Agent-Based Change in Facilitating Sustainability Transitions

A Literature Review and a Call for Action
  • Katariina KoistinenEmail author
  • Satu Teerikangas
  • Mirja Mikkilä
  • Lassi Linnanen
Living reference work entry


How can sustainability transitions be enabled? The focus in the practice and research on sustainability transitions has traditionally been on large-scale institutional actors. However, in order to make a difference, also micro-led change, i.e., engaged individuals driving sustainable change, is needed. This chapter explores the role of engaged individuals in facilitating sustainability transitions. Who are they and what do they do? Despite much interest, this body of knowledge remains scattered across disciplines. In this chapter, the aim is to take stock of the subject matter by providing a review of the scholarly literature on agent-based change involved in sustainability transitions. The review is based on leading journals in environmental management and sustainability studies. Based on the review, challenges and key dynamics in the study of agent-based sustainability transitions are identified. Moreover, future research directions are provided. The chapter encourages individuals, starting with you and me, to awaken their agency and to start making a difference toward developing a better, more sustainable, tomorrow.


Agency Actor Micro-led change Sustainability transition Multi-level perspective Niche Incumbent 


This chapter explores the role of actor-led change in enabling sustainability transitions. Actor-led change, or agency, refers to individuals or collectives, who take a proactive stance, acting toward a more sustainable planet. With the term sustainability, the focus is on environmental sustainability. Although the connections to social and economic sustainability are acknowledged, they are not actively discussed in this chapter.

Despite the potential of engaged actors in enabling sustainability transitions, a closer look at the sustainability transitions literature leads to observe that the role of agency tends to be underplayed at the expense of a focus on technological solutions and a policy orientation (Cashmore and Wejs 2014; Bakker 2014; Mercure et al. 2016). In other words, it appears that a macro-orientation has prevailed at the expense of a micro-level perspective. In this chapter, the aim is to take stock of the current knowledge in order to find out how agency has been studied in sustainability studies, with a particular focus on the sustainability transitions literature.

To our knowledge, this chapter is the first to undertake a systematic review of the literature on agent-based sustainability transitions. The chapter thus provides an overview of the hitherto scattered literature on agent-based change in the context of sustainability transitions. This is the chapter’s main contribution. Within this contribution, the paper’s findings are twofold. First, the chapter compiles together the hitherto scattered terminology on agents involved in sustainability transitions. Second, the chapter summarizes extant understanding on the means through which agents influence sustainability transitions. Given that the field is relatively young, the paper also identifies numerous research directions going forward to guide future research endeavors. Summing up, the review finds that agency, i.e., individual and collective action, bears the potential to accomplish major sustainability transitions. Hence, the role of agency should no longer be underplayed.

The chapter proceeds as follows. The first section presents how the literature review was carried out. The literature review enabled the identification of a number of challenges in the study of agency. These are presented in section three. The fourth section presents the main findings concerning the dynamics of agency in sustainability transitions. The final section concludes by summarizing the main observations, identifies future research directions, and suggests practical implications going forward be it for activists or ordinary citizens and consumers.


As the aim of the chapter is to understand what is presently known on the role of individuals in facilitating sustainability transitions, a literature review was conducted. The review began by selecting journals from the fields of sustainability and environmental management. The aim was to achieve a representative sample of journals from the disciplines of environmental management and sustainability. The original sample included the following leading academic journals: Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Environmental Values, Business and Society, Sustainability Science, Global Environmental Change, Journal of Environmental Management, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, Journal of Environment and Development, Sustainable Development, Social Research, and Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions.

The aim was to find out how agency has been studied in the sustainability literature. The selected journals were searched using the keyword “agency.” As this initial keyword yielded only a small set of papers, the search was broadened to include multiple keywords. The aim of the journal search thus shifted from finding agency-termed papers to finding papers studying agency, however defined, in the sustainability literature. In so doing, the actually used keywords included the following set of terms: agent, agency, actor, micro, change agent, social entrepreneurship, social movement, civil society, consumer, stakeholder, tempered radical, niche, enlightened user, early adopter, private actor, collective action, individual engagement, household engagement, grassroots initiative, activism, movement, bottom-up, pro-active, pro-active motivation, distributive leadership, sustainable innovation, positive social movement, and social inclusion.

During the search for relevant articles, more journals were added to the original sample. In particular, in order to gain an appreciation of the field, reference and seminal papers were included into the literature review. This led to including journals, such as Energy Policy, Research Policy and Business, and Strategy and the Environment to the review.

The keyword search yielded a total set of over 60 journal articles published between 2002 and 2016. During the reading process, some articles were eliminated, as they were out of the scope of the paper. This led to a final sample of 25 journal articles (see Table 2) being selected for review. The analysis of these articles led to identifying two broad categories of findings: first, challenges in the study of agency in this literature; second, an overview of the means through which agents influence sustainability transitions. Going forward, the chapter proceeds using these headings.

Challenges in the Study of Agency in Sustainability Transitions

Challenge #1: Agency Is Neglected

The first observation arising from the analysis is the relative neglect of agency in the sustainability literature. All the while, the question of how transformation(s) towards more sustainable societal practices occur has gained much attention in recent years. The body of knowledge on sustainability transitions has increased, in particular, in policy research and in the social sciences (Markard et al. 2012). Four theoretical frameworks on sustainability transitions have come to dominate the discipline. These theoretical frameworks include (1) transition management, (2) strategic niche management, (3) the multi-level perspective on sociotechnical transitions, and (4) the technological innovation systems perspective (Markard et al. 2012). This chapter takes as its main focus agency in the multi-level perspective (MLP). Notwithstanding, some parts of the literature review, where agency is discussed in relation to sustainability transitions cover sustainability transitions from a more extensive theoretical perspective and adopts components from the other three theoretical frameworks discussed above.

