How can research contribute to mainstreaming sustainability transitions?

From October 5 to 8, the 12th “International Sustainability Transitions“ (IST) conference 2021 was hosted by Fraunhofer ISI for the Sustainability Transitions Research Network (STRN). Over the course of three days, the sustainabillty transitions research community discussed topics such as sustainability transitions in organizations, industries, individuals and the role of policy, but also about theoretical and methodological contributions to sustainability transitions research.

Where do we stand globally but also regionally in terms of sustainability transitions? Are we currently moving in the right direction, and are we moving fast enough? What is needed – changing practices, policies, new technologies and structure – to boost transitions? And what kind of research can help to support these changes? These and many other questions were discussed in 139 sessions by 501 participants during this year's “International Sustainability Transitions“ conference 2021 hosted by Fraunhofer ISI under the motto “Mainstreaming sustainability transitions: From research towards impact“.

Which are the challenges that sustainability transitions research has to face?

In the Newcomer Session before the conference began, Prof. Johan Schot, Professor of Global History and Sustainability Transitions at the Utrecht University Centre for Global Challenges, first spoke about the challenges that sustainability transitions research has to face in the future. He pointed out that the research currently is shaped by a global north perspective and focuses a lot on technological innovations, while social innovations are neglected. Topics such as de-growth and less consumption should play a more important role in research, that also focuses to often to certain sectors such as mobility or energy while others such as education or finance are analysed less frequently.

The 139 sessions, which were based on over 400 submitted scientific papers, then already took up many of the future sustainability transitions research fields mentioned by Schot: for example, one session revolved around social innovations and climate change policy, amongst others with the example of New Zealand, while another one focused on the methodological and conceptual developments that deal with the question of how policy mixes for entire sectors come about and influence transitions. The topic of post-growth transitions and the role of innovation was part of another dialogue session that tried to define a research agenda to explore the potential of post-growth and de-growth insights for researching sustainability transitions.

A Global South perspective on sustainability transitions research

A different perspective on sustainability transitions research was taken by Prof. Mónica Ramos Mejía, Assistant Professor at the Management School of Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, in Bogotá, Colombia, when she spoke about transitions research in the Global South: Ramos Mejia stressed the importance of recognizing institutional complexity and that transition research should be an opportunity to challenge colonialism and epistemological superiority. She also reminded that socio-technical innovations are not only about a more of resource-efficiency, but also about reconfiguring power balances and opportunities to alter institutional configurations.

But where do we exactly stand globally in terms of sustainability transitions and are we currently moving in the right direction, and especially, fast enough? These were the major questions that Prof. Dirk Messner, President of the German Environment Agency, dealt with in his keynote speech. Messner stated that on the one hand, important areas are moving in the right direction towards more sustainability and noted a mind shift in the global economy which is promising. But on the other hand, emissions are still on the rise globally, have doubled since 1990 and most states do not have strategies for negative emissions. To bring emissions rapidly down, deep transformations are needed in all sectors and this very quickly. But behavioural changes towards, for example, less consumption are also crucial – in this area sustainability transitions research can support change due to international and interdisciplinary research that analyses societal and interrelated change.

Deep sustainable transformations to secure livelihoods of future generations

On the last conference day, Prof. Jakob Edler, Executive Director of Fraunhofer ISI, reflects on IST 2021: “We were glad to host the transitions research community virtually at Fraunhofer ISI this year, bringing together 500 registered participants from all over the world. I would especially like to thank all participants and the organising team at Fraunhofer ISI and the STRN Board for its fantastic support. We had many exciting discussions on how research can accelerate transformations towards sustainability. It has become clear that we urgently need deep sustainable transformations in order to secure the livelihoods of future generations. As transition researchers, we have an important role to play. Not only by analysing the global sustainability and climate challenges and the dynamics and challenges of on-going transitions. But also by getting involved much more, by communicating our analysis and advice to decision makers more pro-actively, and by developing positive narratives as to what a transformative future will look like for all of us. In this conference I also learned that we must avoid an ideological tension between targeting individual behaviour and supporting transformative local solutions versus addressing system level change through high level political initiatives and challenging powerful incumbents. Clearly, both is necessary, and that is why a broader engagement is needed. The last four days have demonstrated that the transitions research community will continue to bring in many important contributions to support sustainable change in the future, and we are already looking forward to discuss them again at the IST 2022“.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.

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