to “windows of opportunity”, “creating space” (for transition seeking actors), agency, “power games” and reframing processes. If in practice TM “boils down to creating space for frontrunners” (p. 54), as is asserted, then TM researchers are yet to clearly articulate how one should or could go about doing this. I suspect that the requirements for “creating space” will be different in different contexts and for different types of transitions, limiting TM’s transferability.
Surely TM researchers would be better off familiarising themselves with relevant social scientific theory rather than relying so heavily on abstract systems theory and complexity theory?
Coming back to my first point about what seems wrong with TM, there is an underlying assumption that transition theory can provide a firm theoretical basis for interventions. That is, TM researchers seem to be the latest group of positivists seeking to derive generalised laws (this time general laws of ‘societal transitions’) from which to develop and prescribe intervention approaches.
In fact, in many respects, it seems borderline insane to think that social scientists would try to develop generalisable theories of large-scale societal transitions. When you think about the fact that we currently have a limited understanding of other change-related phenomena like social movements, and certainly no sophisticated theories of social movements, this issue becomes obvious. Furthermore, it is impossible to create theories of societal transitions that are highly generalisable (i.e. we shouldn’t seek to identify general [social] laws of societal ‘transitions’ or other similar processes), nor can such theories provide a firm theoretical basis for interventions. TM scholars are yet to realise this.