The multi-level perspective (MLP) has been introduced and developed by Frank Geels (2002). This framework has gained prominence in the literature on sustainability transitions. This can largely be explained by the fact that the framework brings together the technical and social dimensions of sustainability transitions. Therefore, the MLP is often regarded as a theory of sustainability transition(s) especially in the frame of sociotechnical transitions. The MLP goes beyond studies of single technologies – such as wind turbines, biofuels, fuel cells, and electric vehicles – which previously dominated the literature on environmental innovation (Geels 2011). In MLP, transitions are instead described as complex, long-term processes involving multiple actors (Geels 2011). In sustainability transitions, the key question is solving how environmental innovations emerge and how these can challenge, replace, transform, and reconfigure existing, typically unsustainable, technologies and systems (Geels 2011).

The multi-level perspective is built on the assumption that structure exists at three different levels of analysis: the niche-level, the regime-level, and the landscape-level. Technological trajectories are situated in a sociotechnical landscape, consisting in a set of deep structural trends, such as economic growth or oil price (Geels 2002). The landscape is described as an external structure or as a context wherein the interactions of actors occur. Whereas regimes refer to rules that enable and constrain activities within communities, the sociotechnical landscape refers to wider factors beyond technology. Notwithstanding, the context of landscape is more difficult to change than the context of regimes. Landscapes eventually change, but slower than regimes. It is typical for regimes to generate incremental innovations. In contrast, radical innovations are generated in niches (Geels 2002). The status quo and hence the existing landscape and regimes are premised on actors continuing to conform to the current structure, as either they are seen as legitimate or their legitimacy is taken for granted (Cashmore and Wejs 2014). It is into this setting that hypothetically the role of agency can be set. If the perspective to agency is shifted from a passive conforming role (as above) to an active shaping role, then there is a space for individual actors to impact sustainability transitions. So what is it that extant literature states about active agency?

Several scholars have recognized that agency plays an essential role in sustainable transitions. Agency also forms an integral part of the multi-level perspective (Geels 2011; Upham et al. 2015). In the MLP, agency is considered in the form of bounded rationality, this including individuals’ routines and interpretive activities. However, certain types of agency remain less developed, including rational choice, power struggles, and cultural discursive activities (Geels 2011).

In this literature, it is suggested that agency is crucial in order to create social change. Moreover, agency is necessary during particular episodes of a sustainability transition (Grin et al. 2011; King 2008; Wiek et al. 2012). Instead of one, in practice there are multiple agents seeking to influence the progress of a transition (Grin et al. 2011). Agency is critical, as agents possess the abilities, means, and power for deliberate action, and can thus contribute toward more sustainable societies (Wiek et al. 2012). Agency also bears an influence on the internal conception of sustainability and on individuals’ interpretations of sustainability; in so doing, agency helps to further embed sustainability beyond themselves (Lehner 2015; Heijden et al. 2012).

Based on the literature, agency is recognized as an integral part of sustainability transitions. What is more, extant literature has found that agents are capable of contributing to sustainability transitions. Despite this acknowledgment, in practice the role of agency remains neglected in the multi-level perspective (Smith et al. 2005; Shove and Walker 2007; Genus and Coles 2008; Bakker 2014). Taking a critical stance, the MLP has been accused for downplaying the role of agency during transitions (Geels 2011).

Beyond the multi-level perspective, agency has been studied in the general literature exploring the interfaces on science, technology, and society. Here, a central debate concerns the recreation of governance and new environmental regimes. In this literature, the role of agency has been suggested to be significant. All the while, also in this literature, the role of agency tends to remain empirically neglected (Clapp 1998; Haufler 1998; Ehrlich 2006; Rothenberg and Levy 2012). If the focus of research on sustainability transitions relies on technological development and existing regime actors only, there is a risk that agency reinforces existing regimes rather than yield novel or radical innovations and forms a basis for transitions (Audet 2014). This explains the need for more agency-related research. Through an enhanced understanding of the role of agency in sustainability transitions, individuals can be empowered, and their agentic capabilities utilized to create better futures.

To summarize, despite the acknowledgment of agency in the literatures on sustainability transitions, it appears that the role of agency remains underplayed.

Challenge #2: Scattered Terminology in the Study of Agency

The second challenge in the study of agency in sustainability transitions relates to the difficulty of capturing the essence of agency. The analysis conducted for this review suggests that the terminology in the study of agency is scattered, definitions are loose or nonexistent, and the underpinning theoretical bases are thin. These issues are reviewed next, starting with a review of seminal theorizing on the concept of agency.

Agency is a central term in the social sciences. The term agency has its roots in sociology, where the nature of agency and its relation to the larger environment (or structure) is discussed. In sociology, agency tends to be interpreted as the human capability to make free choices and to have an impact on one’s environment. In this chapter, agency is explored and defined using the lenses of Anthony Giddens and Margaret Archer, seminal sociologists whose theorizing has come to shape the contemporary debate on agency.

