Guiding Sustainability Transitions: Backcasting, Experimentation and Social learning
Licentiate thesis, 2019

Sustainability challenges including climate change, social injustice, resource depletion and biodiversity loss are becoming increasingly apparent. These challenges can be understood as partly resulting from unsustainable socio-technical systems in society, assumed to require transitions to become sustainable in time. When moving beyond more conventional attempts to analyse and describe sustainability challenges, there is an increasing research interest in solutions-oriented and prescriptive approaches to meaningfully engage with sustainability challenges in various contexts.

The aim of this thesis is to contribute knowledge on how societal transitions can be guided into desirable and sustainable pathways, where social learning is assumed a key process. The many designs and frameworks for engaging with sustainability transitions that prevail in literature seldom provide insights into the contingent nature of its application in its particular context, the prior knowledge and beliefs of participating actors, or an unpacking of how and why (transformative) social learning processes might unfold.

Through inter- and transdisciplinary research and drawing on case studies and ethnographic methods, this thesis includes further development and an empirical evaluation of a backcasting-from-principles process in two settings: a ‘Challenge Lab’ arena that creates space for students to lead sustainability transitions (Paper I), and a regional multi-stakeholder process related to climate policy (Paper II). These studies represent initial attempts to better understand conditions and mechanisms into the kinds of learning that occur in these spaces. Finally, this thesis develops hypotheses on capabilities of sustainability principles in navigating transitions, and particular tools that may be used within and beyond backcasting settings to provide structure in inspiring and supporting conversations on sustainable and desirable futures (Paper III).

sustainability transitions


reflexive governance



Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

social learning

Opponent: Daniel Lang, Leuphana University Lueneburg, Tyskland


Johan Larsson

Chalmers, Space, Earth and Environment, Physical Resource Theory

Larsson, J. & Holmberg, J. Sustainability principles in guiding transitions: exploring capabilities through a regional backcasting case

Challenge Lab

The Chalmers University Foundation, 2016-01-01 -- 2019-12-31.

Subject Categories

Educational Sciences

Social Sciences Interdisciplinary

Other Engineering and Technologies not elsewhere specified

Other Environmental Engineering

Other Natural Sciences

Driving Forces

Sustainable development

Innovation and entrepreneurship

Areas of Advance


Building Futures (2010-2018)


Learning and teaching

Pedagogical work




Opponent: Daniel Lang, Leuphana University Lueneburg, Tyskland

More information

Latest update