Transition Lab 

Action Research From the Ground Up

Professor Susan Krumdieck, Director and Chair in Energy Transition Engineering

Orkney Campus, Heriot-Watt University


Islands Centre for Net Zero: The people of the Orkney, Shetland and Outer Hebrides Islands have taken on the mission of transition to low carbon energy by 2030. The work of the Transition Lab aims to address the competing issues of arresting greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring affordability, providing energy security now and in the long-term, and setting up systems that are economically sustainable and equitable and are embraced by the public. What we learn through our ground-breaking work will provide crucial understanding of how to navigate the challenging transition period of decarbonising heat and transport and managing the de-growth of the oil and gas sector. The Centre’s work is on the ground in the islands, but will contribute to the Scotland and UK advancement of energy governance and innovation. The work of the centre will use a framework that embraces the complexity of ensuring transparency, engineering-informed planning, monitoring and implementation, and continuity of community wellbeing and affordability. 

    Introduction Video

The Scottish Islands will be the headlight communities for energy transition

The Challenge: Orkney is internationally recognised for the wind and marine electricity supply that sometimes meet the demands, and sometimes exceeds local loads and exports to Scotland via subsea cable. This high penetration of intermittent generation means that Orkney can provide a large-scale lab for smart grid technologies and ideas from around the world. But electricity is only part of the energy transition. There are paradoxical “wicked problems” throughout all of the energy supply, market, policy and end-use systems. A problem is wicked because it is successful in several respects, but it is also causing harm and it is unsustainable. For example, diesel powered cruise ships provide luxurious holidays for tourists and transport visitors to the islands where they may purchase local goods and services. However fossil fuel is unsustainable and the pollution and scale of tourist surges harm local ecosystems. Decision makers need honest, transparent and rigorous analysis about how best to transition current systems to achieve local objectives, global targets for 80% fossil fuel reduction, and long term community prosperity. The wicked problems arise in the local and system-wide projects of carbon downshift. 

Oil dominates the energy supply for Orkney and poses wicked problems for energy transition

Difficult Decisions and Choices: Energy transition will rely on a range of decisions made by actors other than energy suppliers. Government at all levels, industry, organisations, communities and individual households all need accurate and relevant information. All of the options require trade-offs. The investments and benefits needed for energy transition do not fit our expected models. The ICNZ will use ground-up participatory exploration and engineering-informed way-finding through the complex possibility space to comprehend the opportunity space for the next confident steps. This will enable understanding, discussion and acceptance of sober, rational and fruitful decisions.

Guiding Principles: It is imperative that government, utilities, operators and households rely on robust scientific and engineering evidence when making decisions, developing plans and implementing policy. There is a need for significant research, development and training in energy transition at all educational levels. The activities will be carried out in new interdisciplinary ways using methods like “Action Research” and “Problem Based Learning”. There are potentially serious consequences from delaying difficult decisions until changes in existing systems are de-risked and the behaviours of actors are certain. Action Research means deploying known technologies and methods within certain settings, using rigorous scientific research observation and modelling to rapidly generate learning. Results will be reported about both the intended and unintended consequences to the research community and the island communities through local media, virtual workshops and on-line courses. There are no technology or regulatory solutions that will solve the problems of decarbonization, thus we propose to “Learn by Doing” in the range of settings and energy end uses.


Consortium of Partners in the UK and beyond

Transition Engineering Approach: The proposed ground-up approach will ensure that people throughout society around the country can grasp the challenges and see the opportunities of different types of investments, technologies, innovations, behaviours, and policies. We will also develop new understandable and transparent metrics for wellbeing, prosperity, resilience, security, and sustainability that communicate the real value of the transition projects to people today and for generations to come. The action research and the workflow will be guided by the Interdisciplinary Transition Innovation, Management and Engineering (InTIME) process as described in the book Transition Engineering, Building a Sustainable Future


The Interdisciplinary Transition Innovation, Management and Engineering (InTIME) Methodology

The Transition Engineering Labs 

The Transition Engineering Labs are established around particular energy transition ecosystems in the Islands Centre for Net Zero. The Transition Lab is established as the research and technical facilitator for the Scottish Islands Deal mission to achieve net zero carbon by 2030.[1] In comments on the IPCC Working Group 1 Report[2] the UN Secretary-General stated, “The only way to prevent exceeding this threshold is by urgently stepping up our efforts, and pursuing the most ambitious path.”

Heriot-Watt University Orkney Campus is building up a Transition Engineering research and innovation effort. The mission for all projects is to transition energy systems to downshift fossil fuel reliance by 80%, while achieving regeneration of biocapacity, equity, autonomy and derived social wealth. These core elements of the complex systems we rely on for survival mean that the work on energy transition is necessarily multidisciplinary and involves working directly with communities, companies and councils using methods of action research.  Action research means using the perspective of residents and end users – from the ground up – and doing the research directly with the end users.

The Transition InTIME Labs will tackle energy transition challenges across the six activity ecosystems shown below. The research into transition management, tools and data exchange, and in applications of already known tools like Lifecycle Cost Analysis are common to all the activity ecosystems. PhD candidates are sought with Masters degrees and additional experience in computer science, modelling, image analysis or engineering, ideally with some experience of applying these skills to other disciplines (e.g. in the life sciences, social sciences, transport, urban form, buildings and built environment, community activities). Top candidates will have good programming skills, preferably in Python, ArcGIS, game development or other advanced programming languages. Knowledge of transportation engineering, building energy science, or freight supply chain would be beneficial. Masters students in the Sustainable Energy Transition (SET) MSc programme will be offered dissertation topics working alongside the PhD students and partners in the various topics. Undergraduate projects and Graduate Apprenticeships can also be carried out in support of transition challenge projects.

