PhD Position in Transformative Power of Social Innovation in Just Climate Transitions
Utrecht University

PhD Position in Transformative Power of Social Innovation in Just Climate Transitions

Job description

Are you interested in the social and political dimensions of sustainability, climate change and innovation? Do you want to understand the transformative power of social innovation and how power relations develop and interact with just climate transitions? We have a PhD-project available that will focus on these themes, at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, within the section of Innovation Studies.

Ongoing discussions about climate change often focus on ecological, technological and economic dimensions and top-down government policies. While those dimensions are all crucial for understanding and tackling climate change, so is the role of social and political change, which is considerably less well understood. Just climate transitions are broadly understood as processes of transformative change that aim to mitigate and adapt to climate change, while (a) improving the quality of life of current and future generations within ecological boundaries and (b) eliminating injustices that are triggered or exacerbated by climate change and its underlying causes.

This PhD-project specifically investigates the role of social innovations in such just climate transitions. Social innovation refers to changing social relations, involving new ways of doing, thinking and organizing. This includes alternative social practices, narratives and organizational forms, within governments, but also across markets, communities and hybrid organisations (e.g. social enterprises, cooperatives, networks, etc.). Examples of social innovation initiatives include sharing platforms, citizens’ assemblies, community energy initiatives, participatory budgeting, food cooperatives, urban farming, co-working spaces, digital fabrication, credit unions, ecovillages, and many more.

The main research question guiding this PhD-project project is: How, to what extent and under which conditions can social innovations contribute to just climate transitions? There will be a strong theoretical focus on understanding underlying power dynamics: How do power relations shape, enable and impede climate transitions, and (how) can the transformative power of social innovations be increased and deployed to enable just climate transitions?

The PhD-student will be invited to empirically investigate these societal challenges through qualitative research in the context of specific domains and regions. We foresee a cross-national, comparative case-study analysis of social innovations across housing, food, mobility and/or digital platforms, i.e. innovating how we live, eat, travel, work and/or acquire things, and how this interacts with climate transitions. Geographic context lies in the Netherlands and 1-2 other locations. The exact focus on domain and geographic context is to be decided by the PhD-student in consultation with the supervisors.

In combination with the in-depth theoretical and empirical work, the PhD-student is encouraged to engage with societal actors through transdisciplinary inquiry and action research, building on e.g. the Manifesto for Transformative Social Innovation and other transdisciplinary networks and platforms in the field of social innovation and just climate transitions. Besides the aspiration to understand the dynamics of power relations and social innovation in the context of climate change, there is also a mission to empower transformative change towards justice and sustainability.


We are looking for a talented, curious and engaged graduate in innovation sciences, political science, organisations studies, sociology, science & technology studies, or another relevant field. Excellent command of English is required, as well as fluency in Dutch (or at least a willingness to learn, for the purpose of fieldwork in the Netherlands).

The student needs to have experience with qualitative research methods, and be able to write clearly for a scientific audience, as well as for a wider audience. Given the engagement with societal actors, good social and communication skills are desirable.


You will be offered a temporary position (0.8-1.0 FTE), starting 1 December 2022, initially for one year with an extension to a total of four years upon a successful assessment in the first year, and with the specific intent that it results in a doctorate within this period. The gross salary ranges between €2,541 in the first year and €3,247 in the fourth year of employment (scale P according to the Collective Labour Agreement Dutch Universities) per month for a full-time employment. Salaries are supplemented with a holiday bonus of 8% and a year-end bonus of 8.3% per year.

In addition, Utrecht University offers excellent secondary conditions, including an attractive retirement scheme, (partly paid) parental leave and flexible employment conditions (multiple choice model). For more information, please visit working at Utrecht University.

About the organization

A better future for everyone. This ambition motivates our scientists in executing their leading research and inspiring teaching. At Utrecht University, the various disciplines collaborate intensively towards major societal themes. Our focus is on Dynamics of Youth, Institutions for Open Societies, Life Sciences and Sustainability.

Utrecht University's Faculty of Geosciences studies the Earth: from the Earth's core to its surface, including man's spatial and material utilisation of the Earth - always with a focus on sustainability and innovation. With 3,400 students (BSc and MSc) and 720 staff, the faculty is a strong and challenging organisation. The Faculty of Geosciences is organised in four Departments: Earth Sciences, Human Geography & Spatial Planning, Physical Geography, and Sustainable Development.

The Copernicus Institute investigates processes and opportunities for innovative change towards sustainability. This transformation is a multidisciplinary process requiring a variety of disciplines. The Copernicus Institute offers a unique multidisciplinary environment in this complex field. The institute is embedded in the Faculty of Geosciences at Utrecht University and consists of five research groups (sections): Innovation Studies, Environmental Governance, Environmental Sciences, Energy and Resources, and the Utrecht Futures Studio. The PhD will be embedded in the Innovation Studies group.

Additional information

For more information about this position, please contact Prof Flor Avelino via


Everyone deserves to feel at home at our university. We welcome employees with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

To apply, please send your curriculum vitae, including a letter of motivation via the ‘apply’ button.

Interviews are planned to take place on the 12th/13th and/or 25th/27th of October, at Utrecht University or online. The PhD-position starts on the 1st of December 2022.

The application deadline is

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