Decent Work and Economic Growth

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Transitions to Sustainable Development

  • Michael P. SchlaileEmail author
  • Sophie Urmetzer
Living reference work entry



Sustainability transitions can be regarded as “multidimensional and co-evolutionary processes that involve changes in technology, user practices, business models, policies and governance approaches, and cultural meanings” (Geels 2018). These transition processes consequently involve long-term fundamental changes in societal systems toward more sustainable modes of production, consumption, and living (based on Loorbach et al. 2017; Markard et al. 2012).

Although this entry adopts the term transitions, it is important to note that different scientific communities in sustainability research have used the terms transitions and transformations rather interchangeably, albeit sometimes also with particular differences in meaning (e.g., Chappin and Ligtvoet 2014; Hölscher et al. 2018; Scoones et al. 2018). Examples of prominent research communities are the Sustainability Transitions Research Network (STRN) ( and the researchers associated with Future Earth ( and the Transformations to Sustainability ( research program launched by the Belmont Forum, NORFACE, and the International Social Science Council (ISSC).


Many scholars have argued that the multiple crises humanity is facing – including climate change, dwindling natural resources, and the unjust distribution of wealth and security – are rooted in the underlying structures of currently unsustainable societal systems. Such problems are wicked and persistent (Grin et al. 2010; Rotmans and Loorbach 2009), meaning, among other things, that they are hard to pin down, they are nested in lifestyles and perceptions of members of societies, and solution approaches often create new problems, which renders them insurmountable by means of market forces or current governance approaches. A first step toward identifying more effective ways of dealing with such challenges has been the development of a better understanding of previous change processes in lifestyles, perceptions, and practices. Such fundamental transformations always resulted from dynamic interactions between societal structures, individual behavior, and (radical) technological innovations (Rotmans et al. 2001). This recognition provided the foundation for transitions research and has since informed an increasing number of scholars and policymakers striving to guide the creation of solution pathways for persistent problems. Many of these solution pathways share objectives that are in line with the notion of sustainable development, including issues of equity, quality of life, and the endurance of ecosystems. However, the open-ended, uncertain, long-term, and often emergent nature of transitions creates strong tensions (Frantzeskaki et al. 2012) with the urgent and relatively clear-cut objectives of sustainable development as, for instance, formulated in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in general and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) in particular. From a systemic and coevolutionary perspective, sustainable development cannot be regarded as a predefined transition pathway to a static endpoint. More precisely, any long-term fundamental changes in societal systems (i.e., transitions) imply feedback effects and ongoing processes of transformation. This means that transitions themselves regularly lead to unexpected and unforeseen effects on both people and planet on multiple scales, ranging from consumer preferences to changes in the composition of species and ecosystems. It is exactly in this twofold dynamic sense that the title of this entry must be understood. Therefore, the present entry echoes the title of the seminal book by Grin, Rotmans, and Schot (2010) – Transitions to Sustainable Development – in line with these authors’ notion of sustainable development “as an open-ended orientation for change” (Grin et al. 2010, p. 2, emphasis added).

The overall goal of this entry is to give an overview of current systemic research and governance approaches to societal change toward sustainable development. However, due to the vast literature on sustainability transitions, this overview will be unable to do justice to the complete range of research strands. The following section sheds light on the roots of sustainability transitions research. Subsequently, three currently prominent research approaches to sustainability transitions are introduced and then linked to governance implications. After a brief section highlighting important challenges for sustainability transitions research, the entry concludes with a summarizing overview.

The Emergence of Transitions Research

Sustainability transitions research has emerged especially from the recognition of the futility of (prevalent) policy approaches to tackle ever more complex and persistent sustainability problems within networked societies. During the late 1980s, researchers and policymakers started to acknowledge the need for fundamentally different governance approaches. In their quest for innovative strategies to overcome detrimental developments such as environmental pollution or growing inequality, especially the Dutch government started to generously support research into the role of technology in sustainable development and its potential for reducing the stress of development processes on the environment. It was found that incremental improvements of problematic technologies would not be sufficient to overcome pressing global sustainability challenges (Grin et al. 2010). Instead, more effective radical innovations were needed requiring not only novel technologies but also changed user practices (e.g., consumption), new institutions (e.g., regulation), and other improvements (e.g., infrastructure). The governmental program was followed by the foundation of a privately funded interdisciplinary network of over 80 researchers to further develop a better understanding of such systemic innovations and transitions ( Luckily, transition theory needed not be built from scratch. According to an illuminating overview published by Markard and colleagues, several theoretical areas have been tapped by the transitions scholars; in particular, they were inspired by evolutionary economists (Markard et al. 2012), by discoveries in the environmental sciences, and by sustainability studies (Loorbach et al. 2017). All these theoretical foundations contribute to understanding technological development as dynamically interconnected with societal development and environmental consequences. Based on this central idea of interconnected (sub)systems, sustainability transitions research has established a very active interdisciplinary academic community, which was institutionalized with the foundation of the Sustainability Transitions Research Network (STRN) at the first European Conference on Sustainability Transitions in Amsterdam in 2009 and the launch of the Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions journal in 2011 (

