Towards sustainable futures
with urban transition strategies embracing top-down and bottom-up

Anni Leppanen
Apr 15 · 12 min read

A reflective essay by Anni Leppänen
Urban transitions and futures, Aalto University, 2019

Today’s challenges are complex and wicked, often exponentially growing. This calls for transitions or systems innovations. Human behaviour and everyday social practices are key in tackling issues such as climate change. When imagining a desirable future — a sustainable, resilient and just world, the urban offers best context to look at transformation both at systems and social practice levels.

Drawing upon the lectures and readings during Aalto University’s Urban Transitions and Futures (UTF) course, this essay will discuss and reflect my key learnings both during the course and its practical assignment, the case study of post-carbon Helsinki neighbourhood of Malminkartano in 2050.

This essay will first look at the urban and social context, then present key themes in innovation and transition theories, and finally discuss transition strategies while reflecting on learnings as a design and government professional. The key objective of this essay is to demonstrate how top-down and bottom-up strategies work best together in creating urban transitions.

New development in Malminkartano. Photo: Anna Ahlgren, 2019


hy cities? To me, with my state government background, this was one of the most interesting questions during the course. The urban context offers unique perspective in human social activities, governance and various key support systems such as transport, energy and food. Cities hold significant leverage points due to problem concentration, and also their solution potential. Cities are gaining agency, forming networks and creating social movements. (Gaziulusoy, 25.2.2019 lecture notes)

I was inspired by David Harvey’s book Rebel Cities (2012) envisioning a new role for cities as human rights.

The right to the city is (…) far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. (Harvey, 2012, p4)

Social practice theory looks at the everyday life, its spatial-temporal rhythms, mundane repeated patterns, social norms and materiality (Jalas, 4.3.2019 lecture notes). All this is best observed at the urban scale, with residents commuting to work, conducting household chores and consuming goods. Recent reports conclude that focusing efforts to change lifestyles in nutrition, mobility and housing would yield greatest impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC, 2014; IGES, 2019).

Shaping urban lifeworld are also the multi-sensory embodied experiences of urban aesthetics. Familiarity and temporal processes often determine how we experience our cities and neighbourhoods, yet making it difficult to imagine what we leave behind for the next generations. (Lehtinen, 4.3.2019 lecture notes).

Cities are not built of roads and buildings, but with cultures. (Lindroos, 2019)

Urban as culture

Relatively recent urbanisation in Helsinki places the era of fastest suburb construction in 1960–70s, during Nordic participatory democracy wave. Several global crises and other developments later we see suburbs and urban neighbourhoods having drastic differences in employment and wellbeing. Social movements and urban culture hold keys to shaping new urbanism. Experiences such as Lähiöfest and Yhteismaa-led initiatives provide empowering examples of bottom-up transformative power in neighbourhoods and urban life in Helsinki. Yet, as a foundation of democracy, agonism calls for civil society and urban activists to often position themselves against the local government and its civil servants. Cities have ever more diverse power structures and urban social movements drive change. Cities are seeing a rise of the 4th sector: self-organisation or DIY culture challenging the traditional institutional planning. (Berglund, 25.3.2019 lecture notes)

At the same time city governments are transforming and trying to become more flexible and innovative in policies and planning. Participatory budgeting and experimental culture are becoming popular, yet not without flaws, in Finnish city governments. Helsinki has set out an ambition plan to become carbon neutral by 2035 (Helsinki, 2018). At strategic and conceptual levels, Helsinki seems fully committed in tackling climate change.

After hearing both encouraging experience of top-down and bottom-up approaches to transformation in urban contexts, there is definitely a sense that not only one imperative can be chosen. Top-down, government-led initiatives and bottom-up grassroots self-organising movements are most successful when not embraced as dichotomies.


Transition to low-carbon societies is a long-term, structural and socio-technological change of systems. It is not just a technological issue, but a social, economic and governance challenge. (Gaziulusoy, 4.2.2019 lectures notes)

Climate change is not only a material flow issue, nor solely a social or regulatory challenge. Socio-material approach calls for design-led transdisciplinary approach to urban nexus. Feedback-loops of water, energy and food are closely tied with heavily contextualised social foundations.
(Dr Candy, 25.2.2019 lecture notes)

According to Twomey and Gaziulusoy (2014) modern innovation theory highlights complex adaptive systems, co-evolutionary nature of change, uncertainty and path-dependency of technological change (for example fossil fuel based innovations) as key challenges for transitions or systems innovations. Institutions and culture, knowledge and learning all play a key enabling and diffusing role in pathway analysis for systems transitions.

The key theory during the UTF course was the heuristic framework of socio-technical transitions, including its key approach called multi-level perspective (MLP). It illustrates the interactions between long-term landscapes, current regimes and nice innovations in systems transitions (Geels, 2011).

Gaziulusoy, I. (2019) UTF Lecture. 4 March 2019.


