Special Issue "Leading Sustainability Transitions"

A special issue of Sustainability (ISSN 2071-1050). This special issue belongs to the section "Economic, Business and Management Aspects of Sustainability".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (15 October 2018).

Special Issue Editors

Prof. Dr. Derk Loorbach
E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
The Dutch Research Institute For Transitions (DRIFT), Erasmus University Rotterdam, Postbus 1738, 3000 DR Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Interests: sustainability transitions; transition governance and management; social innovation; transdisciplinary research; sustainability leadership
Mr. Sem Oxenaar, MSc
E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
The Dutch Research Institute for Transitions, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Burgemeester Oudlaan 50, 3062 Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Interests: sustainability transitions; sustainability leadership; green economy

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

There seems to be an increasing support for advancing and facilitating sustainability transitions to address the 'grand societal challenges' of our time. Societal transitions, as a scientific concept, are understood as a specific pattern of non-linear disruptive change in which a societal 'regime' shifts from one dynamiq equilibrium to another. Such transitions result from persistent sustainability challenges in existing dynamically stable configurationsregimes with an established set of cultures, structures, and practicesthat are increasingly locked-in and become vulnerable to disrupions. As incumbent actors and established power structures, routines and discourses by definition complicate transformative changes, transitions are inherently conflictuous, poluitical and contested. They do, however, also present opportunities for shifting towards desired new, in our case sustainable, futures. In the process of transition however, incumbent actors will resist or seek to dominate transitions, longer-term dfirections might be agreed upon but conflicts can arise over values, specific solutions or transition pathways, and new lock-ins might be developed. Sustainability transitions therwefore take place within a context where instititutionalized leadership will not likely guide the transition and the process itself is inherently uncertain, chaotic and distributed so that traditional forms of planning, governance and leadership do not suffice.

Within the field of sustainability transitions research, much attention is already given to issues of power, politics and governance in transitions. These contributions focus on how agency does (not) help toguide and accelerate transformative changes and thereby helps to direct emerging transitions. 'Leadership' within this context of sustainability transitions can thus be seen as the capacity to provide counterweight to the mainstream or to redirect the mainstream. By definition, this is also political process with a collective aspect, meaning that it plays out on a higher level than within a single organization or business and involves a wide-array of actors. It is about leading a fundamental change vis-á-vis the dominant pattern of development in society. Prominent examples of such leaders that spring to mind are: companies such as Tesla in energy and mobility and Unilever in food and agriculture; China's top-down push for a greener economy or Germany's Energiewende when looking at policy; but also bottom-up initiatives initiated by citizens such as the movement for direct democracy in Barcelona or the transition town movement. All of these have been capable of presenting a new vision on the future of society to a broad audience.

However, there are still many open issues in transitions studies regarding leadership. Because nobody is explicitly in charge of transitions, and its final direction is uncertain beforehand, nobody knows exactly where we are heading or how we will get there. This lack of control complicates leading transitions and raises questions regarding what form leadership in transitions takes. Likely, it will be more about facilitating broad processes of experimentation and learning than traditional management and control strategies. Likely it is more about collective capacities than about personal characteristics. Liekely it is rather about the ability to break away from dominant discourses, development trajectories and routines than towards something new. Likely, it is about facilitating others and enabling transformation rather than achieving direct successes. Likely, it is also about not only the roles of front-runneers, change-agents and niches, but also about proactive incumbents, policy entrepreneurs and transformative business.

In this Special Issue we would like to explore exactly these kinds of questions and open issues. We want to address what forms of leadership emerge from the niche, what forms of leadership emerge from the regime, and how do they meet to work towards new future regimes. We want to explore what the roles of different actors are in influencing the speed and direction of transitions and what this implies for formal and informal leadership. Finally we also want to explore transformative leadership issues on a personal level and capacities that are related to these. In this special issue we welcome theoretical, empirical, and applied papers exploring the issues above and topics such as:

  • New conceptualisations of leadership for sustainability transitions
  • Reflections upon the role of power, institutions and formal leadership as opposed to transformative leadership
  • Leadership in policy and governance in sustainability transitions
  • Transforming business, the role of business in transitions and organizational transitions within business
  • The role of science and researchers in directing and accelerating transitions, and the transition of universities and the knowledge infrastructure itself
  • The role of learning in leadership, transformative learning and social learning.
  • Examples of transformative leadership 

Prof. Dr. Derk Loorbach
Mr. Sem Oxenaar
Guest Editors

Manuscript Submission Information

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Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1800 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI's English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.

