What is a transition challenge and what roles have engineers had in the development of technological systems?

By: Magnus Maduro Nørbo, Engineering Student - MSc Sustainable Design - Aalborg University Copenhagen            Photo by Thomas Richter           

This and the next four columns are made as academic blogs as a part of the master study in Sustainable Design at Aalborg University Copenhagen. These blogs will take a point of reference in sustainable development to discuss and account for how the socio-technical system of energy/electricity have the possibility to be transformed to a more sustainable system. This first blog will consider what a transition challenge is and what roles have engineers had in the development of technological systems with the theoretical view of Frank W. Geels (2007) Multilevel perspective that builds on the text Technologies in Tension (2001) by Gijs P. A. Mom and David A. Kirsch. 


As many societies have experienced throughout history we in the 21th century are living in a time of transition. Our technology mediated civilisation are now facing some serious ecological and environmental challenges. These challenges stretches throughout socio-technical systems like the energy, transport, housing and food system and demands awareness on sustainable development of the systems. Concepts like sustainable development, sustainable consumption and sustainable production have gained higher impact, spread and prioritization on a global scale during the last two decades as seen in the video example by AkzoNobel here below. 

Video - Sustainable Development - AkzoNobel (2015) 

The agenda and trends of sustainability are seen all trough different levels of society. The United Nations - Department of Economic and Social Affairs published in 2010 the report “Trends in Sustainable Development” that highlights the rise of global movements towards sustainability. These movements is are seen at the trends of global transition tendencies in sustainable development projects across the world. The developments spreads from environmental labeling, implementation of public sectoral buying policies to the rise of sustainable cities and a change in market behavior (United Nations 2010). But are we as society able to change the tracks for our societal systems and take the necessary decisions to secure future generations? Or are we as society only able to make such incremental decisions when we are stressed economically?

84% OF DANES ARE READY TO PAY A LITTLE BIT MORE FOR MORE SUSTAINABLE GOODS. ONLY ¼ OF THEM ARE READY TO PAY ABOVE 20% MORE. -               Konkurrence og Forbrugerstyrelsen - Forbrugerpanelet 2010 - TNS Gallup

I would think that - as the quote says - most people today have such insight into the global ecological environment problems taking place that almost every single one of us would say yes to change a technology out with a more sustainable one, if it would not affect our everyday life negatively. But when you look at some of the older and established system in our society like the consumption and production of the socio-technical system energy/electricity (Geels 2007), then you look at a coherent system of production and use systems consisting of production structures, technology, science, complementary technologies as well as consumer and professional use (Blewitt, 2014). Thus must a socio-technical system energy/electricity system be affected by and affects social and technological relationships, as it is seen with the mobility systems in Kirsch & Mom 2004 and Geels (2007). The system energy/electricity is composed many actors and actants as supplies, politics, power grids, maintenance, market structure, distribution network, private and professional use and cultural and symbolic values ​​that may lie in the system energy / electricity - these values could be mobility, freedom and individuality created by the technologies the system operates, as it was seen with the automobil in in Kirsch & Mom 2004 and Geels (2007). A change or full replacement of a component, such as a technology in a socio-technical system will eventually affect all elements of the system, if the replacing component is not adequate. In this way the different elements of a system creates the path dependencies that Geels (2007) reference to as “Lock-in’s”. This path dependency can be a factor that prevents new sustainable initiatives within a system. One of the challenges in Transition is that path dependence helps to define socio-technical systems but can also lock them in a certain path so it doesn't evolve and it can be seen in relation to the three parts of the system mentioned in the Geels (2007) Multi Level Perspective: Socio-technical Niches, Socio-technical Regimes and Socio-technical Landscape - and engineers have through time had roles in the technical development on all levels of the society.

Model - A dynamic multi-level perspective on transitions. Source: Geels 2007 p. 452 

One perspective provides the knowledge and the formal rules and framework that affects the understanding and actions of the system actors because the individual actor may be limited through these frameworks. This framework could isolate information about new technology or make legislation that ensure that new initiatives will find it difficult to be put into operation, in spite of these new initiatives could be sustainable and ecologically beneficial compared to the current system (Geels, 2007). It is thus possible through legislation and disposal of information to isolate actors or users of the system from getting the knowledge that new approaches are possible.

The second perspective of the path dependency constitute the system is the networks of actors established in the system, as these through mutual addiction can get to work against the emergence of new systems (Geels, 2007). This may be given if the network of actors will have to change their workflow fundamentally by introducing a new system (Geels, 2007). It will therefore not be possible for smaller parts of the network actors to redirect their operation, as they are dependent on the rest of the network. An example could be if you took the place of an electrical planning engineer want to change the entire national power grid to only be powered by renewable energy from wind turbines as wind energy would be more sustainable than electricity from an incineration plant powered by coal. Then you had to replace the entire socio-technical system that underlies the electricity generation and distribution of earnings of electricity from coal powered plants. This would put some players completely out of action or force them to adapt to the new system, whether it is small or fundamental changes in their workflow.

The third perspective of path dependence in the socio-technical system technical and material structure of the regime, as these can make it harder to implement or innovate with additions of new parts for the system (Geels, 2007). The conversion to sustainable wind energy will as a supplier of electricity be a matter of how the grid can pull, store and transform of the energy extracted from the wind to a steady flow of electrical outlets. In the current power grid, there is no real opportunity to store the energy from wind turbines, so that you can not generate electricity on days with light winds. An additionally challenge is that many windmills are placed at sea or rural destinations, but for this to take place there must be an expansion of the original grid if a wind powered extraction of electricity should be possible. 

One of the challenges a sustainable design engineer may face could be locating the boundary between when a transition becomes a sustainable expansion of the electricity grid instead of a main driver for environmental impact because establishing a new system often requires the use of several tonnes of materials. There must be a time when a wind turbine can have environmental impact because a  course hardly be sustainable from the first second it produces power. A more or less fundamental replacement of an existing functional system that I describe here the replacement of power plants to renewable energy can be described as innovation in the system through either the introduction of new socio-technical Niche, new parts of the socio-technical Regimes or new influences in the socio-technical landscape. Thus these are the areas that a engineer could influence. As seen in Geels (2007) engineers influenced the transition of mobility both by technical developments, introduction of new law and regulations on mobility and health, but they also influenced the socio-technical landscape by changing the narrative of free mobility as a human right and everyday life luxury. 

- You could question if it was engineers that influenced all the level of the system here and in Geels (2007), it depends on where you see the boundaries for been an engineer stops. Engineers could have taken part in all of the system challenges or only in some but that is an entire other discussion. 


Blewitt, J. (2012). Understanding Sustainable Development. Routledge. Chapter 1

Geels, F. W. (2005). The dynamics of transitions in socio-technical systems: a multi-level analysis of the transition pathway from horsedrawn carriages to automobiles (1860–1930). Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 17(4), 445-476.

Mom, G., & Kirsch, D. A. (2001). Technologies in tension: Horses, electric trucks, and the motorization of american cities, 1900-1925. Technology and Culture, 42(3), 489-518.