Despite this diversification, the socio-technical origins of the STRN school are still apparent in the frameworks used today. However, research on the required and observed change processes toward sustainable development has also been undertaken and refined in communities far distant from the concerns of technology policy: Global environmental change research has been inspired by Earth system science and sustainability science building on knowledge bases of natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. These collaborations initiated research into change processes within other societal systems such as socio-institutional and social-ecological systems (Loorbach et al. 2017). In these contexts, also other streams of research and other terms have been established in parallel to the STRN school. One of them is transformations to sustainability, which takes on a somewhat broader view by considering systemic relations between social and natural subsystems. The research community around the notion of transformations seems to be larger and methodologically as well as geographically more scattered (e.g., Chappin and Ligtvoet 2014; Hölscher et al. 2018). A prominent global research platform for this community is Future Earth, created during the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio + 20) in 2012. It aims at creating and connecting new knowledge on global change and at developing and implementing transformations to prosperous and equitable futures (Future Earth 2013).

Transitions Research: Explaining Change

Transitions research can be classified according to various criteria ranging from intellectual roots to dominant research object. Nevertheless, one generic differentiation of concepts that can be found in various literature reviews is the one between analytical/descriptive and the more prescriptive/solution-oriented approaches (e.g., Feola 2015; Köhler et al. 2019; Loorbach et al. 2017; STRN 2017). Accordingly, this section gives an overview of prominent analytical or diagnostic frameworks that aim at advancing the understanding of transitions, while the subsequent section focuses on approaches aimed at influencing or governing transitions. For a more exhaustive overview on transitions to sustainable development, the reader is referred to two very recent publications by Loorbach et al. (2017) and the European Environment Agency (2018).

Socio-technical Transitions

A socio-technical system can be defined as “a configuration of products, processes, services and infrastructures, regulations, skills, preferences, expectations, and actors (e.g., producers, suppliers, policymakers, users) that fulfill societal needs such as energy, food, or mobility provision” (Schot 2016, p. 447). The environmental problems created by cars, for example, cannot be tackled without regarding and potentially reconfiguring the whole socio-technical system of road transportation including industry structure, markets and user practices, road networks, fuel stations, maintenance workshops, the cultural meaning of cars, and policies (Geels 2018).

According to recent reviews of the literature by Geels (2018), Loorbach et al. (2017), and STRN (2017), two main analytical frameworks exist that aim to make sense of transitions in these socio-technical systems: (i) the multilevel perspective (MLP) developed by Rip and Kemp (1998), Geels (2002, 2011), and Geels and Schot (2007) and (ii) the technological innovation systems (TIS) approach devised by Bergek et al. (2008), Hekkert et al. (2007), Jacobsson and Bergek (2011), and others as a part of the broader literature on innovation systems (e.g., see the entry by Urmetzer and Pyka in this encyclopedia). Note that the approaches of strategic niche management (SNM) and transition management (TM), which are sometimes mentioned on the same level as MLP and TIS, will be described in the section on transitions governance below. Originally, despite some common intellectual roots, both the MLP and the TIS frameworks were developed quite independently from each other and without an explicit normative orientation toward sustainability. Nevertheless, they have been increasingly adopted by researchers interested in analyzing (and promoting) the emergence of sustainable (technological) innovations (e.g., see Jacobsson and Bergek 2011; Markard et al. 2012; Suurs 2009).

The key message of the MLP is that transitions in socio-technical systems can be conceptualized in terms of reconfigurations of dynamically stable socio-technical regimes within these systems. These regimes constitute the dominant configuration of existing technologies, established scientific disciplines, incumbent industrial actors, and established institutional arrangements (represented by black hexagon in Fig. 1). According to the MLP, reconfigurations of regimes emerge from the interplay between processes at the three levels of (i) niches, (ii) socio-technical regimes themselves, and (iii) the exogenous socio-technical landscape. Niches denote “protected spaces” (e.g., subsidized projects, market niches, research and development laboratories, etc.) where entrepreneurs, inventors, and other niche actors strive for radical innovations (yellow arrows in Fig. 1) (Geels 2018; Kemp et al. 1998). The socio-technical landscape (coined by Rip and Kemp 1998) forms the external context shaping transitions by means of (physical) geography, climate, infrastructure, and other exogenous factors that cannot be influenced by niche or regime actors – at least not in the short term – such as demographic, political, or similarly deep structural trends (blue arrows in Fig. 1) (Geels 2002, 2018). Both niche innovations and landscape developments may exert pressure on existing regimes, thereby opening so-called windows of opportunity for transitions in general and sustainability transitions in particular (Geels 2018). Based on various case studies, different transition phases and dynamics have been conceptualized (again, see Fig. 1). Recent applications of the MLP to sustainability transitions include discussions of renewable energy niches and regime resistance against low-carbon transitions (Geels 2015). In summary, it can be said that the MLP contributes to the understanding of both stability and change of socio-technical systems.
Fig. 1

