Socio-Technical Transitions to Sustainability and connections to Spatial Justice

Socio-technical transitions to sustainability are characterised by SYSTEMS CHANGE. That means that whole chains of production, consumption and behaviour must change over a long period of time, thus involving a large number of stakeholders. This is why the GOVERNANCE of systems transition towards sustainability is so important.

Here we must go back to the theories of Elinor Ostrom on the successful management of common resources: in order for resources to be managed effectively and fairly, there must be what Ostrom calls “polycentric governance”, which means that decisions must be taken by stakeholders in polycentric networks of decision-making. In simple words, this means that decisions should be taken in complex communicative exercises where all stakeholders (or groups of stakeholders) have a voice. It is not a coincidence that Ostrom theories give credence to the theories of communicative rationality. Ostrom describes examples of successful management of the commons where there is communication (and power) symmetry, polycentric governance (or polycentric decision-making) and devolution* (although this is not a word used by Ostrom).

*Devolution means decisions must be taken at the lowest possible level where those decisions have an effect. Visit this website to see what it means for policy making.

Today, we observe a growing international community of scholars in the field of transition studies. […] Special issues have covered topics such as long-term policy design and transition management (Voß et al., 2009), sustainability transitions in Asia (Berkhout et al., 2009Berkhout et al., 2010), infrastructures and transitions (Loorbach et al., 2010), the transformation of the energy system (Schreuer et al., 2010), and actor strategies (Farla et al., 2012). (J. Markard et al. / Research Policy 41 (2012), p. 56)

Sectors like energy supply, water supply, or transportation can be conceptualized as socio-technical systems. Such systems consist of (networks of) actors (individuals, firms, and other organizations, collective actors) and institutions (societal and technical norms, regulations, standards of good practice), as well as material artifacts and knowledge (Geels, 2004; Markard, 2011; Weber, 2003). The different elements of the system interact, and together they provide specific services for society. The systems concept highlights the fact that a broad variety of elements are tightly interrelated and dependent on each other (cf. Finger et al., 2005; Hughes, 1987). This has crucial implications for the dynamics the systems exhibit, and especially for system transformation (Markard, 2011).

A socio-technical transition is a set of processes that lead to a fundamental shift in socio-technical systems (e.g., Geels and Schot, 2010; Kemp, 1994). A transition involves far-reaching changes along different dimensions: technological, material, organizational, institutional, political, economic, and socio-cultural. Transitions involve a broad range of actors and typically unfold over considerable time-spans (e.g., 50 years and more). In the course of such a transition, new products, services, business models, and organizations emerge, partly complementing and partly substituting for existing ones. Technological and institutional structures change fundamentally, as well as the perceptions of consumers regarding what constitutes a particular service (or technology). Historical examples of socio-technical transitions include the introduction of pipe-based water supply (Geels, 2005a), the shift from cesspools to sewer systems (Geels, 2006a), and the shift from carriages to automobiles (Geels, 2005b).

Socio-technical transitions differ from technological transitions in that they include changes in user practices and institutional (e.g., regulatory and cultural) structures, in addition to the technological dimension. In addition, socio-technical transitions typically encompass a series of complementary technological and non-technical innovations (e.g., complementary infrastructures). The emergence of a transportation system with the automobile technology at its core, for example, required a complementary development of road infrastructure, fuel supply systems, traffic rules, services (e.g., maintenance, insurance), user practices, etc. In fact, socio-technical transitions do not just change the very structures of existing systems, such as transportation, but they also affect related societal domains, such as living, housing and working, production and trade, and planning and policymaking.

Sustainability transitions are long-term, multi-dimensional, and fundamental transformation processes through which established socio-technical systems shift to more sustainable modes of production and consumption. One particularity of sustainability transitions is that guidance and governance often play a particular role (Smith et al., 2005). There might be long-term goals, for example, that inform the direction of the transition. In this case, a transition is purposeful and intended, and a broad range of actors is expected to work together in a coordinated way.3 In a guided transition, political actors, as well as regulatory and institutional support, can be expected to play a major role. Finally, we have to note that what is considered sustainable can be subject to interpretation and might change over time (Garud et al., 2010).(Markard, J., Raven, R., & Truffer, 2012)

Socio Technical regimes are shaped by the relationships between actors, institutions and technology (and, in our case, the built environment). Socio technical regimes impose a logic and direction for incremental socio-technical change alongside established pathways of development (Markard, et. al., 2012), that is translated in path dependency and occasional lock-ins.

