Track 6a. Innovation Levers

Track chairs:

Marc Wolfram. Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development (IOER), Chair of Spatial Development, Dresden University of Technology, Germany,

Liling Huang. Graduate Institute of Building and Planning, National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan,

Goals and objectives of the track:

Cities and regions are widely recognized as critical hotspots for shifting current development pathways towards sustainability. Deep structural changes are required in the multiple systems that constitute urban areas and processes across scales (CitiesIPCC, 2018; Webb et al., 2017; Wolfram, Frantzeskaki, & Maschmeyer, 2016; Bai et al., 2016). In fact, diverse actors appear to have already intensified their efforts for achieving more substantive changes in urban and/or regional systems, targeting a variety of longer term economic, social, environmental and technological innovations.

This has been driven by different factors: 

  • The mainstreaming of sustainability-related holistic paradigms into policy (e.g. "low carbon", "resilient", "eco", "smart", "green" city, town or region etc.);
  • The formation of trans-local networks promoting novel cross-cutting agendas of change (e.g. Transition Towns, C40, Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, 100 Resilient Cities, etc.);
  • The emergence and/or revival of place-based or networked bottom-up and collaborative initiatives targeting sustainability and transformation (e.g. grassroots initiatives, cooperatives, Local Agenda 21, etc.);
  • The diffusion and adoption of new concepts and intervention formats developed in various strands of sustainability science (e.g. transition management, adaptive governance, urban transition labs, biophilic urbanism, etc.).
  • The changing role of science and researchers as part of society (e.g. transformative science, real world experiments, scientivists, citizen science, etc.).

The resulting initiatives tend to articulate visions that go beyond an improvement of efficiencies, aiming to leverage more fundamental changes in the way how current systems for meeting human needs are understood, designed and operated. In so doing, they attribute a key role to place and proximity in urban and/or regional contexts, even if actors at other levels and scales (i.e. national, supra-national, trans-local) are closely involved or promoting them.

Therefore, such initiatives usually alter established cognitive and normative frames concerning interdependencies between human activity, technology and ecosystems. They also imply shifts regarding the role and tasks of stakeholders (state, private sector, civil society, science, intermediaries), as well as their mutual relations and processes of interaction, bridging across sectoral and territorial boundaries. At their core, they concern the shaping and adoption of novel institutions, practices, designs and/or technologies that affect human well-being, socio-economic justice and ecosystem health (Affolderbach & Schulz, 2018; Elmqvist et al., 2018; Evans, Karvonen, & Raven, 2016; van den Heiligenberg, Heimeriks, Hekkert, & van Oort, 2017; von Wirth, Fuenfschilling, Frantzeskaki, & Coenen, 2018; Wohl, 2017). Most importantly however, the extent to which such initiatives actually achieve transformative change for sustainability may differ considerably, depending on their respective formation, orientation and implementation.

Against this backdrop, the overall objective of this track is to critically explore, review and discuss ongoing initiatives with the (declared or implicit) ambition to leverage and drive transformative change towards sustainability in and through cities and regions. This may include, but is not limited to, new approaches in governance, planning, design, architecture, business or public services, driving integrated social-ecological-technological innovations.

Track questions:

The overarching questions addressed by this track are therefore:

  • What are the theories of change and innovation that underpin such initiatives for transformation in and through cities and regions (e.g. socio-technical transitions, socio-ecological transformation, institutional change, empowerment, etc.)?
  • What is the role and relationship of the spatial frames and scales addressed and/or affected, such as "neighborhood", "district", "urban", "suburban", "periurban", "metropolitan", "rural", "regional", etc.?
  • Which actors, institutions, motives and interests shape these initiatives?
  • How do such initiatives in turn re-shape normative orientations, power positions, actor legitimacy, and institutions - including spatial and territorial ones?
  • What are the discourses that build coalitions and mobilize action for these initiatives (e.g. around "low carbon", "liveability", "eco-mobility", "biophily")?
  • What are characteristics of these initiatives regarding: scope, scale, timeframe, participants, process, methods and outputs?
  • What are the outcomes and impacts of such initiatives in terms of transformative change and system innovation?
  • How do such initiatives compare to each other (across subjects, countries or regions), and/or to former ones (e.g. Local Agenda A21)?
  • What is the role of the global urban sustainability agenda (Agenda 2030, Habitat III), and in particular SDG11 in this?

Contributions to this track should thus engage theoretically and/or empirically with initiatives and approaches targeting system innovations in and through cities and regions. They should also strive to critically assess the potential of these initiatives for accelerating and achieving transformations towards sustainability.

The subject areas addressed may thus be diverse, including e.g. one or more of the following: spatial and urban development, land use, architecture, urban design, climate change, mobility, energy, water, food, biodiversity, waste, building, green/blue infrastructures, circular economy, social inclusion, ICT, etc.


Leverage points; Transformative capacity; Experiments; Transition Management; Adaptive governance; Design thinking; Social innovation; Local innovation systems; Living Labs; Transition Towns; Grassroots innovation; Biophilic urbanism; Nature-based solutions; Urban tinkering; Tactical urbanism; DIY urbanism;


Affolderbach, J., Schulz, C., 2018. Green building transitions: regional trajectories of innovation in Europe, Canada and Australia. Springer Science+Business Media, New York, NY.

Bai, X., Surveyer, A., Elmqvist, T., Gatzweiler, F.W., Güneralp, B., Parnell, S., Prieur-Richard, A.-H., Shrivastava, P., Siri, J.G., Stafford-Smith, M., Toussaint, J.-P., Webb, R., 2016. Defining and advancing a systems approach for sustainable cities. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 23, 69-78.

Elmqvist, T., Siri, J., Andersson, E., Anderson, P., Bai, X., Das, P.K., Gatere, T., Gonzalez, A., Goodness, J., Handel, S.N., Hermansson Török, E., Kavonic, J., Kronenberg, J., Lindgren, E., Maddox, D., Maher, R., Mbow, C., McPhearson, T., Mulligan, J., Nordenson, G., Spires, M., Stenkula, U., Takeuchi, K., Vogel, C., 2018. Urban tinkering. Sustain. Sci.

Evans, J.P.M., Karvonen, A., Raven, R. (Eds.), 2016. The experimental city, Routledge research in sustainable urbanism. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London ; New York.

van den Heiligenberg, H.A.R.M., Heimeriks, G.J., Hekkert, M.P., van Oort, F.G., 2017. A habitat for sustainability experiments: Success factors for innovations in their local and regional contexts. J. Clean. Prod. 169, 204-215.

von Wirth, T., Fuenfschilling, L., Frantzeskaki, N., Coenen, L., 2018. Impacts of urban living labs on sustainability transitions: mechanisms and strategies for systemic change through experimentation. Eur. Plan. Stud. 1-29.

Webb, R., Bai, X., Smith, M.S., Costanza, R., Griggs, D., Moglia, M., Neuman, M., Newman, P., Newton, P., Norman, B., Ryan, C., Schandl, H., Steffen, W., Tapper, N., Thomson, G., 2017. Sustainable urban systems: Co-design and framing for transformation. Ambio.

Wohl, S., 2017. Tactical urbanism as a means of testing relational processes in space: A complex systems perspective. Plan. Theory 147309521772280.

Wolfram, M., Frantzeskaki, N., Maschmeyer, S., 2016. Cities, systems and sustainability: Status and perspectives for research on urban transformations. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 18-25.