Three schools of transformation thinking

By Uwe Schneidewind and Karoline Augenstein

1. Uwe Schneidewind (biography)
2. Karoline Augenstein (biography)

‘Transformation’ has become a buzzword in debates about sustainable development. But while the term has become very popular, it is often unclear what is meant exactly by ‘transformation’.

The fuzziness of the concept can be seen as a strength, giving it metaphoric power and facilitating inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation. However, this fuzziness means there is also a danger of the transformation debate being co-opted by powerful actors and used strategically to impede societal change towards more sustainable pathways.

Thus, issues of power are at stake here and we argue that a better understanding of the underlying assumptions and theories of change shaping the transformation debate is needed. We delineate three schools of transformation thinking and their assumptions about what drives societal change, and summarize them in the first table below. We then examine the relationship of these three schools of thinking to power, summarized in the second table.

The Idealist School – Ideas Rule the World

Idealist thinking builds on ideas as the essence and foundation of every tangible aspect of human experience.

Thus, to explain and analyze transformations we have to understand basic ideas – cultural values, dominant dogmas and world views – and how they impact societies. For a transition to sustainability to be achieved, the necessary societal change processes must develop as the result of powerful ideas and discourses.

According to an idealist school of thought, collective ideas or shared beliefs are pivotal in change processes. They are the relevant determining factor, even though external pressures or certain events may trigger societal transformations. Therefore, similar circumstances faced by different societies or groups of people may lead to completely different development paths depending on the respective ideas commonly adhered to.

The Institutional School – Institutions are Enablers of Social Change

Institutional thinking builds on the role of formal and informal rules as a coordinating mechanism, as the basic ‘incentive structure’ for economic and political activity. Due to their longevity, institutions also create stability in the sense that they facilitate credible expectations in recurring situations and reduce uncertainty.

Thus, societal change and transformation depend on the institutional set-up and the specific formal and informal rules shaping society.

Assuming that institutions are simultaneously shaping action and are themselves being shaped by actors, institutions are the central starting point for achieving sustainability transitions via effective policies, suitable organizational architectures and rule systems. These are then followed by (and enable) changing social practices, new ideas and cultures, and sustainability-oriented technological innovation processes and markets.

Thus, societal transitions depend on creating suitable institutional framework conditions.

The Technological Innovation School – Technological Progress Drives Modern Societies

With the accelerating technological developments observed during the 20th century, the increasing importance attributed to technological innovation as a driver of human civilization has been recognized.

Many research approaches that can be counted among the technological innovation school have been key sources for sustainability transitions or transformation research. Radical technological innovations (eg., in the field of renewable energy) play an important role here as well as processes of socio-technical co-evolution, ie., the interlinkages between technological development and societal change.

These approaches connect to change in ideas and institutions, but with an emphasis on the role that radical innovations play in sustainability-oriented transformation processes.

Three schools of transformation thinking and their basic assumptions (source: Schneidewind and Augenstein 2016)

Transformation and Power

How can we relate the three schools of transformation thinking to the issue of power in societal transformation processes? We use the distinction between three ideal-typical conceptions of power developed by Partzsch (2015).

Power with focuses on cooperation and learning, where power emerges as the concerted action of a community built around shared beliefs. This conception of power is closely connected to basic assumptions of an idealist school of transformation thinking, where the power of ideas motivates joint action towards a shared goal.

Power to focuses on resistance and empowerment and thus adds a perspective of confrontation and conflict. Power to assumes an adversarial other, against which a group of actors needs to be empowered, or empower itself, to effect change. This perspective is dominant in research on social movements or environmental non-governmental organizations. It also fits well with the technological innovation school of transformation thinking, where niche innovations challenge existing system structures.

Power over focuses on coercion and manipulation, where powerful actors influence and determine the actions of less powerful groups, shape political agendas and public discourses. This power concept fits well with the institutionalist school of transformation thinking and its emphasis on the role of political or market institutions that determine system dynamics and provide a structural framework for action.

Linking different concepts of power (Partzsch 2015) to the three schools of transformation thinking (source: Schneidewind and Augenstein 2016)

In order to develop what one of us (Schneidewind 2013) has called “transformative literacy” that enables a comprehensive understanding of and orientation to complex transformation processes, it is necessary to map out and understand the different worldviews, assumptions and interests at work in different schools of transformation thinking and how they relate to issues of power.

How do you see these differences in basic assumptions – of approaches, theories and individual researchers? What other approaches have you found useful to arrive at a deeper and shared understanding of what a transformation to sustainability entails?

To find out more:
Schneidewind, U. and Augenstein, K. (2016). Three schools of transformation thinking: The impact of ideas, institutions, and technological innovation on transformation processes. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 25, 2: 88-93. Online:

Thanks to GAIA for making this paper free to access until 30 September 2017.

