Learning from the past to shape the future

What is a Deep Transition?

A Deep Transition is a series of interconnected system changes that transforms society in a fundamental way. The First Deep Transition started with the Industrial Revolution, and it is still ongoing today.

The Industrial Revolution led to unprecedented economic growth, prosperity and innovation. However, its principles (or rules) also caused some of the major challenges we are facing today, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and social inequality.

The underlying practices of the First Deep Transition are deeply ingrained in all aspects of everyday life. Therefore, incremental change is not enough. A fundamental shift is necessary to bring about a Second Deep Transition: a sustainability revolution.

Configuration of the socio-technical system. Adapted from Grin, Rotmans & Schot (2011).

Changing socio-technical systems is key

Deep Transitions thinking uses the notion of socio-technical systems to understand the nature of system change. Systems provide basic needs, such as energy, mobility, and food. As such, they dictate everyday behaviour, from our modes of transport to the food we consume and the values we hold.

System change is therefore not just about technological change, it also has strong political, economic, social and cultural aspects. We apply the notion of socio-technical systems when talking about systems change. Our current socio-technical systems are based on a series of unsustainable practices (or 'rules' in Deep Transitions thinking), such as fossil fuel dependency, globalisation, linear mass production and mass consumption.

System change vs system optimisation

System optimisation can generate short-term positive effects. However, in the long run it preserves the unsustainable configuration of the system and reinforces the underlying rules of the existing system. It cannot bring the fundamental shift needed to address the interrelated challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and growing inequality.

Instead, system change enables a fundamental reconfiguration of the system. It fosters the emergence of new sustainable rules in niches that can, in time, provide viable alternatives to the unsustainable practices of the First Deep Transition. 

Deep Transitions thinking moves beyond the lure of systems optimisation, to achieve fundamental and lasting systems change, which comes about when alternative practices developing in niches become strong enough to compete with and replace a dominant regime practice.

System optimisation, redesign and transformation.Source: Adapted fromWeterings et al 1997.
Successive surges of development ofthe First Deep Transition,
and possible emergence of Second Deep Transition.

Bringing about a Second Deep Transition

The unsustainable systems of the First Deep Transition are strongly interconnected. Their underlying rules reinforce each other and form the backbone of everyday life. For instance, our energy system heavily relies on gas and coal; our mobility depends upon oil, and the food system uses nitrogen fertiliser produced with natural gas.

Changing one system in isolation will not bring about a Second Deep Transition. For a sustainability revolution to take root, a focus on transforming multiple systems is needed.

Deep Transitions thinking is geared towards multiple systems changes that can challenge and disrupt current unsustainable systems and replace them with sustainable alternatives.

Discover more about deep transitions

The Effect Of Shocks On Sustainability Transitions
Journal article

The Effect Of Shocks On Sustainability Transitions

The role of exogenous shocks in influencing transition process is of significant interest to diverse literatures in Sustainability Science. Such events disturb and interrupt path dependent processes in ecological, economic, social, and technological systems. Sometimes this can lead to radical departures from existing trajectories and at other times existing systems can be more resilient, adapting or reconfiguring in response to a shock.

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The Promise Of Transformative Investment: Mapping The Field Of Sustainability Investing
Working paper

The Promise Of Transformative Investment: Mapping The Field Of Sustainability Investing

This paper addresses the question: How can private finance be mobilized for sociotechnical sustainability transitions? In answering this question, maps the sustainability investment literature, which leads to four propositions: (1) The literature on sustainability investing coevolved with corporate social responsibility theory and with the practice and events of the field, revealing four distinctive waves of “sustainable investing”; (2) Each wave of sustainability investing triggers new investment strategies, while propelling preceding ones upwards (‘tidal effect’); (3) Sustainability investing strategies can be classified into certain categories, namely: (a) approach (top-down/ investment thesis or bottom-up/ valuation); (b) orientation (mitigating negative externalities or inducing positive externalities); (c) return on investment (from zero to risk-adjusted); and (4) We may be witnessing the emergence of a fifth wave of sustainability investing triggered by new research and practices on “impact investing”. We discuss these propositions against socio-technical sustainability transitions’ theory.

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