Conceptualizing learning in sustainability transition initiatives

2013 EEEN Forum

A theoretical contribution to the assessment of learning processes

  1. Matthias Bussels: HIVA – Research Institute for Work & Society
  2. Sander Happaerts: HIVA – Research Institute for Work & Society
  3. Hans Bruyninckx: HIVA – Research Institute for Work & Society

A common feature of academic contributions on transition processes is the emphasis on learning as a driving force of, and precondition for achieving the aspired system innovation. Transitions after all involve complex, long-term and multi-factor change processes aimed at a complete reconfiguration of the basic pillars of societal systems in the long-run, i.e. cultures, structures and practices (Frantzeskaki and De Haan 2009; Rotmans et al. 2001). The inevitable uncertainty pervading such profound change processes has inspired contributions focusing on how to engage and stimulate such transitions – predominantly through small-scale transition initiatives – to attribute major attention to the necessary and achieved learning as a potential indicator of success (Kemp and van den Bosch 2006; Raven et al. 2008; Schot and Geels 2008; Szejnwald Brown et al. 2004; van de Kerkhof and Wieczorek 2005).

However, despite such widespread mention of learning processes as the backbone of transition processes, the subject has not been met with equal attention in research. Therefore, this paper sets out to develop a clear understanding of learning in transition processes, guided by the following questions: what is Iearning?; what types of learning are expected to occur in, or required for transition processes?; how can such learning be conceptualized and stimulated?; what are learning obstacles?; how can we assess whether learning has occurred or not?;…

The paper draws heavily on theories on learning and system innovation (Argyris 1977; Argyris and Schon 1978; Bastrup-Birk and Wiidemeersch 2011; Senge 1990; Wiidemeersch et al. 1998) in order to define learning, and combines those insights with existing instruments and frameworks constructed to assess and evaluate change in complex settings (Forss et al. 2011; Patton 2011). Combining both strands of literature, the paper aims to address the questions mentioned above. It will therefore look at how to assess whether learning has taken place, and in which forms learning might substantiate.

The paper will address the current caveat in transition thinking by explicating how learning in transition processes comes about, how it can be defined and assessed, and stimulated. In bringing together studies on learning processes in transition initiatives, it provides an oversight of the various nuances that they each emphasize, and enables a clear perspective on remaining lacuna and useful further research.


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