Designing a transition strategy for the energy system using inspiration from Transition Management

By Magnus Maduro Nørbo, Sustainable Design at Aalborg University Copenhagen

This — the sequel to What is a transition challenge and what roles have engineers had in the development of technological systems?— and the next two columns are written as academic blogs as a part of the master study in Sustainable Design. 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 into a more sustainable system. This second column will consider how a technology like Wind Turbines can take part in the Strategic Transition of a Regime in an established System. The theoretical framework will build upon the articles on Transition Management: Transition Management for Sustainable Development: A prescriptive, Complexity-Based Governance Framework by Loorbach D. (2010), and CAUTION! Transitions ahead: politics,practice and sustainable transition management. Environment and Planning by Shove E. and Walker G. (2007), and The practice of transition management: Examples and lessons from four distinct cases by Loorbach D. and Rotmans J. (2010), and Transition Management in Urban Context guidance manual, collaborative evaluation version by Roorda, C., Frantzeskaki, N., Loorbach, D., Steenbergen, F. V., & Wittmayer, J. (2012) which all extents on the theoretical lense of Frank W. Geels (2007) Multi-Level Perspective that I went through in the last column.

The miraculous solutions for green clean energy are already here — but we need to plan for the long theme transition

Solutions on the green, clean energy marked have been advancing much faster the last couple of years than anyone had anticipated. The transition from fossil based energy/electricity plants to renewable energy sources like wind turbines have emerged from Niche innovation in the 1973–1990 to being a somewhat stable part of the regime — as seen in the illustration below.


Wind turbines and other existing clean energy technologies have also fallen in cost and will continue to do so as a function of their deployment — but there have been a stabilisation of prices due to increased raw material prices — as seen in the illustration below. Renewable energy technologies are at a point where they can help countries meet their policy goals for secure, reliable and affordable energy. But government deployment programmes for renewable energy technologies may still be needed if the 1,5’C goals that I touched upon in the previous column “What is a transition challenge and what roles have engineers had in the development of technological systems?” is to be met. Government deployment programmes will also often stimulate investments and innovation within the technologies — as Chart 1 illustrates for the rotor development of the wind turbines.

Chart 2 — Historical price rate for wind Turbines, 1984 To 2010 Source: RENEWABLE ENERGY TECHNOLOGIES: COST ANALYSIS SERIES (2012).

But how do we successfully plan development, innovation and deployment of a technology in a socio-technical regime so that great goals like the “Well below 2C” can be met? Governance takes — in many western countries — the role of planning and coordinating that are satisfying to a wide range of actors when developing a deployment plan for a technology transition. There is the need of balance between state, market and society if the plan should achieve consensus and succeed. Loorbach D. (2010) stresses this with the statement:

“top down planning and market dynamics only account for part of societal change; network dynamics and reflexive behavior account for other parts.” — Loorbach D. (2010) p.163

Given that societal systems and their challenges often are complex, then applying top down planned solutions would yield unintended consequences — commonly understood as externalities. So rationalistic thinking politics would be blind to the potential consequences of changing one societal system if they ignore the messy nature of reality. These interconnected systems and systems are not only numerous but also extremely complex as a result of our societal system complexity (Frantzeskaki et. al. 2015). So a persistent or wicked problem like ‘how we could transits the energy/electricity system from fossil to renewable use Wind Turbines’ would be rooted in the very structure of the societal system- which would make it difficult to manage with the top down governance planning. So different schools of viewing and planning transitions was developed with roots in Frank W. Geels Multi-Level Perspective among others — a brush up of the different schools can be found in ‘Urban Transition Management, A reader on the theory and application of transition management in cities’ by Frantzeskaki et. al. 2015, p. 34. I am in the following going to focus on Transition Management inspired by Frantzeskaki et. al. (2015), p. 53–70 and Loorbach (2010).