The interplay between individuals and their environment is an essential component in structuration theory, as elaborated initially by Anthony Giddens (1984) and later by, e.g., William Sewell (1992, 2001). In structuration theory, agency is considered as the bidirectional movement between individuals and their surroundings (Dean et al. 2016). Giddens emphasizes that agency and structures are ultimately inseparable (Giddens 1984). Agency determines structure, which consequently determines the possibilities for the expression of agency (Giddens 1984). This means that structure and agency are co-produced (Cashmore and Wejs 2014). Following Giddens, Margaret Archer (1995) offers another perspective to the debate on structure and agency. Archer sees structure and agency as appearing, instead of a dichotomy, as two separate functions in constant movement (Archer 1995). Agency constantly affects structure, yet agency is also constantly affected by structure (Archer 1995).

In addition to the structure-agency debate, there are numerous other definitions and perspectives to agency. Taking one example, John Law’s (1992) Actor Network Theory (ANT) considers how the “social” can take forms beyond merely human ones. This bears implications for what is considered the remit of agency. Looked at from this perspective, agency can conceptually appear in social systems such as the economy or in ideas, in materials, or in other forms of life including animals (Law 1992). Recently, individualistic conceptions of subjectivity and human agency have come to be critiqued for failing to recognize the historical, political, and social conditions, and limitations of everyday life (Autio et al. 2009). Consequently, such considerations ought to be part of future research endeavors.

In contrast, the review of literature on agency in sustainability transitions reveals little connection to this seminal theorizing on agency. It thus appears that the term agency is used “lightly” with little consideration of its sociological roots. In addition to the scattered terminology surrounding agency, we observed the definitions of agency to be lacking in numerous papers; see Table 1. When defined, the definitions in use varied. Some authors, such as, Audet (2014), Cashmore and Wejs (2014), and Upham et al. (2015), followed Giddens’ (1984) definition for the agency, in which agency is co-produced within the larger environment. Other authors, such as, Corry and Jørgensen (2015) or Mercure et al. (2016), defined agency simply as the free will of actors.
Table 1

Authors of the final sample and if there is or if there is not a definition for agency

Authors who have defined agency in some way

Authors who have not defined agency

Audet 2014; Cashmore and Wejs 2014; Corry and Jørgensen 2015; Geels 2011; Grin et al. 2011; Larsen et al. 2011; Mercure et al. 2016; Wiek et al. 2012; Upham et al. 2015

Bakker 2014; Bergek et al. 2015; Bork et al. 2015; Fudge et al. 2016; Geels 2002, 2005, 2013, 2014; Kern 2015; King 2008; Klitkou et al. 2015; Rothenberg and Levy 2012; Seyfang and Longhurst 2013; Whetten and Mackey 2002; Wittmayer and Schäpke 2014; Åm 2015

What is more, the study of agency in sustainability transitions uses numerous terms. While the term agency or actor might be used in the MLP perspective, a closer look at the empirical work on agency shows a more scattered picture. Initially, the review and keyword searches were conducted using the term “agency.” However, during the article search and literature review processes, it became apparent that this core term did not capture the richness and diversity of academic research on agency involved in sustainability transitions. This led to the observation that the notion of agency is implied using numerous terms. The term “agency” is thus not consistently used in the literature on sustainability transitions. A closer look at this terminology leads to the observation that the term “agency” appears most often in the journals sampled for this review. The second most frequent word in use is “actor.” In addition to the terms “agency” and “actor, ” agency is referred to using terms such as “strategic agency,” “collective action,” “niche action,” “stakeholder,” “niche actor,” “new entrant,” “change agent,” “private actor,” “institutional entrepreneur,” “niche,” “civil society,” “social actor,” “social agent,” “organizational agent,” and “micro.” This plethora of terms might, in part, explain why the study of agency in sustainability transitions is scattered and seems neglected. An overview of this scholarly literature, as provided in this chapter, has been missing. Table 2 summarizes this understanding of how agency appears in the core articles studied for this literature review.
Table 2

Agency-related terms in use in sustainability transitions literatures

Used terms



Bakker 2014; Cashmore and Wejs 2014; Corry and Jørgensen 2015; Geels 2002, 2005, 2011, 2013, 2014; Grin et al. 2011; Kern 2015; Larsen et al. 2011; Mercure et al. 2016; Upham et al. 2015; Åm 2015

Strategic agency

Grin et al. 2011


Audet 2014; Bakker 2014; Bergek et al. 2015; Bork et al. 2015; Geels 2002, 2005, 2011, 2013, 2014; Kern 2015; King 2008; Klitkou et al. 2015

Collective action

Fudge et al. 2016; King 2008

Niche action

Fudge et al. 2016


King 2008; Wiek et al. 2012

Niche actor

Geels 2002, 2005, 2011, 2013, 2014

New entrant

Klitkou et al. 2015

Change agent

Wittmayer and Schäpke 2014

Private actor

Rothenberg and Levy 2012

Institutional entrepreneur

Rothenberg and Levy 2012


Seyfang and Longhurst 2013

Civil society

Seyfang and Longhurst 2013

Social actor

Whetten and Mackey 2002

Social agent

Wiek et al. 2012


Åm 2015

In closing, in order to address the limitations of previous literature, in this chapter, the terms “agency” or “actor” are consistently used to refer to engaged individuals shaping sustainability transitions. Following Giddens and Archer, agency is considered as the individual’s potential to act in one’s surroundings and to affect structure(s). Moreover, this chapter acknowledges the ambivalent motivations and strategies for the agency, i.e., agency can act as a positive force encouraging change, or as a negative force resisting change. These dynamics are explored in greater detail in the next section.

