Transformations and Transitions toward Sustainability

The concept of transformations toward sustainability has recently come to prominence for researchers on global change and governance. ‘Transformations toward sustainability’ is one of the three research themes for the Future Earth research platform, under which the Earth System Governance project sits. Growing out of a longer history of research in several areas including socio-technical transitions and transition management, and adaptive governance of social-ecological systems, the transformation research agenda focuses attention on the fundamental changes in techno-economic systems, political and institutional structures, social practices and human values required to achieve sustainability.

This working group aims to take forward the nascent research agenda on transformations and transitions toward sustainability by drawing together a community of theory and practice to explore the emergence, utility, diversity and potential of these concepts. It will explore key cleavages and tensions, such as: the distinction between transition and transformation; the difference between research on transformation and research for transformation; and the enablers of and limits to initiating and governing emergent processes of transition and transformation.

Some key questions are:

• How has the concept of transformation become so rapidly prominent? What are its precursors?
• What, if anything, does the shift in language from transition to transformation offer researchers? Does transformation offer a distinctly new research agenda?
• How do the diverse understandings of transition and transformation relate to each other? Who is using the concept, and to what ends?
• How do transitions and transformations happen? What are the factors that drive transition and transformation? What makes change transformative?
• What are the normative and power dimensions of transitions and transformations? How can participatory processes or visioning support transitions that are fair and inclusive?
• What does governance of transformation mean? Who is involved in these governance processes and in what way? Is it feasible to initiate and steer transformation?
• How does transformation relate to other key concepts, including the conceptual structure underlying the Earth System Governance project?


For more information please contact:

Chris Riedy (,

Sarah Burch (

James Patterson (


Associate Professor Chris Riedy

Institute for Sustainable Futures

University of Technology Sydney, Australia


Dr James Patterson

Water Policy and Governance Group

University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada


Assistant Professor Sarah Burch

Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Governance and Innovation

Geography and Environmental Management

University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada


Readings on transformations towards sustainability:

Biermann, F., Abbott, K., Andresen, S., Bäckstrand, K., Bernstein, S., Betsill, M. M., … & Zondervan, R. (2012). Transforming governance and institutions for global sustainability: key insights from the Earth System Governance Project. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 4(1), 51-60.

Burch, S., Shaw, A., Dale, A., Robinson, J. (2014). Triggering transformative change: A development path approach to climate change response in communities. Climate Policy 14, 467-487.

Hackmann, H., St. Clair, A.L. (2012) Transformative Cornerstones of Social Science Research for Global Change. International Social Science Council: Paris.

ISSC and UNESCO (2013), World Social Science Report 2013, Changing Global Environments, OECD Publishing and UNESCO Publishing, Paris.

O’Brien, K (2011), Global environmental change II: From adaptation to deliberate transformation, Progress in Human Geography, vol. 36, no. 5, pp. 667–676.

Olsson, P., V. Galaz, and W. J. Boonstra. 2014. Sustainability transformations: a resilience perspective. Ecology and Society 19(4): 1. Scoones, M. Leach, P. Newell (eds) ‘The Politics of Green Transformations’, Routledge, London, April 2014

Stirling, A. (2014) Emancipating Transformations: From controlling ‘the transition’ to culturing plural radical progress, STEPS Working Paper 64, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

University of Oslo (2013) Proceedings of Transformation in a Changing Climate, 19-21 June 2013, Oslo, Norway. University of Oslo.

WBGU (2011), World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability, German Advisory Council on Global Change.