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Seeking to accelerate change towards sustainability

18 October 2016

Wuppertal monorail and conference attendees

ISTC 2016’s Restaurant day in the Arrenberg district: an opportunity to experience urban transformations of various kinds in practice.

Dr Chris Riedy and several ISF postgraduate researchers participated in the International Sustainability Transitions Conference 2016 in Wuppertal, Germany in early September. This annual conference is the leading international conference for scholars focused on sustainability transitions.

A transition is a specific type of social change that involves a fundamental change in structure, culture and practices. Transition scholars argue that such fundamental change is needed to move towards a sustainable future. They argue that we need to change not only technologies and infrastructure, but also institutions, markets, values, worldviews, social norms and ways of life. Transition researchers draw on insights from fields like systems thinking, complexity theory, innovation studies, sociology and environmental science to try and improve our understanding of large scale systemic change towards sustainability. They also engage in ‘transition experiments’ – practical attempts to facilitate or accelerate sustainability transitions – and learn from the results.

Researchers at ISF are applying transition theories in diverse ways. Dr Chris Riedy is currently leading a project with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage that is using a particular transition theory – the multi-level perspective – to explore how to transform the market for energy efficient products and services in NSW. The multi-level perspective draws attention to the important role that protected market niches play in driving innovation and altering unsustainable structures.

At the conference, Dr Riedy led a dialogue session to explore the conceptual foundations of transition studies and transformative science. This interactive session asked participants to explore the history of research on transition and transformation, and whether either of these terms offer any advantages for researchers seeking to accelerate change towards sustainability. The dialogue session was an initiative of the Taskforce on the Conceptual Foundations of Earth System Governance. This Taskforce is a new research initiative of the Earth System Governance Project established to explore key ideas that are coming to frame international discussion of the challenge of governance in times of global environmental change and earth system transformation. It is concerned with understanding, refining and critically interrogating concepts that increasingly provide the foundation for contemporary theory and practice in the environmental domain.

Postgraduate researcher Matt Daly presented in a session on Transition and Social practice, exploring the role of grassroots initiatives and social innovations in sustainability transitions. Matt discussed emerging results from his doctoral research, drawing on case study data from two Australian intentional communities – a rural ecovillage and an urban cohousing community - working to create ecologically and socially sustainable everyday lifestyles. His research explores the elements of everyday practices that residents perceived as significant for reducing the environmental impact from household consumption. Matt is using a social practice theory approach to analyse how an intention to live in a more environmentally sustainable manner is realised in everyday household practice within these ecologically sustainable intentional communities. The ways that interventions in practice are achieved within these niche grassroots communities can provide insights regarding interventions to create socio-technical change on a wider scale.

Stephen McGrail also shared some results from his doctoral research at the Conference.  He presented results from an evaluation of a forward-looking participatory process – the “futures forum” process – conducted by staff at the CSIRO. His evaluation of three forum exercises sought to examine the working ‘intervention theories’ that guided CSIRO practitioners and evaluate the impact of these forums. His research suggests that whilst prospective practices can contribute to transitions (such as energy transitions related to decarbonising energy systems) more attention needs to be placed on how their use and impacts are socially conditioned as well as the political aspects of such interventions.

Verena Streitferdt, another ISF postgraduate researcher, participated in two dialogue sessions and several meetings of the TRANSLACASAF network, a group of transition researchers who focus on transition studies in a non-European context. One dialogue session addressed the challenges of researching in different cultural contexts where data is sometimes unavailable. The World Café method was used to explore three approaches: Transition management, Research Design and Theatre Forum. In a second dialogue session, discussions centred on six points where conventional transition study theories could be adapted for developing and emerging country contexts.  These were: (1) in an urban context to recognise multiple (‘splinter’) regimes; (2) research into practices in transition studies – practice theory; (3) instability of a regime as a window of opportunity and (4) the missing link between the study of power and relations. IST2016 was also an opportunity for the TRANSLACASAF network to meet and discuss the redesign of their webinars and distribute tasks among members.

IST workshop