Three blogs on #IST2019: 1 – Power, Politics and Paradoxes (TripleP) in Sustainability Transitions

At the heart of transition theory lies a paradox: for an innovation to have transformative impact, some degree of diffusion, mainstreaming or institutionalisation is needed, but that by definition decreases its original innovative power. In this first of three blogs on a memorable session at the 2019 IST conference, the combined forces of Flor Avelino, Marie Claire Brisbois, Florian Kern, Bonno Pel, Adrian Smith & John Grin share insights on the grand themes of power, politics and paradox in transition theory.
In August 2020, the International Sustainability Transitions (IST) conference took place in a mostly online universe. Academic conferences provide moments to look back, look ahead and share insights on the development of our research. In this mini blog series, we do all three, by reporting on the session “Power, Politics and Paradoxes ( = TripleP) in Sustainability Transitions: an interactive state-of-the-art review” that we organised at the 2019 IST conference in Canada and discussing what we might learn from it for future research and conferences.
The TripleP session’s purpose was threefold. First, to address the themes of power, politics and paradoxes in sustainability transitions. Second, to experiment with an interactive state-of-the-art review approach. And third, to experience a blended set-up, involving both offline and online speakers and participants. In this mini blog series, we dedicate one blog to each of these purposes. Here’s the first!
There have been several critical interrogations regarding issues of power and politics in sustainability transitions, followed by multiple studies that focus on power and politics in innovation. An important aspect of these discussions on power and politics, is the acknowledgement that transition dynamics are inherently dialectic and paradoxical. Because in order for an innovation to have transformative impact, some form of diffusion, mainstreaming or institutionalisation must occur, and in that process of adapting to some prevailing aspects of ‘mainstreaming’ (as well as altering some other aspects of those circumstances), the innovation – by definition – loses some of its original transformative potential.
In our #IST2019 dialogue session we tackled these three grand themes of power, politics and paradox in transition theory through an innovative session format in which we attempted an experiment in interactive state-of-the-art review. For each theme, presenters summarised and discussed four key publications, and then session participants were asked for additional input and feedback. In this first blog we share the main insights for each of the three themes, more about the format and process in the next two blogs
Power in sustainability transitions
Power is one of the most contested concepts in social and political theory. Most often, in both colloquial and academic discourse, power is associated with domination i.e. “power over”. A good introduction into “power over” is offered by Doris Fuchs’ book chapter on Business power in global governance (2007), which unravels how businesses with global reach are able to exert massive influence on policy in ways that are often hidden or invisible. However, power scholars have pointed out that in addition to “power over”, there is also “power to” as capacity and “power with” as collaboration. In the article on “‘Power with’ and ‘power to’ in environmental politics and the transition to sustainability”, Lena Partzsch unpacks these three dimensions of power in relation to environmental governance and sustainability transitions, and calls for a more “explicit acknowledgement of coaction and individual agency that can enable transition to more sustainable societies” (Partzsch 2017:1). 
Building on different dimensions of power over and power to, Flor Avelino explicitly integrates power into the Multi-Level Perspective by redefining niches and regimes in terms of spaces in which different kinds of power are exercised (see article “Power in Sustainability Transitions. Analysing Power and (Dis)Empowerment in Transformative Change towards Environmental and Social Sustainability”). By proposing a ‘horizontal’ power typology of reinforcive, transformative and innovative power, and distinguishing between radical and moderate forms of power exercise, she challenges the vertical bifurcation between niches and regimes. 
A more empirical and operational power framework relevant for transition research concerns is provided by Marie Claire Brisbois (see article “Powershifts: A framework for assessing the growing impact of decentralized ownership of energy transitions on political decision-making”), who offers a set of indicators to reveal, analyse and compare shifts in political power as the energy transition progresses. 