Schematic overview of the MLP. (Adapted from Geels (2002, p. 1263) and Loorbach et al. (2017, p. 606) with permissions from Elsevier (© 2002) and Annual Reviews (© 2017))

The other important analytical framework addresses the evolution of specific technologies within their innovation system: TIS are comprised of interacting actors, networks, institutions, and technologies involved in the creation, diffusion, and use of a particular technology (e.g., Bergek et al. 2008; Köhler et al. 2019; STRN 2017). The successful diffusion and implementation of new technologies has been understood to depend on the fulfillment of a set of important functions of TIS (Bergek et al. 2008; Hekkert et al. 2007). For analyzing the performance of a specific TIS, Bergek et al. (2008) propose to follow an analytical schema (Fig. 2): After having decided which technological field or product to consider within its innovation system (step 1), the structural components of the TIS have to be identified and analyzed (step 2). These structural components have been specified by Suurs (2009) in terms of (i) supply side, (ii), demand side, (iii) knowledge structure, (iv) government structure, and (v) intermediary structure. In the subsequent step (step 3), the researcher must work out the specific interactions between these components. To facilitate this step, seven relevant functions of TIS have been defined (see Fig. 2, sphere “3a. Functions”). By mapping the TIS in terms of its so-called achieved functional pattern, the analyst can describe how the functions are filled in the TIS in question (step 3b). Then (step 4), it is assessed how well these functions are fulfilled, and a desired functional pattern is defined in terms of process goals. Thereupon (step 5), mechanisms can be identified that either mitigate or hinder the development toward the defined process goals. Finally (step 6), key policy issues related to the identified mechanisms can be determined. Although described as a sequence, Bergek et al. (2008) caution against viewing these analytical steps in a linear fashion, since analyses of TIS will usually proceed in a nonlinear way and with various iterations. Examples of case studies applying the TIS framework to socio-technical sustainability transitions include the development of different environmental technologies such as biomass gasification or photovoltaic applications.
Fig. 2

The analytical schema of TIS. (Adapted from Bergek et al. (2008), p. 411, with permission from Elsevier (© 2007))

Socio-institutional and Socio-economic Transitions

The technology-focused approaches introduced in the preceding section have proven very illuminating in mapping sustainability transitions and highlighting typical patterns common across diverse empirical cases. They have later on experienced refinement by integrating strands of institutional theory to enhance the conceptualization of cultures, structures, and practices contributing to or inhibiting transitions to sustainable development (Loorbach et al. 2017). The exploration of socio-institutional change processes thus facilitated more detailed analyses of the core characteristics and behavior patterns of actors, or how and why certain practices emerge and diffuse, by shifting attention to higher-order principles such as rules, norms, and culture. Drawing from disciplines such as economics (especially “heterodox” schools of thought such as institutional, behavioral, evolutionary, ecological, and complexity economics), sociology, governance studies and political science, and geography, research in this area thus involves the exploration of institutional dynamics, social innovations, social learning, normative issues, politics, and power relations as influencing factors of sustainability transitions. Consequently, scholars of these approaches frequently apply qualitative, action-oriented, transdisciplinary research methods, thereby frequently considering rather sectoral objects of study (Loorbach et al. 2017).

