Thursday 7 May 2015

Mobile transitions: Exploring synergies for urban sustainability research

by Julia Affolderbach and Christian Schulz


When starting our research on green building initiatives and urban low-carbon strategies in Canada, Europe and Australia, we came across the promising complementarities of the Transition Studies approach on the one hand, and the more recent debate around Policy Mobilities. Given our primary interest in political, institutional, regulatory and organisational innovations and their impact on the greening of the building sector, the Social Studies of Technology (or “Transition Studies”) provided us with a useful heuristic to explore the interplay between niches for innovation, evolutions of the established regimes and changes of the general context conditions (“landscape”). But we also had to acknowledge the insufficient conceptualization of space in this approach, in particular when it comes to supra-national relationships, knowledge flows and long-distance influences. Here, the Policy Mobility approach allowed us to operationalize the extent to which local policies and actors’ behaviour are embedded into wider networks of constant policy exchange and learning processes, but also selective adoption and reinterpretation (mutation) of trend setting approaches. A combination of the two approaches gave us the opportunity to study both the localised settings and their impact on green building innovations and the relational articulation of urban sustainability programmes at the international level. The paper thus tries to contribute to the advancing conceptualization of space in the Transitions Studies literature, and – given its sectorial focus – to feed case study results from economic geography into the scholarly debates around the notion of Policy Mobility. We are convinced that a further engagement of the two approaches might not only reciprocally inspire the enrolled communities of researchers, but that it could also open new perspectives for both academics and practitioners/decision makers.

Provision of knowledge and evidence on the actual pathways and biographies of successful urban policies provides a basis to reconsider existing strategies without overrating the importance of local framework conditions in order (1) to facilitate the exchange and critical conversation with practitioners and decision makers in other city regions and (2) to develop a systemic understanding of influential levels and scales, without reifying the latter.

A wide range of topics regarding sustainable transitions might serve as test beds for this recombined approach including the multi-facetted energy policy aspiring for low carbon transitions (encompassing the decentralized use of renewables, low/zero/plus energy buildings, district heating, smart grids), transport and mobility issues, food security and urban farming, and more organizational issues such as community planning, co-housing, or solidary economies, and local sharing schemes. All of these are identified as highly innovative fields showing dynamics of rapid and international dissemination as well as re-adaptation of promising concepts.


Photo: Sebastian Fastenrath (used with permission)

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