Reflections on the IST2015 conference at SPRU

Steps towards an engaged and reflexive community: looking back at PhD-led activities at the International Sustainability Transitions conference

By Jonas TorrensGijs Diercks

During the last week SPRU hosted the 6th International Sustainability Transitions conference with a program packed with high quality presentations. For the first time it also included a suite of student led activities that we will present here.

Following last year’s successful conference in Utrecht, the organising committee recognised the need for catering more specifically for PhDs and early career researchers. This effort was co-developed by an emerging network of students and the organising committee, building on the momentum generated by other PhD-led events (e.g. SPRU DPhil Day and Stadtkolloquium). With that mandate, a group comprising 40 PhD students came together in the months prior to the conference.

On Tuesday, this group convened a Newcomer’s session comprised of a short introduction to the history of the field and a discussion about its future prospects. With a packed auditorium, Professor John Grin gave an overview of the origins of the field, briefly discussing the diversity of approaches used to studying transitions, namely socio-technical, complex systems, reflexive governance, social practices and the innovation systems approach. This was followed by a personal reflection by Adrian Smith, who argued that in the end, the IST-community consists of ‘a bunch of people asking very important but difficult questions, and trying to understand a possible plurality of answers.’ A range of speakers followed, with insights into ongoing debates in the field. In the discussion, questions were raised about the internationalisation of transitions research, the demand for practical examples of unfolding transitions, and the need to clarify the sustainability dimensions of the transitions we study. Other questions were compiled and will be circulated to the panelists to continue the discussion.

On Wednesday, the network convened a Skill Development Session – a panel discussion with professionals and academics that aimed at showcasing non-academic careers and exploring what is distinctive (skills, mindsets, attitudes) about careers in sustainability. The speakers engaged critically with the topic, demonstrating how conventional perspectives on careers – driven by narrow notions of success – are hard to conciliate with the normative and ethical commitments that drive the work in sustainability. In fact, most of their actual experiences escape the implicit template of what a good career is; they were marked by little planning, a lot of passion and serendipity. Sharing such experiences and questioning those very templates can help students thrive, alleviating some of the pressures they face.

Throughout the conference, PhD students facilitated a series of sessions for eliciting an input for the STRN research agenda. All conference attendees worked in groups chaired by a PhD student, with each group submitting a short description of a research topic. There were 22 high quality submissions, with six emerging themes that were presented at the closing plenary (or in #IST2015RA). These group sessions provided opportunities for breaking some of the patterns of interaction that dominate conferences, bringing together attendees that might not have met otherwise. In most cases, the groups were a welcoming space for newcomers and students. The research agenda input is now being synthesised by those involved in coordinating the activity.

In our opinion, the PhD-led activities made a valuable contribution to the conference by creating opportunities for reflecting on the history of the academic field (newcomers’ session), for actively shaping its future (research agenda) and for recognising potential pathways outside of academia (skills development session). We believe that efforts like ours are important for creating entry points for new researchers and practitioners to engage more meaningfully with the contents of the event, that can be overwhelming at first.

We sought to be inclusive in the organisation and in the session themselves, and we recognise there is much that could be improved in our efforts. The skills development session was still too focused on academic perspectives, and biased towards success stories. The research agenda sessions took away the afternoon breaks, and not all groups developed the dynamics we were aiming for. In fact, some of the groups were immobilised by the power dynamics of senior and newcomers working together. Nevertheless, some of the shortcomings of these sessions show how we have just started to put in practice what we preach with regards to experimenting and learning by doing so in protected spaces and bottom-up processes; these are is important not only in the empirics of what we study, but should also be at the core of what we do as a community. Reflexivity and inclusivity are not characteristics that we achieve, but rather something we should continually strive for.

Last but not least, organising these PhD-led sessions gave traction to the emergence of a PhD-network, an informal community catering to the specific needs of students and early career researchers. In the future, this PhD/ECR Transitions Network will contribute to this research community by facilitating an online forum for discussion, and by organising workshops, discussions and training sessions aimed at PhD’s and ECR’s in conferences and stand-alone events. This community is at an early stage of development, and all ideas and contributions are appreciated. If you are interested in joining this network, send an e-mail to

Twitter: @jonas_torrens; @gijsdiercks; #IST2015RA

Jonas Torrens

Jonas started as doctoral researcher at SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit) in September 2014, working primarily on system innovations and sustainability transitions. He started his career as an engineer and has since moved into interdisciplinary research, seeking to understand what hinders the transformations necessary for sustainability.
Prior to this, Jonas worked at the Stockholm Resilience Centre as research assistant, mainly supporting the Planetary Boundaries Research Initiative with research synthesis on global environmental change. Among other tasks, Jonas was project manager and instructional designer for a massive open online course (MOOC) entitled ‘Planetary Boundaries and Human Opportunities’ that was developed in conjunction with the Sustainable Development Solution Network (UNSDSN). His previous experience also includes R&D in diverse aspect of renewable energy and biofuels and project management of large research projects (3 M€ portfolio).
Jonas is very multicultural and speaks English, Portuguese, French and Spanish. He grew up in Brazil, and has since studied and worked in Sweden, France and Spain and now the United Kingdom.


Gijs Diercks is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Environmental Policy. His research is in innovation policy for sustainability transitions. Key areas of research are changes in concepts of innovation in response to environmental sustainability and climate change such as business model and systems innovation, socio-technical innovation, place based innovation and the network model of innovation.
His research is funded by the Making Transitions Happen platform of Climate-Kic, who’s goal is to integrate innovation, education and entrepreneurship activities for socio-technical transitions. It is a cross-disciplinary platform acting as enabler and accelerator of the transition to a low carbon economy. With a focus on policy interventions and challenge led, practice based models of innovation it engages citizens, communities and companies.




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