A similar stance is taken by socio-economic transitions research (Kemp et al. 2018), which has sometimes been used as a synonym for research on socio-institutional transitions. While research on economic systems traditionally is concerned with the emergence of market systems or transitions from socialist to capitalist economies (or vice versa), parts of the diverse academic community increasingly delve into sustainability-relevant change within restructuration processes of current institutions. The object of interest is often the rule system or the level of paradigms, worldviews, and visions of (economic) actors and systems (e.g., Almudi et al. 2016; Beddoe et al. 2009; Göpel 2016; Schlaile et al. 2017). Socio-economic sustainability transition approaches were mainly prompted by the recognition of a societal minority that the prevailing paradigm of economic growth in industrialized economies (which is also an underlying notion of SDG 8) is increasingly compromising social well-being and intact ecosystems (Kemp et al. 2018). But instead of completely discarding capitalism and associated values of freedom and democracy, tendencies can be observed toward reforming some of the inherited mechanisms of it (e.g., see the entries on “biobased economy,” “circular economy,” “green economy,” or “decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation” in this encyclopedia). To this end, several social innovations are currently gaining a foothold by offering alternative ways of living (e.g., eco-villages), consuming (e.g., sharing), or spending time (e.g., basic income) (Kemp et al. 2018). However, before the “great mindshift” (Göpel 2016) will stir up large parts of society, such alternative ways of living or utopias must win the “battle of ideas” – to use the metaphor by Almudi et al. (2016). This battle will extend over a longer period of time than observed for socio-technical transitions, and the protagonists will not be politicians but individual economic citizens influencing and responding to the ideas of their surroundings (Almudi et al. 2016).

Socio-ecological Transitions

The rationale behind each of the transition perspectives described above (socio-technical, socio-economic, and socio-institutional) is rather anthropocentric in the sense that nature is usually regarded as exogenous to the societal system, providing services to and often being depleted by human activity. Proponents of transitions of and within so-called social-ecological systems (SES), instead, see the necessity to abandon the artificial and arbitrary distinction between ecological and social systems by emphasizing the dynamic interconnections and interdependencies between humans and the natural environment. Considering feedback effects between natural and societal subsystems adds to the complexity of the investigation and has important implications for the conceptualization of systemic change (Folke et al. 2005). From a socio-ecological perspective, climate change, for instance, is no longer merely a troublesome phenomenon created by human activity that must be suspended by a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the climate dynamically responds – often with a time lag – to a variety of natural and human activities, sometimes in very counterintuitive ways.

The analytical conceptualization of change processes in SES has been undertaken by scholars of Earth system science. Some frame the dynamics in human-nature systems quite naturally as cycles of disruption and reorganization (see, for instance, the panarchy framework proposed by Gunderson and Holling 2002). Another approach to grasping the complex dynamics contributing to (un)sustainable shifts in systems is the multitier framework developed by Ostrom (2007), which attempts to bridge biophysical and social science research. It supports the analysis of change processes in SES by aggregating the multitude of variables affecting the systems’ performance into attributes of the four systemic components, (i) the resource system (e.g., a forest), (ii) the resource units (e.g., wood), (iii) the users of the system, and (iv) the governance system, while also taking into account the socio-economic, political, and ecological setting in which they are embedded.

Instead of techno-managerial approaches on the level of the resource systems (e.g., changing forest management practices), social ecologists propose to frame transitions to sustainable development as necessary adaptations within the entire system (including changes in, e.g., perceptions, power, and politics) (O’Brien and Sygna 2018). This is mainly due to the complexity of interdependent processes that are likely to prove detrimental to humanity when crossing certain thresholds, which have been labeled planetary boundaries (e.g., Steffen et al. 2015).

Transitions Governance: Inducing Change

In contrast to the above frameworks used for analyzing, theorizing, and understanding transitions, transitions governance refers to approaches that relate to steering, coordination, and directionality at the system level with an overarching normative orientation toward sustainable development (Geels 2018; Patterson et al. 2017). Although transitions often involve uncertainty and so-called emergent properties (e.g., meaning that the system itself or the transition process has properties that cannot be reduced to the properties of its elements), the overall assumption of transitions governance is that these complex processes can, to a certain extent, be steered and influenced by humans (Young 2017). Hence, despite different foci and approaches, one general difficulty of transitions governance is the tension between open-endedness/uncertainty and directionality/normativity (Frantzeskaki et al. 2012). Given different worldviews and visions of sustainability or desired system states (e.g., Beddoe et al. 2009; Hedlund-de Witt 2014), transitions governance is a highly contested and conflict-laden field (Johnson et al. 2018).

Another general problem is policy resistance, that is, the tendency of policy interventions to fail due to delays and dilution, defeat by the responses of the system, or by actually making a (persistent) problem worse instead of contributing to its solution (de Gooyert et al. 2016). Various governance measures have thus been developed that aim at overcoming these difficulties.

Transitions governance strategies can be classified according to various criteria. For example, while Geels (2018) takes up the tripartition into bottom-up, top-down, and network governance approaches, Patterson et al. (2017) propose to distinguish between governance for transitions (i.e., creating conditions for the emergence of transitions in complex systems), governance of transitions (i.e., actively triggering and steering transitions), and transitions in governance (i.e., transitions in governance regimes). Note, however, that Patterson et al. (2017) use the term transformations in their publication instead of transitions; for the sake of terminological consistency, transitions is used here. While all of these distinctions are useful and insightful for the given context, the following summary of governance approaches takes up the above classification according to socio-technical, socio-institutional/socio-economic, and socio-ecological transitions.

