Civil society gives impetus for sustainable change


Impetus for societal transformations to sustainability such as the energy transition, the development of an alternative transport system and sustainable food often comes from the centre of society. So that these developments enjoy wide success, policy-making and strategic management by many players and cooperations are necessary. Overarching concepts and strategies – instead of selective policy interventions – are needed which coordinate a large number of partly parallel activities, instruments and players. These are the conclusions reached by a new research project conducted by Oeko-Institut on behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency and the German Federal Environment Ministry and in cooperation with the Zeppelin University and the Essen Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities.

Conditions for the success of transformation

Targeted transformations occur in the interplay between politics, civil society, the economy and science. From "pioneers of change" to the municipalities – cooperation between diverse social players is necessary for major changes to succeed.

Visions and mission statements are essential drivers of transformation; on this basis citizens become supporters. Goals can be derived from them which must endure beyond parliamentary terms since transformations take place over long periods. Both must be supported at the governmental level.

As all successful innovations are embedded in the social structures of society, policy should, on the one hand, promote niches for experimentation with ideas and, on the other hand, incentivize technological developments. Transformations are always connected with search, learning and experimental processes. These need to be designed to enable thinking about new things in a new way, to ensure a degree of flexibility, to allow for mistakes and learn from them, and to deal actively with conflicts.

Eight areas of action for strategy transformation management

Transformations fundamentally change society. The following fields, therefore, will undergo transformation: values and mission statements, individual behaviour and lifestyles, social and time structures, from physical infrastructures, markets and financial systems, to the support of sustainable products and technologies, the expansion of transformative research and sustainability education and, last but not least, the use of new policy instruments and institutions that create a suitable policy framework.

One example: development of bicycle transport in Germany

The increase of bicycle transport in Germany is one example of the interplay of these eight fields of action. Values: From the 1980s and in the 1990s, environmental awareness increased, the leisure wave reached (West) Germany and the keep fit movement and the Tour de France boom bolstered the interest in cycling. Behaviour gradually changed: bicycle transport grew by nine per cent in 1976 to 15 per cent. In 1980 there were a total of 36.5 million bikes in West German households; in 2009 this number had risen to 69 million. For reasons of time, the Germans accept cycling three to 4.5 kilometres. This may change in the medium term as the number of e-bikes rapidly grows.

City examples show that when infrastructure – i.e. cycle paths, bike stands, fast cycle routes – is expanded, significantly more people travel by bike. As a result of declining production costs, it is easier for more and more people financially to afford a bike; the bikes themselves are becoming increasingly technologically diverse. On the subject of cycling there is extensive research, educational materials and information portals on the internet. Politics has begun to promote the further development of infrastructure and in 2001 the commuting allowance was adjusted in Germany.

Areas of conflict in transformations need to be minimized

Together with the German Federal Environment Ministry and the German Federal Environment Agency, the researchers of the joint project elaborated recommendations for policies designed to promote transformations. Governmental players should recognize emerging transformation movements early on, prioritize them and provide guidance on strategy. This also means promoting desirable and reducing undesirable developments “pre-emptively” and using favourable windows of opportunity for this purpose.

“Since transformations can lead to conflicts – one need only think of transmission line construction in the context of Germany’s energy transition – they must be actively addressed,” says Dr. Bettina Brohmann, Research Coordinator for Transdisciplinary Studies at Oeko-Institut. “At an early stage positive aspects of the new development should be communicated, allies should be won, compensation should be negotiated and, on a case-by-case basis, decisions should also be revised.”

Background paper “Wie Transformationen und gesellschaftliche Innovationen gelingen können. Transformationsstrategien und Models of Change für nachhaltigen gesellschaftlichen Wandel” by Oeko-Institut – in cooperation with Zeppelin University and the Essen Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (in German language)

Presentation "Wie Transformationen und gesellschaftliche Innovationen gelingen können" by Prof. Dr. Rainer Grießhammer, 12 June 2015 (in German language).

Working paper "Zeit für Nachhaltigkeit – Zeiten der Transformation: Elemente einer Zeitpolitik für die gesellschaftliche Transformation zu nachhaltigeren Lebensstilen“ (in German language)

Contact at Oeko-Institut:

Dr. Bettina Brohmann
Research Coordinator for Transdisciplinary Studies
Oeko-Institut e.V., Darmstadt office
Phone: ++49 6151 8191-135