Behaviour in transitions

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Literature on transitions in socio-technical systems is maturing as a coherent perspective on the complex and multi-dimensional changes required to adapt societies and economies to sustainable trajectories. However, behaviour change and its links to broader system change is underdeveloped in this literature. Relevant contributions so far have mostly demonstrated a preference for a social practices perspective. The aim of this paper is to reconsider and diversify our understanding of behaviour in transitions. We do this by drawing on interdisciplinary behavioural science theory and research that supports understanding the nature and dynamics of intentional change in socio-technical systems. Improved understandings of behavioural change in sustainability transitions will be critical to their acceleration.

Incorporating a more integrative behavioural science perspective promises four main benefits. One, it highlights what is feasible ‘initial’ change from the current socio-technical regime to a preferred state, while providing insights into the broader changes still required to make more substantial behaviour changes viable. Secondly, this assists in providing a ‘first wave’ of practical and affordable recommendations to policy and practice that can be implemented rapidly, but with a longer term transformative agenda behind it. Thirdly, it provides solutions to a number of theoretical and methodological challenges such as the question of the scale of units of analysis, assumptions about the stability and dynamics of change and implicit values commitments bound up in perspectives about current and future states, and preferable pathways between them. Finally, better connecting with an extensive body of literature that addresses the role of behaviour in change at the individual, organisational, community, policy and societal levels highlights a number of practical and theoretical insights that enrich existing narratives and debates in transitions literature.

To develop a more integrative perspective of behaviour change in transitions, this paper engages with core sustainability transitions perspectives and explores their (implicit or explicit) assumptions on behaviour change, and links them to relevant insights from broader behavioural science literature. Methodologically, this paper will critically and systematically review current relevant contributions in the transitions literature and, in a similar vain, review the behavioural science literature for its relevance to informing insights on systems change and sustainability transitions. The review will follow standard techniques for undertaking critical systematic literature reviews and draw on a keyword-based search of Scopus as its main sources, as well as the expertise of both bodies of literature shared amongst the author team. To our knowledge, none of the existing sustainability transitions and behaviour papers have used a transparent and systematic literature review methodology in this manner.

A synthesis of the two bodies of literature and the resulting perspective highlights a number of promising areas for further integration; including clarifying the potential of behaviour change perspectives to accelerate or delay transitions; better connecting sustainable consumption perspectives to broader transitions narratives; amplifying and disseminating grassroots innovations to broader populations; valuing different behaviour change perspectives based on problem typologies of simple through to complex systems, and; in clearly articulating and realising more values neutral understandings of behaviour in context, and how to influence it in more sustainable trajectories. The paper concludes that a more integrative perspective of behaviour in transitions has major potential to advance both the practical relevance and theoretical coherency of sustainability transitions literature.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jun 2019
EventInternational Sustainability Transitions Conference 2019 - Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
Duration: 23 Jun 201926 Jun 2019
Conference number: 10th


ConferenceInternational Sustainability Transitions Conference 2019
Abbreviated titleIST 2019
Internet address


  • Sustainability Transitions
  • Behavioural sciences

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