What is Transition Engineering?

Transition engineering is the professional-engineering discipline that deals with the application of the principles of science to the design, innovation and adaptation of engineered systems that meet the needs of today without compromising the ecological, societal and economic systems on which future generations will depend to meet their own needs.

Transition Engineering projects are about changing existing complex systems to radically lower energy and material use while preserving essential functions.

Transition-HQ includes Transition Engineering principles in the Real Transition Leaders and Real Transition Ambassadors courses.

 
 

How is transition different from climate adaptation and mitigation?

Climate adaptation activity addresses the three main predicted impacts of climate change:

  • sea level rise and its impact on coastline and infrastructure;

  • weather events such as flooding and inundation;

  • and the trending climate patterns that will impact planning of agriculture and land use over time

Mitigation activity addresses the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Reduction targets have been established by most countries and these are implemented through regulations and incentives.

Transition is a more holistic approach to the future. It comprises all of the activity necessary for an organisation, community or region to shift its system into a state that is fit for the future. It is an interdisciplinary approach that embraces the requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a future state that provides wellbeing and resilience at lower levels of energy and materials consumption.

What is the current state of the transition in New Zealand?

Since the early 1970s the world has unsuccessfully been preparing for the transition foreshadowed by The Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth report. Numerous subsequent reruns of the modelling indicate that globally civilisation continues on an unsustainable pathway. Although New Zealand is somewhat of an exception in that it has considerable renewable electricity, food, and water, while supporting a relatively small population, it faces significant climate change and environmental threats.

New Zealand’s sustainability movement has slowly been gaining momentum since the mid-1980s, but didn’t reach critical mass
for another three decades. In a flashpoint for the movement in New Zealand, the government passed legislation in 2018 banning new offshore oil and gas exploration permits, followed by the Zero Carbon Act in 2019.

These legislations were in line with mounting sentiment and costs: currently it is estimated that the annual cost of climate change to New Zealand is between 1 and 3 billion dollars, with a significant number of species and habitats under threat.

The ongoing impacts of climate change, health risks, de-globalisation and cost-of-living increases present formidable compounding challenges, risk and potential opportunity. Unfortunately there has not yet been any meaningful transition of infrastructure, governance systems and societal ideology. 

While there is much debate about what our future could and should be, often missing from the conversation is how we do the practical work of innovating, engineering and enabling the real transition.

Transition-HQ and our alliance partners are developing the knowledge, tools, practices and insights that support and facilitate individuals, communities and regions to design their own successful transitions.

 

What is the transition truth gap?

The transition truth gap refers to the two vastly different perspectives on the future.

One perspective is that the business-as-usual economic growth model can continue forever, and that this can be facilitated by technology, financial products and markets (eg. those that manage emissions, biodiversity and energy) controlled by private interests.

 

Significant effort is applied to promotion of this perspective by those who are set to benefit from it, while a vast body of scientific evidence and lived experience points to the finite nature of this worldview.

The counter perspective is that the earth and civilisation face existential threats arising from biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution, overpopulation and energy and raw materials depletion.

 

This worldview invites us to consider the possibility of a new way of living and prospering in balance with nature and each other. Without a dramatic shift towards downshifting and degrowth, the earth will be uninhabitable within a couple of generations.

The term ‘real transition’ refers to exploring and discovering an appropriate and genuinely effective transition pathway given your specific context and stakeholders.

 

Is a carbon reduction roadmap the same as a transition roadmap?

Carbon reduction roadmaps tend to focus on maintaining the current system through substitution. They usually seek technology change-outs (sometimes called quick wins) that enable business as usual to continue with less use of fossil fuel energy.

The approach can be teamed with circular and waste minimisation initiatives but it is not a long-term or whole system approach and can struggle to deliver ongoing and sustainable results.

Such roadmaps tend to prioritise carbon reduction for the lowest possible cost and, as such, may not deliver broader, more durable outcomes such as increased wellbeing, people engagement and culture change.

This is where a transition roadmap comes in, as this will take a more holistic view of sustainability.

 

How can an organisation get started on their transition pathway?

First consider pausing and taking a deep breath while you look around. It is tempting to keep our heads down in the work. 

