Call for Papers: Special Issue ‘Leading Sustainability Transitions’

1 July, 2018

In this Special Issue we want to address what forms of leadership emerge from the niche and from the regime, we want to explore the roles of different actors in influencing the speed and direction of transitions, and we want to explore transformative leadership issues on a personal level. Submit your manuscript before September 30th!

There seems to be an increasing support for advancing and facilitating sustainability transitions to address the ‘grand societal challenges’ of our time. Societal transitions, as a scientific concept, are understood as a specific pattern of non-linear disruptive change in which a societal ‘regime’ shifts from one dynamic equilibrium to another. Such transitions result from persistent sustainability challenges in existing dynamically stable configurations -regimes with an established set of cultures, structures, and practices- that are increasingly locked-in and become vulnerable to disruptions.

As incumbent actors and established power structures, routines and discourses by definition complicate transformative changes, transitions are inherently conflictuous, political and contested. They do, however, also present opportunities for shifting towards desired new, in our case sustainable, futures. In the process of transition however, incumbent actors will resist or seek to dominate transitions, longer-term directions might be agreed upon but conflicts can arise over values, specific solutions or transition pathways, and new lock-ins might be developed. Sustainability transitions therefore take place within a context where institutionalized leadership will not likely guide the transition and the process itself is inherently uncertain, chaotic and distributed so that traditional forms of planning, governance and leadership do not suffice.

Leadership in Transitions
Within the field of sustainability transitions research, much attention is already given to issues of power, politics and governance in transitions. These contributions focus on how agency does (not) help toguide and accelerate transformative changes and thereby helps to direct emerging transitions. ‘Leadership’ within this context of sustainability transitions can thus be seen as the capacity to provide counterweight to the mainstream or to redirect the mainstream. By definition, this is also political process with a collective aspect, meaning that it plays out on a higher level than within a single organization or business and involves a wide-array of actors. It is about leading a fundamental change vis-á-vis the dominant pattern of development in society. Prominent examples of such leaders that spring to mind are: companies such as Tesla in energy and mobility and Unilever in food and agriculture; China’s top-down push for a greener economy or Germany’s Energiewende when looking at policy; but also bottom-up initiatives initiated by citizens such as the movement for direct democracy in Barcelona or the transition town movement. All of these have been capable of presenting a new vision on the future of society to a broad audience.

However, there are still many open issues in transitions studies regarding leadership. Because nobody is explicitly in charge of transitions, and its final direction is uncertain beforehand, nobody knows exactly where we are heading or how we will get there. This lack of control complicates leading transitions and raises questions regarding what form leadership in transitions takes. Likely, it will be more about facilitating broad processes of experimentation and learning than traditional management and control strategies. Likely it is more about collective capacities than about personal characteristics. Liekely it is rather about the ability to break away from dominant discourses, development trajectories and routines than towards something new. Likely, it is about facilitating others and enabling transformation rather than achieving direct successes. Likely, it is also about not only the roles of front-runneers, change-agents and niches, but also about proactive incumbents, policy entrepreneurs and transformative business.

In this Special Issue we would like to explore exactly these kinds of questions and open issues. We want to address what forms of leadership emerge from the niche, what forms of leadership emerge from the regime, and how do they meet to work towards new future regimes. We want to explore what the roles of different actors are in influencing the speed and direction of transitions and what this implies for formal and informal leadership. Finally we also want to explore transformative leadership issues on a personal level and capacities that are related to these. In this special issue we welcome theoretical, empirical, and applied papers exploring the issues above and topics such as:

  • New conceptualisations of leadership for sustainability transitions
  • Reflections upon the role of power, institutions and formal leadership as opposed to transformative leadership
  • Leadership in policy and governance in sustainability transitions
  • Transforming business, the role of business in transitions and organizational transitions within business
  • The role of science and researchers in directing and accelerating transitions, and the transition of universities and the knowledge infrastructure itself
  • The role of learning in leadership, transformative learning and social learning.
  • Examples of transformative leadership

Guest Editors
Prof. Dr. Derk Loorbach

Mr. Sem Oxenaar

Manuscript Submission Information
Manuscripts should be submitted online at by registering and logging in to this website. Once you are registered, click here to go to the submission form. Manuscripts can be submitted until the deadline. All papers will be peer-reviewed. Accepted papers will be published continuously in the journal (as soon as accepted) and will be listed together on the special issue website. Research articles, review articles as well as short communications are invited. For planned papers, a title and short abstract (about 100 words) can be sent to the Editorial Office for announcement on this website.

Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are thoroughly refereed through a single-blind peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. Sustainability is an international peer-reviewed open access monthly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1400 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI’s English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.