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

Shocks, institutional change, and sustainability transitions
Journal article

Shocks, institutional change, and sustainability transitions

Shocks such as wars, financial crises, and environmental disasters, play an important role in influencing the direction of sociotechnical systems such as energy, food, and mobility. We develop understandings of the effects of shocks on systems through the concept of imprinting, which looks at how the different conditions of a time-restricted period of a shock can bring about rapid changes in sociotechnical systems with long-lasting changes. We explore this concept through analysing two shocks and effects on the energy system: World War II and the 1973 Oil crisis. Prospective sustainability transitions will be effected by shocks such as climate change impacts and conflicts and thus understanding the long-term effects of shocks through imprinting will be a useful additional perspective.

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Transformative investment: New rules for investing in sustainability transitions
Journal article

Transformative investment: New rules for investing in sustainability transitions

Closing the financial gap for promoting systemic socio-economic transformations to achieve sustainability requires both a substantial increase in investment levels and a qualitative change in investment strategies. In this Perspective, we elaborate on this claim and discuss why existing investment approaches that aim to make positive contributions to sustainability are unlikely to foster the systemic transformations needed for sustainability. Qualitative change means changing the current rules that guide investment practices and we outline a new set of rules that should guide transformative investment. These rules are based on the well-established socio-technical sustainability transition theory and the recent development of a theory of deep transitions. We explain why these transformative investment rules offer a promising alternative base for assessing investment opportunities and monitoring progress toward the multi-system changes required to achieve a socially just deep transition to sustainability.

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