What you can find in this article - A theoretical and empirical elaboration on the Deep Transitions framework. The framework is a tool that aims to guide institutions in finding a way through multidimensional sustainability challenges from a systemic approach.
Why it matters - Interdependent crises we are experiencing are putting global societal wellbeing at risk, leading to increased poverty and inequality, social unrest, and violence.
What is the root cause - The double challenge of ecological degradation and socioeconomic inequality are symptoms of a society that has reached all limits to growth. The past 200 to 250 years of development have led to unprecedented human flourishing and economic growth, but are now turning against us. The rules governing our society do not uphold any longer.
What is needed - To combat these crises, we must experiment with new niches (radical innovations) that offer alternative practices and business models. Such niches can eventually be scaled up to transform multiple systems and become new rules for a just and equitable planet.
What we propose - We offer a set of guiding principles that are becoming new rules and deal with the double challenge of ecological degradation and socioeconomic inequality. These system-overarching principles give ample possible directions for contributing to a breakthrough in positive fundamental change.
We are living in a constant state of crisis. We have gone from a health crisis to an energy crisis to a high inflationary economic crisis, all while being faced with an increasingly severe climate crisis. All these crises put global societal wellbeing at risk, leading to increased poverty and inequality, social unrest, and violence.
Such crises are indications of the inherent flaws in systems that have been built up since the Industrial Revolution. The technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution allowed humanity to enjoy an unprecedented rate of economic growth and global welfare development. Although people generally became more wealthy, wealth was unevenly distributed, and generated at the expense of natural and human resource exploitation. This exploitation has led to the degradation of natural ecosystems and the creation of profound socio-economic inequalities, showing us the limits of growth.
In facing these current and looming crises, we can either prepare for a breakdown -that is, insist on our current system and accept that both nature and society will be structurally worse off - or we can contribute to a breakthrough, by stimulating fundamental, positive change for a more equitable, just and healthier planet. Our Deep Transitions framework offers the tools and perspective for the latter; a breakthrough towards a radically new society which is resilient against shocks and where nature flourishes beside us.
In this article, we will first elaborate on the theoretical foundation of our framework. Then we will go over the establishment of our framework, whereafter we shall describe how the framework can be used. Finally, we will reflect on the challenges of the framework and how to apply it.
The framework builds on research conducted by University of Utrecht professor Johan Schot and his consortium on deep transitions of the last 250 years. The interdisciplinary research project “strives to understand how the unsustainable systems our societies are built on emerged, and how they can be unmade”.A deep transition can be defined as “a series of connected and sustained, fundamental transformations of a wide range of socio-technical systems in a similar direction”.Socio-technical systems are configurations of actors, technologies, and institutions designed to fulfill a certain societal function, such as local energy grids, the healthcare system, public transportation, et cetera.
The Deep Transitions theory is based on the historical analysis of the first deep transition, which started with the 18thcentury Industrial Revolution. In the next 200-250 years, major technological advances caused surges of development that brought about economic and societal prosperity. Steam engines and the railways enabled the factory system and nationwide distribution of goods. The rise of steel, electricity and heavy engineering facilitated further industrialization, the start of mass production, and kicked off the first wave of globalization. Later, the rise of oil, the automobile industry and global shipping led to further globalization and the worldwide adoption of mass consumption. Along with their direct benefits to producers as well as consumers, each of these surges contributed to the development of guiding principles for the economy and society. The emergence of new technologies has facilitated certain practices, such as the mass extraction of natural resources. It also gave rise to new forms of consumer behavior, such as the throwaway society. They also inspired economic and political ideas, such as the externalization of social and ecological costs or the establishment of GDP as the single metric to gauge economic and societal progress. All in all, we can discern the following rules that developed as the result of this first deep transition:
These rules are part and parcel of the first deep transition, giving direction to all the surges and system transformations that took place. Yet, they put global societal wellbeing at risk and, moreover, they stand in the way of actual solutions to today’s problems.
