The current consumption and production systems that cater to our societal needs are unsustainable. As researchers from different fields have long explored ways to make these systems more sustainable, there is now an emerging collaboration between socio-technical and socio-environmental research communities. A recent special feature published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) presents new findings on transitions in electricity, food, and mobility systems. This compilation of articles offers valuable insights on the dynamics of sustainability transitions, shifting the focus from goals to the actual processes that drive change.
The special feature consists of 15 articles that aim to provide new insights to a wider audience in sustainability science, as well as policymakers and practitioners. The research delves into the transitions occurring in electricity, mobility, and food systems, while also addressing cross-cutting issues such as system destabilization, the role of shocks, and the governance of transitions. According to William Clark, a professor at Harvard University, the central challenge of our time is to ensure sustainable development that enhances well-being without compromising the well-being of others. It requires significant, long-term changes in the actors, institutions, technologies, and resources that make up our consumption and production systems.
The articles in the special feature emphasize the significance of multi-level interactions in sustainability transitions, the importance of innovation as a solution, and a more nuanced analysis of the processes of change. Frank Geels, a professor of sustainability transitions at The University of Manchester, notes that transitions in electricity, mobility, and food systems are progressing at different speeds and levels of depth. The electricity system has made the most progress, while the (auto)mobility system is only just beginning its transitions, and food systems are still in their early phases.
The papers demonstrate that sustainability transition processes are multi-dimensional and cannot be solely attributed to technological or economic factors. It is crucial to view these transitions as complex, systemic, incomplete, and contested processes, influenced by social, political, economic, and cultural developments. One key finding from the special feature is that transitions often involve reconfiguring existing systems rather than simply substituting them. Additionally, the depth of change is directly proportional to its difficulty and speed. The governance of transitions is highly political and often subject to politicization, leading to winners and losers in the process.
Amidst various complexities, the special feature also highlights how transition processes can be accelerated and directed toward more sustainable directions. It calls for a collaborative effort between researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to navigate these transitions effectively. By understanding the multi-faceted nature of sustainability transitions and the roles played by innovation and governance, we can strive for a future that balances well-being with ecological and societal well-being.
The pursuit of sustainability requires a shift towards more sustainable consumption and production systems. The special feature in PNAS provides valuable insights into the dynamics of sustainability transitions in electricity, food, and mobility systems. By understanding the multi-level interactions, the role of innovation, and the complexities of change, we can work together to accelerate and steer these transitions towards a more sustainable future. It is crucial to recognize the social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions of transitions and navigate the challenges they present. Through collaboration between researchers, policymakers, and practitioners, we can create a world where development is sustainable and benefits both present and future generations.