At Strategymakers I am exploring the theme of ‘transitions’. After graduating on this theme last year I’m currently seeking more depth, both in my work and with extra training. I would like to take you through three insights: solutions are part of the problem, don’t forget your ‘heart’ and ‘hands’ and dismantling is just as important as building.
Transitions, you read about it everywhere. I myself graduated on it last year, but I haven’t finished learning about it. That is why I’ve followed a ‘transition maker’ training to help organizations contribute to the various transitions to a sustainable society. I’d like to share my insights with you. I will do this based on three insights I have gained.
But first of all: what is a sustainability transition?
A sustainability transition is a radical social change towards a sustainable and just society, in response to a number of persistent problems in contemporary modern societies. (Grin, Rotmans & Schot, 2010, p. 1)
I find the word ‘transition’ is used too often. Something similar happened during my graduation last year with the word ‘ecosystem’. That’s a shame because by using the word without really knowing what you’re talking about, you lose value in the conversation. So, let’s take a look at the definition:
A transition is a sudden, fundamental change in culture, structure and working methods at the level of a social (sub)system in the long term (20-50 years). (Rotmans, 2012)
This means a transformative change for organizations and individuals because everything we take for granted comes up for discussion. “Such a transformative change is much more drastic, more difficult and more threatening than a ‘normal’ change. A transformative change is a deep change and is about thinking, acting and organizing differently. That requires the almost impossible of us, namely to let go of the old and familiar on the one hand, and to embrace the new and unknown on the other.” (Rotmans, 2021, p.9)
So the TRANSITION is the overall change as a society, where we ourselves undergo a TRANSFORMATIVE CHANGE, also called a transformation. I know, they are very similar, but a small difference in language can have a big effect. In other words; the transition is WHAT needs to change, the transformation is HOW you do it as an organization.
Strategiemakers is also working on such a transformative change. This is how we adjust our direction & activities. We want to contribute in a constructive way to accelerating the sustainability transitions that are underway. We are also aware when we use the word ‘transition’ and when ‘transformative change’ or ‘transformation’.
After this long introduction to the semantics of transitions, I would like to share 3 insights.
Insight 1: Solutions are part of the problem.
Sometimes we believe we are working on a solution, but in doing so we maintain the current paradigm.
Often, when you hear a problem, you quickly think of the one solution you can come up with. This is how we are conditioned, and we are rewarded for giving a quick fix. I was trained as an Industrial Designer where we are taught from day 1 that we need to solve problems.
However, these problems can be symptoms, an indication that the current system is not fully functioning as it should. If you solve these superficial problems, you thus maintain the current system. We do not solve the social, underlying ‘wicked’ problems in the system, but we optimize the current system. Superficial solutions are therefore part of today’s complex problems.
Are you optimizing the current system, or are you changing it?
An example is this drawing Marco te Brommelestoet shared:
We may solve the symptom (polluting transport), but not the underlying problem (wanting to have more and being stuck in traffic every day).
This is in line with what Jan Rotmans says: “We have not been able to solve the traffic jam problem for 50 years. We are avoiding drastic solutions such as a kilometer charge and are focusing too much on car mobility. Even if we switch to electric transport, we will still be stuck in traffic – albeit cleaner -“ (2021, p.27). Incidentally, this is independent of the fact that some people like to stand in traffic every day to have a moment for themselves, to read more on our mobility problems check this illustrative book by Thalia Verkade and Marco te Brommelenstoet.
Another example is adding lanes to our highways: Every time we as society think adding ‘an extra lane’ will solve the traffic jam problem. An extra lane temporarily solves the ‘congested road’ symptom, but at the same time stimulates more car use, causing traffic jams again. The more space there is on the road, the more cars will be on these roads, making congestion a never ending problem.
Insight 2: People don’t change by knowledge alone, the ‘heart’ and ‘hands’ are just as important as the ‘head’.
At Strategymakers we have been using different methods to involve head, heart and hands in strategic changes. While working on sustainability transitions, it is just as important to pay attention to these three elements as it is to conveying the right knowledge.
During a presentation on our team day, a former client from the Municipality of Amsterdam talked about the application of the Amsterdam City Donut in their strategy. She mentioned that culture change and shared ownership are essential for sustainability and for this you have to be both the ‘heads’ and the ‘hearts’ in alignment.
This reasoning is in line with the issues that the sustainability transition requires of us. Like Kees Klomp says “Climate change requires a certain – prudent, committed – attitude. For an active contribution. For participation. Climate change requires for intrinsic motivation.”
From the heart (the intention) you start with why people want this change. After this, you are able to move the attention to the head (reasoning). Finally, with the hands (creation) you give the change flesh on the bones. One of these elements cannot exist without the other. By working with this intrinsic motivation, you build a solid foundation that you can support and implement.
Insight 3: Dismantling a system is just as important as building a new one
Innovation in recent years has focused on exploring new technologies, solutions, and systems. The S-curve accurately reflects the maturity of technology over time. However, for everything that advances and dominates, something else needs to be reduced as well.
This process of ‘creative destruction’ or ‘exnovation’ is often overlooked (Adams, 2021). The phasing out becomes important in sustainability transitions in particular. After all, how are we going to phase out coal-fired power stations? How do we become less dependent on Russian gas? Which components of the current status quo will soon be phased out and phased out? This phase-out requires new knowledge and a better understanding, negotiation and reflection on the role of demolition and phasing out.
The ‘phasing out’ in a transition requires a different role when you’re supporting the transition. There must be ‘constructive demolition’ and support for the people who find it difficult to ‘unlearn’ certain habits.
In the phasing out of a system or technology, empathy is needed. After all, if you are used to flying to Barcelona for a weekend, it can be inconvenient not to. Or if you used to pick up a croissant at the gas station every morning and enjoyed the chat with the cashier, with your electric car you now drive straight to work to charge your car there. Whatever it is, the world is going to look different and that means we have to say goodbye to habits and some of the benefits we used of the ‘old paradigm’.
In discussions about sustainability, there is often insufficient attention to this. That makes sense because at the beginning of a transition it requires experimenting and a positive attitude. But now that we have reached the tipping point of the energy transition, it requires us to shift our attention to how to phase out the current system.
This phasing out requires new knowledge and understanding from Strategiemakers. Similar to our current change as a company; how are we going to phase out our existing propositions? How do we ensure that we not only add new ideas but are also selective on the existing ideas and perhaps also ‘unlearn’ old habits? How do we ensure that we can offer companies an alternative during the phase-out, while also paying attention to the pain this entails?
As Strategymakers, we take these three insights into account in our transformation, and in how we help organizations to contribute to the acceleration of sustainability transitions. We make strategies with organizations so a sustainable society will flourish. And to fully experience this, it is also necessary to understand the transitions to a sustainable society.
These insights and some of the examples were created thanks to the Transition maker training , Drift, Omarm de Chaos and the clients of the Municipality of Amsterdam. The cover photo was taken by Emjeii Beattie