Keywords

  • Transformative and systemic change
  • Social learning and reflexivity
  • Agency and power
  • Sustainability and planetary boundaries
  • Transition Management

Published Papers (10 papers)

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Research

Open AccessArticle
Developing the Transformative Capacity of Social Innovation through Learning: A Conceptual Framework and Research Agenda for the Roles of Network Leadership
Sustainability 2019, 11(5), 1304; https://doi.org/10.3390/su11051304 - 01 Mar 2019
Cited by 2
Abstract
Learning processes play a crucial role in the development of the transformative capacity of social innovation actors. This article builds on the recently developed Transformative Social Innovation (TSI) theory to propose a conceptual framework and research agenda for understanding and investigating the roles [...] Read more.
Learning processes play a crucial role in the development of the transformative capacity of social innovation actors. This article builds on the recently developed Transformative Social Innovation (TSI) theory to propose a conceptual framework and research agenda for understanding and investigating the roles and limits of network leadership in supporting learning processes that serve to develop the transformative capacity of social innovation. This focus on network leadership is underdeveloped so far in TSI theory. Addressing this research gap also serves to increase the practical relevance of TSI theory to practitioners engaged in network leadership. After presenting a synopsis of TSI theory, we present an overview of the elements of the conceptual framework, which are successively specified throughout the article. First, transformative change is conceptualized, involving three institutional dimensions: depth, width and length. Based on this, a definition of transformative capacity is proposed that addresses change across these three dimensions. We then describe how various types of learning processes can contribute to the development of transformative capacity. Next, we outline the roles of network leadership in supporting these learning processes across various network levels. We conclude with a research agenda for empirically investigating these roles of network leaders as agents for advancing transformative changes for sustainability. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Leading Sustainability Transitions)
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Open AccessArticle
A Methodological Framework to Initiate and Design Transition Governance Processes
Sustainability 2019, 11(3), 844; https://doi.org/10.3390/su11030844 - 06 Feb 2019
Cited by 2
Abstract
Abstract: Sustainability transitions require societal change at multiple levels ranging from individual behavioral change to community projects, businesses that offer sustainable products as well as policy-makers that set suitable incentive structures. Concepts, methods and tools are currently lacking that help to [...] Read more.
Abstract: Sustainability transitions require societal change at multiple levels ranging from individual behavioral change to community projects, businesses that offer sustainable products as well as policy-makers that set suitable incentive structures. Concepts, methods and tools are currently lacking that help to initiate and design transition governance processes based upon an encompassing understanding of such diverse interactions of actors and intervention points. This article presents a methodological framework for the initiation and design of transition governance processes. Based upon a conceptualization of sustainability transitions as multilevel learning processes, the methodological framework includes participatory modeling, a systematic literature review and governance system analysis to identify social units (learning subjects and contexts), challenges (learning objects) and intervention points (learning factors) relevant for initiating case-specific transition governance processes. A case study on sustainable food systems in Ontario, Canada is provided to exemplify the application of the methodological framework. The results demonstrate the merit of combining stakeholder-based and expert-based methods, as several learning factors identified in the participatory process could not be found in the general literature, and vice versa. The methodological framework allowed for an integrated analysis of the diversity of existing initiatives in the case study region and specific intervention points to support place-based sustainability innovations. Initiators of transition governance processes can use the results by designing targeted interventions to facilitate and coordinate existing initiatives or by setting new impulses through purposeful action. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Leading Sustainability Transitions)
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Open AccessArticle
Political Leadership as Meta-Governance in Sustainability Transitions: A Case Study Analysis of Meta-Governance in the Case of the Dutch National Agreement on Climate
Sustainability 2019, 11(1), 110; https://doi.org/10.3390/su11010110 - 25 Dec 2018
Abstract
Sustainability transitions are of an inherently political nature. In particular, discussions on climate policy are dominated by national and international politics. Furthermore, sustainability transitions involve network governance in which both private, public, and societal actors are involved. These governance processes call for closely [...] Read more.
