Transitions to Sustainable Development

Transitions to Sustainable Development: New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change
John Grin, Jan Rotmans, and Johan Schot in collaboration with Frank Geels and Derk Loorbach
Routledge, 2010, 381 pages.

Many citizens and decision makers are able to define goals for sustainability. Achieving these goals in practice, however, is far more difficult.

Individuals are simply one part of a larger societal system composed of knowledge, institutions, norms and behaviours, as well as physical infrastructure. Once established, these larger systems entrench various patterns of unsustainable consumption, such as food choices, mobility patterns and energy consuming lifestyles. These path dependencies constrain communities and individuals from achieving their sustainable development goals.

In Transitions to Sustainable Development, authors John Grin, Jan Rotmans and Johan Schot introduce a novel approach to unlocking sustainability from entrenched system dynamics, and in the process, create a framework that helps researchers and communities identify a path toward sustainable development.

Providing empirical and theoretical evidence throughout the book, the authors argue that such a transition cannot be controlled by a central authority or group. They describe case studies of “transition experiments” within systems that possess strong path dependencies, such as regional energy infrastructure and agriculture systems.

Due to the uncertainty and complexity inherent in the relationship between ecological, social, technological and economic systems, the shift toward sustainability will not be a linear process either. The book is structured around three distinct perspectives: a historical perspective on socio-technical systems and innovation; a complex systems perspective applied at a regional scale; and a governance perspective.

Frank Geels, one of the book’s collaborators, provides a meticulously developed concept of the “multi-level perspective on transitions.” The highest level is the “landscape,” where slow moving global ecological, social and economic trends influence lower-level decisions made within regimes and niches. “Regimes” are the middle level, and represent the structural and institutional factors that are both the product of and context for policy making at the governance levels. “Niches” are described as spaces where innovative ideas, services, programs, technologies, relationships and processes can develop with some degree of protection from societal forces. If successful, these “niche experiments” can potentially disrupt and transform the existing regime and associated systems.

Jan Rotmans, along with book contributor Derk Loorbach, apply a complexity approach at a regional scale. They examine how transition processes can be influenced by “transition arenas” composed of experts from relevant sectors in society (e.g., industry leaders, civil servants and academics). While providing valuable tools for those working within the regime, the top-down transitions arena can be undermined if vested interests enter the process and attempt to uphold the regime.

The third perspective, by John Grin, addresses transitions with respect to “reflexive governance,” with an emphasis on understanding how transitions are entrenched in broader processes of institutional change. The importance of agency is highlighted for restructuring existing institutions and relationships in order to nurture niche experiments. This perspective provides insights for people working for change within communities to help influence the direction of transitions.

Although the book is steeped in these complex concepts, Transitions is written clearly for easy understanding, and includes numerous figures to help the reader visualize conceptual frameworks.

The elegance of the transitions framework is that it provides a roadmap for instigating bottom-up transformative change that can be driven by entrepreneurship and innovation processes, while allowing for the ongoing co-evolution of larger infrastructure systems with human behaviour.

Geels’ multi-level framework is a heuristic device that allows a range of readers to contextualize and apply transitions thinking to their own sustainability problem. The governance and complexity perspectives are useful to community leaders wishing to drive innovation in response to shocks from higher governance levels while working within institutional constraints that structure local actions.

Each perspective is grounded in established social-science fields, and provides a rich literature review and excellent analysis of relevant theories and concepts in those research areas. Although each perspective is well developed, they do not synchronize well, at times contradicting each other. This is the main drawback of the book, as it undermines the authors’ original wish to “sketch out common elements of a first theory of transitions towards sustainable development.”

Despite this discrepancy, Transitions will appeal to a wide audience, and each reader seeking long-term sustainability solutions will take something from it.

Travis Gliedt and Christina E. Hoicka are both PhD candidates in Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo. They research energy systems sustainability and community energy management.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Greengirl says:

    Great book and important new theory. It manages to combine a top-down planned approach with a bottom-up market-based innovation strategy for sustainable development.


  2. Fraser says:

    Thanks for this Greengirl…

    Anyone interested in this book would also do well to visit The Natural Step website (

    Like the Transitions book, the group successfully bridges the gap between theory and hand-on efforts to implement sustainability principles. The Natural Step is now working with UWO’s Master’s in Environment and Sustainability program to support 5 student internships who will bring their new-found knowledge in sustainability to their placements.


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