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date: 21 April 2018

Socio-Technical Transitions to Sustainability

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Addressing persistent environmental problems like climate change or biodiversity loss requires shifts to new kinds of energy, mobility, housing, and agro-food systems. These shifts are called socio-technical transitions because they involve not just changes in technology, but also in consumer practices, policies, cultural meanings, infrastructures, and business models. Socio-technical transitions to sustainability are challenging for mainstream social sciences because they are multi-actor, long-term, goal-oriented, disruptive, contested, and nonlinear processes. Sustainability transitions are being investigated by a new research community, which uses a socio-technical Multi-Level Perspective (MLP) as one of its orienting frameworks. Focusing on multidimensional struggles between ‘green’ innovations and entrenched systems, the MLP suggests that transitions involve alignments of processes within and between three analytical levels: niche-innovations, socio-technical regimes, and an exogenous socio-technical landscape. To understand more specific change mechanisms, the MLP mobilizes ideas from evolutionary economics, sociology of innovation, and institutional theory. Different phases, actors, and struggles are distinguished to understand the complexities of sustainability transitions, while still providing analytical traction and policy advice. The MLP draws attention to socio-technical systems as a new unit of analysis, which is more comprehensive than a micro-focus on individuals and more concrete than a macro-focus on a green economy. It also forms a new analytical framework that spans several stale dichotomies in environmental social science debates related to agency or structure, and behavioral or technical change. The MLP accommodates stability and change, and offers an integrative view on transitions, ranging from local projects to niche-innovations to sector-level regimes and broader societal contexts. This new interdisciplinary research is attracting increasing attention from the European Environment Agency, International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).