Transition Management

Transition Management is an framework that takes the social network dynamics into consideration when attempting to address complex problems, and it works towards developing long term solutions. The underlying argument is that transition challenges like implementing wind turbines are firmly rooted in of our societal systems. This implies that marginal changes cannot be effective and will lead to suboptimal outcomes. Transition Management therefore advocates for fundamental change and transitions of systems, in order to treat the root causes of persistent problems rather than their symptoms. It is a collaborative approach where different actors join forces in order to develop a vision and plan for sustainable transitions on a societal scale. Transition Management is a cyclical approach — as seen below in the illustration from Loorbach (2010) — with transition happening through four phases: Strategic, Tactical, Operational, and Reflective.

Chart 3 — The Transition Management Cycle — SOURCE: Transition Management for Sustainable Development: A Prescriptive, Complexity-Based Governance Framework gove, LOORBACH (2010) P. 173

The Strategic phase is where visions are developed, strategies discussed and long-term goals formulated. For example, when debating the future of the energy system, we consider long-term developments that affects all levels of society — from societal economy through pricing structures to the environmental effects through greenhouse gas emissions. Working at this level involves: 1) thinking about the problems, 2) envisioning what a desired future solution would look like, 3) building bridges between the problem at the desired future solution. Transition Management seeks to counterbalance the short-termism and reintegrate long-term governance into policy making by focusing explicitly on the strategy of the transition (Frantzeskaki et. al. 2015, p. 58).

The Tactical phase is where the more specific plans are made. They are made on the basis of the strategic visions and negotiations between systems actors. This phase is sort of the mid-level department of the system — if we should use organisational terms — actors at this phase designs actions and plans with a tactical scope and they are less concerned sit the overall direction of the system(id.). They tend to be in charge of program development and regulation that focus on the specific mid-term goals (5–15 years)(id.). It is often that actors at this level negotiate, build partnerships and expands networks, and adapt to more broad term goals that better fits their reality in the pursuit of reaching the larger visions. But adapting to these more broad term goals may lead to fragmented visions. If the change of goal is not communicated clearly across the network of involved actors then their might be several goal adjustments that doesn’t comply (id.).

The Operational phase is the short term constant flow of everyday decisions and actions that takes place at the operational level (id.). All the hands-on things like projects, experiments, actions, and immediate decisions are present here. This is the level of practice, and it is from which new structures and routines can take shape and lead to system innovations (id.). There is not only a flow from the strategic to the operational but also from the bottom up.

The Reflexive phase includes activities that are linked to the monitoring and evaluation of policies and change-processes (id.). These activities takes place in a number of ways: 1) through government-­led evaluations, 2) academic research, 3) societal debates, 4) the media, etc. It also helps actors to readjust their goals and actions continually by taking changes occurring at all levels into account (id.). But Frantzeskaki et. al. 2015 specifies on p. 59 that this level is not separated from the other three — as the illustration by Loorbach 2010 shows — instead it forms an integral part of the governance processes and will continuously feed into activities taking place at the other three phases. Frantzeskaki et. al. 2015 uses an adjusted model to explain how Transition Management are put into Practice. The four phases and the seven steps from Loorbach 2010 are here reordered in another way to emphasize interventions on the four different levels (id.).

Chart 4— Steps and settings of transition management. Source

These principles are operationalised through four types of interventions: Orienting, Activating, Agenda setting and Reflecting, which Frantzeskaki et. al. 2015 put into a framework consisting of the following seven steps:

  • Setting the scene
  • Exploring local dynamics
  • Framing the transition challenge
  • Envisioning
  • Reconnecting long-term and short-term
  • Engaging and anchoring
  • Getting into action

These seven step is seen as a specific guide to the process of transition management (id.). The Transition Team sets up the process, the Transition Arena carries out the process, and the Transition Experiments expand it outward and into a broader set of networks (id.). I will in the following explore the seven steps in relation to the wind turbine transition of the energy/electricity system.

How can Transition Management be used to design a transition strategy for the energy/electricity system?

