The use of the concept
of transition is relatively recent. It dates back to the nineteenth century, when it was used in different disciplines of the life sciences or social sciences and the humanities (Lachman 2013). For instance, Tocqueville used it to talk about the end of slavery; in political science, it initially designated the shift from socialist economies to capitalist economies; and it was used as the basis of some biology and population demographics publications. However, independent of its use, the word “transition” denotes a radical change of a systemic nature. Hence, transition approaches are focus primarily on deep-seated changes that very often affect both social and technical values, as opposed to incremental changes or innovations. The particularity of transition studies is that they highlight these interdependencies between social and technical values, justifying the central use of the concept of “sociotechnical” regime to describe a coherent set of stakeholders, knowledge, rules, values, and artefacts governing an incumbent production model (Elzen et al. 2004; Geels 2004).
Among the different heuristic frameworks of the transition towards sustainability developed in this literature, the Multi-Level-Perspective (MLP) framework is one of the most cited (Brauch et al. 2016; Chang et al. 2017). Drawing on several social science disciplines (including economics, sociology, political science), the MLP approach is multidisciplinary and integrative by nature, allowing one to address societal change through its multiple components and to convey the complexity of this change. This research focuses primarily on the conditions of the transition, from a society based on the intensive use of fossil fuels to one based on the use of renewable resources to satisfy various societal functions such as food, energy production, or transportation (Foxon 2011). Any societal function can be the subject of a transition. Lachman (2013) thus defines a transition as when “[t]he dominant way in which a societal need (e.g. the need for transportation, energy, or agriculture) is satisfied, changes fundamentally”.
This systemic approach describes the mechanisms through which the target to achieve sustainability is confronted with a lock-in situation (section “Transitions are embedded in lock-in situations”), and the resources for the unlocking process that will initiate a transition (section “Unlocking in transition approaches”). The empirical literature on transitions specifically shows the importance of the conditions for the spreading of innovation niches
in these processes (section “Scales and scopes of transition analysis: the major role of networks of stakeholders”).
Transitions Are Embedded in Lock-In Situations
Sustainability transition approaches stem from the idea that the dominant production system (for example, in the sense of a supply chain, sector, or food system
) is locked in (Geels 2004, 2011). The only changes within the incumbent system aim at improving it and therefore strengthening the technological trajectory initially chosen. Because they remain incremental, these changes do not permit a radical change (that is, a change in technological paradigm). This lock-in is strengthened by the fact that the routines and standards within which stakeholders operate hinder their creative capacity, and because the multiple dependencies between the technical and social components of the system have become reinforced over time. Several studies adopting this co-evolutionary approach enable us to understand how these lock-ins are constructed in the agricultural sector (Cowan and Gunby 1996; Vanloqueren and Baret 2009). For example, the work of Magrini et al. (2016; 2018) shows how the political drive following the Second World War, based on the conventional paradigm,Footnote 3 discouraged the development of production alternatives with less use of mineral fertilisers, such as pulses farming. Instead, the specialisation of production by country (European cereals versus American soy), region, and farm, supported by the use of synthetic inputs and specific genetic changes, were promoted. Combined with market dynamics favouring certain species, the conventional regime strengthened the economic competitiveness of a few main crops as well as geographically-concentrated industrial livestock farming, to the detriment of agriculture based on agrobiodiversity and the integration of cropping and livestock (Horlings and Marsden 2011; Duru et al. 2015b).
Evolutionary economists explain this lock-in through the concept of “increasing returns to adoption”. This key concept, coined by Arthur (1989), explains how one technology progressively “prevails over” the alternatives due to the fact that its performance improves by being increasingly adopted. Five main types of mechanism (called “self-reinforcing”) feed this adoption practice and highlight the role of collective action
and knowledge. These mechanisms are illustrated for the conventional agricultural paradigm in (Magrini et al. 2017; 2018). We give a brief overview of them below:
learning by using: the production performance of synthetic inputs and selected varieties and breeds increases with user experience;
network externalities: the greater the number of adopters, the more beneficial it is for users to adopt the system to benefit from other products or services developed, such as services to support crop management, storage, and sale;
scale economies and learning by doing: the unit cost of production is reduced over time by the volume effect and the improvement of the techniques and materials developed, such as agricultural mechanisation;
informational increasing returns: the more this production paradigm develops, the more widely known and understood it becomes, thus incentivising others to adopt and develop it;
technological interrelatedness: other production technologies and standards are established in the food sector in relation to this agricultural production, such as seed quality criteria for food transformation (e.g. grain protein content).