For such solutions to work, we need to rewrite the rules that have been established since the Industrial Revolution. This requires nothing less than a new deep transition. To achieve this, we must experiment with new rules in the form of new regulations, alternative practices and transformative technologies. Such experiments cannot simply take place within the context of the existing rules. They require protection from the “old system” in what are called niches; protected spaces for experimentation. In such niches, alternative eco- and people-friendly system designs can be tested and nurtured, and they can be scaled to the point that they are “strong enough” to compete with existing systems. These kinds of niches are already arising in many different systems, such as the energy, food and mobility systems. These developments indicate that the second deep transition is already taking place.
Examples of niche developments
Fairphone is a disruptive phone manufacturer that designs easily repairable, circular smartphones. As a niche within the communication system, they offer radically new ways to source, assemble and use smartphones in a responsible and socially inclusive way. The company is shaking up the status quo in the business and has the potential to develop new socio-technical systems.
The True Price foundation, together with other institutions and partners, urges companies and institutions to include external social and ecological costs in product prices. While back in 2012, the foundation was a voice in the wilderness, the Dutch government has recently initiated a law on international responsible entrepreneurship. This law requires companies to ban pollution, forced labor and modern slavery from their entire production chain. The development shows that a niche like charging the true price of products has the potential of becoming woven into the fabric of the business.
Change in a single system does not constitute a deep transition. An actual deep transition is the cumulative result of many system transformations that contribute to the same new set of rules for society and economy. If the underlying rules are not re-written, we will only see incremental change within systems and, at best, this would be a process of system optimization. To illustrate the difference, consider the mobility system: most attention has gone to reduction of emissions by means of catalytic converters and cleaner engines. The focus has thus been on optimizing the existing system based on private ownership of fossil-fuel powered vehicles. Even a partial redesign of the system fails to address the fundamental problems of the mobility system. For instance, the adoption of electric cars may substantially reduce the carbon footprint of mobility, but it also causes new (waste)problems (e.g. recycling batteries, extraction of critical resources such as copper and lithium). And, let’s not forget, it deepens the divide between those who can afford their own (more expensive) vehicle and those who are dependent on public transport (which gets far less public support than EVadoption).
What is needed instead is a systemic transformation that drastically reduces our dependence on cars, stimulates alternative transportation methods and allows for the possibility of other business models. This transformation is driven by the development of new niches that show alternative solutions to persistent problems. For instance, a niche in the mobility system is “mobility-as-a-service” (MaaS). MaaS would minimize car ownership and decrease private possession of means of transportation. This kind of transformation would not only make mobility accessible for everyone, everywhere. It would also enable a cleaner and more equitable system, for both society and the environment.
With the Deep Transitions framework, we want to encourage positive fundamental transformations, alternative practices and changing regulations emerging in niches. Based on ongoing research, we have clustered our findings about desirable principles in a framework of new guiding principles for a sustainable and equitable world. We believe that these principles are necessary to overcome the deeply rooted problems of ecological degradation and socio-economic inequality, and will increase human wellbeing for all, within the limits posed by planetary boundaries. We have established the following principles:
Figure 1 seeks to illustrate the mutual relations between the principles. The first three principles are crucial structural conditions for a new economy and society. These are to ensure that, bottom-up, new ideas and practices are properly developed and rewarded. The second two are macro-level characteristics of an economy that is inherently more sustainable and open to collaboration on tackling societal challenges. Finally, societal wellbeing and a planetary perspective are needed as overarching values to guide public and private decision-making.
We firmly believe that the second Deep Transition is already underway. There are plenty of examples of experiments, market successes and changing regulations that align with these principles. This is especially true for the first five principles, which are actually observable and measurable. The renewed focus on wellbeing and an emerging planetary perspective are more difficult to observe, but even such new worldviewsmanifest themselves in, for instance, the long-standing debate over a broader definition of welfare and attempts to assign fundamental rights to nature.
