Introduction: Sustainable transitions

As the environmental consequences of increasing economic activities have become increasingly alarming, the need for a sustainable transition has also grown and become a more prominent theme in the public debate. Therefore, it is no longer uncommon to hear politicians and opinion formers talk about transforming our energy system, agriculture and transport into more sustainable alternatives such as wind and solar energy, organic farming, cycling and electric cars. In order to better understand and discuss such transition processes, it is useful to present some theoretical concepts that can clarify the problems. In this theme, therefore, we present some fundamental concepts and illustrative examples for understanding the sustainable transition of societal systems that can be applied to many different cases.

The term sustainable transition can cover several different areas, and one can talk about the sustainable transition of the whole of society’s economic metabolism or just the transition of certain societal systems. The term societal systems refers to systems such as the energy system, agriculture, transport and water supply. Such systems are also called socio-technical systems or provision systems, but in this theme we use the term societal systems. An important common feature of such systems is that they all have one or more overall aims. In the case of the energy system, for example, the aim is to produce and distribute energy to various areas such as house heating, industrial production, and the operation of vital infrastructure. A societal system is also characterised by being composed of many diverse interacting components and possessing a high degree of complexity. A societal system is, thus, a system that encompasses technologies, infrastructure, regulation, markets, end-user practices, and which is influenced by political, organisational and economic interests.

However, when discussing the sustainable transition of such systems, there is often a tendency to focus narrowly on the technological or market-related aspects of the system, which can lead to simplistic understanding and an unrealistic assessment of the opportunities for transition. Therefore, in this theme, we attempt to make the understanding of a sustainable transition a little more nuanced. This is based on the fact that a large number of production units and companies have limited opportunities to act independently because they operate within a framework of overriding societal systems. The transition perspective, thus, focuses on how individual companies and production units are often intertwined with social systems, which are typically difficult for the individual company or production unit to change. The transition perspective, thus, highlights that, in many cases, sustainability can not solely be achieved through the introduction of new technology at an individual plant or production unit. On the contrary, sustainability often requires that new technology is combined with ‘systemic’ (holistic) changes to regulation, infrastructure, markets and end-user practices that are connected with the overriding social systems.

Next: Theories of sustainable transition