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FNRS scholarship dr. Bonno Pel (DRIFT) – the directionality of sustainability transitions

Beyond preoccupations with the acceleration of transitions, it is important to engage more profoundly with the directionality of transitions. Having obtained a research scholarship from the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (F.R.S.-FNRS) in Belgium, Bonno Pel sketches his thoughts on a research program in development.  
 
Current sustainability challenges call for system innovation and transitions in production and consumption systems. Whilst many ‘niche’ technologies and practices are coming up, the time for them to induce broader system changes is running out, however. How to cultivate more of these ‘niches’, and how to get them to scale? How to remove the barriers for these innovations? How to accelerate the transitions?  Beyond preoccupations with the acceleration of transitions, it is important to engage more profoundly with the directionality of transitions. Having obtained a research scholarship from the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (F.R.S.-FNRS) in Belgium, Bonno Pel sketches his thoughts on a research program in development. The research will be undertaken at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Centre d’Etudes du Développement Durable (CEDD).   
 
Acceleration is dearly needed. But whereas the various calls for ‘moving forward’ make for great conference slogans, mission statements and LinkedIn posts, they are somewhat remote from the dynamics of many current transitions processes. It is no coincidence that the initiatives towards Degrowth, Slow Food, Slow Urbanism, Slow Science and deceleration are intensifying; social acceleration appears to be a root cause of many sustainability problems. Furthermore, many transformative social innovations are not so much moves forward, but rather thoughtful re-inventions, or attempts to save alternative practices from extinction – the work integration social enterprises are but one example. Resilience thinkers have also pointed out the cyclical nature of many transformation processes. Meanwhile, the heavy issues of transitions politics reside mainly in the flipside of novelty creation: Energy, agriculture and mobility transitions are posing challenges of active phase-out (‘exnovation’) of unwanted technologies and routines. Transitions researchers are therefore exploring broader ‘policy mixes’ for transitions governance, beyond the repertoires of cultivation and acceleration. More generally, various transition processes are so heavily surrounded with uncertainties and ethical issues that not the pace, but especially the direction of the transitions process becomes the principal concern. What kind of circular economy is worthwhile pursuing? Which forms of renewable energy prosumerism can be distinguished, and what are their transformative potentials? Which are the driving forces behind the driverless car, and to which mobility futures could it be heading?
 
This directionality of transitions is widely acknowledged. Avoiding obsessions with utopian blueprints, transition management is aimed to develop ‘baskets of visions’. Transition experiments and urban living labs are similarly important as systematic explorations of directionality. Whilst being widely acknowledged, transitions directionality is seldom accounted for with much profoundness, however. Maybe because it might needlessly confuse matters – neglecting the reconstructive ethos of transitions research and falling victim to ‘paralysis by analysis’. Or maybe because it is such an obvious point – re-directing society towards more sustainable production and consumption, isn’t that just what transitions research is all about?    
 
The problem seems to be that directionally is often dealt with only partially. There are many angles and methods through which to articulate it, but each of them highlight only some aspects whilst backgrounding others: Meticulously analyzing the twists and turns of a transition process, one easily neglects the normative complexity at hand. Whilst being highly politically-ethically conscious of the stakes and actors involved, the nitty-gritty of available technological options is easily missed. Whilst unfolding in great detail how a technology or practice came into being, one easily forgets the bigger picture of phases and waves in system evolution. Meanwhile, there is the permanent challenge to translate the critical awareness of directionality into accessible, solid and actionable knowledge. How to visualize it? How to fit it in with existing governance models, management practices, modes of organizing, and with persistent ideas about how things can be changed and controlled? How could this line of thinking reinforce the existing repertoires for transitions governance and management?
 
In the coming year, Bonno hopes to find answers to these questions, and especially to those on transitions governance. Do you want to stay updated? Follow Bonno for updates!


Date
October 14, 2019