We consider planning systems as socio-technical regimes. Paraphrasing Markard, they are made of networks of actors (planning departments, other sectoral departments and institutions, firms, civic organisations), formal and informal institutions (societal and technical norms, regulations, standards of good practice) influencing and being influenced by the built environment and producing stances of spatial justice or injustice.

Although the emphasis of socio-technical transitions lies on the intimate relationship between technological artefacts and society, we wish to posit that planning regimes are analogous to socio-technical systems insofar they are, in fact, composed by different elements that “interact, and together they provide specific services for society”, and have the potential to promote or facilitate transitions that involve “far-reaching changes along different dimensions: technological, material, organizational, institutional, political, economic, and socio-cultural” (Markard et. al. 2012), underscoring our argument that for urban sustainable development to occur, a much stronger notion of social sustainability must be incorporated. Moreover, the transition to sustainability we wish to encourage includes changes in “user practices and institutional (e.g., regulatory and cultural) structures, in addition to the technological dimension” and may lead to a “shift to more sustainable modes of production and consumption” of urban space. The transition to the just city is analogous to socio-technical systems transitions to sustainability, even if our emphasis is not on the technology, but on governance.

As explained elsewhere, the fair distribution of benefits and burdens of urban development through fair and inclusive planning underscores sustainability.

Sustainability Transitions and Spatial Justice

For Campbell, spatial planning and design must engage with “two converging, yet distinct social movements: sustainability and social justice” (Campbell, 2013, p.75). The integration of sustainability and justice is the bedrock for long term sustainability, especially when we consider that for sustainability to exist, its three essential components (environmental, social, and economic) must occur simultaneously (Larsen, 2012).

“Confronting Poverty and Climate Change in Addis Ababa”, EiABC. SCUPAD workshop. Photo: R. Rocco.

This gap must be urgently addressed, as inequality and unfairness in the distribution of burdens and benefits of development are widely recognised to undermine sustainability. The literature on socio-technical transitions is clear about the need to look at the socio-spatial relations where transitions take place. Most surprisingly, however, socio technical transitions to sustainability mostly fail to incorporate concepts of justice, democracy and redistribution, bedrocks of social sustainability, and focus solely on the environmental aspects of sustainability (Campbell, 2013).

The scale and the scope of the transition strategies needed to achieve sustainability demands immediate action from the local and national governments, businesses and civic society to design, implement and manage transitions that are not only environmentally oriented, but also socially inclusive. Spatial planning as a discipline and practice has largely ignored the discussion on socio-technical transitions, and there is scope for better integration between the two fields (Coenen, Benneworth, & Truffer, 2012).

A fundamental aspect of sustainability transitions are the social structures that support them and the ethical and moral imperative to make these transitions inclusive and fair. Social sustainability is the bedrock on which environmental sustainability can be grounded and is founded on well-functioning political, institutional and legal systems that deliver fair outcomes regarding environmental, economic and social burdens and benefits.

These burdens and benefits are often spatially bounded or embedded in spatial structures and infrastructures.

Previous research on transition studies have focused on four frameworks: (i) transition management, (ii) strategic niche management, (iii) multi-level perspective on socio technical transitions and (iv) technological innovation systems (Markard et al., 2012). Transition studies have spawned several disciplines, such as economic geography, management studies, sociology, modelling and political sciences. Spatial planning is notably absent from the discussion, except perhaps in the discussion of governance of sustainability transitions, despite the obvious embeddedness of sociotechnical systems in space. With our contribution, we want to expand the role of spatial planning in sustainability transition policymaking and discussion, by producing tools and concepts that can be used by spatial planners and designers when discussing and designing policy and spatial interventions that impact transition. We intend to do that by advancing spatial justice as a normative framework that simultaneously informs and guides sustainability transition spatial strategies. Our methodology involves the combination of policy analysis and spatial analysis to produce benchmarks for spatial justice in cities and communities.

Whereas spatial justice as a concept has been widely explored, we believe that the connection between (i) spatial justice as a condition for social sustainability and (ii) spatial strategies for sustainability transition is lacking.

The fairness and justice of sustainability transition policy relies on a better understanding of the connections between policy and indicators of spatial justice.