What Is Known on Agency in Sustainability Transitions?

In this part of the literature review, the focus shifts to appreciating and summarizing the main findings on agency in sustainability transitions. The findings are presented with respect to (1) who is an agent, (2) individual versus collective forms of agency, and (3) how agents affect sustainability transitions. In the latter category, the power struggle between active agents on the one hand and incumbent agents on the other hand takes center stage.

Who Is an Agent?

Extant literature considers that agency can be enacted at all systems levels in the multi-level perspective (Åm 2015). Geels (2011) argues that agency is apparent throughout the MLP. This effect is apparent in two ways. For one, trajectories and multi-level alignments are de facto constituted by social groups. This means that the pathways towards sustainability transition are ultimately dependent on social interactions, which occur throughout and across the different levels of the MLP. For another, different structural levels are continuously reproduced and adapted by agents. In other words, agency is implicitly and explicitly embedded into the MLP perspective.

All the while, the focus of agency research in sustainability transitions has largely retained a focus at the niche level (Geels 2011; Upham et al. 2015). Taking a look at exemplars of this research tradition, it can be observed that some have equated sustainability agency with resilience. Such agency is helpful in disaster risk reduction, e.g., when faced with societal sustainability threats (Larsen et al. 2011). Expressions of agency, such as green consumers or civil society, have also been related to the niche level. Thus, the question of sustainable consumption is widely acknowledged. Green consumers are described as goal-oriented agents and influential market actors, who use their purchasing power to bring forth social change by taking into account the environmental consequences of their consumption patterns (Moisander 2001; Autio et al. 2009).

In addition to proactive sustainability-driving agency, also incumbent agency exists. Incumbents refer to members representing the vested interests of the prevailing regime. Challenging the status-quo results in resistance from the current regime, i.e., the incumbent agents (Markard et al. 2012). At the level of governing systems, the existence and the role of stakeholder agency has also been acknowledged (Larsen et al. 2011). Furthermore, agency has been recognized as part of policy making. In this literature, the role of agency has been suggested to be significant (Clapp 1998; Haufler 1998; Ehrlich 2006; Rothenberg and Levy 2012), though in practice neglected in academic research and practice.

In summary, the role of agents in sustainability transitions is acknowledged, but an appreciation of their influence mechanisms remains limited. Moreover, the ways in which agents appear and act at different system levels remains understudied. Since the current knowledge related to agency mainly focuses on the niche level, the interplay between agents at different levels of MLP, and especially the role of regime and landscape agents, needs more attention.

Individual Versus Collective Forms of Agency

In addition to merely representing an individual’s capability to act, agency can develop into collective action (Seyfang and Smith 2007). This literature emphasizes the agents’ capability to influence one other and thus evolve from individual to collective action. This, by its sheer force, poses a greater threat to the current system than the micro-level action of lone individuals.

As an example, amidst the early green movements, broad-scale social change was seen as deriving from collective action (Gabriel and Lang 1995; Jamison 2001; Autio et al. 2009). Achieving sustainability benefits happens often through small community-based initiatives, since they typically utilize contextualized local knowledge (Seyfang and Smith 2007). The pursuit of sustainability transitions needs to be integrated with the contextual knowledge of consumers and local communities (Grin et al. 2011).

Change agency can support and empower local communities to shape a process that suits their purposes and allows them to place their own concerns on the sustainability agenda (Wittmayer and Schäpke 2014). The question of why and how some actors are able to facilitate change, and others not, deserves attention. As agents are capable of influencing one another, the overall effect of agency needs to be considered within the remit of complex system dynamics, which themselves are formed by social interaction (Mercure et al. 2016). Such system social dynamics and their link to agency need further attention, in order to advance the understanding of emerging bottom-up sustainability transitions that grow from individual actions toward collective action.

Taking the opposite perspective, agency can also be derived from collective behavior. Thus, certain types of civic environmentalist group operate upon the collectivist assumption that the group/state is the agent of change/status quo (Corry and Jørgensen 2015). Agency is in this perspective considered as acts that are reflecting agents’ values and norms (Hansen et al. 2015). Consequently, by finding other actors with similar values and norms, individual agency can develop into collective agency.

Instead of concentrating on one specific agent and the resulting “natural” limits to agency, the question of whether and how agents are able to connect needs more attention (Grin et al. 2011). Collective action is considered a promising, but underresearched, area in the realm of sustainability transitions (Seyfang and Smith 2007; Seyfang and Longhurst 2013). To conclude, agents’ collective action bears potential in achieving large-scale sustainability transitions. However, the question of what kinds of processes drive collective action remains largely unknown.

Agency Enabling Sustainability and Societal Transitions

The potential of agents lies in their capability to shape and challenge the prevailing, currently unsustainable regime. Based on the literature review, it is observed that agents are crucial components of sustainability transitions. This section explores what is known on their role in this regard in extant scholarly literature.