In our first UTF lecture, we learned that transition design is focused on creating normative future scenarios, i.e. describing what should happen. This leaves behind alternatives such as explorative “what might happen?” and predictive “what will happen?”. (Gaziulusoy, 25.2.2019 lecture notes) This creates a sense of empowerment, as designers and other stakeholders are considered as the architects of change, the makers of desired futures. The challenge is, in my opinion, how to make future visioning process participatory.

Normative futures are desirable futures. But what is desirable? It is always based on our values, cultures and social norms that we envision our desirable futures. To some extent, frameworks such as the doughnut economics can provide us with general models that describe futures with social foundations all the while tackling environmental ceilings (Raworth, 2017).

Desirable futures are always political. Who’s desirable future is it? I think that climate change and other systems level challenges create pressure to rethink democracy. Participation is key in creating desirable futures. Especially since a sustainable future requires drastic changes in social practices and people’s lifestyles, the future should be created together with different stakeholders and most of all, people themselves. Participatory processes are definitely not easy. Participatory efforts can be diminished into greenwashing, results skewed and most of all, getting people to participate and facilitating an effective participation requires skills and methods that are not yet fully evolved. Not to mention, we are often afterall designing also for people who do not yet exist. In transition management cycle, at its first stage the transition arena, criteria is created to select participants in the process (Gaziulusoy, 4.3.2019 lectures notes). Niche innovators, forefront thinkers and social innovator citizens are called upon the task at hand, in order to tackle expert blindness (ibid).

In Finland, and the Nordic participatory democracy — a state, social and cultural model, we cannot leave the citizens — the ‘normal’ people out. Agonism is central to democracy, yet we are not well rehearsed in dialogue and actual active participation. Inequality is a rising phenomenon in urban settings, and gentrification of urban neighbourhoods can drive poorer and ethnically diverse communities out. All the while, self-organisation is challenging institutional planning, we are seeing a rise of 4th sector and counter movements such as the DIY cities (Berglund, 25.3.2019 lecture notes).


One of my key learnings during the course was a focus on transition strategies that embrace top-down and bottom-up approaches in sustainable urban future making. I also found Loorbach’s (2010) three types of transition management very useful in understanding systems change and practical intervention design in the context of our case project Malminkartano. Loorbach organises transition interventions at strategic (vision), tactical (implementation) and operational (experiments) levels.

Visual from Malminkartano 2050 project notes.

Due to complex and wicked nature of systems and transformation challenges, transition strategies should be constructed with focus on creating change with experimentation and participation.

According to my experience during the course, interventions as transition strategies have the best success rate when encapsulating the following three aspects:

  • daily life holds key leverage
  • transdisciplinary (systems, stakeholders) is the only way
  • normative futures can only work with participatory process.

Strategic instruments such as living labs, policy experiments and social movements provide opportunities for transition interventions that embrace all the three above mentioned qualities and engage in both top-down and bottom-up governance.


Having studied Development Studies for my first degree, and now Creative Sustainability at Aalto, I am equipped to look at structures of society, government policy and sustainability issues. As a designer, I am skilled at discovery and systems mapping, defining current state problems, as well as conceptualising solutions and prototyping ideas. During the UTF course, I learned to understand sustainability issues such as climate change in the context of the urban transformation, and in relation to both socio-technical transition theories and transition strategies. The course case project in Helsinki neighbourhood of Malminkartano offered a specific context in which to understand and develop these themes. Yet, as my past knowledge and skills were somewhat challenged during the course, my greatest learning was perhaps in bringing my designer self closer to the sustainability and social science professional in me.

Transition design process. Visual based on lecture notes: Gaziulusoy, I. (2019)

In addition to multitude of perspectives and useful theoretical frameworks, I also learned an alternative design process. Designers often follow the Double Diamond process, starting with user research and problem definition. Transition design process has a unique focus in normative futures, and creating a vision and timeline offer a new way of designing. Interventions, or early solutions experiments, are designed after the vision work. Especially in complex systemic challenges and long-term objectives, this way of working definitely offers better tools.

During my first degree in social sciences, I studied societal systems, innovation models and development theories in order to understand how countries could tackle challenges such as poverty and lack of industrialisation. In the UTF course, I was able to build on my previous knowledge by adding insights into the role of urban context, human behaviour and everyday life with social practice theory, and building a more comprehensive framework for systems transformation in the multi-level model of socio-technical transitions.

In the future, I hope to apply my learnings in my career as government change agent.

Due to four year political cycles, transformation in (state) government is currently largely stuck in short-term thinking. Often, as witnessed in my own work as a civil servant, we lack tools to set up long-term goals and drive transitions. Perhaps the reason lies somewhere in transition theories — that transitions in complex systems cannot alone be triggered by government policies, market incentives and planning efforts. Transitions design offers strategic, tactical and operational approaches to preferred futures and empowers us to become architects of our own future.

In my previous jobs as a designer in government digital transformation, I worked with government transformation — trying to change how policies and services were developed by creating a human-centred experimental organisational culture. As government organisations are yet lacking the tools and processes to imagine and co-create normative futures, transitions inside government structures could also harness tactics from transition design playbook.

