Transition arenas

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The ‘Transition Arena’ is a participatory method used to engage people in a collective process of understanding, learning, visioning, and experimenting around specific societal transition challenges. Transition Arenas use a stepwise approach to learning and experimentation in a sustainability transitions context, enabling a reflexive approach to shaping sustainability governance. It does so by focusing on frontrunners, the objective of radical (social) innovation, and a selective participatory approach (Silvestri, Hebinck et al. 2022, pp. 9). The arena is a tool to generate a compelling narrative, a critical mass and a legitimizing analysis for fundamental change. The transition arena is a methodological application of the approach of transition management. Transition management can be used as a strategy to open up desired transition pathways in societal contexts where people and organisations are 'locked-in' to an unsustainable or unjust system state (Notermans, von Wirth, Loorbach 2022, pp. 5.).

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

A transition arena can be described as a structured space for a diverse group of change agents to critically reflect on a current societal system, to problematise current structures, cultures and practices of an unsustainable status-quo, while stimulating a change in perspective towards a more sustainable and just future state. This space is of temporary nature and is made up by a series of meetings during which the change agents meet to critically reflect on a shared problem. The transition arena approach provides an informal, yet structured process to co-create a desired vision, and to define actionable, strategic steps to achieving this vision by outlining specific actions, initiating experiments and designing a reflexive learning and adaptation cycle. The process aims for two key outcomes. First, the formation of a group of actors that are willing to act as ambassadors for change, by linking the innovative ideas for radical change that emerged in the co-creative process to their daily practices and to engage with their social networks on the matter. Second, this process should result in a set of concrete steps, or a transition agenda, that provide strategies for the transformation of current unsustainable structures, cultures, and practices (Silvestri, Hebinck et al. 2022, pp. 9).

Here are a number of basic principles for a transition management ‘mindset’ and for its operational practice:

  • Systemic: engage systemwide with emerging dynamics across societal levels
  • Back-casting: take desired, future transition states as a starting point
  • Selective: focus on transformative agents already engaged with innovation and system change
  • Adaptive: experiment towards multiple goals and transition pathways
  • Learning-by-doing and doing-by-learning: ensure monitoring, evaluation and reflexivity

These principles can be operationalized in different ways whereby transition management always tries to influence change in four dimensions:

  • Strategic (orienting): problem structuring, envisioning, and establishment of the transition arena
  • Tactical (agenda-setting): developing coalitions, images and transition agendas
  • Operational (activating): mobilising actors, executing projects and experiments
  • Reflexive (reflecting): evaluating, monitoring, learning and adaptation

The transition arena operationalizes and connects these four types of activities. It acts as temporary innovation network aimed at developing radical ways of thinking and acting beyond ‘business-as-usual’. And it is a collective and co-creative learning process that increases the self-organisation capacity of the participants. The main outcome of the arena is a sense of direction, an impulse for local change and collective empowerment (Notermans, von Wirth, Loorbach 2022, pp. 6.).

Shapes, sizes and applications

The transition arena process tries to address all of the four dimensions described in the introduction but mainly focuses on the strategic and tactical ones. The operational plans are always developed with the transition team and specified for the contexts. The transition arena process in transitions that are not yet highly developed often follows a similar sequence of steps that include: a) system and actor analysis, b) problem analysis, c) future visioning, d) back-casting transition pathways, e) transition agenda, f) dissemination, and g) transition experiments.

When the transition dynamics are more advanced and niches and/or future transition visions are emerging, the arena steps can be adapted. Depending on the transition analysis and dynamics in the specific context, the order of the steps is adjusted or alternative steps might be taken as part of the process to develop a meaningful transition impact (Notermans, von Wirth, Loorbach 2022, pp. 14.).

Transition arenas have been conducted in many different contexts, often initiated by a public actor and organized together with intermediaries and researchers. Transition arenas can be applied at different scales: a neighbourhood, a city, a region, a country. Often they focus on a specific domain or transition (e.g. mobility and transport, food and agriculture, energy) but arenas have also been applied to address general liveability and social issues in a neighbourhood. The UrbanA project developed an international, translocal transition arena method, in which change agents from different European cities were engaged in events online and offline to foster translocal exchange (Urbana. 2019).

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

Transition arenas have been developed and broadly applied in cities and urban neighbourhoods, although they are also applied at other scales. By engaging local change agents, the methodology co-creates an understanding of challenges and possible ways forward that is embedded in the local context – making the approach particularly suited for cities (Roorda et al., 2014). For example in a neighbourhood transition arena in Carnisse, Rotterdam, the arena focused on the involvement and empowerment of the local residents to develop and alternative transition future to the framing of the municipality of the area of Carnisse as problematic (Notermans, von Wirth, Loorbach 2022, pp. 15.).