Niche Versus Incumbent Actors

As noted earlier, the role of agency in sociotechnical transitions and its treatment in the literature have been widely debated. Several scholars have argued that the role of agency tends to be underrated in the multilevel perspective (Smith et al. 2005; Shove and Walker 2007; Genus and Coles 2008). During the recent years, researchers have attempted to fill this gap with analyses of actor strategies in transitions (Farla et al. 2012). These analyses attempt to cover both sides of the coin: agents supporting transitions (Markard and Truffer 2008; Musiolik and Markard 2011; Budde et al. 2012) as well as incumbents hindering transitions (Smink et al. 2015; Geels 2014).

Niche agency is considered essential for sustainability transitions, given that it bears the potential for systemic change and radical innovations (Geels 2011). Niche agents are often referred as engaged individuals driving societal innovation. The hope of niche agents is that the innovations they introduce will find their place in the existing regime, perhaps even replacing the latter (Geels 2011). However, incumbents bear a remarkable advantage over new agents, owing to being more widely acknowledged and enjoying legitimacy in the current system (Klitkou et al. 2015).

However, making a clear-cut divide and distinction between supporters and opponents of sustainability transitions is tricky. This distinction relies on the dichotomy between old systems and incumbent actors on the one hand, and newly emerging systems and proactive niche actors on the other (Bakker 2014). Yet, it needs to be remembered that different types of actors can enact many kinds of roles. For instance, incumbent regime actors may display ambivalent strategies (Bakker 2014). In practice, incumbent agents are constrained by parameters from the existing regime. Sustainability transitions enacted by incumbents have been found to follow trajectories set by the current regime, thereby evolving through incremental innovation (Geels and Schot 2007). It thus appears that there is potential for proactive agency also amid incumbent actors, though this agency is more incremental in nature in contrast with the more radical nature of niche agents. The present literature, however, seems not to have fully tapped into this perspective. The role of incumbent agents in contributing toward sustainability needs to be recognized.

Active Agent Strategies

A key conundrum in the literature relates to whether agency can influence the prevailing system (Bergek et al. 2015.) Several studies suggest that by empowering ordinary people and communities, agency might be the most effective means of creating sustainable futures (Walker et al. 2010; Fudge et al. 2016).

In the MLP paradigm, it is acknowledged that agents are able to introduce transitions outside of the prevailing regime. In particular, it has been observed that discursive activities at regime and niche levels result in cultural repertoires and changes at the landscape level (Geels and Schot 2007; Geels and Verhees 2011; Geels 2011). Agents have further been found to be capable of influencing the speed at which transitions occur. According to the sociotechnical approach, agency is considered to affect how and how fast a particular transition develops. In the complex systems approach, agents are able to utilize and create windows of opportunity for enabling transitions (Grin et al. 2011). Effective sustainable transitions depend on agency driving niche-level innovations, implementing regime-level changes, and connecting niche and regime levels (Grin et al. 2011). Essential for regime shaping agency is to understand the opportunities and limitations implied by the prevailing context, and the ability to expand one’s span of agency by positioning oneself broader in space and time (Grin et al. 2011). The encouraging finding from extant research is that agency can make a difference.

The actions of agents are targeted toward replacing the prevailing regime. In order to challenge this regime, new innovations have to achieve legitimacy (Bork et al. 2015; Haxeltine and Seyfang 2009). Legitimacy is achieved by surpassing resistance to change. Understanding incumbent agents’ but also niche agents’ behavior, actions, and strategies is crucial to overcome the resistance toward large-scale transitions (Gazheli et al. 2012).

The current regime embodies power: the rules, resources, and actor configurations, which are part of the regime, privilege particular practices over others (Grin et al. 2011). Whereas the incumbent regime uses its power to create resistance towards change, regime changes eventually lead to changes in power relations (Grin et al. 2011). For regime-shaping agents, the challenge is to create mutually reinforcing transition and political dynamics that start to destabilize the prevailing power dynamics between incumbent and sustainable practices – this, over time, can bear a destabilizing effect on the established regime (Grin et al. 2011). Such a destabilization process may emerge through common visions or through the graduate, self-reinforcing structuring of (agentic) practices (Grin et al. 2011). All the while, the power balance and dynamics between agents and incumbents and how this leads to shifting power relations and new forms of legitimacy are not yet fully understood (Grin et al. 2011). One reason for this might be that agents are often considered merely as tools, instead of social beings. The social processes and dynamics of agentic activity might have considerable influence on the effectiveness of a transition. Presently, such processes remain underresearched.

Incumbent Strategies

Since agents bear the potential to transform the current regime, the existing regime is likely to react. Notwithstanding, the literature has acknowledged the confrontation between agents and incumbents. The typical question related to the early stages of institutionalization is thus the interplay between those who try to create change, agents, and those who oppose it, incumbents (Delbridge and Edwards 2008). As noted earlier, in transitions that also include broad systemic changes, there are multiple forms of agents that can act collectively (Farla et al. 2012). However, the involvement of several different kinds of agents may result in conflicts, since they might possess ambivalent interests and motivations (Coenen et al. 2012). Conflict can thus occur both at the level of active actors as well as between agents and incumbents.

As transitions challenge and ultimately aim to replace the existing regime, considerable resistance from incumbent agents can be expected (Geels 2005; Markard et al. 2012). Resistance may be passive, resulting from existing institutions that exclude the new, emerging system, or it may be active resistance from incumbent agents protecting their vested interests granted by the existing regime (Smink et al. 2013; Geels 2014; Bakker 2014). The strategies of incumbent agents are thus typically directed at delegitimizing the entering agency category (Geels and Verhees 2011; Bork et al. 2015).

