What is a transition challenge and what roles have engineers had in the development of technological systems?

By Magnus Maduro Nørbo, Sustainable Design at Aalborg University Copenhagen

This and the next three columns are made as academic blogs as a part of the master study in Sustainable Design at Aalborg University Copenhagen. These blogs will take a point of reference in sustainable development to discuss and account for how the socio-technical system of energy/electricity have the possibility to be transformed to a more sustainable system. This first blog will consider what a transition challenge is and what roles engineers have had in the development of technological systems with the theoretical view of Frank W. Geels (2005) Multilevel perspective that builds on the text Technologies in Tension (2001) by Gijs P. A. Mom and David A. Kirsch.


We — in the 21th century — are living in a time of transition, as many societies have experienced before us throughout history. Not that long ago it seemed to be a point for discussion whether a maximum of 2°C rise in global warming was the appropriate goal for our global society to set. Yet during the COP21 in Paris, December 2015, about two hundred of the world’s leading nations committed to reducing the emissions of greenhouse gasses so that the global warming will be kept well below 2°C above preindustrial levels, as stated in the quote below from the Paris Agreement:

“ … Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change …“ — UNFCCC, 2015, p. 21

But what happened during the last couple of years that lead to this sudden transition? One thing that for sure lead to a change in attitude where that the scientific results of climate change became much more clear and alarming. Many scientists had for as recently as a few years ago the perception that the world would only see a very little contribution to sea level rise this century from the melting of glaciers, and polar ice sheets.

But in the spring of 2012 studies like “Collapse of polar ice sheets during the stage 11 interglacial” by Maureen E. Raymo & Jerry X. Mitrovica, “Marine Ice Sheet Collapse Potentially Under Way for the Thwaites Glacier” by Ian Joughin, Benjamin E. Smith, Brooke Medley and “Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith, and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica, from 1992 to 2011,” by Rignot, E., J. Mouginot, M. Morlighem, H. Seroussi, and B. Scheuchl, revealed that the polar ice sheet are disintegrating so fast that we are close to, and maybe past, the point at which an irreversible collapse of the polar ices can’t be stopped.

Then in 2015, 70 of the world’s leading climate experts issued a report stating that the latest science made it clear that the current climate targets were not sufficient if we want a stable global landscape. The researchers simplified their main conclusions into a handful of key messages stating that the UNFCCC nations should have the target “keeping warming well below 2°C.” and that it actually would be most beneficial to aim for 1.5°C warming instead of 2°C.

So the UNFCCC nations — quite understandable — adopted the “well below 2 ° C” language and prefered 1.5 ° C as a target — especially considering that adaptation in the agricultural sector is existentially important as the population rise will add more mouths to feed every year, and that will be hard in a world with an increasingly inhospitable climate.

So we have recognized the challenge that we need to transit the current regime of our everyday life if we don’t want the global landscape to change rapidly. But we are already at a level of about 1°C warming and rapidly approaching 1.5 ° C. It is clearly seen from the Global Temperature Change graphics by climatological Ed Hawkins:

Graphic — Monthly global temperatures from 1850–2016. Credit: @Ed_Hawkins

But how should we react to the overwhelming fact that we need to act now if the “well below 2 ° C” is to be met? Should we act with radical deployment of existing solutions or should we fight climate change with innovation in research and development (R&D) projects? R&D advocates like Bill Gates argues that we could rely on the development of new technologies to reduce CO2 emissions by 2050. But are Bill Gates’s plan with 20 years of R&D and 20 years of deployment really realistic?

If we take point of departure in the technologic development of wind turbines in the Danish Energy Agency’s publication “Wind turbines in Denmark” from 2009 then we see clear indications that the cycle of technology development and deployment simply is far too long for a technology that doesn’t exists today to make any kind of vital contribution to cutting CO2 emissions by 2050. This might be a strong generalisation but the danish wind turbines was — as the Danish Energy Agency states in the publication “Wind turbines in Denmark” — first introduced to the market in 1973 Denmark as a result of the first oil crisis.

That is a whopping 43 year long deployment phase and then you should add the previously and ongoing R&D phase! And you can find similar and more extreme examples if you look into the history of Nuclear Power, Solar Cells and even the electrical car that you can read of in Technologies in tension: Horses, electric trucks, and the motorization of american cities, 1900–1925. (2001) by Gijs P. A. Mom and David A. Kirsch.

So the chance of a miracle technology that will be implemented overnight and suddenly change everything is virtually non existing — but why is that? Why can’t we develop and implement miracle solutions overnight?

If we want to try to understand that transition challenge we could use a theoretical frame typical used by Sustainable Design Engineers by looking at the energy/electrical system through the lense of the Multi-Level Perspective that F.W. Geel’s presents in the text The Dynamics of Socio-technical Systems: A Multi-level Analysis of the Transition Pathway from Horse-Drawn Carriages to Automobiles (1860–1930).

Presenting the Multi-level Perspective on transition challenges

The Multi-Level Perspective divides society into three different levels: socio technical landscapes, and socio technical regimes, and niche-innovations. F.W. Geel (2005) visualizes this in his text with the illustration that you find here below.

Model — A dynamic multi-level perspective on transitions. Source: Geels 2005 p. 452

The bottom level in the Multi-level Perspective illustration is the Niche-innovation level — it is the bed for radical innovations. At this level, new small niches and radical innovations develops and exist at small scales.

