Reflections from the Tuesday morning session “Advancing the theory on transformations to sustainability”

This session focused on theoretical questions of transformations to sustainability. Arguably, there is a key need to think through theories for explaining and progressing transformations, and particularly linking these ideas to empirical studies. The three presentations took different, but complementary, perspectives that together aimed to stimulate theoretical advancements on transformations.

The first speaker was Jessica Blythe (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and University of Waterloo) who had one of the best presentation titles at the conference: “The dark side of transformation.” Blythe began with an unexpected interpretation of “twerking” – which (somewhat strangely) first referred to the movement of a pen. Some other linguistic historical tips were that “nice” originally meant foolish, and “tweet” was the sound a bird makes (I knew that one!). But all this points to the fluidity (and malleability) of language, for both altruistic or manipulative ends.

Drawing on Foucault’s ideas about the power-laden effects of language regardless of intent, Blythe reflected on the increasingly diverse ways that the term “transformation” is being used, including increasing adoption of the term by entrenched interests to reinforce business-as-usual. Resilience scholars need to be mindful and savvy about these (mis)uses, and defend the integrity of the term, which requires being aware of its “dark side”.

The second speaker was Kieran Sullivan (University of Melbourne) who explored the intersection between resilience thinking, transitions thinking, and business strategy in the search for alignment between them. Through reviewing these bodies of literature there were several overlaps identified, which could provide entry points for business strategy to apply insights from resilience and transitions thinking, and vice versa.

Arguably, the role of business is one of the most important, yet under-explored topics in resilience literature to date. The entry points mentioned included: system disruption and dynamics of system change (e.g. comparing overlaps in a way in which change processes are conceptualised), temporal scale, and metrics for success (e.g. there is interestingly quite a substantial overlap between metrics across the three perspectives). The overall implication is that there is a substantial opportunity for synergies between these three fields.

The third speaker was myself, James Patterson (Vrije University Amsterdam), where I explored a particular theoretical approach to analysing institutional change within the broader frame of transformations to sustainability. Often scientific studies identify a need for institutional change to create governance systems that are more aligned with resilience thinking. Yet understanding institutional change remains a frontier topic in both environmental governance, and broader political science and sociology. “Institutional work” focuses on actions taken by actors to (re)interpret, apply, and contest institutions in ongoing practice. Institutions are not fixed or unambiguous but are constantly subject to competing interpretations, and as a result, may be much more dynamic than they appear from a distance. This opens up novel ways of understanding how governance systems may become better capable of governing for resilience.

The discussion raised some interesting points about the way we interpret the term “transformations,” and in particular, whether existing research carries a bias towards “intentional” transformations. Arguably, many of the most profound changes that are occurring in the world today are not intentional, and may work very much against sustainability. For example, major global urbanisation transformations, political and geopolitical shifts, are occurring whether we like it or not. Therefore, what does it mean to talk about “transformations to sustainability,” and how do we theorise this process in a way that goes beyond intentional processes? Perhaps a way to think about this is that scholars and policymakers need to focus on jumping on this “wave” and trying to shape it in more desirable (rather than harmful) directions?

Your Resilience2017 correspondent:
James Patterson is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), Vrije
University Amsterdam, working in the area of environmental governance. His current research focuses on climate change adaptation in cities, with a particular focus on institutional innovation and change. He also has a keen interest in sustainability transformations, collective action, and science-policy interactions.


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