Governing Socio-technical Transitions

Strategic Niche Management

Strategic niche management (SNM) has been applied as an analytical research approach and as a policy framework (e.g., Loorbach et al. 2017). Due to its orientation toward a deliberate process of governing the emergence of niches, it is listed here among other governance frameworks. As its name implies, the key idea behind SNM is that niches (in terms of protected spaces for radical innovations) can be deliberately managed or at least supported, for example, by governmental policies (e.g., Kemp et al. 1998). Already with an explicit focus on sustainability transitions, an early definition of SNM was provided by Kemp et al. (1998): SNM “is the creation, development and controlled phase-out of protected spaces for the development and use of promising technologies by means of experimentation, with the aim of (1) learning about the desirability of the new technology and (2) enhancing the further development and the rate of application of the new technology” (p. 186). The literature on SNM has also identified three interacting processes that facilitate the emergence of radical (technological) novelties in niches: (i) learning processes (e.g., about societal problems and needs as well as the possibilities of a technology), (ii) articulating (and adjusting) visions and expectations of different actors, and (iii) building and expanding the social networks of actors involved in niche innovations (Geels 2018; Kemp et al. 1998). Some obstacles to SNM in practice are discussed, for example, by Lovell (2007) using the case of low-energy housing niches in the United Kingdom, thereby particularly highlighting the difficulties of governments becoming involved in niche management in a coherent and well-organized way.

Transition Management

Transition management (TM) can likewise be regarded as both an analytical framework and a prescriptive policy tool (Loorbach 2010; Rotmans et al. 2001; Rotmans and Loorbach 2009). TM aims at developing a governance approach by drawing, among others, on research on socio-technical systems and complexity theory. In short, TM “injects goal-directing processes into socio-technical transformations” (Smith and Stirling 2010). The literature on TM distinguishes four types of governance activities (e.g., Frantzeskaki et al. 2012; Loorbach 2010): (i) strategic, (ii) tactical, (iii) operational, and (iv) reflexive. Strategic activities involve the development of visions and the formulation of transition goals within so-called transition arenas (i.e., a small group of front-runners); tactical activities refer to interest-driven steering activities for developing concrete transition agendas related to the regime level; operational activities include short-term experimental activities, and reflexive activities aim at evaluating and monitoring both the transition process and the TM process itself (Köhler et al. 2019; Loorbach 2010; STRN 2017). The practical implementation of TM in the Dutch energy transition program (2002–2010) has been one of the first attempts to apply such complexity-based governance ideas to real-world sustainability transition issues. However, the concrete realization of TM in the Netherlands (Kemp 2010) has also attracted some criticism not least from other transitions scholars (e.g., see Geels 2018).

Reflexive Governance

Closely related to TM – especially in terms of reflexive activities mentioned above – is the approach of reflexive governance (RG) (Voß and Kemp 2006). In this sense, RG can be regarded as a specification or derivative of TM (Voß et al. 2009) with a primary focus on the problem of reflexivity of governance strategies, that is, “the phenomenon that thinking and acting with respect to an object of steering also affects the subject and its ability to steer” (Voß and Kemp 2006, p. 4). Based on a reflection on specific problem features (e.g., coevolution, uncertainty, path dependence, value trade-offs, and distributed transformative capacities), Voß and Kemp (2006) describe a set of strategy requirements for RG, including (i) transdisciplinary knowledge production, (ii) experiments and adaptivity of strategies and institutions, (iii) anticipation of long-term systemic effects of measures, (iv) iterative participatory goal formulation, and (v) interactive strategy development. More recently, the ideas of RG have been taken up again to develop the notion of reflexive innovation systems (see the entry on “Innovation Systems for Sustainability” by Urmetzer and Pyka for details).

Transformative Innovation Policy

One of the most recent developments in the literature on governance of socio-technical transitions is the discussion about transformative innovation policy (TIP) (Diercks et al. 2019), advanced particularly by members of the so-called TIP Consortium initiative (Schot and Steinmueller 2018; A new policy framing around transformative change and so-called transformational system failures is being developed, which primarily aims at addressing (i) directionality failure, (ii) demand articulation failure, (iii) policy coordinationfailure, and (iv) reflexivity failure in addition to the “traditional” market failures (e.g., information asymmetries, knowledge spillovers, cost externalization, overexploitation of commons) and structural system failures (e.g., infrastructural, institutional, network, and capabilities failures) (Schot and Steinmueller 2018; Weber and Rohracher 2012). While market failures and structural system failures have received much attention from policymakers and innovation scholars (e.g., see Weber and Rohracher 2012), the four transformational system failures have only recently started to attract attention from the innovation policy community.