The framework and its underlying principles can be used in two ways. One way is to use the principles separately. Individually, every separate principle functions as a specific theme pertaining to which we monitor niche developments and changing regulations around the world that challenge the status quo. They also serve as inspiration for new business models, consumer practices and radical innovations that contribute to much-needed fundamental change. The other way is to use the framework as a whole, making it a tool to help businesses and public organizations contribute to transformative change. The framework takes a systems perspective, challenging its users to adopt a sector- or industry-overarching view of a local problem. Also, its scope is multi dimensional, as it takes into account socio-cultural, technological, economic and (geo)political factors in the dynamics between principles. Adopting the complete framework has the potential for deep impact. It asks for collaborations between NGOs, governments, businesses, and citizens, meaning change would be institutionalized on many layers of society and economy. We prefer to use the framework in its entirety.
To illustrate how the framework as a whole can be applied, we would like to use an example of the green energy transition as part of the development of a circular economy. With the increasing demand for electric vehicles, wind turbines and clean tech, the need for natural resources such as cobalt, nickel and lithium is rising rapidly.The demand for nickel and cobalt will have risen by 60 to 70 percent in 2040compared to 2010, and lithium demand will rise by 90 percent. However, these minerals and metals are sourced unethically and irresponsibly.They are primarily mined in the global South, where socio-economic inequality and the effects of ecological degradation are far more problematic than in the global North. As such, a just transition towards a carbon-neutral economy asks for a systemic approach in which socio-cultural, economic, technological and geopolitical dimensions are taken into consideration. The framework offers the tools to guide such a systemic approach.
For the adoption of green energy to be just and truly sustainable, it should meet three preconditions. First, it must embrace participatory and inclusive governance. It cannot only take into account the Western world but should also consider the local communities living and working in and around the mining sites. This can be done by, for example, giving them a seat at the negotiation table, or embracing initiatives like the Red Deal.Second, any development should be realized by transformative innovation for both society and nature. This should be especially pushed by governmental stimulation of infrastructural improvements (improving the energy grid or stimulating green hydrogen infrastructure and technologies). Think of subsidies, new regulations, large investments in green infrastructure, but also an infrastructure for the recycling of materials. Third, social and ecological costs and benefits should be internalized to ensure fair pricing. This would enable both institutions and individuals to take responsibility for the damage they cause to local ecosystems and communities when they produce or purchase products made in other parts of the world. It would also stimulate re-use instead of using virgin metals. True Cost Accounting and initiatives like True Price allow for this precondition to be met.
Close collaborations between NGOs, governments and businesses is necessary to meet the above-mentioned preconditions for a just green energy transition. A collaborative economy can make the green energy transition more accessible to new entrants in Western economies and entrepreneurs in the Global South. Think of blockchain-based energy sharing, tech transfer based on opensource, and the removal of patents on innovations for developing countries. Such collaborations would boost change across multiple systems and make new innovations and initiatives within the green energy transition accessible to everyone – not just to the rich and privileged.
The Deep Transitions framework sets the bar high, as it seeks to solve many problems at the same time. The solutions to these individual challenges are sometimes at odds with one another. Long-term ecological wins are not necessarily aligned with short-term economic gains and improved wellbeing in developing economies could come at the expense of wellbeing in rich nations. Every level at which this framework operates includes its own tensions in different contexts and timelines (both intergenerational and intragenerational). Therefore, problems inherent to multidimensional conflicts can never permanently be solved, but they can be resolved temporarily by, for instance, prioritizing one goal over the other in the short term, while not losing sight of the other goal in the long term. The ultimate challenge in dealing with conflicting demands is to find ways to meet them, without wanting to get rid of them.
We are very much aware that there is seldom a way around these tensions. Organizations cannot be sustainable by themselves; they can only contribute to the sustainability of the system they operate in. Collaboration, joint movements, and partnerships are key to realizing fundamental positive change.
 In this context, a “system” is “a set of interacting variables that behave according to governing mechanisms or forces” (Williams et al, 2017) that form a unified whole with a specific purpose (Kim, 1999).
 Unlike sectors, socio-technical systems include production, distribution, and consumption.
 A worldview – or Weltanschauung – is a conceptual model that makes sense of the world. Not only do worldviews provide a cognitive orientation of the individual and/or society towards the world, but they also determine values and their worth. A worldview is determined by its history, its metaphysics, and by the answers to questions such as “Where are we heading?” and “What should we do?”.