The strategic steps of the transition arena focus on challenging unsustainabilities and injustices in societal systems. Creating a shared imaginary vision of a system or city that is sustainable and just and collaboratively finding ways forward, is a key aspect of the methodology. As a participatory method it could be used as a tool to improve procedural justice (UrbanA), although the selective engagement of change agents also raises questions about inclusivity and democratic legitimacy (De Geus, Wittmayer, Vogelzang, 2022).

For example the SHARED GREEN DEAL project's transition arenas aim to stimulate shared actions across Europe at the local and regional level to generate lessons and knowledge about local and regional implementation in six streams: clean energy, circular economy, efficient renovations, sustainable mobility, sustainable food, and preserving biodiversity (Silvestri, Hebinck et al. 2022, pp. 5).

Narrative of change

The transition arena is a methodology that embraces the complexity and uncertainty of sustainability and justice issues. It is developed based on the belief that alternatives can emerge from local action by playing into existing societal dynamics, and can influence the direction and pace of social change at a larger scale. The approach has been used to stimulate transitions in localities and socio-technical systems such as energy, water, and mobility.

The approach works to break through persistent problems by 1) Getting insight into the system at hand, working to understand the complex dynamics of multiple domains, actors and scales; 2) Aiming for system innovation in small but radical steps, guided by a long-term perspective; 3) Giving room for diversity and flexibility, by acknowledging that different perspectives and potential ways forward are necessary in an uncertain future; 4) Co-creation with a variety of actors; 5) Giving room to change agents who are already adopting alternative ways of thinking and doing, rather than engaging all stakeholders; 6) Facilitating social and institutional learning, to continuously learn about alternative practices and current constraints (Roorda et al., 2014).

With this approach, transition arenas try to create three outcomes: a sense of direction, proposing a strategic future perspective which addresses the fundamental changes needed to reach a sustainable future; an impulse for local change, inspiring new and enhancing existing initiatives that contribute to the envisioned future; collective empowerment, enabling actors in the city to tackle challenges and seize opportunities for a sustainable city (Roorda et al., 2014).

Transformative potential

Transition management attempts to address how the transition momentum may be used to shift to just and sustainable futures (Notermans, von Wirth, Loorbach 2022, pp. 6.). Transition arenas radically reimagine societal systems, thereby challenging existing power structures that uphold current unsustainable and unjust structures, cultures and practices. The participants of the transition arena contribute to the problem structuring as part of the process, so they define together which power relations are problematic and how they should be challenged.


The Guidance Manual “Transition Management in the Urban Context” describes transition arena processes that took place in several European cities (Ludwigsburg, Montreuil, Ghent and Aberdeen). In Aberdeen, the participants of the transition arena identified a vision and possible transition pathways for 2050 as a target for the era when the oil industry will have left Aberdeen. The group agreed on five guiding principles: Aberdeen as an opportunity city; Aberdeen as an attractive city to visit and live in; Aberdeen as a learning city; Aberdeen as an accessible city; Aberdeen as an energy efficient and resilient city. For each guiding principle, a vision image was created that described the practices, lifestyle and features of a sustainable Aberdeen in 2050 (Roorda et al., 2014).

Suggested reading

DRIFT: An experiential guide for transition arenas

Shared Green Deal Arena guidelines

DRIFT Transition Management in the Urban Context: Guidance Manual

Just Arenas Guide for designing collaborative spaces for just sustainability transitions

Designing participatory transformative processes for Just and Climate-neutral Cities METHODOLOGICAL GUIDELINES FOR USING TRANSITION MANAGEMENT

Designing participatory transformative processes for Just and Climate-neutral Cities WORKBOOK FOR URBAN TRANSITION MAKERS VOLUME II

URBANA ARENA DESIGN Methodological guidelines for designing, co-creating and hosting a translocal arena for sustainable and just cities


De Geus, T., Wittmayer, J.M., Vogelzang, F. (2022) “Biting the bullet: Addressing the democratic legitimacy of transition management” Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 42, p201-218.

Notermans, I., von Wirth, T., Loorbach, D. (2022). An experiential guide for Transition Arenas. DRIFT for Transition publication. Link to publication

Roorda, C., Wittmayer, J., Henneman, P, Steenbergen, F. van, Frantzeskaki, N., Loorbach, D., Transition management in the urban context: guidance manual. DRIFT, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, 2014.

Silvestri, G., Hebinck, A., von Wirth, T., Mulders, W., 2022. SHARED GREEN DEAL Arena guidelines: designing translocal, inclusive spaces for co-creation to achieve the EU Green Deal. Cambridge: SHARED GREEN DEAL.