Sustainability Transitions Symposium

We held the second MSSI Research Theme Symposium in October 2019
Image by Egan/Dufour.

In line with the launch of the fourth MSSI research theme, our 2019 event was centered on Sustainability Transitions (read more about the new theme here). Over 60 participants joined us for an afternoon exploring the idea of Sustainability Transitions – from what it means to us as individuals to how it is understood through research.

What are ‘Sustainability Transitions”?

We invited small groups of participants to discuss what the idea of “Sustainability Transitions” means to them and to provide real world examples of what they see as successful examples of transitions. Personal definitions varied from technological (i.e., the transition to green energy sources), to behavioural (i.e., shifts in mentality) to more systems level perspectives (i.e., bridging different viewpoints and priorities).

Collectively, they identified a number of examples of real-world transitions, such as: Resolution 40-3, through which New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers acknowledged the importance of cross-border ecological connectivity in managing ecosystems and landscapes; shifts in traditional research disciplines (e.g., the emergence of green chemistry, the inclusion of life-cycle assessment in engineering and materials research); programs for retraining coal workers in new trades (examples from Alberta and Appalachia); and reducing illegal deforestation through improved access to healthcare in Indonesia.

McGill professors listen to a PhD student during a roundtable discussion in the McGill Faculty Club Ballrooom.
Image by Photo by Egan/Dufour.

A novel field of research

Guest speaker Jochen Markard (ETH Zurich) addressed Sustainability Transitions from the perspective of a researcher at the forefront of this novel field, which has developed in response to sustainability grand challenges. Such challenges are multi-dimensional, involve conflicting values (i.e. economic growth vs. environmental health) and, as Dr. Markard noted, involve competing solutions that are often beyond our current knowledge. The field describes Sustainability Transitions as the radical, systems-level shifts needed to transition our socio-technical systems (big-sector systems that produce essential services such as food, transport, energy, water) to meet sustainability targets.

Much work has been done in this field to examine these complex socio-technical systems and understand how transitions occur. Dr. Markard’s example was the energy transition, more specifically the phasing out of coal in energy systems. These transitions are not just about the availability of new technologies in energy production, but are intertwined with changes in demand (i.e., the electrification of transport systems), organizational and finance changes (i.e., changes in investment interests), institutional and policy changes, current infrastructure, cultural and societal values, industry changes and, importantly, users. Understanding the complexity of these systems and what drives transitions can help us develop policies for better addressing global challenges such as climate change (spoiler alert: carbon pricing alone won’t be enough). If you are interested in the field of Sustainability Transitions you can watch Dr. Markard’s full talk, read his recent publication, or refer to the Sustainability Transitions Research Network.

Image by Photo by Egan/Dufour.

The day wrapped up with a panel discussion featuring MSSI research theme leads (you can watch it here), a networking cocktail and a poster session by MSSI-supported graduate students and postdocs. Thank you to everyone who participated in this event and we hope to see you all at our third symposium, which is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 3, 2020 in virtual format.

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