As the Dutch government tries to minimise the adverse effects of the energy crisis, and large swathes of the country are covered in the blue-white-red colours of farmers protests, Derk Loorbach is missing one sound in our national debate: the fall of 2022 is a transitions moment.
Autumn 2022. The need to change is greater than ever. Without perspective, politics and society seem to be merely reacting to all crises. Populism, doubt and uncertainty grow and only lead to more conservation and fear of change. In this tumult, transition research is more relevant than ever. It explains why we are stuck, but more importantly, it helps find perspective through the crises. In the coming period, I will try to take you through our transition research, hopefully contributing to making radical transitions visible.
An expected surprise
For over two decades, transition researchers have been concerned with how we as a society will go through the process of inevitable and fundamental change. We are now entering what we feared: increasing chaos and crises combined with social polarisation without a clear and socially shared idea of (new) progress.
The likelihood of economic and ecological collapse is only increasing, while in the meantime we seem to have little choice but to negotiate backwards, hold on, manage crisis and hope it will blow over. It is frustrating: we saw this coming but the strategies we devised to make transitions less violent and steer them in the right direction have had too little effect.
Transition management at the start
Well, the idea has never been that we can really manage transitions: the original idea was that if we know the dynamics of transitions, then it should be possible to influence the speed and direction with smart interventions.
That ‘transition management’ originated as an idea in 2000 and was thrown in my lap. In 2001, I was the first to work full time to develop the idea scientifically and translate it into something practical. My background (cultural and science studies at Maastricht University) was interdisciplinary and ‘problem-based’.
This educational philosophy is based on analysing and interpreting problems together, in co-creation, in order to find solutions together. It abandons the idea of a truth to make room for interpretation, multiple perspectives and types of knowledge.
Learning by doing and doing by learning
In science, it is called transdisciplinarity: doing research in and with practice where different forms of knowledge (academic and practical) are brought together to reach new understanding. Another important part of my training was understanding the role of social processes in embedding technology in society (‘the social construction of technology’) and defining what we consider normal in a society (social constructivism).
From that background, we started developing transition management as transformative thought and practice. We explore something that is not yet there from a presumption about what may come, and by doing so in and with practice, it gradually comes into being. In concrete terms, the original transition idea was that if linear and fossil-based growth is unsustainable in the long run, it will lead both to crises that throw our society off balance and to all kinds of experiments and alternatives being developed by change agents.
We have known for decades that our economic model is structurally unsustainable. Both ecologically and socially: the initiated climate change and the loss of biodiversity but also increasing inequality combined with unjust distribution of burdens and benefits of economic growth lead to mounting transition pressures.
The challenge for transition researchers is to understand and anticipate these dynamics and the underlying mechanisms, but also to explore how we can influence them. By, as DRIFT’s mission statement also states, ‘developing knowledge in and with practitioners to accelerate transitions towards a just and sustainable society’.
Quit doom-scrolling start ‘do-thinking’
In recent years, we have been doing that fairly successfully. The mere introduction of ‘transition’ in many sectors forced parties to speak out and position themselves. Or introducing concepts like the transition arena, the X-curve (and the Ministry of Demolition) or, more recently, ‘stumbling forward’. New words and concepts that influence daily practice in lots of places and moved more towards desired transition.
Perhaps more on this later, for now I will conclude with the hope and call that in the current phase of transitions we can use all the accumulated capacity for ‘do-thinking’ for transitions together to seize this moment of transition. The big question is: now that the transition space is maximal, the chaos and instability great, but the alternatives are also present in all sorts of places, is: how can we achieve real transition to a future economy that uses as little space, raw materials and energy as possible and is as affordable, healthy and democratic as possible? .
September 23, 2022