, 40:762 | Cite as

Tipping Toward Sustainability: Emerging Pathways of Transformation

  • Frances WestleyEmail author
  • Per Olsson
  • Carl Folke
  • Thomas Homer-Dixon
  • Harrie Vredenburg
  • Derk Loorbach
  • John Thompson
  • Måns Nilsson
  • Eric Lambin
  • Jan Sendzimir
  • Banny Banerjee
  • Victor Galaz
  • Sander van der Leeuw
Invited Paper


This article explores the links between agency, institutions, and innovation in navigating shifts and large-scale transformations toward global sustainability. Our central question is whether social and technical innovations can reverse the trends that are challenging critical thresholds and creating tipping points in the earth system, and if not, what conditions are necessary to escape the current lock-in. Large-scale transformations in information technology, nano- and biotechnology, and new energy systems have the potential to significantly improve our lives; but if, in framing them, our globalized society fails to consider the capacity of the biosphere, there is a risk that unsustainable development pathways may be reinforced. Current institutional arrangements, including the lack of incentives for the private sector to innovate for sustainability, and the lags inherent in the path dependent nature of innovation, contribute to lock-in, as does our incapacity to easily grasp the interactions implicit in complex problems, referred to here as the ingenuity gap. Nonetheless, promising social and technical innovations with potential to change unsustainable trajectories need to be nurtured and connected to broad institutional resources and responses. In parallel, institutional entrepreneurs can work to reduce the resilience of dominant institutional systems and position viable shadow alternatives and niche regimes.


Social-ecological systems Innovation Transformation Resilience transitions Sustainability 



We acknowledge support from Stiftelsen Futura, Kjell and Märta Beijer Foundation, Formas, and Mistra through a core grant to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a cross-faculty research centre at Stockholm University.


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Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frances Westley
    • 1
    Email author
  • Per Olsson
    • 2
  • Carl Folke
    • 2
    • 3
  • Thomas Homer-Dixon
    • 4
    • 5
  • Harrie Vredenburg
    • 6
    • 7
  • Derk Loorbach
    • 8
  • John Thompson
    • 9
  • Måns Nilsson
    • 10
  • Eric Lambin
    • 11
    • 12
  • Jan Sendzimir
    • 13
  • Banny Banerjee
    • 14
    • 15
  • Victor Galaz
    • 2
  • Sander van der Leeuw
    • 16
    • 17
  1. 1.Social Innovation GenerationUniversity of WaterlooKitchenerCanada
  2. 2.Stockholm Resilience CentreStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden
  3. 3.Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of SciencesStockholmSweden
  4. 4.Waterloo Institute for Complexity and InnovationUniversity of WaterlooWaterlooCanada
  5. 5.Centre for International Governance Innovation, Balsillie School of International AffairsWaterlooCanada
  6. 6.Haskayne School of BusinessUniversity of CalgaryAlbertaCanada
  7. 7.Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment & EconomyUniversity of CalgaryAlbertaCanada
  8. 8.Faculty of Social Sciences, Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT)Erasmus University RotterdamRotterdamThe Netherlands
  9. 9.ESRC STEPS Centre, Institute of Development StudiesUniversity of SussexBrightonUK
  10. 10.Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)StockholmSweden
  11. 11.Department of GeographyUniversity of LouvainLouvainBelgium
  12. 12.Georges Lemaître Centre for Earth and Climate Research, Earth and Life InstituteUniversité catholique de LouvainLouvain-la-NeuveBelgium
  13. 13.The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)LaxenburgAustria
  14. 14.Stanford Design Group and Stanford Change LabsStanfordUSA
  15. 15.Hasso Plattner Institute of DesignStanfordUSA
  16. 16.School of Sustainability and School of Human Evolution and Social ChangeArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  17. 17.ASU-GIOSTempeUSA

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