Summary of the Seminar Series
In the last decade a new research community has begun to emerge around the notion of broad societal transitions to sustainable patterns of production and consumption. In the Netherlands especially, a new steering tool called Transition Management has been developed which aims to facilitate practitioners through a process of initiating and steering sustainability transitions. This can be seen as part of a broader development in the research and policy community that is exploring the contours of a new science of sustainability and innovation programmes that are oriented towards societal challenges.

The seminar series is being coordinated by Dr Gavin Brown (Department of Geography, University of Leicester) and also involves Dr Jenny Pickerill (Department of Geography, University of Leicester), Dr Adrian Smith (SPRU, University of Sussex), Dr Alex Haxeltine (Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia), Dr Amanda Smith (School of Arts & Humanities, Nottingham Trent University), Dr Gill Seyfang (CSERGE, University of East Anglia), Dr Kelvin Mason (Graduate School of the Environment, Centre for Alternative Technology), Dr Peter North (Department of Geography, University of Liverpool), and Prof. Simon Marvin (SURF, University of Salford).

In this seminar series we will aim to explore transitions from explicitly social, political and economic perspectives. We will:

  • explore and critique theories of transition from the specific perspective of the social; aiming to build links/bridges to relevant social theory and social science disciplines;
  • explore the interrelationships between theory and practice and how they inform and shape one another.

Until now this research has relied heavily on abstracting from the analysis of historical technological transitions to produce a framework for analyzing transitions. So far this work severely under-emphasizes and under-conceptualizes the social dimensions of transitions, and the agency of social movements; it also emphasizes technological innovations over social innovation, and does not adequately address the role of power and vested interests in creating outcomes. One aspect to the seminar series will be to reflect on these histories and to see what issues they raise that are enduring, and which have proven more transient. How, for instance, do issues of autonomy and co-operative ownership, salient in the cultural milieu of Alternative/Appropriate Technology (originating in the 1970s), stand in relation to issues of resilience and similar community-driven grassroots initiatives now (for example, eco-villages, low-impact developments and co-housing ). And how have novel socio-technical practices from an earlier period of activism become appropriated into more corporate transition pathways today? Cases and reviews of these and other issues will be invited from some of the participants.

Meanwhile, recent empirical developments show that the term transition is now being appropriated in many different contexts by civil society, business and governments to refer to, and frame, the perception that we are living through a time of great change. The UK government, for example, launched its Low Carbon Transition Plan in July 2009; while charities and NGOs are working to promote ‘virtuous circles’ that ensure these transitions do not cut across poverty reduction strategies or exacerbate social exclusion. The Transition movement (especially Transition Towns and related initiatives), for example, provides an interesting empirical example of a nascent social movement organized around the notion of a sustainability transition. We are interested in the question of whether phenomena such as this represent examples of a new type of civil society movement, with a focus on bringing together diverse parts of a community to act and produce change and innovation at the whole systems level.