These returns to adoption are said to be “increasing” because, as a system develops more users, the utility for each user is increased compared to alternative solutions. Knowledge on the dominant system is progressively consolidated compared to alternatives, which are more uncertain because they receive less investment. Stakeholders in the agricultural sector in particular highlight this problem of uncertainty surrounding alternative crops (cf. Chap. 6). Hence, uncertainty surrounding alternative solutions, which have benefited from less investment and knowledge, as well as the inherent cost of the change, reinforces the initial choice over time, that is, the conventional paradigm.
To unlock such a lock-in, it is necessary to understand all the components of the system that determine the triggering of a new trajectory which can be consolidated over time through these same mechanisms of increasing returns to adoption. The multilevel approach developed by Geels (e.g. 2004) offers a framework to understand how a new trajectory can begin.
Unlocking in Transition Approaches
of technological lock-in has allowed for the renewal of approaches to change by highlighting the co-evolutionary nature of trajectories. Its analysis framework
is however strongly focused on the role of technological innovation
. The specificity of transition approaches has consisted in expanding this framework to consider the roles of a multitude of stakeholders, including civil society, and not only those using the technology (e.g. a way of producing). For example, new technological innovations can simultaneously trigger changes in scientific knowledge as well as in factors tied to the demand from civil society, in particular ethical factors. Many authors thus insist on the fundamental role of societal values, which legitimise production decisions (Plumecocq et al. 2018). The incumbent production system (e.g. the dominant sociotechnical regime) has built its coherency over time as a function of the progress of scientific knowledge, technologies and infrastructure, and networks of companies and markets. It has also based itself on values tied to consumer preferences and different institutions, defining a set of rules and standards structuring collective action
(Elzen et al. 2004). As Geels (2012: 474) demonstrates, “an important implication is that the MLP does away with simple causality […] there is no single ‘cause’ or driver. Instead, there are processes on multiple dimensions and at different levels which link up and reinforce each other”.
The second specificity of the MLP approach is that it offers three main levels of analysis that influence one another and steer the evolution of the sociotechnical regime (i.e. trajectories), presented as a diagram in Fig. 1. Major evolutionary factors, such as demographic shifts or environmental problems affecting all societal functions, can place the sociotechnical regime in a situation of crisis if the principles governing it do not provide a solution to these problems. These societal contextual elements, which constitute the 1st level of analysis (called the “landscape” according to MLP terminology), open up windows of opportunity for radical changes. However, because the dominant regime (2nd level) does not constitute a space of radical innovation, the keys of the change operate on another level: that of innovation niches
(3rd level of analysis). These innovation niches are built by stakeholders outside of the dominant regime. They enable the development of new ways of producing, transforming, or consuming in order to more radically address contemporary pressures on the landscape. When these niches reach a certain stage of development and internal structure, they can spread in the dominant regime. They can then choose between two main strategies: submitting to the selection factors of the dominant regime (“fit and conform”) or trying to modify them (“stretch and transform”) (cf. Smith and Raven 2012 for more details).
Organic agriculture is an emblematic example of this process: its network of stakeholders established itself progressively and is now spreading within the dominant regime. For example, organic products are now sold in large retail chains and the rate of conversion to organic has increased over the past few years in France. Yet organic has not managed to reverse or replace the conventional regime, which remains dominant. It is by obtaining a quality marking that differentiates it on the market, that organic products are able to economically develop under the conditions of the dominant regime. The specific aid for conversion provided by Europe is also evidence of a change starting in the dominant regime. Hence, the organic innovation niche
has progressively become a market niche and continues in itself to be an incubator for new practices prohibiting synthetic inputs that influence the dominant regime.