In addition to the references mentioned above, participants in the #IST2019 dialogue session emphasized that we can and should learn more about power from other fields like science and technology studies (STS), political ecology, anarchist and ‘de-centralist’ social theory (e.g. Murray Bookchin), international development studies (e.g. John Gaventa) and decolonialist research (e.g. Boaventura de Souza Santos). Interesting research questions that were formulated based on these fields included: Can you decolonize the Multi-level Perspective, or is it irredeemably modernist? How do geography and technology shape and script power relations: do artefacts have politics? 
Politics in sustainability transitions
In the broadest sense of the word, politics refer to “all the activities of cooperation and conflict, within and between societies, whereby the human species goes about organising the use, production and distribution of human, natural and other resources in the production and reproduction of its biological and social life” (Leftwich 2010: [1983]: 11). By their very nature, societal transitions are inherently and deeply political. 
Understanding politics in sustainability transitions requires particular attention for the systemic interrelations between plural forms of governance, policy and socio-material contexts. In their article on “Harnessing theories of the policy process for analysing the politics of sustainability transitions: A critical survey”, Florian Kern and Karoline Rogge demonstrate a tendency in policy studies to focus on single instruments and on policy outputs rather than outcomes, subsequently proposing avenues for research on the linkages between policy processes, policy mixes, and socio-technical change. In addition, there is a particular need to understand the dynamics of coalition formation and destabilisation strategies, as emphasized in the article on “The politics of accelerating low-carbon transitions: Towards a new research agenda” by Cameron Roberts, Frank Geels, Matthew Lockwood, Peter Newell, Hubert Schmitz, BrunoTurnheim and Andy Jordan (2018). 
In the editorial introduction to a special issue on the “Politics of Sustainability Transitions”, Flor Avelino, John Grin, Bonno Pel and Shivant Jhagroe explicitly move beyond politics as merely formalised policy processes or geo-political struggles, towards including the overlooked ‘micro-politics’ of transition processes. Political agency is dispersed across material, discursive and institutional context of practices, and specifically located at the interface of social practices and socio-material context. At this interface, there is the risk of ‘capture’ while at the same time also providing the potential to pre-empt such capture. 
Participants in the #IST2019 dialogue emphasized also the importance of the broader politics of worldviews, values and paradigms in enabling or constraining change towards sustainability and pointed to the work of Donella Meadows which is useful in terms of identifying leverage points. More generally, work on paradigms and how they change include classics such as the work by Kuhn (‘The structure of scientific revolutions’) and similar ideas applied to policy paradigms (Hall). The core research question remains how dominant paradigms can be challenged and how to deal with the inevitable ‘backlash’ which often occurs when a paradigm is under pressure. 
Paradoxes in sustainability transitions
In the article on “Translating sustainabilities between green niches and sociotechnical regimes”, Adrian Smith (2007) has argued that successful innovations are those that manage to navigate this paradoxical and dialectic confrontation with the existing system: on the one hand being able to translate innovative elements to the mainstream context, while at the same time holding on to the radical core of the innovation. This paradox lies at the heart of transition theory. In order for an innovation to have transformative impact, some form of diffusion, mainstreaming or institutionalisation must occur, and in that process, the innovation – by definition – loses some of its original innovative power.
While ‘co-optation’ or ‘capture’ are generally framed as undesirable in the context of innovation and change, it is important to acknowledge that if innovation is to contribute to transitions, it is actually meant to be captured at least to a certain degree, in some aspects, and by some parts of the surrounding system. As such, capture need not be considered as undesirable per se, and requires a dialectical understanding, as argued by Bonno Pel (2016) in the article on “Trojan horses in transitions: A dialectical perspective on innovation ‘capture’” (Pel 2016).
