Thursday, 6 September 2018

Transitioning towards Sustainability: What are we waiting for?

The Transition Town movement is at the forefront of both new ideas and practical projects 
- at home and abroad:
Futures Forum: Retrofitting Suburbia > transforming urban life from within the urban boundary
Futures Forum: Climate change: the Transition Town movement is fundamentally about reducing our carbon footprint
Futures Forum: "Time for a change! What’s happening in local politics..." > reports from 24th May event in Honiton
Futures Forum: Networked cities as resilient platforms for post-capitalist transition > case studies Frome and Buckfastleigh
Futures Forum: Regenerating Exmouth seafront >>> appointing HemingwayDesign to 'provide a renewed momentum' > Transition Exmouth responds
Futures Forum: "Municipalities in Transition" >>> Exploring how municipalities & citizens can work better together >>> on air quality, health & social care and preserving bees...

Last month, the Transition Network highlighted a study of a small town in France experimenting with these ideas and projects: 

New thesis explores the Transition experiment in Ungersheim


A fascinating new piece of research on Transition has just been published, entitled Transitioning towards Sustainability: What are we waiting for?. It is the work of Keigo Arai, Kristopher Le Ray Armstrong and Fernanda Pia of the Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona in Sweden. 
The Masters thesis explores Transition in Ungersheim, a fascinating village in the Alsace in France which is home to a remarkable experiment in Transition.

New thesis explores the Transition experiment in Ungersheim - Transition Network

Here is the abstract and conclusion from the paper: 

Transitioning towards sustainability: What are we waiting for? 

Keigo Arai Kristopher Le Ray Armstrong 
Fernanda Pia Blekinge 
Institute of Technology Karlskrona, Sweden 2018 

Thesis submitted for completion of Master of Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability, 
Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona, Sweden. 


There is growing consensus that humanity is being confronted with a sustainability challenge of which the severity has never been known to modern man. This pressing situation is demanding solutions and alternatives to change the path of society. 

At the community level, grassroots movements have emerged around the world as a way of striving to develop local sustainability. This research studies the Transition Movement, a popular, global communitybased movement. The aim of this study is to evaluate if a Transition Initiative is effective in moving a local community towards sustainability. The definition of sustainability used in the research is taken from the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD) which comprises of eight sustainability principles (SPs); three ecological SPs and five social SPs. 

To this end, an analytical-evaluative case study of a single Transition Initiative was conducted in which semi-structured interviews, a survey and document analysis were all use as sources of information. 

The researchers chose a small-scale Transition Initiative, conducting the case study on the village of Ungersheim, France. The results revealed that the actions of Transition are contributing to progressing Ungersheim towards sustainability, both socially and ecologically. The research also revealed how the Transition is being done and what critical factors allowed for success. The study finally deduces a set of strategic guidelines that may be used for further longitudinal research cross-evaluating Ungersheim to other small-scale community transitions. 


This thesis began with an introduction to the sustainability challenge, a global complex challenge that is defined by the erratic and turbulent interaction between human society and the biosphere. Due to flaws in the basic design and mode of operation of society, the biosphere is being systematically degraded which is constraining people’s ability to lead prosperous lives and making human society more vulnerable to unforeseen shocks. Before unsustainable practices lead to catastrophe, humanity at large must learn to fundamentally alter its relationship to the planet we all inhabit. Nothing short of unprecedented change is urgently required. That said, given the sustainability challenge is complex in nature, the solutions are unclear, uncertainty is high, and there is no obvious path forward. It is crucial then to discover and assess the potential of sustainable modes of operation for human society. 

One such mode comes from the Transition Movement. Inspired by two elements of the sustainability challenge, climate change and peak oil, the Transition Movement emerged as a grassroots environmental and social movement focused on a positive, solutions-focused vision of a post-fossil fuel world. Since the first Transition Initiative in 2006, the movement has spread around the world and gained attention within academic spheres as a potential community-level solution to the sustainability challenge. As suggested by Escobar (2016), the Transition Movement is one of the most concrete proposals for a transition to a sustainable society that truly embodies a radical transformation. However, little evaluative work has actually been conducted to assess Transition Initiatives regarding the effectiveness of their impacts in transitioning towards sustainability. 

This study identified the research gap that further evaluative research is required to measure and assess the sustainability impacts of Transition Initiatives. Forrest and Wiek (2014) ask the simple question regarding community Transition Initiatives, “Are they actually increasing the sustainability of the community, and if so, to what is change attributable?” (Forrest and Wiek, 2014, 69). This question offers the starting point of this research. Hence, the purpose of this paper was to conduct an analytical-evaluative case study of a single Transition Initiative to measure and evaluate success. The case study that was selected is Ungersheim, a village in the Alsace region of France. 

The research demonstrated that the Transition in Ungersheim is supporting progress towards sustainability, as defined by the FSSD. By conducting actions and activities that are focused on participation and collaboration, most of the social sustainability principles are improved within Ungersheim. In other words, the community increases health, influence, competence, and impartiality for those residents involved in the Transition. The findings of the study are insubstantial to assess alignments to the social sustainability principle of meaning making. Ecological sustainability is also improved through concrete Transition actions, primarily focused on agriculture, energy production, and ecosystem restoration and conservation. It must also be noted that there are limitations to sustainability in Ungersheim, however those limitations are not directly attributed to the Transition. 

This research does not capture the entire sustainability picture within the village of Ungersheim. As mentioned within the Research Methods chapter, the researchers understand that there are violations and structural obstacles to aligning with the definition of sustainability provided by the FSSD that are not within the scope of this research which focused on the Transition in Ungersheim. Within the Transition Movement, including the efforts in Ungersheim, community participation has been identified as an overarching determinant to success. 

Within the Transition in Ungersheim, there are critical factors that have improved participation, increased awareness, and led to greater exposure outside of the village. Those critical factors are: using the Transition concept as a vision, creating a story of the 21 actions for the 21st century, using publicity as a communication tool, participatory democracy as a decision-making tool, top-down and bottomup collaboration, demonstrating successful actions, and gaining access to resources for actions. 

From these critical factors, three suggested strategic guidelines emerged: telling a story through the Transition, multi-scalar collaboration, and being the example. It is recommended that the strategic guidelines are used for longitudinal research across case studies rather than taken as generalized guidelines that apply to all contexts. Knowledge synthesis from many evaluative case studies may allow for meta-studies which can identify patterns and generalizations across transition initiatives, beginning to build theory and evidence-informed guidance for community transition practitioners and policy makers. 

Overall, the Transition in Ungersheim is a dynamic effort between the municipality and a core group of citizens. While participation remains a limiting factor within the village, there are nonetheless plenty of visible and concrete actions that bring sustainability improvements. Therefore, Ungersheim is a case study of a Transition Initiative that is taking steps towards sustainability as defined by the FSSD. 

Transitioning towards sustainability:What are we waiting for? 

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