Some reflections on IST 2016

The International Sustainability Transitions conference (the annual conference of the Sustainability Transitions Research Network) was held earlier this month in Wuppertal, Germany.

Wuppertal turned out to be an interesting place to hold this conference. This part of Germany (North Rhine-Westphalia) is an industrial region – one presenter claimed that the region produces 10% of the European Union’s total greenhouse gas emissions – and Wuppertal is an old industrial city facing challenges. Parts of the city are seeking to be carbon neutral by 2030 and, additionally, there is clearly a debate around possible post-industrial futures for Wuppertal.

The core conference theme of “transition research as transformative science” clearly put the spotlight on societal impact, on the social mission of transition researchers (which, it turned out, is more contested than I thought), and on scientists / researchers as agents of change.  Although many other topics were discussed, these themes were at least implicit in many sessions that I attended.

The strong emphasis on real-world impact/change has been part of the transition studies field for some time as argued by the following scholars in the field:

“The field of societal transitions studies has developed with two main interrelated agendas: (1) scientific progress: to better understand how structural change of large-scale complex societal systems comes about; and (2) impact: to make particular societal transitions happen and navigate developments towards sustainability” (Holtz et al, 2015).

This year the IST conference was hosted by the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Energy, and Environment. The Wuppertal Institute is an interesting non-profit research organisation with strong links to Club of Rome, Germany Advisory Council on Global Change and, more recently, links to the University of Wuppertal where the conference was held. In some respects the Wuppertal Institute is more of an activist-y think tank, but it does undertake a lot of contract research.

During the conference the Wuppertal Institute promoted new books their staff have published (e.g. The Great Mindshift: How a New Economic Paradigm and Sustainability Transformations go Hand in Hand) and soon to be published reports such as ‘Knowledge as Transformative Energy’. The brochure distributed for this upcoming report argued that “Transformative Science leaves the neutral position of observation” to “support actors in transformation processes”.

Many aspects of the IST conference were notable and relevant to my PhD research but – in keeping with the core conference theme – the emphasis on achieving real-world impact and the contested notion of “transitions” in particular deserve reflection and comment.

The contested meaning of “transition”

Much like the contestation around what ‘sustainability transitions’ entail, speakers ranged widely in their interpretation of “transition” research. My impression was that the Wuppertal Institute sought to use their hosting of the conference to try to steer the field in more radical directions.

Related rhetoric was evident in some keynote addresses.  For example, the head of Berlin office of the Wuppertal Institute, Dr Maja Göpel gave a keynote entitled “The Great Mindshift” in which she argued that after 40 years of warnings, debate and limited action “nothing less than transformation will now do” and that there’s an emerging window of opportunity in which to achieve such change.

The focus of presenters ranged from specific socio-technical transitions (e.g. specific historical or contemporary examples similar to the early work by Geels and others), economic transitions (e.g. the role of industrial policy in growing new green industries, new economic models), to socio-economic transformations in a range of contexts ranging from cities through to macro change.

In one particularly disappointing session entitled “Research and Practice Perspectives on the Governance of Urban Transitions” Derk Loorbach (Erasmus University/DRIFT) and Rob Hopkins (one of the founders of the transition towns movement) briefly presented their current views on “transitions” but no real effort was major to critically explore the differences in their views and approaches nor to critically interrogate the “governance” of such change.

In some respects it’s quite positive that a broad range of scholars and people are seeking to contribute to “transition research”, much like I aim to do. In other respects the core scientific agenda (or research agenda) of the field often seemed unclear and the contested meaning of key terms often wasn’t openly addressed, at least in the sessions/streams that I attended.

The impact agenda and its potential implications

As is often the case with conferences informal discussions with attendees can be more interesting than the actual sessions/talks. Some of the discussions I had at the conference about the emphasis on impact and related research practices were particularly interesting.

One attendee lamented what he judged to be a conflict between scientific progress (which he viewed as theoretical advancement) and the impact agenda. Specifically, he was concerned that many papers and research projects didn’t seek to make theoretical contributions and, instead, mainly focussed on change creation/action. In contrast another attendee argued for greater focus on new kinds of knowledge (e.g. more action-oriented forms of knowledge) so that transition research made a stronger contribution to sustainability-related transformations. This speaks to tensions regarding what kind of knowledge should be developed by researchers in the field.

It would have been great if such debates were more openly held in plenary sessions (e.g. panel sessions on such issues) rather than being implicit.

Another attendee who worked for Wuppertal Institute argued that the organisation was, in some respects, more like a consultancy which, a lot of time, wasn’t as rigorous as he would like it to be (he was about to leave the organisation). This reminded me of my concerns with consulting work where I found rigour was at times compromised but the impact aspects were often clearer.

For transition researchers two key underlying issues appear to be a need to better understand possible tensions between the two agendas emphasised by Holtz et al. (2015) – i.e. of achieving scientific progress and impact – and, if/where such tensions exist, identifying ways of addressing such tensions e.g. ways that goals could be achieved simultaneously. Additionally, what are the potential unintended consequences (e.g. in terms of the politicisation of science)?

Given the frequent use of participatory research methods in research that seeks to have greater impact – which some conference attendees called “transformation research” – related debates at IST 2016 also repeated similar discussions in other fields. For example, Bergold and Thomas argue that when using participatory research methods “objectivity and neutrality must be replaced by reflective subjectivity”. They contrast this approach with a “classical research setting” where the relationship between researchers and researched “is a non-relationship in which the researcher is, as far as possible, neutral or invisible” in the research because “anything else is considered to lead to the distortion of the results or to threaten the internal validity”. Similarly, these issues are frequently encountered and debated in participatory forms of futures/foresight work.

Questions worth more investigation: has does (or could) the impact agenda influence the scientific practices and aspirations of transition researchers? Conversely, how does an emphasis on being scientific influence the impact of transition research? How does the choice of research methods impact the type of knowledge produced by transition researchers?

“In transition research actors are strategic and therefore normative”

This remark – made by a speaker regarding the actors that transition researchers study – strongly resonated with my own research. However, similar to comments above on the core conference theme, it’s also important to consider researchers/scientists as strategic actors.

However, differences in the normative orientations of transition researchers weren’t clearly explored in the conference (a shared normative horizon seemed mostly to be assumed), nor what informs these orientations and how it influences research agendas. For example, as indicated earlier in this post, there often seemed to be tension between those focussed on ‘socio-technical transition’ research and others who sought to push the field in more radical directions.

Related questions can be asked about the expectations of transition researchers and how this influences their research. For example, during one session Derk Loorbach argued that:

“There is no way that we’re not heading for a very disruptive and chaotic and shockwise period of change. The question we should be concerned with is how we mobilise this disruption, and how we play into it, how we prepare for it, so that we end up on the other side in a new type of stability that is beneficial, within ecological boundaries and is inclusive.”

A related key question worth investigation: is transition studies a coherent research field or should it be viewed as a contested moral community (or both)?

A final observation related to the core conference theme is that few papers presented analysis of the societal impact of transition research (i.e. little of the research presented at the conference – in the sessions I attended – examined whether such research is ‘transformative’). Instead the idea of ‘transition research as transformative science’ seemed largely to be an aspiration. There was also little critical discussion of the extent to which scientific research in general is ‘transformative’, and under what conditions, nor of related assumptions. In other words, although this aspiration was put on the table for discussion, I left the conference with little additional clarity on how transition research is a transformative science nor about what would be required for transition research to be/become a ‘transformative science’.  This may have been a function of the sessions I attended; if so I’d welcome hearing from others who attended different sessions and left the conference with new insights.

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