Sustainability transitions are of an inherently political nature. In particular, discussions on climate policy are dominated by national and international politics. Furthermore, sustainability transitions involve network governance in which both private, public, and societal actors are involved. These governance processes call for closely scrutinizing their performance in terms of democratic legitimacy. To study and assess the democratic quality of governance processes regarding climate policy, this article focuses on the role of political leadership, conceptualized as political meta-governance, in enhancing the democratic legitimacy in the field of sustainability transitions. In doing so, it examines the case of the Dutch National Agreement on Climate (“Nationaal Klimaatakkoord”). The findings of this study underline the theoretical assumption that governments seek to use network governance to address climate change and develop policies. Seeking to address the application of political meta-governance, this study finds that political leaders struggle to bring about a fully-fledged, deliberative, and integrative meta-governance approach. However, disparate meta-governance strategies are reported. Although democratic legitimacy concerning the Dutch Agreement on Climate in terms of accountability can be regarded as high, values concerning voice (inclusiveness) and due deliberation (transparency) score comparatively low. As such, this study further justifies the close attention governance scholars and practitioners pay to the democratic values at stake when governing through governance networks. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Leading Sustainability Transitions)
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Open AccessArticle
Company Risk Management in Light of the Sustainability Transition
Sustainability 2018, 10(11), 4137; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10114137 - 10 Nov 2018
Cited by 5
Abstract
Many of the most important business and economic risks are directly linked to environmental and social issues. This includes both threats and opportunities, not only in relation to reputation, which is often mentioned in this context, but, even more importantly, in relation to [...] Read more.
Many of the most important business and economic risks are directly linked to environmental and social issues. This includes both threats and opportunities, not only in relation to reputation, which is often mentioned in this context, but, even more importantly, in relation to innovation capability and legislative change on inevitably more and more sustainability-driven markets. It is, however, unclear through which mechanisms such sustainability risks currently affect companies and how they can be systematically identified and managed. Based on the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, this study investigates the dynamics and implications of society’s sustainability transition from a company risk management perspective. In addition, exploratory and descriptive studies were conducted at two large product innovation companies to identify current risk management practices and preconditions for sustainability integration. The results reveal that a society moving closer towards a collapse of environmental and social systems leads to increasing sustainability-related threats for unsustainable businesses and increasing opportunities for sustainable businesses. Also, risk management is found to be a promising way for maneuvering in a smart zone between being too passive and being too pro-active in relation to sustainable innovation. The study participants at the case companies were knowledgeable about risk management in general but were largely unfamiliar with risks associated with sustainability and no processes or support tools exist to work systematically with such risks. Key steps to accomplishing an integration of a strategic sustainability perspective into risk management are proposed as: (i) identifying the effects of sustainability issues on internal and external stakeholder value; (ii) actively including sustainability in objective setting and cascading objectives across the levels of the organizational hierarchy; and (iii) developing concrete support for identifying, assessing, and managing economic sustainability risks. Thereby, companies can enhance their competitiveness while providing leadership in the sustainability transition. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Leading Sustainability Transitions)
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Open AccessArticle
Leading from the Niche: Insights from a Strategic Dialogue of Renewable Energy Cooperatives in The Netherlands
Sustainability 2018, 10(11), 4106; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10114106 - 08 Nov 2018
Abstract
Renewable energy cooperatives envision and manifest an alternative way of organising within the energy system (and beyond). Yet, despite their growth, it is uncertain whether such initiatives are able to increase and deepen their impact, leading the transition to an environmentally sustainable and [...] Read more.