Previous literature has primarily highlighted the incumbents’ active resistance to change, but in reality the situation might be more complex (Bergek et al. 2015). Hence, instead of confrontation, the potential for synergies between agents and incumbents need consideration (Haley 2015; Bergek et al. 2015). For example, it has been observed that the opponents and proponents of transitions adjust their discursive framings to increase the salience of expression or discourse along five dimensions: actor credibility, empirical fit, centrality, experiential commensurability, and macro-cultural resonance (Geels and Verhees 2011; Geels 2011).

Many, often unsustainable, systems are rigid and filled with lock-in mechanisms (Geels 2011). A stable incumbent regime is the outcome of various lock-in processes, which become reinforced against novel innovations (Klitkou et al. 2015). Incumbents’ institutional commitments, shared beliefs and discourses, power relations, and political lobbying reinforce the existing system (Unruh 2000; Geels 2011). Since lock-in mechanisms reinforce a certain pathway of economic, technological, industrial, and institutional development, the opportunity of upscaling a given niche depends on the characteristics of the regime in question (Klitkou et al. 2015).

At the regime level, incumbents use their power and control the status-quo. This leads niche agents to establish alliances with incumbents in order to conserve their innovations (Rothaermel 2001; Geels and Schot 2007; Bergek et al. 2015). This disparity between incumbents’ and niche agents’ power relations and available resources typically leads to transitions that are set by parameters of the current system. In order to achieve a truly sustainable system, cooperation between innovation-driving agency and incumbent agency is needed.

As in the MLP paradigm generally speaking, also in the agency-incumbent debate, agency is considered mainly at the niche level. However, it has been observed that incumbent actors may withhold strategies and motivations that overlap with those of niche agents. This finding bears potential for synergies between niche-level agents and regime, or landscape-level, agents. What is more, agency appears in multiple forms and in multiple levels – for this reason, a focus on the niche level is insufficient. More attention is needed to better understand the role of agents that are somewhat between active incumbents and active agents (Bakker 2014). In addition, the motivations of agents and how incumbents’ situational experiences influence on their agency are not yet fully understood. It is noteworthy that there is an opportunity for incumbent agents to act differently. If they display ambivalent strategies, then they do withhold the potential to support and enable niche agents.

In closing, these findings suggest that the present understanding on agency is limited and especially the interplay between various agents is still underplayed in literature. In addition, the representation of agency is narrow and the forces driving agency are not yet well understood. To conclude, the most promising finding of the literature review related to agency in sustainability transitions is the agents’ capability to make a difference toward transforming the world. However, many factors related to agency remain underresearched. There is a need to develop a holistic perspective on how agency influences sustainability transitions.

Future Research Directions

In addition to the afore-mentioned challenges and key findings, the literature review resulted in identifying four possible areas for future research. These are explored next.

Agency Formation

To begin with, more research is warranted to explore how agency is formed. While agency is known to play an important role in sustainability transitions, the means through which agency is formed remains rather unknown. Further, the processes through which individual agency and collective action emerge and the factors influencing the processes of agency emergence remain unresolved. It is thus critical to appreciate how agency shifts from individual-level action towards collective behavior (King 2008). Different forms of agency and the environments in which they appear further warrant investigation (Kern 2015).

In parallel, in order to understand agency that transforms the status quo, the drivers and motivations of agents need to be looked into (Cashmore and Wejs 2014). Individual circumstances and factors emerging from agents’ personal interpretations will influence the transition process (Rothenberg and Levy 2012). Bakker (2014) suggests that more attention is warranted toward understanding agents’ rationales to influence emerging sociotechnical systems, since agents likely have individual preferences and pathways toward achieving their desires. This leads to conclude that the formation processes and the motivations of agents, regardless of their type, are essential research pathways in order to develop a more profound understanding of sustainability transitions.

Psychological Dimensions of Agency

The second proposed research direction relates to studying the psychological and social dimensions of agency. Whereas the current literature acknowledges that agents play a crucial role in sustainability transitions, detailed knowledge and integration of the psychological processes involved in sustainability-related agency are largely missing (Geels 2013; Upham et al. 2015). Even though agency is part of the multi-level perspective and the processes by which agency is expressed are increasingly specified (Geels 2014), the psychological dimensions of agency in the MLP are largely unknown (Whitmarsh 2012). What is more, processes of agency in general tend to be neglected (Meadowcroft 2009). An appreciation of the life paths of agents is needed. Extant research thus does not acknowledge who agents actually are in a social or psychological sense.

Diversity in Forms and Dynamics of Agency

The third suggestion for future research is to extend the study of agency to the diversity of agent types and to examine the interplay between these agent types, whether at niche, regime, and landscape levels.

Even though there have been attempts to develop the MLP further and to pay attention to other types of agency, transition theory has focused on macro-level agency, including corporate, technology, and policy actors. Other types of agents, in particular consumers, representing the demand side, are largely neglected (Grin et al. 2011). By simultaneously addressing regime and niche agency, the MLP paradigm could benefit from incorporating insights from management studies, including organization theory and strategic management (Geels 2011). In this regard, the literature on strategic alliances offers relevant insights to the synergies between incumbents and agents driving sustainable transitions (Geels 2011).

