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From Niche to Mainstream: Dilemmas of Upscaling Sustainability

Mainstreaming sustainability – that is, upscaling solutions that support social and environmental sustainability – is a complex task. Recent research of our project Urban Up takes a closer look on upscaling obstacles and identifies strategies to overcome them.

There are so many solutions out there for a sustainable living, yet the hoped-for- change on a greater scale is far from reality. The reasons are manifold. The recent publication of the Urban Up project “From niche to mainstream: the dilemmas of scaling up sustainable alternatives“ sheds light on the common misunderstandings in upscaling processes and provides recommendations for solutions.

The paper, which received the second place in the Best Paper Award of the journal “GAIA – Ecological Perspective for Science and Society” for 2020, contributes to the debate on the urgency of upscaling sustainable solutions. This is especially relevant in the light of the short time frame left for reaching the Paris agreement targets. A key argument that the paper puts forward is acknowledging the intricacy of societal change: “Considering the complexity and non-linearity of co-evolutionary processes, the aspirations of policymakers, scientists, or actors from civil society to proactively and strategically foster a specific type of radical change are questionable or at least highly challenging.” Thus, processes of innovation and transformation are not projectable nor controllable. This challenge is demonstrated in three common dilemmas:

  • Babylon dilemma: What do we mean by upscaling from the view of practitioners, researchers, policy makers?
  • Simplification dilemma: The risk of oversimplifying transformation processes and assuming that upscaling of niche solution might not affect the system.
  • Scaling-aversion dilemma: Balancing act between limited local effects of alternatives and scaled solutions that lose their sustainability.

The paper offers numerous recommendations to overcome these challenges, including:

  • Open-ended and reflexive experimentation focused on learning processes, i.e., in living-labs
  • Building innovative capacities (human abilities and political responsibilities)
  • Responsibilisation: responsibilities need to be taken for risks and uncertainties beyond existing growth models and business cases
  • Establishing collaborative and reflexive dialogue processes between involved stakeholders
  • Longer-term observation of change processes

To read the full paper, please go to our library.

The latest research insights of the Urban Up project as well as resources, such as the framework for the social impact assessment tool, can be found on the Urban Up website.

Urban Up is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMFB) as a junior research group within the framework of social and ecological research.

For further information, please contact Alexandra Kessler.