Promising new directions: reflections on IST

New perspectives, newcomers and fresh connections were all welcomed additions to this year’s International Sustainability Transitions conference.

Promising new directions: reflections on IST
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Published on  
March 27, 2023

The Deep Transitions team has taken some time to reflect on the three-day event, looking at navigating a volatile world (and what this means for investing), how transitions can be financed and how the field of transitions has evolved. For the first in-person gathering in three years, the theme was: “Responsibility and Reflexivity in Transitions”. This theme encourages reflections on our own positioning within the world, how we see ourselves as actors for change, what the role of academia is, and what kinds of questions we're asking and how.

Navigating volatility

During day two, Johan Schot chaired a panel on: “Understanding security and geopolitics in the context of sustainability transitions”, including presentations by Paula Kivimaa and Marie Claire Brisbois, and followed by comments by Phil Johnstone, Itay Fischhendler and Inese Zepa. This session highlighted a theme emerging from the conference:

There is an evident need to engage with our changing landscape. The decades to come promise to be increasingly volatile: characterised by political instability, economic volatility, environmental disaster and geopolitical tensions. The field of transitions has focused on exploring mechanisms and patterns of change in stable, liberal democratic contexts.

However, part of reflexivity is to recognise the need to broaden our perspective, to engage with the conditions that define much of the world: complexity, uncertainty and unpredictability. By embracing real-world experimentation (and the unstable, complex conditions as part of that), we can enrich and deepen theories. This allows an exploration of the limitations of theories as practical guides, the ability to see how they operate and, hopefully, the opportunity to improve them.

Business-as-usual for investors is the 'losing bet'

“This is a theme we keep raising with investors: business-as-usual is not only incapable of delivering the change we need, it’s actually the 'losing bet'. For lack of a better analogy, winter is coming, and investors need to navigate the future with an awareness not only of how transitions may play out, but how they might play out under difficult, volatile conditions.”

– Jack Davies, Researcher

Financing change

Another theme which surfaced during the conference was the role of finance in transitions studies and practice. What was once a highly-neglected topic within the field is starting to gather attention – with papers being presented exploring how transitions can be financed within various contexts. These include the South African energy grid or in community-scale renewable projects.

One of the core questions which arose was whether transition-orientated finance should be seen as a capability, a process, or a niche. At Deep Transitions we're pursuing the latter – aiming to develop a community of practice centered around a new approach to investment: Transformative Investment. Despite different views on how to best leverage finance for transitions, the need for a fundamentally different approach to finance was clear.

Diversifying and strengthening

Refreshing connections to transitions theory

“I was really encouraged to see many newcomers in the conference – more than 200 people who identified as new to the transitions research community. It was very refreshing to hear many different topics being connected to transitions theory such as emotions, coloniality, justice and feminism. Mainstream transitions theories are also critically interrogated with newer perspectives such as niche disintegration, phasing out regimes. I hope that we will continue to diversify our community in coming years that will stretch and further strengthen sustainability transitions as a discipline.”

– Bipashyee Ghosh, Researcher Fellow

A rich blossoming of new directions in the field

“I was in a room 25 years ago discussing the creation of a new field on sustainability transitions. The conference made me realise how much the field has developed beyond the imagination of us who were involved in this process from the start. The conference showed a rich blossoming of promising new directions. The field is moving closer to big topics such as security and geopolitics. It has moved from just a focus on a green agenda, to including a deep social and just transition agenda with an exploration of the Global South perspective. It has embraced the arts as an avenue for exploring transitions, and has changed from a focus on specific systems to an analysis of the economic and social order. For that we need to bring the role of financial capital into view and connect transitions to the bigger topics of the future of capitalism, development, economic growth and modernisation.”

- Johan Schot, founder of Deep Transitions

Here are the highlights of topics considered by the DT team during IST 2023: 

“Integrated framework of intervention points and transformative outcomes for steering single- and multi-system transitions” – Laur Kanger, Bipashyee Ghosh and Caetano C.R. Penna.

“Multiple Shocks and Trends in Prospective Transitions: a New Methodology for Enhancing Scenarios” – Jack Davies, Phil Johnstone, Wendy Schultz, Karin Geuijen, Laur Kanger and Janset Nil Genç.

“Broadening transitions studies: applying the Deep Transitions frameworks to the domain of forced migration” – Karin Geuijen and Johan Schot.

“Just Transitions and Emancipatory Violence” – Jack Davies.

“Digitalisation as the mass optimisation of industrial modernity? Exploring sustainable digital directionalities for a second deep transition”– Phil Johnstone and Johan Schot.

Click here for more information on IST and further conferences.

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