According to Weber and Rohracher (2012), directionality failure refers, for example, to the lack of shared visions and goals of sustainability transitions as well as a lack of means for collective coordination and targeted funding. Demand articulation failure refers, for example, to inadequate or lacking spaces, user environments, or markets where new types of demand and user preferences can be developed, articulated, or anticipated. In an extended sense, demand articulation failure may also include an insufficient recognition of the role and responsibility of consumers in innovation processes (see Schlaile et al. 2018, on a related discussion). Policy coordination failure includes a lacking ability to coordinate policies from various domains both horizontally (e.g., between taxes, economic, environmental, and social policies) and across multiple levels (e.g., between regional, national, and international policies), and it may be questioned if the usual coordination approaches (e.g., national innovation councils or committees) may help to overcome this failure (Schot and Steinmueller 2018). Finally, reflexivity failure relates back to the issues of RG mentioned above, including, for example, failures to monitor, anticipate, and involve stakeholders, lacking arrangements for knowledge brokering, or insufficient spaces for experimentation both in terms of spaces for learning and adaptive policy portfolios that deal with uncertainty (Weber and Rohracher 2012). In summary, it can be said that explicit recognition of transformational failures by TIP implies not only opening up corridors for sustainable socio-technical transitions but also closing down options for unsustainable development pathways (Schot and Steinmueller 2018). Therefore, TIP aims not only at creating niches for experimentation but also at actively destabilizing unsustainable socio-technical regimes. In general, the objectives of TIP are more ambitious than other innovation policy approaches (Diercks et al. 2019; Steward 2012).

Governing Socio-institutional and Socio-economic Transitions

Transformational Sustainability Interventions

The basic premise of a socio-institutional and socio-economic perspective is the recognition that underlying intangible intellectual frameworks (ideas, paradigms, values, culture, policy styles, or institutions) influence individual decisions (and vice versa) and thus the (un)sustainability of the system’s performance. Consequently, the governance approaches proposed by this school of thought target changes in the systemic characteristics that guide individual and collective actions. One quite recent framework of inducing system change toward sustainable development has been termed transformational sustainability interventions by Abson et al. (2017). Building on the concept of leverage points proposed by Meadows (1999), Abson et al. (2017) argue that truly effective sustainability interventions are required that may be less obvious than the highly tangible, but essentially ineffective, policy interventions implemented to date. The set of 12 points to intervene in systems proposed by Meadows range from shallow leverage points such as changing system parameters by introducing taxes to deep leverage points such as changing the paradigm out of which the system arises, for example, by overcoming the prevailing focus on economic growth (Meadows 1999). The deeper the leverage point, the more effective it is in transforming the system, but also the harder it is to implement. Broadly speaking, socio-institutional approaches postulate changing individual values and systemic intent rather than enforcing certain behavior. From this perspective, setting emission thresholds for private cars, for instance, might be less effective in reducing CO2 and particulate matter in cities than awareness campaigns along with the offer of alternative concepts to induce a societal mindshift (Göpel 2016) toward less detrimental and socially more desirable institutions.

Governing Socio-ecological Transitions

From the SES point of view, a transition of socio-technical systems, for instance, can only be one part of a more holistic socio-ecological transformation aiming at reducing risk and vulnerability of the planet and its inhabitants while protecting its viability and integrity (O’Brien and Sygna 2018). This all-embracing perspective also shifts away the focus from planning and controlling transition processes to facilitating experimentation, learning, and adaptation of all elements of the system, including humans (Folke 2006). The underlying assumption of this approach is that SES generally possess the capacity to deal with disruptive change, i.e., they are resilient. In the context of sustainable development, resilience plays an ambiguous role (Chapin et al. 2010): On the one hand, the system’s capacity to absorb shocks or perturbations and to sustain its fundamental function is crucial for humanity’s survival on this dynamic planet. On the other hand, resilience also causes unsustainable configurations to endure longer than desired (e.g., the lock-in effect). The goal of deliberately transforming SES must be to (i) preserve or even increase resilience of desirable systems (e.g., those natural systems that sustain humanity) and (ii) to overcome resilience of harmful systems to counteract current trends of crossing critical thresholds in the Earth system (O’Brien and Sygna 2018).

