BSRS Module 3: Urban and regional sustainability transitions (Lars Coenen)

Introduction video:

Main objective

Sustainable transition research seeks to understand (and facilitate) transformative change at a systemic level, encompassing wholesale changes in the modes of production and consumption of societal sectors through system innovation. Initially, a lot of transition theory (e.g. Technological Innovation Systems, Multi Level Perspective, Transition Management) was place-blind or suffering from methodological nationalism. More recently it has experienced a spatial turn that recognizes the the centrality of cities and regions in furthering sustainability transformations pathways.

This module provides an introduction how spatial analysis and conceptual engagement with human / economic geography has strengthened the contextual sensitivity of transition theory. In doing so it raises attention about the empirical, methodological and policy-related particularities of urban and regional sustainability transitions. Illustrative examples cover a policy initiative to establish a global centre of excellence in biorefining in Northern Sweden and the City of Melbourne’s involvement in the global 100 Resilient Cities network.

The video ‘Urban Futures’ draws on examples from a.o. Melbourne, Australia, that invite us to reflect on how sustainable urban futures are envisioned and framed. The video facilitates a discussion to scrutinize pathways to urban sustainability and to expose some of the dilemmas and challenges in governing these processes. This discussion will also address the complexities in ‘translating’ transition research to practice.

Finally, the module concludes through a prepared and facilitated discussion to identify and analyze key tensions between ‘spatialized’ transition theory and spatial theory engaging with sustainability transformations.

This module included participants from Høgskolen i Vestlandet


Coenen, L., Benneworth, P., & Truffer, B. (2012). Toward a spatial perspective on sustainability transitions. Research Policy, 41(6), 968-979. (Links to an external site.)

Coenen, L., Moodysson, J., & Martin, H. (2015). Path renewal in old industrial regions: Possibilities and limitations for regional innovation policy. Regional Studies, 49(5), 850-865. (Links to an external site.)

Wolfram, M., & Frantzeskaki, N. (2016). Cities and systemic change for sustainability: prevailing epistemologies and an emerging research agenda. Sustainability, 8(2), 144. (Links to an external site.)

Bulkeley, H., Castán Broto, V., Maassen, A. (2014). Low-carbon transitions and the reconfiguration of urban infrastructure. Urban Studies 51(7), 1471-1486.




Sustainable transitions research advocates transdisciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches that do not target single technology options or piecemeal fixes but account for co-evolving institutional, political, industrial and spatial transformations. While recognized for being an equally expansive and burgeoning field of study and a poster-child of transdisciplinarity, it has also been criticized for theoretical opportunism and sloppy methodologies. The following questions were submitted by participants:

Question 1: Considering the vulnerability of cities and urban regions to natural catastrophes due to their high organizational complexity, geographical position and dependence on imported goods and services, I am wondering whether cities really are the best places for increasing resilience and climate adaptation or should we instead be preparing for moving away from cities again as the climate crisis deepens?

Question 2: Is regional sustainability transition likely to occur without instructions from the state?

Question 3: Coenen et al. (2012) concludes that “Trans-local and trans-national network relations and institutional interdependencies need to be acknowledged by policy-makers and ‘transition managers’ even though they may extend beyond their sphere of influence” (p. 977). To what degree does it seem practical for policy-makers to take such “trans-local and trans-national” phenomena into account when for example designing policies targeted at local and regional development? Is this a realistic expectation to have on policy makers

Question 4: How can regional/urban transition processes be studied adequately knowing that these “territorial containers” are often unformalized and highly interdepent of one another?

Question 5: In what terms does an interdisciplinary approach of traditional sustainability transition researches with an spatial/geographical dimension influence the generalisability of the findings? How much does generalisability matter in sustainability transition research?

Question 6: The readings for the module emphasize the need for an analysis of the trajectories and directionalities of transition in specific regions, but do not address how such trajectories or directions can be anticipated. The exercise of anticipating risks and opportunities should be, in my view, an essential element for defining/understanding any transition in a region. How can ‘anticipation’ be included within the discussed theoretical frameworks?

Class discussion:


Video to watch for discussion:

Discussion prompts

  • Which are the main institutions and agents of change in this video that drive urban transformation(s)?
  • To what extent can this video be considered to be empowering or disempowering urban sustainability transitions?
  • According to Ed Glaeser, a distinghuished Harvard economist, ‘cities are man’s greatest invention’. Please discuss.
  • How do you ‘translate’ sustainable transition and transformation research into urban policy and practice?

Class discussion:

Written response from WG 3 (Hassan Gholami, Anna-Riikka Kojonsaari, Nigussie Salih, Silver Sillak)

We discussed the questions and here are the answers of the WG3:

  • Which are the main institutions and agents of change in this video that drive urban transformation(s)?