Renewable energy cooperatives envision and manifest an alternative way of organising within the energy system (and beyond). Yet, despite their growth, it is uncertain whether such initiatives are able to increase and deepen their impact, leading the transition to an environmentally sustainable and socially just energy system. This paper presents insights from a strategic dialogue co-organised with the Dutch national interest group of renewable energy cooperatives “ODE Decentraal”. We used transition management as action research methodology to organise the dialogue to understand and support the transformative potential of the cooperative energy movement. The dialogue helped to clarify the challenges and possibilities for scaling energy cooperatives beyond the niche, supporting at the same time the participants to reflect, strategize and develop a shared transition agenda. This contribution presents and analyses our intervention and its impact, also specifically evaluating the potential of transition management to facilitate social learning processes, reflexivity and the development of strategic actions. Our intervention confirmed the hypothesis that actors in the niche often focus too much on the competition with the regime for individual goals, thereby failing to collectively strategize and engage with incumbent regimes in a systematic way. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Leading Sustainability Transitions)
Open AccessArticle
A Sustainability Lighthouse—Supporting Transition Leadership and Conversations on Desirable Futures
Sustainability 2018, 10(11), 3842; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10113842 - 23 Oct 2018
Cited by 1
Abstract
Central in leadership for sustainability transitions is the capability to create transformative momentum in a sustainable (desirable) direction, calling for meaningful conversations on sustainable futures. The aim of this study is to develop a conceptual framework to inspire and support such conversations. A [...] Read more.
Central in leadership for sustainability transitions is the capability to create transformative momentum in a sustainable (desirable) direction, calling for meaningful conversations on sustainable futures. The aim of this study is to develop a conceptual framework to inspire and support such conversations. A qualitative literature review of sustainability conceptualizations was conducted, followed by a thematic analysis. The resulting framework consists of an overarching question and an accompanying set of categories for four sustainability dimensions: the social, the economic, the ecological, and ‘human needs and wellbeing’. Furthermore, the framework is visualized as a lighthouse for pedagogical reasons. We foresee that the lighthouse might be of value in processes guiding socio-technical transitions towards sustainability in three different ways: (1) by attempting to bridge the issue of ‘transition’ with that of ‘sustainability’; (2) as part of a backcasting process; and (3) modes of transdisciplinary research where relevant actors take part in the conversation. The study is related to over 20 years of experience from working with a backcasting approach engaging with sustainability transitions in a variety of processes. We invite further dialogue on how one may approach the concept of sustainability to inspire and support conversations on sustainable futures. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Leading Sustainability Transitions)
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Open AccessArticle
Fostering Sustainability Transitions by Designing for the Convergence of Policy Windows and Transition Arenas
Sustainability 2018, 10(9), 2975; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10092975 - 21 Aug 2018
Cited by 1
Abstract
Transition arenas that do not converge with policy windows to achieve structural or institutional change often fail to achieve their stated transformative goals. For their part, policy windows often lead to only incremental change. On their own, transition management and the multiple streams [...] Read more.
Transition arenas that do not converge with policy windows to achieve structural or institutional change often fail to achieve their stated transformative goals. For their part, policy windows often lead to only incremental change. On their own, transition management and the multiple streams approach seem inadequate to the challenges facing cities. However, in combination, they can be transformative, as exemplified by the Citizens Committee for the Future of Phoenix Transportation. In 2015, this committee in Phoenix, AZ passed a ~USD 31.5 billion 2050 transportation plan funded by a sales tax increase from 0.4 to 0.7%. This plan’s development realized a policy window in a transition arena through an instrumental boundary object workshop with innovative facilitation. This article sets out to explore, based on this in-depth, applied transition arena process, how to combine transition management and the multiple streams approach to increase the transformative potential of transition arenas. The multiple streams approach and transition management have rarely been used simultaneously or had their integration planned. However, this case from Phoenix, AZ illustrates the potential for boundary objects and facilitation processes in designing for the convergence of policy windows and transition arenas. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Leading Sustainability Transitions)
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Open AccessArticle
Carbon Lock-Out: Leading the Fossil Port of Rotterdam into Transition
Sustainability 2018, 10(7), 2558; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10072558 - 20 Jul 2018
Cited by 8
Abstract
