'Transitions theory' is an overarching term covering different, but similar, theoretical approaches that analyse the development of 'socio-technical transitions'. Here, 'socio-technical' refers to the co-evolution of social and technological relationships while 'transitions' refers to the dynamics by which fundamental change in these relationships occur. Acknowledging that these processes take place in a multi-dimensional space – comprising institutional rules, economic requirements, political negotiations as well as social and cultural rules and expectations – this perspective analyses the (re)configuration of social and technical elements by new innovations.

Socio-technical relationships that have become solidified into stable configurations (which are mostly susceptible only to marginal change) are conceptualised as 'socio-technical regimes'. At this level, innovation processes tend to be incremental, i.e. new innovations are consistently adapted to suit the existing socio-technical configurations of the regime. The dominant rules or modes of thinking which guide approaches and actions effectively exclude radically alternative innovations, and the regime is thus path dependent, or in a situation of lock-in. This lock-in occurs across institutions, social practices and technological infrastructures.

Transitions research on sustainability is concerned with the development of sustainable practices and technologies, and how social networks emerge around alternatives to unsustainable incumbent regimes. The object of innovation is often the socio-cultural context as well as specific technologies: reconfiguration of socio-technical relationships open up new realms of collective sustainable behaviours. In this way, the 'socio-technical niche' is conceptualised as a space for the emergence and transformation of new subjectivities framed around sustainability issues.

The role of values and visions is central here, because, in practice, it is difficult to distinguish between innovations that lead to incremental or radical change. New research on grassroots innovations suggests that alternative sustainability visions are key in driving participation in and growth of grassroots initiatives, and that cultural and socio-psychological contexts are critical in understanding how civil society activities spread.


Frank Geels: Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes

This is by now a classic text in transitions research. In it, Frank Geels establishes the multi-level perspective as an analytical heuristic and applies it to the case study of the transition from sailing to steamships. It is interesting to compare this with his recent responses to seven criticisms. (Clicking the link above starts direct download.)

Elizabeth Shove and Gordon Walker: CAUTION! Transitions ahead

Taking issue with the overly managerial approach of much transitions research, as well as under-theorised sociological and political aspects of transitions, Shove and Walker pinpoint many of the problems with sustainability transitions as an area of research.

Andy Stirling: Pluralising progress: From integrative transitions to transformative diversity

In this article Andy Stirling provides a dense account of the importance of diversity in transitions research - something which has often been lost out of sight in transition studies. Ending with a series of questions to transitions researchers, Stirling highlights the problems with approaches that blots out differences in normative understandings of sustainability.

Sustainability Transitions Research Network

Transitions research is a new approach to sustainable development (SD) and is drawing on several inputs: complexity theory, integrated assessment, STS, innovation studies, history, governance studies, reflexive modernization, but is also developing its own core set of questions and theories. STRN aims to do sustainability transitions research covering a variety of domains including energy, mobility, housing, agriculture, water and the build environment.

Smart CSOs

The Smart CSOs Lab fosters a growing learning network of civil society organisation (CSO) leaders, funders and researchers aiming to build effective CSO strategies for the ‘Great Transition’ to a sustainable society and economy.

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