Setting the scene

First, a transition team is formed to drive the process and embed it in the local context (Frantzeskaki et. al. 2015). The transition team is made up of a range of relevant actors, but tend to come from 1) the organisation initiating the process, 2) the problem owner, 3) experts that are capable of contributing to a specific Transition Management process, and 4) Transition management experts (id.). Bringing a variety of actors together is important as a way of ensuring an equitable Transition Management process and balancing power dynamics.

The transition team must be strategically selected to accomplish a common goal, so it is relevant to consider whom from the possible group of team members that are included and whom that are excluded — and why.

Based on my research I can propose that the transition team should consist of individuals from the following organisations, institutions, and businesses:

  1. Representatives from The Danish Agency
  2. Research representatives from the renewable research center like DTU Risø
  3. Officials from the Danish Ministry of Energy, Utilities and Climate
  4. Representatives from the organisation Vedvarende energi (Renewable Energy)
  5. Representatives from the Danish Government’s Energy Commission
  6. Representatives from the industry (Dong Energy, Vättenfall ect.)
  7. Representatives from the UNFCCC
  8. Representatives from the Danish Energy Association.
  9. Representatives from the International Energy Agency
  10. An expert in Transition Management

As I — the expert in Transition Management — on behalf of the Transition Team selects the frontrunners, I become a ‘gatekeeper’ that either includes or excludes actors from the process (Frantzeskaki et. al. 2015). This form of selective participation is important for an effective process, but also carries the risk of power asymmetries and bias decisions (id). So it would be my role to facilitate the reflexive and open nature of Transition Management as a governance framework to avoid the power asymmetries and possible bias. Once the Transition Team is formed and equipped with space and resources the it is ready to start exploring local dynamics.

Exploring local dynamics

There are two main aspects to this step of the Transition Management process: the system and actor analysis and the gathering of a group of active frontrunners/change agents whom we collectively refer to as the Transition Arena.

The system and actor analysis could be somewhat similar to the system challenge and the related actors that I went through in the sequel to this column What is a transition challenge and what roles have engineers had in the development of technological systems? The systems analysis is used to acquire an overview of the current system while the actor analysis gives the Transition Team an overview of the relevant actors. The actors are correspond to stakeholders but additionally have new ideas or are part of initiatives that relates to the issue.

Frontrunners or change agents on the other hand are carriers of innovation. They are often individuals who through their ideas, practices, and networks can play a leading role in initiating sustainability transitions. A front runner needs to be strongly connected to the issue at hand regardless of their existing ‘role’. They are approached as individuals rather than representatives of whatever organisation they might be members of, when invited into the Transition Management process. A list of frontrunners for energy/electricity transition towards Wind Turbines could be consisting of:

  • A person from Vestas Wind
  • Volunteers from Ung Energi (Young Energy)
  • Scientists from the renewable research centers like DTU Risø
  • Engineers from the five rotor Wind turbine innovation project
  • Politicians like former Energy Minister Martin Lidegaard or Environmental Minister Ida Auken
  • Director for Vättenfall Denmark
  • Ect.

These frontrunners could either help define the Transition Arena by their network for societal innovation or as the creation of a space for radical innovation processes to take hold. Because this example have its roots in Wind turbines that are already heavily innervated, I would therefore have this Transition Arena defined the frontrunners network for societal innovation — since the challenge is more about transition of networks than innovation of technologies.

Once the Transition Arena has been formed then can the Transition Management process really start on the practical site. The first issue is that the Transition Team, should frame what exactly the problem is that the group and process will seek to engage with — and this should be done in collaborations with the frontrunners. This searching for a shared understanding of a transition challenge could depart from a discussion of the system analysis which in this example are more or less similar to What is a transition challenge and what roles have engineers had in the development of technological systems?. This could be used to generate a shared problem perception. The next step from here is Envisioning the solution to the now shared problem.


Once the transition challenge has been framed a vision must be created. The vision of a sustainable transitions like the wind turbine should frame a contextualised understanding of sustainability, through which basic principles for long­-term development are articulated. Vision creation is common step in any Transition Management process, and it is important that the transition team co-creates this vision. The vision should tell a narrative of an ideal future and serves as a measure for strategies and actions. The overall vision that I would set for the transition of the energy/electricity system from fossil driven to drive by renewable energy like wind turbines is:

Vision: To support radical expansion of renewable energy technologies like the danish wind turbines so that we (the world) can reach the goal of “well below 2’C” before 2050

Once a transition vision has been formulated — like my vision formulation above — by the Transition Team and the frontrunners, then Reconnecting long-term and short-term step begin.

