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Viable Cities' work for the mission is based on a theory of change that can be summarized in four cornerstones: creating common direction, creating a mandate for change, accelerating learning and portfolio thinking.

Figure. Overall theory of change for the program
Overall theory of change for the program

The work of Viable Cities is based on a theory of change that can be summarized in four cornerstones: creating common direction, creating a mandate for change, accelerating learning and portfolio thinking (see figure).

Fundamentally, it is about the perceptions of how the necessary systemic change required for the program's mission can be achieved. This requires an understanding of how systemic transition processes unfold, what dynamics exist and how they can be influenced by policies and other interventions.

In developing such an understanding, the program adopts an exploratory approach with a theoretical base drawn from the field of transition management/transition theory. In short, according to Rotmans & Loorbach (2009) and Roorda et al. (2014), this involves:

  • based on a system analysis developed in co-creation between relevant actors.
  • involve change agents and pioneers in an arena of experimentation characterized by diversity, flexibility and reflection.
  • as well as on expanding and shaping new coalitions and distributed knowledge and skills around this arena to;
  • run co-creative experiments for system innovation in small but radical steps, in a shared and desired direction,
  • and to develop coalitions and networks into a broad movement that creates social pressure for the development of policies, markets and other institutions.

The theory of change builds on research on sustainable transition and systems innovation and is in line with recent innovation policy thinking, according to which innovation efforts are focused on societal challenges to create transformative change through changes in governing institutions (such as governance, regulations, policies and funding models), behaviors, culture and norms as well as technological innovation.

This paradigm, Innovation Policy 3.0, is about mobilising research and innovation to address social needs - not least by focusing on the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement - and about working with methods and processes that involve citizens and coordinate actors across societal sectors and levels of government. The paradigm also highlights the integration of experimentation and innovation processes initiated by cities and their partners with the development of supportive and enabling regulatory and other frameworks by national policy makers. It emphasizes the importance of direction, agility and transparency.

The Viable Cities approach to transformative urban change focuses on deep and structural shifts to adapt socio-technical and socio-ecological systems in cities in line with the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement. Working with transformative change in the city requires continuous and coherent processes of innovation, co-creation and learning for climate change adaptation in broad collaboration.

The program's theory of change is concretized in an impact logic that specifies the details of the program's activities.

Research within the program

Viable Cities' work is based on long-term research on sustainable transition and system innovation, and we are constantly developing the methods we use. Some areas:

Transition Lab

Transition Lab is Viable City's strategic initiative, and aims to co-create a common ability to meet major societal challenges such as climate and environmental transition. It is a tool to accelerate and spread change. This means we work to bring about transformative systemic change and take bold action to reshape our social institutions towards an equitable and circular economy, develop responsible and disruptive new technologies, and change behaviors for a more sustainable society.

The Transition Lab is a set of interconnected events, tools and methods - developed by researchers to achieve the mission - that share some basic ingredients:

  • Transition Labs are processes with an overall direction, not just a collection of events.
  • We work together with people from academia, public organisations, industry and civil society. The transition requires the engagement of a diversity of people and organizations (a combination of multi-level and 4-helix approach).
  • The Transition Lab is designed together with the cities based on their common interests.
  • We put emphasis on creating an enabling collaborative context. Of course, logistics and details are important but they are only a means, not an end.
  • The Transition Lab balances between specific technical topics and inspiring content.

The Viable Cities Transition Lab is about exploring and shaping the theory and methodology of change and building distributed knowledge and skills as a basis for action to bring about deep change. We need to get beyond dealing with symptoms and rather focus on underlying problems in our societal structure (deeply encoded problems) that have led us to the challenges we face.

The key elements of learning are

  • how individual initiatives are implemented,
  • which interventions are most effective in driving the transition in the desired direction,
  • how values and other underlying factors influence the decisions made by different actors.
  • how to actively develop a portfolio of interventions that collectively lead to the achievement of the mission.

Viable Cities Transition Lab a central platform for creating a mission infrastructure in Sweden and supporting continuous and coherent processes for innovation, co-creation and learning for climate transition in broad collaboration. It is an organizational backbone for the work during phase 2 and the overall strategic project. It is the engine of the work to create methods and support to accelerate the climate transition of cities based on the needs identified in the cities in Climate City Contract 2030, with support from research. A key purpose of the Transition Lab is to create reflexive learning between cities and other relevant actors and build their transition capacity, both in terms of governance and management, citizen involvement, systematic innovation work and new models for financial analysis and risk assessment.

The objectives of the Viable Cities Transition Lab are based on the principles of mission-driven innovation and have been formulated as follows:

  • Clarifying common direction
  • Clarify the mission for mobilization
  • Create engaging visions and stories
  • Building a common language for change
  • Exploiting synergies
  • Creating a movement for climate change
  • Facilitate the orchestration of relevant initiatives in Sweden
  • Demonstrate how a holistic, systemic approach brings benefits in several areas at the same time.
  • Renewing decision-making and policy
  • Strengthening evidence-based decision-making for impacts
  • Demonstrate new forms of policy development in practice
  • Renewing policy development with a focus on desired outcomes
  • Building capacity for change and new practices
  • Drive institutional learning and actively support key influencers.

The Viable Cities Transition Lab establishes structure that facilitates coordination and synergies between a portfolio of interventions to achieve the best possible impact together.

The Transition Lab approach is also used by the Viable Cities sibling program in Spain citiES2030. Here you can find a text about it (in English) and a toolbox of their experiences (in Spanish). In addition, Transition Labs as a method will be developed and disseminated in the framework of the EU Cities Mission in which Viable Cities participates; NetZeroCities and Capacities.

Reflective learning history

Reflexive learning history is an action research method that aims to provide a better understanding of the learning process in transition management, as well as provide practical help for learning processes that support system change. It explores how organizational learning can support sustainable development and contribute to improved leadership.

As part of the methodology, in-depth interviews have been conducted with members of the transition teams in three selected cities as well as stakeholders involved in the local transition arena. This is part of a series of interviews conducted every year to enable the study of the transition process over time. Reflective workshops for city teams have also been organized. Based on the results, three initial capacity building workshops have been developed. The modules will support both cities that are starting the transition journey and those that have been on it for a few years.

The capacity building workshops focus on the following topics:

  • general understanding of urban transition and the role of the transition team in the municipality,
  • how to create and design a multi-stakeholder transition arena,
  • and the importance of buy-in from participating stakeholders.

Based on the method, Gabriella Doci, Olga Kordas and Harald Roracher have written the scientific article Learning History in the 'transition system', A method for capturing and diffusing learning in Urban Transition Management. Gabriella Doci is also co-author of an article entitled Supporting municipalities to develop relational-based collaborations in network environments through intermediation in transition initiatives, together with Miguel Soberón, Irene Ezquerra-Lázaro, Teresa Sánchez-Chaparro, Jaime Moreno-Serna and Olga Kordas.

Transformative portfolio approaches (TPA)

Transformative portfolio approaches (TPA) are an emerging governance strategy to streamline and accelerate cities' climate transitions. To enable transformative change, all efforts need to be linked together in a 'beyond projection' and 'beyond experimentation' approach, rather than, as is often the case today, focusing on fragmented transition experiments. TPAs emphasize the need to create structures for learning between and from completed and ongoing projects and experiments. As an iterative process, TPAs embed sensemaking, dynamic governance and reflexive monitoring of a transformative portfolio.

Dr. Kateryna Pereverza, Viable Cities co-investigator, leads this line of research and since 2020 has continuously followed the conceptualization of TPAs as well as the policy instruments and mechanisms developed and launched by Viable Cities to enable TPAs at the city level.