STS - conferences, IST2012

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The Needs for Sustainability Transitions: Societal Needs in Urban Water Systems
Fjalar Johannes de Haan, Briony C. Ferguson, Rebekah Ruth Brown

Last modified: 2012-03-19


Sustainability is about human needs, as for example, the Brundtland definition suggests: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Transitions are about radical change in systems that are there to meet those needs: societal systems, be they urban water systems, energy or health-care systems. Therefore this paper proposes a new basis for the description and explanation of societal systems and transitions therein.

Loosening up a bit the rigid multi-level perspective’s distinction between regimes and niches, this perspective views societal systems as being composed of several ‘constellations’ that represent different ways of meeting societal needs. In the example case of urban water systems, one constellation would represent centralised water supply and another would be decentralised stormwater harvesting. Although the former can be considered part of the regime and the latter, in terms of novelty and power, can be called a niche, it is more sensible to just view them both as meeting urban water-related needs in different ways.

The paper builds from accepted theory from social psychology to develop a societal needs framework. The needs framework does not contradict the multi-level perspective, but rather refocusses from the technological innovation to the meeting of societal needs, which enables a more straightforward way of dealing with the normative notion of sustainability in its proper terms. To illustrate this framework it is applied to urban water systems and used to explain the sequence of transitions that many urban water systems in developed countries have gone through.