The port of Rotterdam is a global leader in the fossil fuel economy, with a 50% market share for fossil fuel products in North-Western Europe. Although it is one of the most efficient and innovative ports globally, over the last decade it has [...] Read more.
The port of Rotterdam is a global leader in the fossil fuel economy, with a 50% market share for fossil fuel products in North-Western Europe. Although it is one of the most efficient and innovative ports globally, over the last decade it has seen a gradual increase of pressures on its activities and the need to develop alternative low-carbon strategies. This paper describes how a turbulent energy context, growing societal pressure and a change in the leadership of the Port Authority opened up space for a transition management process. The process impacted the business strategy and the discourse amongst its leaders and contributed to the set-up of a transition unit and a change in investments. It subsequently led to an externally oriented transition arena process with incumbent actors in the port area and actors from outside around the transition pathway to a circular and bio-based economy. By exploring how transition management could support the repositioning of incumbent actors in the energy transition, the research contributes to discussions in the transitions literature on regime destabilisation, the role of (incumbent) actors in transitions, and large-scale energy-intensive industries as the next frontier in the energy transition. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Leading Sustainability Transitions)
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Open AccessArticle
What It Takes to Lead Sustainability Transitions from the Bottom-Up: Strategic Interactions of Grassroots Ecopreneurs
Sustainability 2018, 10(7), 2294; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10072294 - 03 Jul 2018
Cited by 2
Abstract
This paper studies features of grassroots ecopreneurs’ leadership in their attempt to ignite transformations in production-consumption systems from the bottom up. It builds on a comprehensive approach of change agency based on institutional work, innovation, and learning intermediation literature. The paper describes grassroots [...] Read more.
This paper studies features of grassroots ecopreneurs’ leadership in their attempt to ignite transformations in production-consumption systems from the bottom up. It builds on a comprehensive approach of change agency based on institutional work, innovation, and learning intermediation literature. The paper describes grassroots ecopreneurs’ interaction strategies to resource business models for sustainability. Empirical data comes from an action research project that consisted of implementing a sustainability experiment in Sur de Bolívar (Colombia). The experiment shows grassroots ecopreneurs’ arrays of activities around making sense, shaping, securing support, nurturing, expanding, and scaling the value proposition, the business infrastructure, the customer interface and the financial model of their ventures. Our findings suggest that leading businesses transition into a more sustainable field requires grassroots ecopreneurs acting as change agents by performing a diverse array of boundary, practice, and knowledge circulation strategies, aiming at securing the societal and environmental impact of their ventures. Change agency manifests in the ways ecopreneurs maneuver to bring about transformations and strive to sustain it. The study contributes to a better understanding of processes of socio-technical change for sustainability in highly diverse institutional contexts, such as (but not exclusively) the developing world. An agency-based approach is proposed as an alternative to a managerial approach. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Leading Sustainability Transitions)
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Open AccessArticle
Transformative Leadership and Contextual Change
Sustainability 2018, 10(7), 2159; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10072159 - 25 Jun 2018
Cited by 2
Abstract
Transitions to deal with the grand challenges of contemporary societies require novel kinds of leadership, which can both stimulate novel organizational practices and changes in practices and structures in the organization’s context. This article seeks to understand how (changes in) the external structural [...] Read more.
Transitions to deal with the grand challenges of contemporary societies require novel kinds of leadership, which can both stimulate novel organizational practices and changes in practices and structures in the organization’s context. This article seeks to understand how (changes in) the external structural context may influence organizational-internal transformative leadership and vice versa, and what kind of work is implied in leadership to transform current business models. It uses notions from literature on relational leadership and transformative leadership as sensitizing concepts. It then explores the leadership work in two case studies, on fishing in Portugal and care farming in the Netherlands. We find a dialectic interplay of the interactions between leaders and others on the one hand, and contextual changes on the other. Using a system-building perspective from innovation system literature, that interaction is driven by the quest to establish legitimacy and market formation and acceptance, knowledge and other resources for innovations. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Leading Sustainability Transitions)
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