Many hypotheses support the role of niches as incubators of radical innovations: for instance, whereas their development outside of the dominant regime promotes the emergence and expression of new creative capabilities not limited by the routines and standards of the dominant regime, within that regime the initiation of economic activities by new entities is less hindered when taking risks (which are often prohibitive for established players that want to secure margins or pay off specific investments tied to already-established activities). In the MLP approach, the process of the change in the dominant regime starts, strictly speaking, when niches manage to spread within the regime and to influence its evolution around its major components (the stage of the “empowerment” innovation niche, in the sense of Smith and Raven 2012. This leads to a new alignment of the trajectories of different components of the regime (details in Fig. 2). The MLP framework is thus a fundamental co-evolutionary and diachronic approach.
This heuristic framework for transitions, which was developed in the 2000s, has been extended many times. This highlights the complexity of the processes of spreading innovation niches
within the dominant regime to initiate a change in trajectory, drawing in particular on the work of Smith et al. (2005), Smith and Raven (2012), and Raven et al. (2016). Various configurations are possible, depending on the type of ties maintained between niche and dominant regime stakeholders. There is often an overlap of networks of niche and regime stakeholders, as certain stakeholders are present in both systems. This is particularly manifest in research on the agricultural sector, in which the sale of agricultural products does not necessarily benefit from alternative transformation and distribution networks. In other words, differentiated products can be distributed by dominant networks, with alternative networks remaining on the sidelines. For new practices to spread there must therefore be a minimum level of adaptive capacity in the dominant regime – and vice versa in the niche, in relation to the dominant regime. These two levels of analysis (regime versus niche) of the MLP approach must therefore be analysed together. This is why (Ingram 2015, 2018) proposes an “overlapping niche-regime space” rather than separating these two entities, as the MLP approach suggests.
Elzen et al. (2017) more particularly focus on the role of stakeholders that are intermediaries between the dominant regime and innovation niches. These intermediary stakeholders, called hybrids, are described as participating in an innovation niche
while simultaneously having direct access to the dominant regime (for example, through their participation in debate arenas or by holding positions at dominant regime stakeholders). They can also be “innovation brokers” that promote interconnection between the dominant regime and niches, and which are highlighted as essential stakeholders in these transition processes (Klerkx et al. 2012). For example, the research of Bouttes et al. (2018) reveals the major role of these stakeholders in the case of conversion to organic agriculture: for livestock farmers, the fact that the agricultural adviser supporting them was previously a part of the conventional system (at a chamber of agriculture) is a guarantee of credibility and legitimacy.
Scales and Scopes of Transition Analysis: The Major Role of Networks of Stakeholders
Transition processes require us to consider multiple scales of analysis – whether the temporal (start and duration), geographic, or sectoral scale – in relation to the scope of the network of stakeholders observed.
The majority of research insists on the emergence and initial stages of these processes, granting particular attention to the structuring of innovation niches
. Some focuses more particularly on the emergence of the niche, which can be based on different strategies varying in their distance from the dominant regime. These configurations of ties between niches and the regime vary, as indicated above (Ingram 2015). For example, conservation agriculture is outside of the domain of the dominant regime in order to allow stakeholders to develop their ideas and experiment freely (Vankeerberghen and Stassart 2016). In contrast, stakeholders in the Bleu-Blanc Coeur supply chain chose to include themselves in the dominant regime from the emergence of the niche, to quickly access financial resources and allow it to spread faster (Magrini and Duru 2015; cf. also Elzen et al. (2008) or Diaz et al. (2013) concerning anchoring strategies). Different stages are often highlighted in these transition processes. In their analysis of the development of niches directed at structuring local food systems
, Bui et al. (2016: 99) identify three key stages in a transition process: “the emergence of the initiative (Stage I); the construction of a sociotechnical niche through the enrolment of new stakeholders into the initiative, leading to the diversification of objectives and activities (Stage II); the construction of an alternative model impacting various components of the agri-food regime (Stage III). The increasing diversity of stakeholders involved in the niche progressively leads to the construction of an alternative model, and the enrolment of local authorities, through spill-over effects, then triggers deep changes in practices, strategies and alliances of some regime stakeholders at the
” (page 99). The evolution of the network of stakeholders structuring the innovation niche allows them to access resources and, to a certain extent, determines their development up until the empowerment stage.