Beyond the niche-incumbent continuum, variety with respect to forms and expressions of agency tends to be neglected in the sociotechnical transitions literature, including the multi-level perspective (Whitmarsh 2012). A diverse agent basis is crucial in the diffusion process of innovations, be it with respect to technological innovations or practice-based innovations (Knobloch and Mercure 2016). Nevertheless, the heterogeneity of agency has largely been neglected to date (Mercure et al. 2016). While the diversity of agency has recently been acknowledged, different forms of agency remain unexplored (Cashmore and Wejs 2014).

The variety of agency includes a diversity of representatives inside the current system, and representatives, for example, in the business environment, which could be interpreted as incumbent agents. Whereas their trajectory towards sustainability might differ from niche agents driving novel innovations, they nevertheless contribute to sustainability whether in passive or active roles. The drivers and motivations of incumbent agents are underresearched in the existing literature. By enabling interaction and cooperation between regime and niche agents, sustainability transitions could possibly emerge in a shorter time span. This further explains why an understanding of agency also at regime and landscape levels is needed.

Representations of Agents Are Narrow

The fourth research direction calls for research on the multiple representations of agency. Taking a critical stance, most of the reviewed literature focuses on the roles of agents from an outcome perspective, rather than from a motivation or power perspective. In the existing literature, agents are seen as components that have the potential to shape the status-quo and to enable sustainability transitions. Therefore, current representations of agents are relatively functionalist and narrow. Power dynamics and motivational factors of agents might bear a significant influence on sustainability transitions. Hence, they should no longer remain in the dark.

Even though the use of the term agency can sometimes be inconsistent and the knowledge about agency remains scattered across the discipline, the literature does not question the role of agency in sustainability transitions. Past literature has emphasized agency at the niche level. However, an appreciation of how agency appears across the different levels of the multi-level perspective remains absent. In addition, an understanding of how agents’ motivation and power varies depending on the location within the system is lacking. Therefore, more research is warranted to address the representations, motivations, rationales, locations, and processes of agency across different locations of the multi-level perspective. In addition, beyond a focus on the multi-level framework, more research on agency is needed across the discipline of sustainability transitions. To conclude, holistic representations of agency are needed to develop a comprehensive understanding of sustainability transitions.

Summary of the Research Trajectories

Based on the literature review, it appears that the study of agency in sustainability transitions is a field calling for extensive research endeavors. Further, it seems that such research endeavors can support societal transitions toward better futures.

A number of questions remain unresolved. Table 3 provides a summative overview of the findings of the literature review in terms of what is known versus what is not yet known. In short, research is warranted to appreciate the processes, motivations, diversity, and representations of agency at the different levels of the multi-level perspective. Beyond a focus on the multi-level framework, more research on agency is needed across the discipline of sustainability studies and transitions. The motivations and rationales of agents were observed to be a theme cutting across the four identified research directions. This implies that in order to (1) to achieve a thorough understanding of agency and (2) sustainability transitions, it is critical to appreciate the motivations and rationales of agents. Are you an agent, and what motivates you?
Table 3

What is known and what is not yet known

What is known:

Who is an agent? – A tool for transition

What is not yet known:

Who is an agent? – A social being

Agency exists

What are agents’ rationales, life paths, psychological processes, and motivations?

Agency can grow from individual action to collective action

What are the processes behind the formation of agency at (1) the individual level and at (2) the collective level?

All levels of MLP have agency

Research concentrates on the niche level. Regime and landscape levels have agency too. What other kinds of agency is there? How could different agent types, particularly across the niche-regime-landscape levels, create synergy?

Agency drives or hinders sustainability transitions

The representation of agency is narrow; agents may have ambivalent strategies. What are the rationales of agents? What are the intertwined dynamics of proactive versus hindering agency? What kinds of power dynamics are at play?

Agents are seen as outcomes. They are known to be crucial parts of sustainability transition

Agents are critical toward sustainability transitions but what are their motivations? How agency is formed?

Implications for Activists

In this section, the focus shifts onto the practical implications emerging from the literature review for environmental and sustainability activists.

The encouraging finding from the literature review is that agents, or individuals, matter. The literature emphasizes agents as the introducers and drivers of sustainability transitions. Active agents have been found to be able to exert pressure on the current system, thereby shaping the existing regime.

Sustainability activists may play a critical role as agents of sustainable change. Activists are typically deeply engaged to their agenda. Also, their resilience towards challenges is high. Hence the role of activists’ in sustainability transitions is nonnegligible, and might even emerge as system critical. Whereas sustainability activists are individually engaged toward the sustainability agenda, they are also capable of creating collective action. They inspire likeminded people to join them for the cause of creating a better future. As stated in the literature, collective action can be a solution for large-scale sustainability transitions. Activists that act as leaders of collective sustainability action can create large-scale leverage on the sustainability agenda. For example, many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) act as sustainability intermediates by exerting pressure on unsustainable business environments and governing systems. While activists and collective action may appear in several forms, every action towards sustainability matters. Such active agency is needed for several reasons: First, owing to the activists’ overt role in acting toward a more sustainable future. Second, to inspire like-minded agents. Third, to awaken “sleeping agents,” i.e., individuals that do not yet understand their potential for sustainable agency.

To conclude, different activists and activist groups can act as sustainability agents, in so doing facilitating the processes of sustainability transitions. The findings from this chapter encourage activists to pursue their actions and, where possible, to inspire others to join their agenda. No action is too small in contributing to sustainable futures. The role of activists as system catalyzing change agents is nonnegligible.