Adaptive Governance

This perception resonates with the concept of adaptive governance proposed by Folke et al. (2005). From their perspective, the key to dealing with the complexity and unpredictability of SES faced with sustainability challenges lies in adaptive co-management. Here, crucial tasks of a truly transformative governance involve creating and safeguarding legislation that enables multiple stakeholders, guaranteeing democratic and flexible institutions, and recognizing central network actors (Folke et al. 2005). Other approaches, such as transformative adaptation, more strongly address the need for dealing with the systemic causes of the Earth’s vulnerability and unsustainability. The proponents of such governance for navigating change argue that adapting to dwindling ecosystem services must be complemented with action contesting its causes by altering the systemic structures and paradigms in the social sphere (Patterson et al. 2017). This approach more strongly emphasizes the normative dimension of transformation, which adds controversy to the hitherto descriptive nature of traditional Earth systems research (Johnson et al. 2018; O’Brien and Sygna 2018). The way research on transformations of SES frequently deals with such debatable governance aims is by engaging with society and practitioners (Chapin et al. 2010; Future Earth 2013). Such transdisciplinary research design values the prolific source of nonscientific knowledge and recognizes the fact that co-created and culturally embedded knowledge generally holds a higher chance of being accepted and implemented into practice (WBGU 2011).

Earth System Governance

Recent developments in the literature on governance of (transitions of) SES have been advanced particularly by the Earth System Governance (ESG) project (Biermann et al. 2010; Biermann 2014; ESG is a core project of Future Earth and has been developed in response to the complex challenge of “protecting the entire earth system, including most of its subsystems, and building stable institutions that guarantee a safe transition process and a coevolution of natural and social systems at planetary scale” (Biermann 2014, p. 9). Biermann (2014) and other proponents of the framework have defined ESG as “the sum of the formal and informal rule systems and actor networks at all levels of human society that are set up to steer societies toward preventing, mitigating, and adapting to environmental change and earth system transformation” (p. 9). As lucidly summarized by Patterson et al. (2017), the ESG framework comprises five key governance challenges, i.e., the “five As” of (i) architecture (e.g., active and valid norms, principles, regulations, procedures, institutions, and organizations), (ii) agency (i.e., according to Biermann et al. 2010, p. 283: “the capacity to act in the face of global environmental change or to produce effects … that ultimately shape natural processes”), (iii) adaptiveness (i.e., an umbrella term for related concepts such as resilience and adaptation; it involves both the governance of adaptations to socio-ecological transitions and adaptations within governance systems), (iv) accountability and legitimacy (e.g., questions about sources, forms, degrees, transparency, and institutionalization of regulations and actors), and (v) allocation & access (issues related to the key question of “[w]ho gets what, when, where and how” as explained by Biermann et al. 2010, p. 283). Moreover, these “five As” are addressed and conceptualized in ESG together with the four cross-cutting themes of (i) power, (ii) knowledge, (iii) norms, and (iv) scale. In summary, it can be said that ESG is currently a growing research field on governance issues and not a practically tested governance approach. In fact, in October 2018, a new scientific journal was launched, which “seeks to align our current institutions and governance systems with the fundamental 21st century challenges of global environmental change and earth-system transformation” (

Current Issues and Criticism

The sheer number of global sustainability challenges, their interrelation with societal systems, their connection to multiple disciplines, and the resulting complexity of potentially effective approaches to dealing with them obviously renders research on sustainability transitions prone to critique. For socio-technical transitions research, the points of criticism have included an insufficient recognition of agency, inconsistent definitions of regimes, overemphasis on bottom-up change processes, indistinct conceptualizations of the landscape level, a misleading terminology (e.g., hierarchical notions in the MLP), the usage or lack of scale and spatial dimensions, and an insufficient conceptualization of destabilization, phaseout, and unlearning in incumbent regimes (e.g., Geels 2011; STRN 2017). Approaches to sustainability transitions from socio-institutional/socio-economic perspectives have been criticized for a lack of true interdisciplinarity due to topic specialists (e.g., sociologists, philosophers, political scientists, and economists) conducting research in rather fragmented fields (Kemp et al. 2018). Similarly, transitions research on SES has been found to rely on a mixture of approaches, and it has been criticized, among other things, for a relative weakness in explaining how transitions can be achieved and governed, a lacking framework that connects the individual level (e.g., in terms of power and interests) to systemic outcomes, and an insufficient integration of natural science with social science aspects (O’Brien and Sygna 2018).