These publications show that an increase in the number of stakeholders involved in the process is a necessary condition of the transition. Increasing the size of the network of stakeholders makes it possible to progressively establish ties with certain stakeholders in the dominant regime. By participating in exchanges with niche operators, the dominant regime will be able to understand the stakes and opportunities of the development of the niche, and will push towards its own reconfiguration. These intermediary stakeholders constitute relays between the niche and the dominant regime. They often enable access to public policy
resources to help to develop the niche and spread innovative practices. For example, the structuring of certain locally-based food systems
can involve local officials in the development of these niches in order to access new support devices (cf. the example of Bui et al. 2016). Another example of the role of political stakeholders is the policy of the city of Mouans-Sartoux in France. By organising the supply of school cafeterias with local organically-produced products, the elected officials of this commune have been successful in structuring and perpetuating a network of stakeholders around this innovation niche
The social interactions that take place within niches or in relation to the dominant regime are thus at the core of transition processes. It is therefore useful to grant particular attention to devices aiming at establishing a consensus between stakeholders regarding visions of changes to carry out and possible routes for achieving common goals. This is precisely the goal of the TATA-BOX project, through carrying out a territorial diagnosis followed by phases for designing, evaluating, and selecting agro-ecological transition scenarios (cf. Chap. 9). Among these devices, “transition arenas
”, defined as spaces of shared dialogue between stakeholders engaged in moving towards a change in the system (Boulanger 2008), constitute an essential structure in the transition process (Duru et al. 2015b). Networks of stakeholders built through these arenas are fundamental in the transition process, because by “building up a broadening network of diverse actors that share the debate, thinking and experimenting, conditions are created for up-scaling of innovation and breakthrough of innovations” (Loorbach and Rotmans 2010: 238). These authors thus emphasise that in a transition process, “we need both pioneers operating outside and inside the incumbent power structures” (ibid.: 243). For example, the RIO project in the Netherlands, based on the creation of a reflexive arena to rethink livestock farming systems
, has enabled significant progress in establishing a consensus of new ideas among livestock farmers, supply chain stakeholders, and consumers (Bremmer and Bos 2017 in Elzen et al. 2017).
The scope of the transition process also depends on the sector in question. In agriculture and agri-food, two main situations can be distinguished, depending on whether the agro-ecological transition is mainly based on a departure from the dominant regime in terms of production methods with little engagement of the downstream, or whether it is embedded within a larger transition of the food system
(Therond et al. 2017). In the first case, the agricultural products are not distinguished from those of the dominant regime; they are often sold at global market prices. There is no distinctive quality marking, even if production methods are more respectful of the environment (e.g. grass-fed livestock, conservation agriculture). It is the relationship to the upstream that is changed through decreased input consumption or equipment needs. In the second case, beyond production methods, the transition includes a diversification of production (crops, animals, etc.), a modification in input supply, both in the choice of inputs and in the ways of accessing these resources, and new organisations in product collection, storage, or transformation, as well as in consumers’ food habits.
From the time perspective, transition researchers agree that processes underway on the societal or industry level are staggered across a 25 to 50 year period and therefore involve one to two generations (Elzen et al. 2004, 2011; Geels 2004; inter alia). However, this period can be longer, depending on the extent of the change considered. Sovacool (2016) thus believes that while studies analysing the adoption of a new technology intended for consumers (such as the refrigerator or digital technologies) fit within short timeframes (around 25 years), transitions concerning in-depth changes (such as large energy or transportation infrastructure) take place over longer periods (from 50 to 100 years). While authors analyse transitions ex-post by retracing the history of these processes over several decades, the majority of studies on transitions in the making present the state of these processes over shorter time periods and, generally speaking, over 5- to 15-year intervals, such as in the work of Elzen et al. (2011) on pig farming, Diaz et al. (2013) on green algae in Brittany, or Lascialfari et al. (Forthcoming 2019) on product innovation in the agri-food sector. These long intervals concern situations in which the transition requires getting a large number of stakeholders in the food supply chain on-board. By contrast, independent of the timeframes observed on the societal or industry level, a farm can implement the transition over much shorter intervals of only a few years when changing its production system or the way that it sells its products.
This review thus allows us to propose that the combination of these multiple changes (or their alignment, in the words of the MLP framework) a fortiori prefigures the different possible trajectories of the agroecological transition. While different trajectories are possible, we continue to use the term “agroecological transition” (AET) to refer to these change processes as a whole.