Imagining just transitions in postindustrial secondary cities

by Elena Marie Enseñado (IHS) & Naomi Schrandt (VCC)
By Victor on Unsplash

Elena Marie Ensenado and Naomi Schrandt are teaming up on the topic of imagining just transitions in postindustrial secondary cities! As a sneak peek into this collaboration, Elena and JUSTRA team member Naomi have penned a blog that delves into the topic: “How do cities, through formal and informal networks, understand and imagine just transitions in postindustrial secondary cities?”. We will share more details about the practicalities of this collaboration soon.

“Just transitions” call for ambitious restructuring of urban systems, such as transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. In postindustrial secondary cities, such as Rotterdam, what do “just transitions” look like and what role do formal and informal networks play? Let us start with the first part of that question, by delving into the (big) question: What do just transitions look like?

“Just” Imaginaries: how is justice perceived?

The central challenge in energy policy is twofold: accelerate the transition to carbon neutrality while addressing forms of inequalities and injustices within energy systems (Echevarria et al., 2023). Energy justice encompasses a wide range of aspects: for example, distributive, procedural, recognitional and cosmopolitan justice (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2015; Hoffman et al., 2021). Distributive justice relates to resource distribution, procedural justice to decision-making processes, and recognitional justice to socio-cultural identities. Cosmopolitan justice argues for the universal application of justice principles to all individuals worldwide (McCauley et al., 2019). These principles guide energy policy, encompassing availability, affordability, due process, transparency, accountability, sustainability, intergenerational and intragenerational equity, and responsibility (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2015; Hoffman et al., 2021).

The energy transition thus goes beyond technical changes; it involves normative orientations shaping social and political orders (Echevarria et al., 2023; Longhurst & Chilvers, 2019). Divergent visions of energy futures impact the roles of society and social actors, not least in terms of equity in risk and benefit distribution, and issues of inclusion and control (Longhurst & Chilvers, 2019). A reflexive approach to equitable energy transitions is crucial, as interpretations of justice can shape and construct present realities and their subsequent decisions (Longhurst & Chilvers, 2019; Hoffman et al., 2021). Mapping diverse visions about justice can help reveal biases, fostering a reflexive and responsible foundation for future-making (Longhurst & Chilvers, 2019).

To explore these diverse visions, we leverage the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries introduced by Jasanoff & Kim (2009). Imaginaries are “collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order” (Jasanoff & Kim, 2009, p. 4). The concept of imaginaries has been effectively applied in energy transitions research, revealing how worldviews shape on-the-ground actions and influence support for certain technological pathways (Hoffman et al., 2021; Echevarria et al., 2023). Moreover, examining imaginaries can ideally help in identifying sociotechnical designs that facilitate just, inclusive and sustainable transitions (Echevarria et al., 2023).

Formal and informal city networks: what is their role?

So, what is the role of formal and informal networks in understanding and imagining just transitions in postindustrial secondary cities? By formal networks, these are officially set up by convening bodies and actors may be coerced or compelled to participate (Isett, et al., 2011). By informal networks, these are based on informal relationships between and among different urban actors that can lead to sharing of information, capacity building, problem solving, or service delivery, among others (various authors in Huang, et al., 2020).

The role of networks, including intermediaries and intermediation, is seen as influential in pursuing collective goals under dynamic governance structures and processes (Moss, 2009). Actors, for example, collaborate and join their resources in formal networks to build up supportive institutional structures and shape the innovation systems they are operating in. In a study, for example, organizational resources lead to network resources which also give rise to system resources (Musiolik, et al., 2012),  Also, there are two types of formal networks – those that draw organizational resources of network members and those that develop and use shared network resources. The latter, however, tend to offer a higher degree of influence and flexibility in terms of system building.

However, there is also a need to broaden the study of governance beyond formal networks to include more informal and less visible ways in which collective goals are pursued. Formal networks are presented in the forms of agreements e.g., joint ventures or service contracts, with varying degrees of autonomy among actors as these often define rights and obligations by participants (Huang, et al., 2020). Meanwhile, in informal networks, actors are free to enter and exit without permission by others. Also, informal networks may also arise from formal networks. Actors develop interpersonal relationships that lead to the formation of informal networks (Huang, et al., 2020).

Just transitions: Across city networks?

Through networks, different cities through their representatives collaborate and learn with and from each other in varying ways and for different purposes (Ensenado, 2023). This applies as well to climate change networks, which are entities that support cooperation between cities in improving their work on climate change and other related topics, such as urban sustainability and resilience (Cortes, et al. 2022; Heikkinen, et al., 2020; and Haupt and Coppola, 2019). Involvement in networks is a mechanism to identify and access sources of information from others to address city issues, including on the topic of just transitions. Also, through networks, ideas flow and these may mutate from one city to another and transform in the ‘receiving’ context, depending on local conditions or policy alignment. Networks, with the actors involved, the resources they may bring, and the influence they may hold, among others, may challenge or support the imaginaries of just transitions within a city and across cities.

Stay tuned as Elena Marie Ensenado and JUSTRA share more details about the upcoming collaboration in the spring of 2024, where we will further explore the connection between just imaginaries and city networks. We’ll look into questions like how “just transitions” can be understood in postindustrial secondary cities, and what type of imaginaries it creates. Additionally, we'll investigate how both formal and informal networks contribute to “just transitions” within and between cities, while also considering the challenges that may arise. More info soon!


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More information

The JUSTRA Cities Network project of the Vital Cities & Citizens (VCC) initiative in collaboration with the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT). 

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