Reconnecting long-term and short-term

Now that the Arena participants have created their vision of sustainable future — containing wind turbines and a maximum temperature rise of well below 2’C, then the challenge is to reconnect this long-­term vision with the short term through concrete ideas about how to get there. In practice, this is done through backcasting, a method for working back from the future to the present time. Transition Paths are the first outcome of this step — descriptions of possible routes back from the future to the present. Some potential Transition Paths for the energy/electricity systems transformation could be:

  • Establishing heavy CO2 emission costs
  • Secure low raw material prices for renewable energy production
  • Support deployment of Wind Turbines with governance funding or subsidising
  • Outphase fossil and nuclear energy
  • Support electrical driven mobileforms — to that demand rises

These pathways help the transition team define, prioritise, and elaborate on their plans and then create some action ideas to take in the near future. The Transition paths can then further be developed and refined through backcasting by the Transition Team. The main purpose of this step is to synthesise the work that has been done up to this point and to find ways of operationalising it so that the Transition will be possible. When that is done, then it is time to engage other actors from outside the network.

Engaging and anchoring

The front runners begin to communicate their vision at this point for a sustainable future through their existing networks. By doing so they leave the narrow bounds of the Transition Arena — which has sheltered the group from the pressures of the surrounding worlds agendas — are now inevitable as the goal of the Transition Management process is to influence and accelerate a wider societal change. This can be accomplished by bringing attention to the cause through events, and publicity, and by seeking support from businesses, organisations, or similar.

Getting into action

The last step is to put in practices that supports the full aim for long-­term change through short-­term actions.

Reflections on the results of Transition Management

The results of a Transition Management process can be diffused and that makes the results difficult to assess or quantify in a straightforward way. But as Transition Management aims to enable transition of systems towards sustainability I would say that by it is a well structured guide. The steps helps to plan and structure visions that can push for a general change in the landscape level of society, and that is necessary for renewable energy if we want to secure radical deployment of eg. wind turbines and reach the “well below 2 ° C” goal.

To conclude, Transition Management is an effective theory for analyzing and maybe also planning a transition. The step by step approach is effective for applying it as a method for creating a vision and beginning the organisation of a transition process. Transition Management might be the ‘design method’ that should be used if the radical deployment of wind turbines should be implemented. The next blog will take its point of departure in the same radical deployment challenge — but this time see if it is possible to implement with another Transition approach.


Frantzeskaki, N., Bach, M., Holscher, K., and Avelino, F., (Eds), (2015), Urban Transition Management, A reader on the theory and application of transition management in cities, DRIFT, Erasmus University Rotterdam with the SUSTAIN Project (, Creative Commons.

Loorbach D. (2010). Transition Management for Sustainable Development: A prescriptive, Complexity-Based Governance Framework. Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions 23 (1), pp. 161–183

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, 17(4), 445–476.

Roorda, C., Frantzeskaki, N., Loorbach, D., Steenbergen, F. van, Wittmayer, J. , (2012), Transition Management in Urban Context — guidance manual, collaborative evaluation version. Drift, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam.

Smith A. , Stirling A. and Berkhout F. T. (2005). The governance of sustainable socio-technical transitions. Research Policy 34, pp 1491-1510

Shove E. and Walker G. (2007). CAUTION! Transitions ahead: politics, practice and sustainable transition management. Environment and Planning A 39, pp. 763–770.

Voss J.-P., Smith A. and Grin J. (2009). Designing long-term policy: rethinking transition management. Policy Science 42, pp. 275–302. Loorbach D. and Rotmans J. (2010). The practice of transition management: Examples and lessons from four distinct cases. Futures 42, pp. 237–246.


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