The normality of ‘capture’ just reminds that transition governance cannot be post-political, despite some of its consumer-friendly surface appearances in consulting, policy-making and social media. Transitions unfold through alternations between moments of domestication and radicalization. A very important article for the field was the special issue editorial by Voß, J. P., Smith, A., & Grin, J. (2009). “Designing long-term policy: rethinking transition management”. Policy sciences, 42(4), 275-302. The editorial provided a look in the rear view mirror that is quite unusual in our field of research – situating current transition governance efforts in a history of long-range planning that is paved with hopes,  disillusions, and a lot of lessons about tactics and strategy.   
Participants in the #IST2019 dialogue emphasized the productive qualities of such paradoxes. We recognized how important it is to look beyond single loop portrayals of capture or containment of transformative potentials. In practice, the drawn-out, political, power-laden processes of structural change are rarely as singularly neat, unidirectional, or as clean as the S-curves, phase shifts and other heuristic simplifications in many of our analytical frameworks. Ironically, the necessarily more complex, contextualised, and committed kinds of analysis that can accompany, explain and help people engage in recursive processes full of paradoxical practices are the analyses that many policy institutions find difficult to digest. They tend to default to more palatable frameworks and instruments in which power and paradox is conveniently bracketed out (a further paradox – see policy mixes and politics above). Going beyond prototyping sustainability in niche spaces therefore involves a level of ambition and commitment outside institutional reforms, that improve SDG indicators, and (paradoxically) the continuation of further, deeper, more radical prototyping that meets the continuing needs of large numbers of people for more environmental sustainability and greater social justice. Each reform, each success, each containment, and each capture reconfigures the possibilities and contexts for building power with others, the power to do influential things, and that undermines the unsustainable power overhead.  
Below you find the references of the 12 publications that were selected and discussed by the six speakers in the #IST2019 dialogues session. 
More important, however, is this Collaborative Document with References on Power, Politics & Paradox in Transitions where we collected the input of participants. We invite everybody to add relevant references:  

  • Avelino, F. (2017) Power in Sustainability Transitions. Analysing Power and (Dis)Empowerment in Transformative Change towards Environmental and Social Sustainability, Journal of Environmental Policy & Governance, 27(6): 505–520
  • Avelino, F., Grin, J., Jhagroe, S. and Pel, B., (2016) The Politics of Sustainability Transitions, Environmental Policy & Planning, 18(5), 557-567,
  • Brisbois, M. C. (2019). Powershifts: A framework for assessing the growing impact of decentralized ownership of energy transitions on political decision-making. Energy Research & Social Science, 50, 151-161.
  • Mark Deakin, Davide Diamantini and Nunzia Borrelli (eds., 2015) The Governance of City Food Systems. Milan: Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli
  • Fuchs, D. A. (2007). Business as an actor in global governance. Chapter 3 in: Business power in global governance. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
  • Hayward, C., & Lukes, S. (2008). Nobody to shoot? Power, structure, and agency: A dialogue. Journal of Power, 1(1), 5-20.
  • Kern, F., & Rogge, K. S. (2018). Harnessing theories of the policy process for analysing the politics of sustainability transitions: A critical survey. Environmental innovation and societal transitions, 27, 102-117.
  • Pel, B. (2016). Trojan horses in transitions: A dialectical perspective on innovation ‘capture’. Journal of environmental policy & planning, 18(5), 673-691
  • Roberts, C., Geels, F. W., Lockwood, M., Newell, P., Schmitz, H., Turnheim, B., & Jordan, A. (2018). The politics of accelerating low-carbon transitions: Towards a new research agenda. Energy research & social science, 44, 304-311.
  • Smith, A. (2007) Translating sustainabilities between green niches and sociotechnical regimes. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 19, 4: 427-450.
  • Smith, A. and R. Raven (2012) What is protective space? Research Policy 41, 6: 1025-1036
  • Smith, A. (2018) Forking the SDGs. STEPS Centre blog.
  • Voß, J. P., Smith, A., & Grin, J. (2009). Designing long-term policy: rethinking transition management. Policy sciences, 42(4), 275-302 (Editorial special issue)

October 29, 2020