Too often we ignore the other players in the landscape that make up our daily lives or lives of our citizens. State government has a disease of inward-looking — each government agency fighting for their existence, upholding century old bureaucracies. All the while cities and social movements have become more powerful and relevant than state government. Government policies often neglect to take into consideration social and cultural aspects of human life. I think we are entering an era where the government, as a whole, needs to rethink its purpose, strategies and tactics.

There has been a 15-year-long failed journey to reform the social and healthcare system. During the past government term we launched programmes and projects to digital transformation and experimental culture. The results have sown seeds of change in operational cultures of the government, moving us toward more cross-sector collaboration model. Yet, we are still lacking action, doing and concreteness, all which would be required to collect the rewards of these collaborations and truly move forward. We are still too engaged in too small spotted experiments that lack the systems view, while also dragging on massive reforms and programmes that implode and get cancelled.


During the UTF course I was most intrigued and impressed by three transition strategies: living labs, policy experiments and social movements. For great articles on living labs, see for example Bulkeley et al. (2017), Cho (2018) and Kalasatama Cookbook (2017). For an interesting example of policy experiment, check Shove & Walker (2010) on London congestion policy. Also, reflecting on the recent Finnish basic income experiment, we see that there are often unclear or co-evolving or embedded results of policies. Large scale socio-technical transitions come with a lot of unexpected and uncontrollable impacts and effects. The best way to tackle this uncertainty is to choose a north star — a normative, desirable future — something to drive toward. The rest is all about platforms and collaborations such as living labs, or dynamic policy experiments that build learning organisations and develop impact measurement, and finally about social movements, that are born and dead without control, all the while with potential to drastically change the way we live our daily lives. This leaves me thinking that top-down cannot work without bottom-up, and the other way around. While nothing certain can be said, experiments, collaboration, learning together and being flexible are the tools of future making.


Bulkeley, H. et al. (2017). “Urban living labs: governing urban sustainability transitions”. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 22:13–17. ISSN 1877–3435.

Cho E.J. (2018) “Transforming a Neighborhood into a Living Laboratory for Urban Social Innovation: A Comparative Case Study of Urban Living Labs.” In: Rau PL. (eds) Cross-Cultural Design. Applications in Cultural Heritage, Creativity and Social Development. CCD 2018. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 10912. Springer, Cham.

Forum Virium (2017) “Cook book: recipes for agile pilots”. Smart Kalasatama living lab. City of Helsinki and 6aika programme.

Geels, F. W. (2011). “The multi-level perspective on sustainability transitions: Responses to seven criticisms.” Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 1(1), pp. 24–40.

Harvey, D. (2012). “Rebel Cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution”. Verso books. United Kingdom.

Helsinki (2018) “Carbon neutral Helsinki action plan”. &

Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), Aalto University, and D-mat ltd. (2019). “1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Targets and Options for Reducing Lifestyle Carbon Footprints”. Technical Report. Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Hayama, Japan.

IPCC. (2014). “Summary for Policymakers.” In Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of climate change. Contribution of working group III to the fifth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Loorbach, D. (2010). “Transition Management for Sustainable Development: A Prescriptive, Complexity‐Based Governance Framework.” Governance, 23(1), pp. 161–183.

Shove, E. & Walker, G. (2010). “Governing transitions in the sustainability of everyday life”. Research Policy. 39:471–476. ISSN 0048–7333.

Twomey, P. & Gaziulusoy, A.I. (2014). “Review of System Innovation and Transitions Theories Concepts and Frameworks for Understanding and Enabling Transitions to a Low Carbon Built Environment.” Working paper for the Visions & Pathways project.

Raworth, K. (2017). “Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist.” London: Random House.


Berglund, Eeva (2019). Lecture on “Urban social movements”. 25 Mar 2019.

Candy, Seona. (2019). Lecture on Urban water, food and energy nexus. 25 Feb 2019

Gazilusoy, Idil (2019). Lectures on “Urban transitions and futures”. 25 Feb 2019; and “Theories of change”. 4 March 2019.

Jalas, Matti (2019). Lecture on “Social practice theory”. 4 Mar 2019.

Lehtinen, Sanna (2019). Lecture on “Urban Aesthetics”. 4 Mar 2019.

Lindroos, Katja (2019). Lecture on “Urban as Culture”. 18 Mar 2019.

Urban Transitions and Futures is a 5 ECTS Master’s level course at Aalto University, and a joint course between Aalto Creative Sustainability programme and Helsinki University Urban Studies and Planning Programme.

Course convenor is Dr. İdil Gaziulusoy, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Design, Department of Design, Aalto University.

Anni Leppänen is a strategic designer with over 10 years of work experience in the public sector in Finland and UK. Currently, Anni is finalising her MA Creative Sustainability studies at Aalto University. Anni has a BA in Development Studies and Chinese from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

Anni Leppanen

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Strategic designer, change agent and specialist in sustainability transitions, digital transformation, government and experiments.