Rambling out loud: we need a sustainability transition

For most of my colleagues in market systems development, the dominant questions are about how to create more new jobs for young people, lift more poor people out of poverty or empower more women to start a business or improve their economic stance. These are all important and noble goals. Yet, I think we are loosing the focus on the bigger question: how do we transform our global society so we can live on this planed in a sustainable way – i.e. without overexploiting the resources and over-polluting the environment. In an earlier blog post that I wrote for the BEAM Exchange (which has now also been published on USAID’s MarketLinks), I accused the field of too strong a focus on fixing problems in the current systems instead of reimagining how we could transition these systems to a better way of organising our economies and societies. Personally, I am keen to shift the focus of my work more towards the question of how economic development actors can contribute to large-scale transitions towards a more sustainable, regenerative economy.

Can we not do both, you might ask? Can we not tweak the current system so they work better for the poor while we figure out how to bring about these larger transitions? We might, but there is certainly one big problem with that strategy. If we start optimising how the current system works for a specific group of people, we might make a system that produces wrong outcomes work better. An example: I recently heard an argument that we need to allow (or even help) poor countries to exploit the environment and build up dirty industries if this is the quickest way to improve their standard of living. If we tell them that they cannot do this for the sake of the global biosphere, this is nothing but eco-colonialism. Now I don’t buy this argument. Of course I am aware of the danger of eco-/neo-colonialism and the need for the industrialised world to take the lead in cleaning up our act. Nevertheless I think we should transform the way economies work so developing countries can directly start exploring new avenues for creating wellbeing rather than to repeat all our mistakes – and get us globally even deeper into dependencies that are a result of the current way how our economies work, such as a dependency on fossil fuel as main energy source (instead of the sun) or on plastic as one of the main materials for consumer goods (instead of materials that are biodegradable and/or fully re-usable in product cycles).

Over the last weeks I have intensified my studies of the literature on sustainability transitions and in particular on the so-called multi-level perspective on socio-technical transitions. Frank Geels, a thought leader in the field, writes:

Persistent global environmental problems such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and resource depletion are formidable societal challenges that relate to unsustainable consumption and production patterns in electricity, heat, buildings, mobility, and agro-food systems. Addressing these problems requires reductions in environmental burdens by a factor of 4 or 5 (e.g., 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050). Such reductions cannot be achieved by incremental improvement but require shifts to new kinds of systems: these shifts are called “sustainability transitions”.

Geels, F.W. 2018. Socio-Technical Transitions to Sustainability. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. https://oxfordre.com/environmentalscience/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199389414.001.0001/acrefore-9780199389414-e-587 [Accessed 2019-09-13]

The thinking around sustainability transitions ties in quite nicely with earlier work that I have done with Shawn Cunningham on rethinking systemic change in market systems development, where we built our arguments on evolutionary economics, new institutional economics and complexity theory.

My personal quest has now become to contribute with my work to bringing along these sustainability transitions as I believe that, if done from the beginning in an inclusive way, the individual problems that we are trying to fix now (poverty, exclusion of women, youth unemployment) will be fixed as well, while at the same time we live in a way that does not threaten our very existence.

The frustrating thing is that not many donors are seeing this the same way. Indeed, the goals of all the projects I’m involved in have something to do with the number of jobs or the increase in income. I know there are many donors that support for example green economies or ‘smart agriculture’. But looking at those projects, they are often trying to impose new technologies championed by projects from developed countries without understanding how technological change happens (if you are interested, have a look at this study we did for DFID DRC – I can send you the full report if you get in touch).

So what I’m looking for are organisations who actively try to figure out how they can contribute to sustainability transitions and who are interested in teaming up, hiring me, do some research together or figuring out other ways to work together on it. As I have written earlier, I’m also interested to try out new ways of working together than to be an expert consultant. Also if you are interested in the topic and just want to discuss – reach out, it is always good to exchange and compare thoughts.

4 thoughts on “Rambling out loud: we need a sustainability transition

  1. John Chettleborough

    Marcus, Important blog (your most important?)

    The scientific consensus seems to be that to have a meaningful chance of keeping within a 1.5C average temperature rise (not a great scenario but the impacts are significantly worse at 2C) we need to get to zero carbon emissions by 2030 –requiring massive action in the next few years.

    That requires a revolutionary change in how we run economies, in how and what we produce and how and what we consume. So a big question is – how can market systems thinking – which has usually supported incremental change – shift so it supports more revolutionary change driving new systems rather than tweaking old ones (and shift pretty quickly). There are probably two challenges there – how to do it and how to get support to do it. One of the reasons market systems development might be popular now is because it works within existing economic models – and as you imply – often serves to legitimise them. Explicitly recognising that fundamentally different models are necessary is a harder sell.
    Very interested in these questions and of course the answers!

    1. Marcus Post author

      Thanks John. I’m not sure I have the answers here but I’m working on using more of a transition logic in my work. And I’m also trying to link into a community that is doing that already – if there is one behind academia.

  2. Noor Alam Khan

    I think the development process in developing countries more political and less technical. Platform approaches with high convening power driven by local stakeholders work effectively in making such shifts happen. But such platforms work best when it is backed by complexity science and systems thinking. I am working in Pakistan for a similar purpose that you are after. Our focus is food system transformation with a multistakeholer platform approach.

    1. Marcus Post author

      Thanks for your comment. It is encouraging to know that there are people like you working on these types of transitions. This is truly meaningful work it seems to me.


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