We now have a rapidly growing global city system that is changing society. The impact of this process is considerable and has far reaching consequences for global sustainable development. These transitions occur as a result of the complexities, uncertainties and challenges confronting society. Urban transitions are both evolutionary – incremental changes to societal structures and the environment – and revolutionary – rapid changes to societal structures and the environment. Urban transitions are about broad societal change that is the intentional and unintentional result of historical or contemporary decisions. This means that transitions are channelled and mediated through societal structures and through the actions of a multitude of heterogeneous actors—formal and informal, top-down or bottom-up, individual or collective—in action and reaction to perceived changes in society. Urban transitions are a vital global issue as more than half of the world population lives in urban areas today, and, at the same time global economy, cultures and politics becomes increasingly urban.
Modern society has constructed forms for handling collective problems and this has taken the form of departmentalisation within the framework of the welfare state, as well as in the highly specialised business sector. These departments and branches are to a great extent geared to face identified challenges to society and consist of trained experts. Problems suitable for handling by such existing –‘prefabricated’ – departments are sometimes called ‘tame’ problems, which refer to problems that enjoy relative consensus in society on both problem definition and solution. Society faces issues characterized by fragmentation of perspectives, understanding, knowledge and interests, or when the issue at stake is given different priority by the involved actors. Complex problems that do not fit neatly into predefined policy areas and regulatory arrangements provide an opening for innovations and solutions that can break free from constraining structures.
Uncertainty encourages viewing policy as an ongoing exploration with many possible adjustments, rather than an exercise based upon detailed assumptions and one singular image of the future to come. This requires research and reflection on social learning and institutional innovation as well as development of new modes of communication between different actors, scales and areas of expertise in the urban setting. The kingpin for handling uncertainty is an improved communication between actors leading to an increased social learning. This social learning must aim at a more common understanding of problems facing society, and take place between experts, businesses, individuals, NGOs and politicians.
An elaborated and commonly shared understanding of the policy ‘playing field’ will bring actors from different spheres of society together and help to solve collective issues. A strong focus on social learning further call for flexible policy making that demands a positive feedback loop which may create order and efficient knowledge out of various experiences. Proactive policymaking is not about finding the one right policy for the future, but the focus must be on a flexible policy making at proper scales for both democracy and efficiency concerns. This is a more systemic perspective on policy, more concerned with who interacts with whom, about what, rather than targeting specific, well-defined outcomes as policy goals. With this perspective on policy as an ongoing process follows that a multitude of agents act as policy-makers, not just government agencies, but also firms and industry associations, NGOs and private foundations.
Capacity to act is at the core of handling urban transitions. Capacity to act is built upon the ability to pool resources from different actors in society creating a system for efficient problem solving. How may society build the capacity to be more proactive and mitigate perceived future problems already today? How do society create authority (legitimate decision making) to handle ‘abrasive’ policy problem that can entail sacrifices by both elites and ordinary citizens?