The DRIFT X-curve: now featured in Sustainability Science and available as a toolkit

It’s in an academic journal, so that makes it real, right? The X-curve figure is the foundation of just about everything we do at DRIFT. Now, a paper of ours on the topic has been published, bringing together our shared experience of working with the X-curve framework in academia, consultancy and education. To celebrate its first appearance in academia, Gijs Diercks writes about the powerful potential of the curve, the recent paper in Sustainability Science, and the practical toolkit the X-curve recently spawned.
We believe our recently published paper ‘An actionable understanding of societal transitions: the X-curve framework’ is massively important, as existing frameworks for social change emphasize innovation and build-up over break-down and ‘exnovation’. This limits their potential in making sense of the turbulent and chaotic dynamics of the transitions-in-the-making we currently find ourselves in.

At DRIFT, our experience is that time and time again people are biased towards novelty in solving problems and simply do not consider that stopping something is also an option – and has always been part of the creative destruction processes underlying innovation. The power of the X-curve lies in the fact that it provides a simple overview of transitions that explicitly captures the patterns of build-up, breakdown, and their interactions. Working with the X-curve in workshops makes it impossible to neglect or oversee these elements.
This always sets the stage for fascinating discussions: reflecting differently on societal events, re-formulating the role of the own organization, and re-assessing individual perspectives on where they feel urgency to act but also where the feel most comfortable or competent.
In our experience, the most difficult part of working with the X-curve is that people attach a normative perspective to build-up dynamics or break down dynamics. Experimentation, acceleration, emergence are often considered positive and everyone wants to work on it. This neglects that these dynamics can also be negative or undesired. But the other part stands more out: destabilization and chaos are almost always perceived as inherently negative, rather than a neutral state of transition that also opens up opportunities for much needed fundamental change
We have worked a lot on the practical application of the X-curve: in a number of consultancy projects, such as Staat van Transitie and Sturing in Transities (for Dutch government ministries), Fashion for Good (for clothing retailer C&A) and for the 3rd World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh, Scotland. And it is a cornerstone of our educational activities, as part of many, many tailor-made company workshops and open courses, such as Opleiding Transitiemanagement, Versnelling Energietransitie and our new Just Sustainability Transitions course.
For these workshops, we developed a practical toolkit together with Climate-KIC, that was also recently published (click here to download). So we are delighted to see this important work featured in an academic journal – which indeed was about time. But at DRIFT we like this way of practicing academia: showing the interaction between science and practice can be truly a two-way street.
In the Netherlands, X-curve thinking has been very influential in policy circles already. A recent example is the yearly essay of the secretary of the ministry of economic affairs, citing our recent policy work.
We hope that publishing our research will reach a new audience and helps its readers understanding and navigation transition dynamics. So use it, reflect on it, build on it, and judge its value for yourself, and do reach out to me if you have comments, ideas, questions or suggestions.
Key documents mentioned in this blog:

February 8, 2022