Transition Management as a Tool for Sustainable Development

September 25, 2018 by Rok Kranjc

The challenges of achieving sustainable development call for more collaborative forms of problem framing, futures envisioning, policy formulation and governance. Originating in the Netherlands, the Transition Management (TM) approach offers a set of tools for governing sustainability transitions and developing the relevant capacities of actors and multi-stakeholder groups. In this post, I introduce the core features of the TM approach, zoom in on the importance of visioning in transition processes, and relate it to the issue of fiscal policy reform for supporting sustainability oriented innovation.

Achieving sustainable development entails the two-fold challenge of rethinking conventional linear economic models and developing institutional capacities for collaborative modes of governance. These wicked challenges require new bases for delivering policy and structural reform that can be the spur to and vehicle for sustainability and social innovation. Transition management, originating in the study of shifts in socio-technical systems, offers a time-tested framework for such a reflexive governance approach. The notion of transitions here refers to multiphase processes of social and institutional change, reflecting particular diagnoses of problems attributed to the path dependency of dominant and unsustainable practices and structures, whose resolution necessitates structural and long-term outlooks. Core emphases in TM are on:

  • Complex systems spanning multiple domains and levels
  • Learning by doing, doing by learning and experimentation
  • Strategic foresight, scenarios and long-term thinking
  • Widening participation through a multi-actor approach


The TM framework utilizes a particular theory of change – the multi-level perspective (MLP) – which renders transition processes better cognizant and thus informs purposeful and strategic action pathways. Following this perspective, TM conceptualizes socio-technical transitions as co-evolutionary processes where landscape (macro-setting), regimes (meso-dominant practices) and niches (micro-spaces for innovation and experimentation) interact:

Source: Sustainability Transitions Research

TM practitioners argue that methods for envisioning alternative futures and pathways are crucial for informed decision making and governance. In particular, participatory foresight approaches that include multiple stakeholders and viewpoints and start with the question of desirable futures help actors in emergent TM arenas to go beyond consensual and limited notions of present and future – in the professional futures field called flatlands of the future. While horizon scanning, visioning, backcasting, forecasting and scenario planning still represent the foresight tools par excellence, practices are emerging that use more experimental approaches, including experiential scenarios, foresight gaming and network-based foresight. Notably, within TM attempts are also under way to combine such techniques with the multi-level perspective.

An example of a transition scenario planning output. Source: Paths towards a sustainable EU economy

The role of foresight in facilitating transitions to sustainability in the broader sense is to develop stakeholders’ futures literacy, i.e. the capacity to discover, deconstruct, develop and otherwise effectively “use” the future. Foresight tools help build shared understanding and commitment around complex issues and coordinate actions in the short and medium term, with reference to longer term images of desirable futures that emerge and develop based on knowledge gained from ongoing transition experiments. Thus, foresight tools – however important in their own right – should be seen and used as one in a suite of steps in the Transition Management Cycle:

Source: Transition Management for Sustainable Development

Since its introduction, practices around the TM concept have evolved considerably, building up a robust empirical basis and a grounded portfolio of TM instruments. These have been applied in a wide variety of issue contexts, from energy, mobility, housing and agriculture to the nexus-issues of circular economy and sustainable finance. The uptake and success of TM as a governance framework ultimately depends on place-based contexts, including (but not limited to) present institutional architectures, norms and cultures, politics and power relations, incumbent capacities, and the presence of visionary frontrunners and knowledge brokers. Such experiments importantly highlight the often neglected contested and normative nature of sustainability transitions.

For example, fiscal frameworks and instruments supportive of sustainability (e.g. green taxes) are now widely recognized as important drivers of societal transitions to a green economy. They enable the development of innovative business models aligned with circular, collaborative, low-carbon and other relatively new economic logics that have favourable impacts on wellbeing, employment and climate change mitigation. However, the transition manager’s toolbox is in a very real sense most effective in terms of positive social, economic and environmental outcomes only when actors are willing and able to reflect on problematic assumptions underscoring many of the current unsustainable economic patterns, rather than unquestionably reproduce them. A prime example of the latter case is the persistence of economic growth (measured in Gross Domestic Product or GDP) as the de facto policy objective in decision-making arenas, even as it is becoming more and more evident that GDP growth taken at face value is a poor indicator of progress due to its externalization of social and environmental costs.

Thus, if TM is to effectuate meaningful social change and policy towards sustainability, it must find ways to confront such assumptions (here the role of foresight methods seems crucial), develop and institutionalize new notions and indices of progress (e.g. Gross National Happiness, Human Development Index, well-being) and transform potential knowledge gaps and discomforts in these areas into productive and collaborative engagements. In establishing and developing transition arenas, dedicated teams face the challenging tasks of aligning key enabling factors for change, by leveraging both the existing body of critical knowledge regarding sustainability transitions and their governance and the seeds of change already present in the local or regional milieus.

Add Your Comment

Comments powered by Disqus