Activity Ecosystems


How will we carry out these projects? 

The ICNZ work programme is organised into several themes. Data and digitising of existing data is an important research topic across all of the areas where fossil fuel is used. The Interdisciplinary Transition Innovation, Management and Engineering (InTIME) methodology  will be used for addressing wicked problems of change in all of the research areas. The plan is to form cohorts for each of the streams, and for the PhD students to work to support the InTIME stakeholder journey through action research, complex system analysis, building digital twins, curating data, and participating in innovation and project design and development.

The Transition Lab InTIME Stakeholder Journey© addresses the wicked problems of energy transition


PhD Research Projects 

PhD level research requires that a contribution to the body of knowledge be achieved. This means answering a research question rather than carrying out a large and difficult task. In order to determine if the project is a PhD research project, ask these questions:

1)  If sufficient funding were available, could a person fully skilled in the current standard methodologies and tools be able to carry out the work? 

If yes, then it is a scope of work that could be done by a knowledgable consultant, and not a research project.

If no, then the question is;

2) What is missing? What would be needed in order to carry out the difficult task? If the answer is “a way to reliably carry out the task based on rigorous fundamentals and methods” then developing that way to do the work is a research project.

Right now, the biggest task facing humanity is “change the incumbent energy consuming economic and social activity systems so that they use 80% less fossil fuel by 2030?”   There is a knowledge gap in every place in every energy using system. “how do we achieve the net zero climate targets?” This is the research question.

The methods for assessing LCA are fundamental tools. The methods involve finding, cleaning and analysing data from many sources in a way that produces a coherent assessment of the energy and materials consumed in the system and the use of the system (what I can an activity ecosystem).  But the LCA does not answer the question of how to achieve the target fossil fuel reductions. In order to make a contribution in this area, the research question is framed this way:

A given activity ecosystem current is comprised of a certain set of capital assets and technology artefacts and habituated econo-social behaviours. How can the participants, stakeholders and overseers of the activity ecosystem carry out a change project that is on the direct line-of-sight pathway to the target?

This is a Transition Engineering Challenge. And it will have a good PhD research project with great potential for innovation no matter which activity ecosystem we work on.

The first Transition Engineering Challenges we are working on in 2022 are activity ecosystems of residential, public schools, and shops/commercial. These activity ecosystems include factors such as buildings design, construction and condition, technologies, fuels and electricity, regulations, spatial geography, behaviours, culture and quality of life.

We have a hypothesis that the “way we achieve the net zero targets” Is to apply Transition Engineering methodologies and tools in a Transition Lab architecture, comprising an integrated process with partners, stakeholders, and end users.

Thus, the research will be to test out the hypothesis through experimentation with the architecture and processes of the Transition Lab, evaluate the results, and provide the findings of how to structure and run a transition challenge for a given activity ecosystem in a way that either achieves the net zero target directly, or starts on a net zero pathway that will achieve the target. 

Imagine if we could answer the question “How do we achieve the net zero targets and just transition InTIME?”  that would be a very good research result that could be used in a standardised way in activity ecosystems around the world.

This project is available to UK and International students. The successful candidate will have a B.Sc. (2:1 or higher) and M.Sc. (distinction) or equivalent, and ideally additional experience in computer science, modelling, image analysis or engineering, ideally with some experience of applying these skills to other disciplines (e.g. in the life sciences, social sciences, transport, urban form, buildings and built environment, community activities). You will have good programming skills, preferably in Python, ArcGIS, game development or other advanced programming languages. Knowledge of transportation engineering, building energy science, or freight supply chain would be beneficial. You will be highly self-motivated and confident enough to seek out solutions beyond the current team if required. You must be able to describe complex issues in a means that is accessible to the range of stakeholders with whom you will work.

How to apply

To apply you must complete our online application form. Please select EGIS PhD programme Environment and include the full project title, reference number and supervisor (Prof SP Krumdieck) on your application form. Ensure that all fields marked as ‘required’ are complete.

You must complete the section marked project proposal; upload a supporting statement documenting your reasons for applying to this particular PhD project, and why you are an ideal candidate for the position.  You will also need to provide a CV, a copy of your degree certificate/s and relevant transcripts. You will be asked to enter details of an academic referee who will be able to provide a technical reference. Until your nominated referee has uploaded their statement, your application will not be marked as complete and will not be considered by the review panel. You must also provide proof of your ability in the English language (if English is not your mother tongue or if you have not already studied for a degree that was taught in English within the last 2 years). We require an IELTS certificate showing an overall score of at least 6.5 with no component scoring less than 6.0 or a TOEFL certificate with a minimum score of 90 points.

Please contact Prof Susan Krumdieck ( for further information or an informal discussion. Contact Susan Smith (S.

The ICNZ is now set to launch in Fall 2022. Prospective candidates are welcome to apply at any time. Search for scholarships you may be eligible for. 


[2] United Nations Secretary-General (09 Aug 2021)


Regulatory Sandbox for Orkney

Regulatory Sandbox for Orkney

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