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Transition versus transformation: what’s the difference?

‘Transition’ and ‘transformation’ have become buzzwords in political and scientific discourses. They signal the need for large-scale changes to achieve a sustainable society. We compare how they are applied and interpreted in scientific literatures to explore whether they are distinct concepts and provide complementary insights.

Converging and persistent global crises and problems, such as climate change, resource depletion and widening social inequality, have spurred interest in science and policy for systemic societal change. The ensuing calls for ‘transformation’ and ‘transition’ resonate the growing consensus that business-as-usual is insufficient for keeping humanity within a ‘safe operating space’. Transition and transformation are often used interchangeably and mostly metaphorically to express the ambition to shift from analysing and understanding problems towards identifying pathways and solutions for desirable environmental and societal change.

While the somewhat loose conceptualisations of transition and transformation can offer a broad basis for agreement and inspiration (Audet, 2014), a lack of conceptual clarity – especially regarding the features making change ‘transformational’ – can void the terms of their contribution to challenge the status quo (Brand, 2016). We compare how transition and transformation are applied and interpreted in
scientific literature to discern whether they are distinct concepts and provide complementary insights for understanding, discussing and supporting complex and desirable societal changes.

Transition and transformation are not mutually exclusive; they provide nuanced perspectives on how to describe, interpret and support desirable radical and non-linear societal change. Their differences may partially result from their etymological origins, but they largely stem from the different research communities concerned with either transition or transformation. Our review shows how the respective approaches and perspectives on understanding and interpreting system change can enrich each other.

Citation
Hölscher, K., Wittmayer, J.M., Loorbach, D. (2017). Transition versus transformation: what’s the difference? Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions. DOI: 10.1016/j.eist.2017.10.007

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Date
November 10, 2017