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Two Great Systems Change Resource

Posted by Steve Waddell in Net Dev on March 30, 2017

While the US is mired in self-conscious political quagmire, Europeans continue to make impressive contributions to large systems change (LSC) knowledge. This week I’ve looked at two documents that deepen understanding about, and strategic guidance for, LSC.  The first is an academic paper, the second a general circulation report.

Lead author of the first, Frank Geels, is associated with the founding of the “transitions” approach. It is much like LSC in scale, asking about transformations of societies. However, it focuses mainly on environmental transitions, technological innovation, policy issues, and structural-institutional questions with little reference to individuals. These limiting qualities are under review. The major community is the Sustainable Transitions Research Network (STRN) meeting I’ve attended a couple of times; this year it is June 18-21 In Gothenburg, Sweden.

Particularly influential for STRN is the idea of three “levels” – referred to as the multi-level approach, introduced by Geels in 2002. Transitions are produced by interactions between:

Transitions are successful when the niche level can grow to become the regime. The latest paper by Geels et al looks at how these levels interact to produce alternative pathways. In particular, they identify four pathways that are the product of distinctive qualities of each level and key factors in the success of the German and UK cases. The German energy transition began with a substitution pathway away from the traditional centralized system, unleashing a range of technologies through radical new entrants (citizens, cooperatives, environmental activists, farmers) who built renewable capacity. The UK transition followed a transformation pathway, where the traditional energy sector adopted new technologies while maintaining centralized approaches.

The paper describes how these pathways went through three periods of change with shifting pathways. The explanation for the distinct pathways is given through differences in the three levels and particular choices made. There is not a “wrong” or “right” transition path if the goal is simply to move to renewables; both can work. The German landscape had strong advocates and greater capacity for integrating a decentralized approach because they value qualities associated with it.  In 2015 about 25% of UK electricity was renewable with the government committed reducing carbon emissions 57% by 2030 on 1990 levels. 31% of German electricity was renewable in 2015, with aims for 35% in 2020, 40–45% by 2025, 55–60%by 2035 and 80% by 2050. In the US in 2015, renewables were about 13.4% of electricity.

The other two pathways, not represented by cases in the paper, are reconfiguration with new alliances between the tradition players and new ones, and de-alignment/re-alignment where traditional players simply collapse giving opportunities for new ones. Hmmm. I find confusing that substitution is the label applied to arguably the most transformational of changes where the historic players are replace, whereas transformation label describes change while maintaining the historic players.

The Sustainability Transitions report summarizes leading transition and transformation knowledge, including the work of the transitions community and Geels’ original multi-level work. It points out that the socio-technical change that the Geels et al paper focuses upon is just one of several types of change systems. It also brings up work by Derk Loorbach that synthesizes systemic challenges perspectives that have grown out of those focused on three systems:

I like this, while wondering where socio-cultural change is, such as change with same-sex marriage and issues of war and peace. But the model makes a good contribution, not just in creating a broader definition for currently fragmented LSC work, but also suggesting that the issues of focus might require different approaches/tools/methods growing out of different characteristics and dynamics.

Always interesting is that the Dutch are so much on the leading edge of transitions and transformations work – both Loorbach and Geels are Dutch, as are many of the other leading thinkers of the field. Having the sea held back by dikes seems to produce tremendous pressure for thinking about big change pressures.

Other papers:

Geels, Frank W. 2002. “Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study.” Research Policy 31(8):1257-74.

Loorbach, D., 2014, To transition! Governance panarchy in the new transformation, Erasmus University, Rotterdam.

Diagrams are from: 2016. ” Sustainability Transitions: Now for the long term.” Copenhagen, Denmark: European Environmental Agency.

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