At the mid level of the illustration you find the socio-technical Regime. The regime can be viewed as the main level that is supported by social practices and technology systems that carries our societal functions such as the transport systems or the energy systems. The regime is considered a selection environment. It could isolate information about new technology or make legislation that ensure that new initiatives will find it difficult to be put into operation, in spite of these new initiatives could be more sustainable and ecologically beneficial compared to the current system (Geels, 2005). F.W. Geels (2005) frames it as:

“regimes account for the stability of existing socio-technical systems.” Geels (2005), p. 450

It is thus possible — through legislation and disposal of information — to isolate people that relates to the system from new technologies that could destabilise the regime.But this sort of path dependency in the way of the current system can be mutual. The networks of actors established within the system can through mutual addiction can get to work against the emergence of new systems (Geels, 2005). This may be given if the network of actors will have to change their workflow fundamentally by introducing a new system (Geels, 2005). It will therefore not be possible for smaller parts of the network actors to redirect their operation, as they are dependent on the rest of the network.

At the top of the illustration we have the landscape level. It is sort of the macro-level view on society and transitions. F.W. Geels (2005) frames the landscape as:

“… aspects of the wider exogenous environment that affect socio-technical development. The metaphor ‘landscape’ is used because of the literal connotation of ‘hardness’ and to include the material aspect of society, e.g. the material and spatial arrangements of cities, highways and electricity infrastructures …” F.W. Geels (2005) p. 451

This level is out of the influence of Individual actors and can therefore not be changed by these actors. The landscape level also relates to how the existing system has been constructed, in the way that it forms ‘gradients’ of actions from which it is hard to deviate.

Stageing the transition challenge of the energy/electricity system

A more or less fundamental replacement of an existing functional system can be understood as innovation in the system through either:

  • The introduction of new socio-technical Niche,
  • New parts of the socio-technical Regimes or
  • New influences in the socio-technical Landscape

An example could be if a Sustainable Design engineer wanted to change the entire national power grid to only be powered by renewable energy from wind turbines. Wind energy from the turbines would be more sustainable than electricity from an incineration plant powered by coal — so it is a good and easy to understand one step replacement right? Nope — its complex.

First, there is the entire socio-technical system that underlies the electricity generation and distribution of earnings of electricity from coal powered plants. This would put some players completely out of action or force them to adapt to the new system, whether it is a incremental change or a fundamental changes in their workflow.

Secondly, there is the path dependence is the socio-technical system’s technical and material structure in the regime. These structures can make it harder to implement or innovate with additions of new parts for the system (Geels, 2007). The conversion to sustainable wind energy will — as a supplier of electricity — be a matter of how the grid can pull, store and transform of the energy extracted from the wind turbines to a steady flow of electrical outlets.

Third, there is no real opportunity — in the current power grid — to store the energy from wind turbines. That means that a system entirely build on wind turbines would not be able generate the ‘usual’ amount of electricity on days with light winds. An additionally challenge is that many windmills would be placed at sea or in other rural destinations — to get out of sight and in places where there are more windy. This calls for an expansion of the original grid if a wind powered extraction of electricity should be made possible.

Thus these are some of the areas that an Sustainable Design engineer could influence. As seen in Geels (2007) engineers influenced the Transition of mobility both by technical developments, introduction of new law and regulations on mobility and health, but they also influenced the socio-technical landscape by changing the narrative of free mobility as a human right and everyday life luxury.

The transition challenge of the energy/electricity system in relation to the 2050 goals

If we should put the Multi-level Perspective, and the Transition Challenge of the energy/electricity system into the relation of the “well below 2°C” goal of UNFCCC — then we need to get the power-sector emissions to zero before 2050. We need to accept the idea that if the world is to avoid a climate catastrophe, then we must get on the 1,5°C pathway now. The challenge is that the new common goal of “well below 2°C” have destabilised the regime but there haven’t been given any direct demand on what the form new stable regime should be. Some suggests that level the economic playing field between clean and dirty energy while others states that the playing field must be rendered free of fossil and dirty energy now if we want to reach the 1,5°C.

I myself think that government policies must enable an orderly but rapid shutdown of coal plants and other fossil driven plants, while they simultaneously replacing them with a combination of renewables, and energy efficiency. We can’t just have any common CO2 price implemented for this to happen — we need one that starts out at a moderate to high level and rises quite rapidly.

You could question if it was Sustainable Design engineers that could and should influence all these levels of the system here and in Geels (2007) — it depends on where you see the boundaries for been an engineer stops. Engineers could have taken part in all of the system challenges or only in some — but that is an entire other discussion. I will in the Next blog further discuss on how the energy/electricity playing field can be rendered free of fossil and dirty energy through a Strategic Transition of our society’s Energy systems — this could be by implementing Wind Turbines.


Blewitt, J. (2012). Understanding Sustainable Development. Routledge. Chapter 1

Geels, F. W. (2005). The dynamics of transitions in socio-technical systems: a multi-level analysis of the transition pathway from horsedrawn carriages to automobiles (1860–1930). Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, p. 445–476.

Joughin, I., Smith, B. E., & Medley, B. (2014). Marine ice sheet collapse potentially under way for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica. Science, p. 735–738.

Mom, G., & Kirsch, D. A. (2001). Technologies in tension: Horses, electric trucks, and the motorization of american cities, 1900–1925. Technology and Culture, p. 489–518.

Raymo, M. E., & Mitrovica, J. X. (2012). Collapse of polar ice sheets during the stage 11 interglacial. Nature, p. 453–456.

Rignot, E., J. Mouginot, M. Morlighem, H. Seroussi, and B. Scheuchl (2014), Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith, and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica, from 1992 to 2011, p. 3502–3509

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