SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

New study: Is rapid transition possible?

In the face of climate change and social inequality, changing to a greener and fairer society might feel impossible – but rapid, radical transitions may be more possible than we think, according to the book How did we do that? The possibility of rapid transitionby Andrew Simms and Peter Newell.

How did we do that - Rapid Transitions report coverThe book has been published by the STEPS Centre - co-hosted by SPRU and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) - and the New Weather Institute. It shows what we can learn about rapid change through examples from history and the present day.

From volcanoes grounding international airlines, to the New Deal in 1930s America and today’s renewable energy revolution, the book collects 14 stories of rapid and radical change, often in the face of crisis and difficulty.

The authors argue that such change is needed now but also faces key obstacles. Much of human society is locked into a high-consumption culture, energy-intensive infrastructure, unequal power relations, and an economic system dominated by finance that fails the poorest and takes infinite growth for granted.

Other barriers exist in mindsets and attitudes towards change. Opponents of radical change argue that it is impossible because of powerful incumbent interests, high costs, the lack of a detailed blueprint, or the unwillingness of governments or citizens to act.

Others pin their hopes on a smart, technological fix to environmental problems. 

Andrew Simms, co-author of the publication, says:

“History is full of examples of rapid transition in the face of new challenges. Society shows a brilliantly adaptive ability to change and still meet its needs, yet we’re constantly told that we have no alternative to a failed economic system. In fact, the past suggests we have an opportunity to innovate and reveal our inner climate chameleons, changing our economy and habits to halt environmental collapse and thrive differently”.

The examples in the book suggest that these barriers can be - and have been - overcome in the past, through grassroots movements, through leadership from governments, or a combination of the two.

Lessons drawn from the book include: 

  • Fairness matters: to be accepted, rapid change must be seen to be fair. This is especially true if and where there is any perceived sacrifice to be made for the greater good.
  • We’re actually good at change: New social norms can quickly take root in everything from working patterns, to transport use, attitudes surrounding prejudice, and patterns of consumption.
  • Public leadership is needed: Initial public investment in a sector or activity can leverage larger levels of investment from other sources.
  • There’s no one path: Rapid transitions can result from bottom up and top down approaches, but ensuring that top down approaches are equitable and inclusive is a key challenge.
  • Inaction costs: It matters always to be clear about both the costs of inaction and the benefits of action.
  • Pleasant surprises do happen: Change always brings with it unplanned and unexpected consequences – but it can also bring unintended benefits. 

Launched at a conference on 24 April 2017 in Brighton - with speakers including Caroline Lucas, Co-Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, and Rob Hopkins of the Transition Network - the book is now available for download. Dr Phil Johnstone was a speaker in one of the event's sessions - titled ‘What are the Conditions Now?’ - during which he discussed the state and transitions.

The book is part of the Transformations series - a suite of events aimed at changing the conversation about transition in the UK through a series of public discussions about how to facilitate the speed and scale of transitions to more sustainable futures. This area of work is closely linked to SPRU’s research strategy – Transforming Innovation.

Further information

Download the book How did we do that? The possibility of rapid transition” by Andrew Simms and Peter Newell.

Follow the event conversation on Twitter, via @stepscentre using hashtag #RapidTransitions

Read more about the Transformations series on the STEPS Centre website.