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Sustainability transformations & transitions

In the following, we explain for specialist audiences how the terms sustainability transformation and sustainability transition are currently used in the Swiss research landscape, based on the literature and a survey of the Academies network.

Sustainability transformations

Sustainability transformations refer to fundamental processes of societal change in the direction of sustainability. In contrast to terms like change or transition, the term transformation emphasizes that the changes are urgent and necessary, are actively driven by so-called changemakers, and occur across sectors. Depending on the definition, transformations can be systemic, structural, radical, revolutionary, or disruptive – the old is destroyed, the new is created.

Reading tips:

Transformation vs. Transition?

Transformation: In the Swiss research community, common definitions of transformation refer to a profound, far-reaching process that occurs on multiple levels.

Transition: The term transition is more often used to refer to changes within a particular societal subsystem (e.g. energy, mobility).

Researchers who employ the term transition like to emphasize the concept of socio-technical transitions. From the perspective of transition researchers, a transformation is just one of several possible “transition pathways” (see Geels & Schot 2007). Others acknowledge that the terms transition and transformation are frequently used interchangeably. Among French-language researchers, the term transition is generally preferred over transformation.

In cases where the focus is on sustainability transformations, it appears useful to understand and classify transitions as sub-processes of wider societal transformations.

Reading tips:

Hölscher, K., Wittmayer, J. M., & Loorbach, D. (2018). Transition versus transformation: What’s the difference? Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 27, 1–3.
Köhler, J., Geels, F. W., Kern, F., Markard, J., Onsongo, E., Wieczorek, A., Alkemade, F., Avelino, F., Bergek, A., Boons, F., Fünfschilling, L., Hess, D., Holtz, G., Hyysalo, S., Jenkins, K., Kivimaa, P., Martiskainen, M., McMeekin, A., Mühlemeier, M. S., … Wells, P. (2019). An agenda for sustainability transitions research: State of the art and future directions. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 31, 1–32. 10.1016/j.eist.2019.01.004
Geels, F.W.; Schot, J. (2007). Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, 36, 399-417.

Research on sustainability transformations

Research on sustainability transformations focuses on societal transformations towards greater sustainability and employs methods of transformation research and transformative research, and other related approaches.

This website has been translated from German. The authors of the website refer mainly to the use of terms in German-speaking discourses (e.g. influenced by WGBU 2011), which are also reflected in publications in English. Read more about the use of the term 'transition', especially in French, here:

Further definitions

How do transformation processes occur? The following publications provide an overview of concepts and explanatory approaches.

Differentiation between structural, systemic, and enabling approaches:

Three ways of understanding social transformations to sustainability
Image: International Science Council 2021, referring to Scoones et al. 2020

The International Science Council has summarized the findings of Scoones et al. (2020) in a Knowledge Brief.

Distinguishing between three conceptual frameworks on transformations:

Transformations in socio-ecological systems
Socio-technical transitions
Socio-economic transformations

The European Environment Agency describes these frameworks as well as two other perspectives, summarized for Swiss audiences by Bader et al. (2019).

Changemakers are actors who initiate, drive, and support transformation processes.

Examples of changemakers include municipal authorities and other state actors, civil society representatives such as social organizations or neighbourhood associations, pioneering businesspeople and other transformative economic actors, etc.