The ongoing vigorous debate about individual shortcomings of approaches and conceptualizations is likely to help scholars refine their research in response to these points of critique. However, a few rather general challenges apply to all the above-illustrated research and governance approaches to a greater or lesser degree. For example, due to their interdisciplinary nature, transitions researchers frequently seem to get caught up in intellectual debates about methodological issues (e.g., STRN 2017) or terminological issues and nuances of transitions vs. transformations (e.g., Hölscher et al. 2018), although the value of pluralism in methods is generally acknowledged. Another quite general issue relates to the (insufficiently considered) complexity of the normative dimension of sustainability transitions (e.g., Schlaile et al. 2017). Sustainable development itself is a highly contested normative issue, and the fact that systemic changes involve trade-offs and various alternative pathways as well as human actors with different worldviews adds to this complexity. This issue also relates to often-downplayed feedbacks, trade-offs, and target conflicts between some of the SDGs (e.g., SDG 8’s global target of economic growth – especially when captured by gross domestic product – and SDG 12: responsible consumption and production, for instance). This is why recently not just moral philosophers and ethicists but also various sustainability transitions researchers have called for acknowledging the complexity of this normative dimension, for example, by taking the evolutionary processes at the level of paradigms, cultures, and worldviews more explicitly into consideration (e.g., Almudi et al. 2016; Beddoe et al. 2009). In this regard, it can also be argued that sustainability transitions research tends to disregard the literature on cultural evolution that has been addressing this dimension, but which, in turn, arguably also failed to establish sufficient connections to the transitions literature (e.g., Waring and Tremblay 2016). A further layer of complexity is added by the fact that transitions researchers are frequently part of the systems they strive to explain and change, rendering distinctions between observing entities and observed systems somewhat fuzzy (see also the related distinction between ontological and epistemological approaches to systems in Abson et al. 2017, p. 32). Thus, scientific knowledge alone will arguably not be sufficient for understanding and governing transitions. Not least against this background, calls for participatory approaches as well as co-creating, co-designing, and co-producing knowledge with practitioners and societal stakeholders have recently gained momentum (e.g., European Environment Agency 2018; Scoones et al. 2018; WBGU 2011).


In view of the multitude and diversity of approaches to analyzing and governing sustainability transitions, a concluding summary seems appropriate. The following table proposes such a synopsis inspired by earlier overviews by Loorbach et al. (2017) and the European Environment Agency (2018) (Table 1).
Table 1

Comparison of key transition concepts


Sustainability transitions in socio-technical systems

Sustainability transitions in socio-institutional/socio-economic systems

Sustainability transitions in SES


Technological innovation in a social context; coevolution, path dependency, interplay of niches, regimes, and landscapes

Markets, institutions and institutional transformation, agency, structure, power relations, multi-actor networks, social innovation, culture, worldviews, and paradigms

Human-nature relations, resilience and vulnerability of systems, adaptive and transformative capacity

Typical empirical domains

Energy, mobility, water, waste

Energy, water, resources, food, health care, education, labor, finance

Forestry, fisheries, agriculture, biodiversity

Main academic disciplines

Innovation studies, history (of technology), science and technology studies, practice theory, etc.

Sociology, economics, governance studies and political science, geography, applied philosophy, etc.

Ecology, environmental studies, sustainability science, geography, biology, (complex) systems science, governance studies and political science, etc.

Rationale for governance approach

Addressing persistent problems, market failures, structural system failures, and transformational system failures; (technological) innovations as solution to (predominantly environmental) sustainability problems; fulfillment of SDGs

Tapping the potential of transformational sustainability interventions (leverage points), social innovations, networked governance, and transdisciplinarity; fulfillment of SDGs

Navigating planetary boundaries, achieving desired resilience, and overcoming undesired resilience/lock-in; fulfillment of SDGs

Source: primarily based on and expanded from Loorbach et al. (2017) and the European Environment Agency (2018)

It is important to note that this summarizing overview may create the impression that the literature on sustainability transitions can be quite easily categorized, which is not the case. In fact, the approaches and concepts often overlap, and the boundaries between them are ambiguous and blurred. Despite rather obvious differences – especially in terms of intellectual history and disciplinary background – it can be concluded that all concepts mentioned in this overview deal with wicked or persistent systemic problems, complex systems, nonlinear and path-dependent changes as well as lock-ins, emergence, and multiple levels of systemic change. Why then, have researchers not managed to merge all these approaches into one overarching concept for saving the Earth? In fact, the hope for a silver bullet is inconsistent with systemic thinking. Indeed, considering the magnitude of the multiple crises humanity is facing, the diversity of research and governance approaches is quite advantageous. Different conceptual lenses, methods, and decentralized attempts to tackle diverse global problems offer opportunities for learning, cross-fertilization, and adaptation. Trade-offs, throwbacks, and uncertainty must be accepted, provided that the overall destination remains on the horizon: the transition to sustainable development.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Innovation EconomicsUniversity of HohenheimStuttgartGermany
  2. 2.Center for Applied Cultural EvolutionEugeneUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Edurne A. Inigo
    • 1
  1. 1.Business Management & Organization, Social Sciences GroupWageningen University and ResearchWageningenThe Netherlands