8.11.2018 Germany

The Four Approaches to Sustainability Transitions

The need to transition to a more sustainable economy, may or may not be an absolute emergency, but it is definitely a need that should be addressed.

– by Luchian Gabriel Manescu

A quick overlook

More and more scientific papers and research stations across the world seem to suggest that the average temperature of the average temperature of the planet is slowly growing. Although in the United States it would seem like the jury is still out on global warming, there is no denying, even under the most optimistic, conservative view, that almost the entire global economy and way of life are relying on a limited and constantly decreasing energy source. Therefore, the need to transition to a more sustainable economy, may or may not be an absolute emergency, but it is definitely a need that should be addressed.

Yet humanity has been through several major socio-technical transitions, such as the emergence of the internal combustion engine, each one of those transitions was an uphill battle that was delayed because it was not planned. It is for that reason – above scientific explanations – that the study of sustainability transitions is being developed as a critical aspect of research. By understanding the way humanity goes through changes, it can be better understood how the process can be streamed lined.

In order to further understand this need, this article is part of a three-part series that is going to look on how Norway and Romania are handling the move towards electric vehicles, as a way to exemplify the importance of such transitions by using two examples that face different realities. The countries’ realities will be later explored, while first the focus is on the process in general.

Niches and Socio-Technical Regimes

There are two important concepts that play a key role in sustainability transitions.

The socio-technical regime is what could be called ‘the status quo of a specific society’, using a specific technology at a given point in time. The fact that societies use diesel and petrol vehicles to move around on huge paths made of some form of asphalt that is peppered throughout with gas stations built there to keep us moving, is just such an example.

In this context it is perhaps easier to see how the development of an intelligent, self-driving car requires a specialized, protected area, where it can grow and develop into a reliable piece of tech. For example, a self-driving car requires the roads to be of a specific quality, the lines marking the lanes to be fresh, and so on. These would be just a few of the reasons why one would need a safe space where this tech would be encouraged, and that safe space is referred to as a niche. In the current example, Silicon Valley would be the niche where the electric vehicle was developed and where the emergence of the self-driving car can be seen.

The way socio-technical regimes change in order to allow niches to develop can be viewed through 4 different perspectives, as follow.

The Multi-Level Perspective

This approach sees the socio-technical regime as a monolithic state of a society that is difficult to change. The way it does change is through specific landscape factors that force the regime to open up windows of opportunity for the techs being developed within the niches. Following up with the previous example, even in Silicon Valley the norm used to be internal combustion vehicles. The landscape factors specific to that area were a set of values that promoted green, reusable, sustainable energies. Those values opened up the local car market to accept the sale of electric vehicles. Hence as a natural extension, those same values are allowing for the change in traffic laws in California so that self-driving cars are allowed to drive on the streets.

Active Interventions

One of the most interesting ways of improving on the multi-level perspective is to consider what makes up that monolithic state of society. The Active Interventions approach sees societal systems made up of sectors that influence and interact with each other. In that context, managing those sectors takes a reflexive governance system. In Silicon Valley there are the eco-minded software developers constituting a sector, AI focused developers, and also the business-oriented entrepreneurs that are always looking for that next booming business idea. Understanding the common path these sectors are all converging to and easing their flow in that direction is the job of the governance system.

Transition Management

The next level of active interventions is the area where the role of governance is not only to reflect the need of the sectors it is a part of, but to actively develop new coalitions and create agendas.

Technological Innovation Systems

Technological Innovation Systems (TIS) tend to dispense with the larger group of societal sectors and focus their attention on the early stages of innovation. Proponents of this system look towards encouraging the more radical and sustainable technologies and constantly asking what the barriers to innovations are. From the point of view of a radical innovation, the marketplace cannot be a failure because the innovation, by definition, is the better alternative. What it needs to dispense with is institutional failures, infrastructure failures and poorly working networks.


Getting to know how to better manage socio-technical transitions is certainly a worthwhile goal. The next article will be an example of how using a traditional marketplace approach is a sure-fire way of having one’s efforts squandered.