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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Blog: The International Sustainability Transitions Conference 2017

29 September 2017

From 18-21 June, five members of the Sustainable Consumption Institute (Jo Mylan, Frank Geels, Mike Hodson, Andy McMeekin, and Cameron Roberts) attended the 2017 International Sustainability Transitions conference in Gothenburg, Sweden.

This was the eighth IST conference, and Frank Geels' introduction to newcomers highlighted some encouraging figures on the growth of the field in its relatively short existence to date: The Sustainability Transitions Research Network has grown over the last six years from less than 400 members to nearly 1400; Our publications per year have increased exponentially from very few in 1998 to over 200 per year today; and our citations have similarly increased to nearly 8000 per year.

Perhaps these figures were also noticed by the conference organisers, who gave the gathering the confident title, "Taking the Lead in Real-World Transitions". This theme of leadership ran throughout the conference, and was explored in different ways by all the contributions from SCI researchers. Jo Mylan presented her work on the role of firms in leading transitions to sustainability, using a longitudinal case study of Proctor and Gamble's low-temperature laundry initiative. This showed that different analytical lenses changed in their usefulness and importance over the course of the transition, as did the nature of leadership.

Frank Geels' paper delved deeper into the role of agency in the multi-level perspective; a core analytical approach for the study of socio-technical transitions. Geels went back to basics, providing a detailed review of three literatures underpinning the framework: the social construction of technology; evolutionary economics; and neo-institutional theory. His discussion of this conceptual background further deepened and systematised the theoretical understanding of agency in the multi-level perspective.

Mike Hodson and Andy McMeekin presented the results of their investigation of leadership at the urban level, based on a case study about a 20-year plan for transport infrastructure and the built environment in Manchester. They concluded that a weak sense of place-based autonomy in Manchester had left its transition plans open to external influences.

Finally, Cameron Roberts and Frank Geels' paper on the political acceleration of socio-technical flipped the normal framing of research on policy in transitions on its head, looking at how transitions influence policymakers rather than vice-versa. Using two historical case studies on British agriculture and transport, they showed that policymakers are only likely to deliberately accelerate a transition if they are presented either with appealing new technological opportunities or major problems in the incumbent technological system.

Another sign of the maturity of the transitions field was the huge diversity of delegates, who came from a wide range of academic fields, and from universities all over the world. Eleven separate research tracks showed the diversity of a field which includes contributions ranging from micro-level innovations to deep historical trends, from abstract social theory to problem-driven empirical research, and from statistical modelling to interpretative humanities research. This made for a very satisfying and stimulating conference, although it did come with its challenges. There is, for example, some risk that transitions researchers might start separating off into specialised sub-disciplines around the edge of transitions theory, creating a “donut model”, where few people attempt the whole-system thinking that should be central to the field. And while the much-touted increasing involvement of delegates from continents other than Europe is a positive sign for the spread of our ideas, it does raise some uncomfortable questions about the amount of air travel necessary for a conference ostensibly about taking the lead in sustainability.

The plenary discussions brought an interesting and eclectic group of scholars, thinkers, and change-makers to address the conference as a whole. Generally these talks took a big-picture view, leaving the paper sessions to go into the theoretical and empirical details of transitions. Systems Scientist Peter Senge's meditation on leadership, for example, provided some philosophical food for thought for philosophically-minded delegates, even if it didn’t engage directly with very much STRN scholarship. A funny and theatrical talk on effective communication was put on by Eva Krutmeijer & Andreas T. Olsson. Perhaps the most interesting plenary session was a panel discussion which brought academics together with policymakers to discuss the role of political leadership and scientific knowledge in sustainability transitions, providing interesting insights from people directly involved in making change happen.

The social calendar was very well-organised and planned. There was a drinks reception at Gothenburg’s impressive Museum of World Culture; and a delicious conference dinner took place on a boat cruise amongst the islands of the Gothenburg Archipelago. The boat cruise happened to take place on the summer solstice, and so, with the help of some phoenetically similar English and French lyrics (“Hell and gore!”, “Elle encore!”), all the delegates drank a toast to mark Midsommar.

The conference ended with another contribution from a Sustainable Consumption Institute academic, as Andy McMeekin took the podium to provide a preview of the 2018 International Sustainability Transitions conference, which will take place in Manchester, on 11-14 June 2018. He set the stage by explaining how Manchester’s historic involvement with the big societal innovations like the industrial revolution, vegetarianism, and, more recently, graphene, makes it an ideal site for a conference on the transitions of the future. The final plenary of this conference is planned to be a debate on Transition scholarship 2.0, which, if successful, will make Manchester once again the site of big and important changes.

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