The Second Big Transition or the Struggle for Inclusive Capitalism

A blog by Johan Schot, following the fifth International Sustainability Transitions conference, Utrecht, August 29 2014

It was a great pleasure to present a keynote address at the fifth International Conference on Sustainability Transitions, for two reasons. First, some 15 years ago when John Grin, Jan Rotmans, myself, and many others were putting together the Dutch transition network and were developing a new research agenda, we discussed the need for the emergence of a new interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary field. It is a huge satisfaction to see that this happen, and the International Sustainability Transitions Network is flourishing. Second, as incoming Director of SPRU, one of the institutions that made important contributions to the field, I have a keen interest in bringing the research agenda to a new level.

SPRU is developing a new research programme provisionally entitled: Transformative Change and Innovation (and we are hiring three new professors to work on this). The ambition is that this programme will, on the one hand, deliver new fundamental knowledge on the nature and governance of long term transformative change, and on the other hand, practical ideas, perspectives and solutions for intervening in this long term change process. Transitions research always has been dedicated to do both and I believe rightly so since there is nothing as practical as deep and fundamental theoretical insights.

In my keynote address, I explored a number of important themes for the new agenda. The overarching message is that although transition studies as a field is built upon the notion that transitions are long term processes (with the basic understanding that they take at least fifty years, and encompass entire societies and economies), many studies focus on the short term and individual subsystems, such as mobility, energy, food provision systems. This is also true for the transition theory I am involved in developing: Multi-level Perspective (MLP).

There are sound theoretical and practical reasons for a focus on individual subsystems, yet it is also true that a sustainability transition ultimately does not need a change in one system, but a much broader change in many systems. I propose we refer to this change of multiple systems as a Big Transition.  A main question then becomes how can we characterize and conceptualize a Big Transition? Here we can learn from work of Freeman and Perez. Their work moves beyond the level of individual innovations or systems and takes a genuine long term historical perspective. Based on their work, I would like to propose the following hypotheses:

  • Changes in individual food, mobility, energy, water, healthcare and other regimes are not random They interconnect or cluster. This means that changes in one socio-technical regime tends to induce or require changes in other sociotechnical regimes.
  • This inducement is never automatic; it depends on the emergence of a carrier (or nexus). The carrier is a meta-regime or meta-rule set (Perez calls this the techno-economic paradigm) which is shared among several regimes and provide common orientation and direction. Examples of overlapping and partly conflicting meta-rule sets from the past are mechanization, flexible specialization, centralization, cooperation, mass production, mass consumption, public utility, specialisation, vertical integration, decentralization and standardization.
  • These meta-regimes or rule sets have the capacity to co-produce what is called in MLP new sociotechnical landscape trends such as individualisation, globalisation and urbanisation which then become gradients for action in many regimes.
  • The first Big Transition from Commercial to Industrial Capitalism went through four phases:
    – Inventing Mass-production and consumption, from 1750-1914
    – Contesting Mass-production and consumption, from 1914-1945
    – Heyday of Mass-production and consumption from 1945-1970
    – Flexible Specialisation from 1970 until today.

In this last phase we also enter the period in which the Second Big Transition begins, which entails a struggle between various forms of capitalism, from more brutal to more inclusive ones. If we were to drift towards the latter option, the Second Big Transition will be built around new rule sets and practices that are fundamentally different from the ones of the First Big Transition. This next transition is likely to be shaped by concepts and characteristics such as diversity, durability, recycling, circular economies, participation, and sharing.

Innovation is not only a crucial site for enabling the Second Big Transition, I expect that the innovation process itself will be transformed. In particular, the idea that innovation should be stimulated and its undesirable impacts on people, nature, and society should be regulated through the state will be questioned and rightly so.

We need new institutions that are able to give this Big Transition direction. The next question is how and which institutions do we need? This, and the entire theme of transformative change, will be an important agenda for SPRU over the next few years and will be the focus of the next conference of the International Sustainability Transitions Conference to be organized by SPRU next year. Come and join us!

This blogpost was originally posted on the SPRU – Science Policy Research Unit website on 29 August 2014

Twitter hash tag: #IST2014

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