There Is Only One Planet: A Call for Action for Everyone

One of the underlying aims of this chapter was to make an impact on ordinary people via an appreciation of research-led findings on sustainable change agency. The assumption was that by communicating research findings, individuals can be empowered towards engaged sustainability and sustainable actions regardless of the role that they find themselves in, be it as citizens, consumers, commuters, and/or decision-makers. The final section of this chapter is thus a call for action for individuals, regardless of their location, profession, and identity. The time is now. There is only one planet.

Perhaps the singularly most inspiring message of this chapter is that every sustainable act, each sustainability movement, each consumption decision matters. Put bluntly, all forms and representations of agency matter. The characteristic of human nature is to bear agency. It is up to each individual to decide how this agency is enacted – whether by passively conforming to societal standards, including unsustainable or unethical ones, or by acting proactively toward creating a better future.

To begin with, everyone can be the agent of one’s life. This encourages individuals to connect with and to cherish the agency within (Wood et al. 2018; Krogman 2018). This echoes the principles of personal development, as found in philosophical traditions across cultures. Further, individuals can recognize that each of their thoughts, actions, and behaviors has an impact on the surrounding systems, whether this action is explicit or implicit. Becoming aware and conscious of one’s impact on the surrounding micro-environment is a first step in developing one’s agency. Such impacts are visible in one’s family environment, but also with one’s peers be it at work or in social and societal situations at large (Schiele 2017; Zeiss 2018). The acts of agency may be, for example, moving towards paperless offices or to choosing vegetarian lunch (Dhiman 2018). Or just being nice to random colleagues or passers-by.

While ordinary citizens, you and me, might not change their lifestyles immediately, the continuously growing interest and demand for sustainable living environments and solutions is acting as a snowball effect that can shape the current regime toward greater degrees of sustainability. As an example to this end, vegan and healthy eating habits have increased considerably in the last years, resulting in leading retailers having to broaden their supply in order to cater for this customer base.

Individuals further have the potential to proactively express society-shaping agency, be it in professional or personal life, via voluntary work or peer conversations. In addition to individual agency, collective agency is also needed. Numerous social movements are active locally and internationally. There are a myriad of ways of connecting to like-minded peers be it via social media platforms or in person. Ordinary citizens can create greater leverage by joining together and generating new sustainable collective actions. The leverage offered by social media platforms is nonnegligible in this respect. These implications can also be used in educating future generations. Education might be one of the most potent forms of igniting sustainable agency.

What is your next move? Will you take hummus or steak for lunch today? Ride a bike or car to work tomorrow? Fly to long-haul Costa Rica or enjoy local holidays? Keep enjoying long showers or save water? Smile to your neighbor and an unknown passer-by? Reply to an emotional punch with empathy? The possibilities are unlimited. Such acts of agency can gradually develop into routines that may lead to sustainable practices. To conclude, there is perhaps no need to despair, once the role of everyday action and individuals become actively recognized. People do hold the key for a better future. What is your next move? How will you act on the sustainability landscape?


The aim of this chapter was to study how agency appears in the current literature of sustainability and environmental management. This chapter provided a multi-disciplinary literature review, which focused on the role of agency in sustainability transitions and especially on the multi-level perspective (MLP). The focus was on agency, since agency is a key component in successful sustainability transitions, and hence also in the pursuit of sustainable societies and environments.

This chapter contributes to the sustainability literature by bringing together the scattered knowledge related to agency. The most invigorating finding from this review of literature is that agency truly matters. Agents are acknowledged to introduce and drive sustainability transitions, and they have a crucial role in the trajectory towards sustainability. Agency is also known to evolve from individual to collective agency. In addition, as agency appears throughout the multi-level perspective, sustainability agents are positioned at every level of the society. The question then is, who is active and who is passive, in enacting their agency?

Secondly, this chapter contributed to the sustainability transitions literature by identifying several gaps in the current body of knowledge. The review revealed that, overall, agency remains neglected in the sustainability literature. Whereas agency is acknowledged, the representation of agency is narrow. Agents are seen as tools for sustainability transitions rather than individuals that possess individual rationales and aspirations. The life paths, motivations, and other psychological processes of agents remain currently underresearched. The knowledge on how agency is formed and how it evolves toward collective action is missing. Moreover, even though all levels of MLP have agency, the research has concentrated on niche agency. In order to further the understanding of sustainability transitions, the interplay between niche and regime, or landscape, agents needs to be addressed.

Based on the review, the chapter ended with important practical implications for activists on the one hand, and all citizens on the other hand. The message from the chapter is clear – agents, or individuals, matter. What kind of an agent are you, and how is it that you are contributing to the betterment of the planet through your daily actions? The future is here, and the choice to act is yours. As authors, we argue for the need to awaken and energize agency across the planet.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katariina Koistinen
    • 1
    Email author
  • Satu Teerikangas
    • 2
    • 3
  • Mirja Mikkilä
    • 1
  • Lassi Linnanen
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Energy SystemsLappeenranta University of TechnologyLappeenrantaFinland
  2. 2.Turku School of EconomicsTurku UniversityTurkuFinland
  3. 3.School of Construction and Project Management, Bartlett Faculty of the Built EnvironmentUniversity College LondonLondonUK

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