What is a transition?

What is a transition.jpg

This is the first post of our transitions basic series, if you want to check out what this series is all about click here.

I think that the word “transition” means a lot of different things to different people. The word has certainly been around for a while – there is the demographic transition and transition economies, there is also transitioning from one field of work to the next and transitioning from a man to a woman and vice versa. On top of that there is the very similar word “transformation” which has been used to describe a number of similar things. What all of these things have in common is a sense of change from one state to another and that is at its heart what transition is all about.

However, when I speak of transitions I mean the socio-technical transitions which is a specific term used to understand how both society and technology (in this case not necessarily technology in terms of computer or machinery, but all new innovations) together change how we do things. The idea of socio-technical transition theory is that a transition happens when the way we currently do things is replaced with a new ways of doing things.

How do transitions occur?

Climate change exerts a steady disruptive pressure on the way things are done

So there are thought to be four ways in which transitions occur:

  1. Slowly the way we do things change on their own. Over time small changes to the way we do things add up until so many small changes have occurred that eventually we can say that it is a different way of doing things. We keep the same major players such as institutions, companies, and non-profits. For example, if slowly over time we all switch to using electric vehicles, but we still buy from these cars from the same companies such as Ford, BMW, Toyota, etc.

  2. Quite suddenly our institutions can decide to do things differently. We keep all of our major players such as the same institutions, companies, and non-profits, but suddenly they all agree to do things differently. For example, over the course of a three year period all of the energy companies started to produce green energy instead of using coal or gas.

  3. A new way of doing things slowly replaces the old way, but we change major actors. This time as new ways of doing things slowly replace the old way, we also change major actors. For example, if over time we start buying locally grown food from local farmers instead of food from food transported from distant places.

  4. We decide to replace our way of doing things with a new way of doing things. For example, if laws are put in place which forbid cars from driving within the city.

(based on Berkhout, 2002)

On top of this, there are several ways in which new ideas and innovations specifically are thought to cause transitions. In these scenarios the way we do things is be disrupted (by pressure from landscape) providing opportunity for the new ideas:

  1. If the innovations are not sufficiently developed, then community groups (such as community-based initiatives) campaign for solutions and experiment with innovations. Climate change issues are often a good example of this type of transitions. Climate change exerts a steady disruptive pressure on the way things are done, however, often the solutions such as wind energy are under developed, so non-profits and community groups campaign for government support for experimenting with green energy.

  2. The way we do things is suddenly disrupted and so several innovations co-exist until one finally wins out. This could be, for example, if disaster caused problems with the food supply and so different companies and community groups experimented with potential solutions, some opting for importing food and others for more disaster-resistant farming practices. Eventually one solution wins out and becomes the new normal. Disaster-related transitions are often a great example of this type of transition because the disaster is so disruptive to our current way of doing things (Becker and Reusser, 2017).

  3. The new innovation is fully developed when our way of doing things is disrupted. In this case, the new innovation simply replaces our current way of doing things. For example, if the price of oil were to go very high meanwhile the infrastructure and knowledge of solar panels was well developed so that it could simply replace the oil in a short period of time.

  4. We can adopt parts of the innovation while maintaining our current way of doing things, which ultimately leads to further changes down the road. This could happen, if for example, people started using energy efficient light bulbs and over time this made it easier for renewable energies to become incorporated into the local energy grid.(Based on Geels and Schot, 2007)

(Based on Geels and Schot, 2007)

To describe the specific roles of different actors and levels of society within these different transition scenarios, transition theory often uses three terms: niche, regime, and landscape. These terms will be further discussed in future blog posts as part of this series.

There have always been transitions

transitions are not a new phenomenon. Instead, throughout history there have been many transitions

So while the term transition has become very popular when discussing sustainability, transitions are not a new phenomenon. Instead, throughout history there have been many transitions. These transitions can be as far reach as a transition to a market economy (Polanyi, 1957) or the transformation from planned to market economies after the fall of communism in eastern Europe (Van den Bergh, Truffer and Kallis, 2011). However, transitions can also be industry specific such as a transition from sailing ships to steamships (Geels, 2002).

You have probably experienced a few transitions in your life time. Think about how the internet, the computer, or the rise of cell phones has transformed our work and private lives. And hopefully you will be experiencing at least one more…

I hope you have enjoyed this first post in the transitions basics series. The next post will cover “What does a transition have to do with climate change and sustainability?” so check back soon.



Becker, S. L., and D. E. Reusser. "Disasters as opportunities for social change: using the multi-level perspective to consider the barriers to disaster-related transitions." International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 18 (2016): 75-88.

Berkhout, Frans. "Technological regimes, path dependency and the environment." Global environmental change 12.1 (2002): 1-4.

Geels, Frank W. "Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study." Research policy 31.8-9 (2002): 1257-1274.

Geels, Frank W., and Johan Schot. "Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways." Research policy 36.3 (2007): 399-417.

Polanyi, Karl. The great transformation:(The political and economic origin of our time). Beacon Press, 1957.

Van den Bergh, Jeroen CJM, Bernhard Truffer, and Giorgos Kallis. "Environmental innovation and societal transitions: Introduction and overview." Environmental innovation and societal transitions 1.1 (2011): 1-23.