Taking time to reflect on where you are and where you are headed may reveal that you or your organisation is in a state of denial about what is really happening. You may find you’re frozen due to lack of knowledge, culture or structural settings.

At this point you have a choice: continue with business as usual or begin to explore alternative pathways forward. With guidance, research and education, we can help you understand the best ways to move into the future in a way that benefits you.

 

What sort of organisation is Transition-HQ?

Transition-HQ is a socially conscious business network. The core of the organisation comprises 10 people, along with a reference group of six people, which together provide the necessary thought leadership and critical mass for ongoing development and operations. 

Orbiting the core of the organisation are hundreds of associates, alliances and partners with the common goal of driving the real transition.

We believe it is necessary to be in a position to respond and adapt quickly to changing conditions, which is the advice we give to our clients and live by ourselves.

 

How can you actually help me and my organisation?

Transition-HQ provides a practical and integrated suite of tools and services that help you make real transition progress. 

Whether you do a training course, engage us for guidance, or enlist our help for research and development, everything you learn to do and the people you meet through our processes are dedicated to real progress. 

We do not provide training or services simply for the sake of gaining credits or qualifications; our measure of success is the genuine difference you make out in the real world.

We will work with you to understand your current trajectory in terms of environmental and commercial sustainability, and offer guidance on a more effective and sustainable direction for the future. That may be as simple as making adjustments to your emissions output, or as complicated as shifting your entire business model.

We stay with you every step of the way, including facilitating research with our network of expert partners to show you exactly how to adjust your course in a way that will provide long-term benefits. We also provide education that will develop your team members into transition leaders capable of driving ongoing change for the future of your organisation.

 

Is the circular economy a solution?

The concept of a circular economy is gaining traction as a solution to current and emerging problems of climate change and resource, energy and food scarcity, while simultaneously restoring and regenerating the economy and ecosystems. 

The World Economic Forum defines a circular economy as "an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse and return to the biosphere, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and business models.”

As a concept, a circular economy makes sense but concerns are emerging that there is a mismatch between the intention and the real difference it can make at a macro level. Much of the rhetoric is not yet supported by science, engineering or real evidence, and talk of a circular economy is, in most instances, an example of greenwashing. As with safety and risk management, there is no such thing as a perfect system, yet a system that fails to meet our intentions is also not acceptable.

The main criticisms are that the concept of a circular economy does not adequately resolve the fundamental underlying limitations we face relating to energy, resources, materials and the biosphere. There are also a range of barriers to uptake that are proving hard to overcome. This is a macro issue to be addressed as the circular economy is developed further and in a way that distances it from other, related concepts such as green growth, 'perfect' waste elimination and materials recycling efficiency. 

While it may not be a silver-bullet solution at a whole-of-economy level, there are many tangible and successful projects and applications that are adding value to the transition now, and these will continue to pave the way for ongoing learning and development. Pairing the circular economy concept with other systems based methodologies such as Transition Engineering is an emerging frontier.

 

What is The Great Simplification?

The Great Simplification is a concept developed by thought leader Nate Hagens that addresses the growing transition movement and the future of civilisation.

Hagens’ perspective is that we as a civilisation have built a world of complexity that abuses the earth’s resources and creates power and wellbeing imbalances; that modern civilisation is in a once-only fossil fuel energy bonanza and is blind to the consequences of excess money, ecosystem degradation and resource depletion.

He believes that the current trajectory of infinite economic growth cannot continue and that the natural and essential response is a Great Simplification. This means that we will either voluntarily reduce, degrow, restrict and simplify or it will occur involuntarily due to depletion of energy and materials resources. This simplification or contraction will be among the most significant events we will ever experience as a species.

United States-based Hagens, who is the director of The Institute for the Study of Energy & Our Future, explores the limits to growth and what that means for our future on a podcast, The Great Simplification, in which he engages other experts and thought-leaders in a series of interviews. He has also created an animated video series to explain the Great Simplification in an accessible way.

The theory of The Great Simplification intersects with our work at Transition-HQ by raising the question of how transition can happen intentionally through design and our actions rather than becoming a reactive and potentially negative process.