The main agents of change could be categorised into four groups:

  1. Academia, Urban planners and Consultants
  2. Policymakers and authorities
  3. Giant tech companies
  4. Urban dwellers


  • To what extent can this video be considered to be empowering or disempowering urban sustainability transitions?

We found there were many different aspects in this short video and some of the ideas might even seem a bit contradictory. They presented adaptations such as: density, smart technologies, sharing, decentralization, effectivization in systems and buildings, vertical gardens and other nature-based solutions. This is a 6 year old video, and we can see growing criticism towards some of these aspects. In the end they touch upon aspects such as affordability and scale and they recognize that a very large part of the picture is being missed.

DENSITY: We discussed the empowering/disempowering aspect in relation to geographical space: cities, urban areas and regions. In the video they talk about density and among other things the development of connecting several cities into larger areas and presented the idea of decentralizing not only systems but also people. This development could be empowering for the smaller cities next to capitals for example. F.ex. Malmö benefits from the Greater Copenhagen idea and connection to Copenhagen. However, we also talked about the complexity of this and how larger cities could spread sustainably, we were not convinced how they could do that in a way that would benefit all. Within cities, the flagship areas empower the people living in them, whereas those areas that do not get the same attention (that do not provide as much profit for the developers) might be left behind and this way become further disempowered. The winners and losers and the division in between might become more visible. There has been the discussions about attracting the creative class for example, this is shown in the last comment about attracting more people, when the video has been talking about how to handle the high populated cities.

In the video we also see how the talk about the aspect of time “24h city” and how to make people to stay – number of people is really a key! As also taken up by Lars, this might be too technical approach. We talked about what is a livable city.

SHARING: The video also presented the idea around sharing. The video is 6 years old and this could be seen in the rhetorics around AirBnB for example. It painted a beautiful picture of the use of empty spaces, whereas today we can see that that idea might have been a bit naïve: AirBnB is molding our cities in an unsustainable way; rents increase and apartments are being lent to tourists instead of the locals. However, today, we see many other sharing initiatives that are more socially sustainable.

We also touched upon the idea of urban villages and going back to these ideas, which can be seen in the ideas around sharing or decentralizing: these are not in any way new ideas but this time around they take place in the neoliberal environment.

  • According to Ed Glaeser, a distinguished Harvard economist, ‘cities are man’s greatest invention’. Please discuss.

The phrase of Glaeser praised the cities for bestowing wealth, happiness, and healthy life. It seems the humans have the utopia to live. Are they the “man’s greatest invention…richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier” as projected by a fascinating new book, Triumph of the City. Cities also make possible humanity’s greatest achievements: the exchange of ideas, collaboration and, ultimately, civilization. No doubt, cities are considered as engines of growth. But what about the LCM of society?

Henri Lefebvre (1968) proposed the notion of the right to the city in his book Le droit à la ville as a slogan to demand access to the resources to one and all. The right to the city not only limits to access to the available opportunities, but it also includes the desires of an individual citizen to create a qualitative urban society with human rights (Harvey 2003). The subalterns in the urban areas have only one per cent of wealth in the developing realm. The corporate sector has projected the cities as a great invention in the neoliberal era. In reality, cities are organic. There is a process of evolution in any city. ‘Rome is not built in a day’. The question arises whether the cities are for human or human are for cities.

  • How do you ‘translate’ sustainable transition and transformation research into urban policy and practice?

When thinking about this question we were reminded about the paper written by Håvard, Siddharth and their colleagues which was part of the course literature. They talked about the three general modes how academics can engage with practice: 1) producing actionable knowledge, 2) critically reframing discourses and 3) connecting actors and processes. The last role can be seen as somewhat of a “translator” that mediates different people and facilitates different processes in order to create a common “language” and understanding and enhance collaboration. As we also learned in the discussion with Lars Coenen about his experience in Melbourne, this role seems to become more and more necessary in order to bring about transformative change in practice. This role doesn’t have to be taken on by academics only, it can be also performed by a more “neutral” actor like a consultancy or an organization/partnership established specifically for that purpose. For instance, in the literature on grassroots innovation (e.g. community energy) there is recently a lot of focus on such “intermediary organizations” that have the specific task of acting as translators, mediators and facilitators between academics, planners, developers, energy technology suppliers and communities.

Lars Coenen is professor in economic geography and innovation studies at the Mohn Centre for Innovation and Regional Development at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences. His research interests converge around the geography of innovation: Why is it that some regions and cities in the world stand out in their ability to foster and diffuse novelty? How can regions and cities improve their capacity to innovate? He addresses such questions in relation to pressing societal challenges like climate change. His work on regional and urban innovation and pioneering research on geographies of environmental innovation and sustainability transitions has gained global recognition.