To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal GAIA:

Partzsch, L. (2015). Kein Wandel ohne Macht ‐ Nachhaltigkeitsforschung braucht ein mehrdimensionales Machtverständnis. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 24, 1: 48–56.

Schneidewind, U. (2013). Transformative Literacy. Rahmen für den wissensbasierten Umgang mit der “Großen Transformation”. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 22, 2: 82-86.

Biography: Uwe Schneidewind is president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and professor for Sustainable Transition Management at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. He is a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). His main research interests are transformations to sustainability in their technological, economic, institutional and cultural dimensions and the role of science and science policy for sustainable development.

Biography: Karoline Augenstein is a junior research group leader at the Center for Transformation Research and Sustainability (TransZent) at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. Her main research interests are in sustainability transitions research and transdisciplinary approaches, currently focusing on upscaling strategies for an urban sharing society (“UrbanUp”: an inter- and transdisciplinary junior research group funded within the social-ecological research programme of the German Ministry for Education and Research).

11 thoughts on “Three schools of transformation thinking”

  1. This article links to my 2015 article in GAIA (for which you find the translation into English here: This article provoked a debate in GAIA, including articles by Philipp Altmann, Achim Brunnengraeber and Philip Wallmeier, to which I responded recently (
    Like Karoline and Uwe, I suggest that we can differentiate three ways of how power is exercised – and me too, I emphasize that these three ways are not mutually exclusive; to the contrary, I encourage scholars to explore interrelations (and the different schools to come into dialogue with each other). However, while Karoline and Uwe differentiate these ways based on means of power (ideas, institutions and technology), my differentation rests on mechanisms of power, i.e. convincing and learning (power with), creative ability (power to) and coercion and manipulation (power over). Table 2 might be misleading in this regard.
    Let me exemplify for “power to” how actors can use all three types of means (not only technologies, as Karoline and Uwe suggest for “power to”, but also ideas and institutions) in each type of mechanism.
    I define “power to” as “as empowerment or the ability to act also against resistance” (in GAIA 2015). Such an empowerment can be based on new technologies, as outlined by Karoline and Uwe. Renewable energy technologies are the prime example. Solar-, wind- and biomass-based energy technologies have allowed actors, e.g. EW Schoenau in Germany (“electricity rebels”), to free themselves from domination inherent to the fossil and nuclear energy supply system, e.g. the dependence of the village of Schoenau on the monopolist and nuclear power proponent KWR.
    Such empowerment however starts with ‘new thinking’ (Partzsch 2017 in Environmental Politics, see: Before actors start to develop new technologies, most of the time, they need to first free themselves from dominant norms and ideas, i.e. 24/7 unlimited availability of electricity for everyone guaranteed by the state. Thus, “power to” is also based on norms and ideas.
    Moreover, as a political scientist, I do not consider institutions as ‘neutral’ means of power. Institutions result from and at the same time enable certain structures and games actors play (see also Environmental Politics article for how power mechanisms are linked to the structure-agency debate). In democracies, institutions should serve the people – either to continue business as usual and hence to reproduce existing power asymmetries (power over) or to enable empowerment (power to). The city of Freiburg, where I live, just used its institutions to vote the Green mayor out of office before yesterday. To my understanding, citizens do share his environmental norms and are in favour of renewable energies etc. but most citizens do not agree with the way the Greens implemented them here. In fact, the Greens are mainly applying market mechanisms (structural power over) which came along with social exclusion (for example, you see very few cars in the city center but many of those cars are limousines). So while I see a need for further differentiation in Karoline’s and Uwe’s model, I agree that we should talk about what we mean exactly by ‘transformation’ and how we want to accomplish it!

  2. I think this article is interesting and helpful. And I agree with several other comments that in fact these are complementary approaches and many problems will need all three. I found the linking of these transformation approaches to the power with/over/to concepts problematic, however. I think that describing technology as “power to” is fine, but I think that the others are misleading. Ideas can be coercive, not just cooperative as implied in “power with”. Institutions can be negotiation-oriented and flexible rather than coercive as implied in “power over”. I thought the description of institutional transformation itself was much more balanced. Institutions are needed to formalize and create predictions about the future. The way in which they are developed and managed determines whether they are “coercive” and manipulative.

  3. My observations from involvement in managing “complexity” is that achieving change generally requires a mix of “drivers” or ingredients. These include: understanding the realities of the environment in which change is to occur, seeing the gaps or opportunities to achieve benefits (at least for some if not all those affected), securing alliances (and forestalling opposition), informing (both followers and opponents), having and spreading passion, and of course technical innovation, resources and capability. Having any ingredient lacking makes the achievement that much more difficult if not infeasible.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience! We very much agree with your view and think that especially when it comes to forming alliances and informing others and understanding (their) realities, it can be an important step to clarify what their different assumptions and world views are – as a precondition for cooperation and engagement. We think that the three schools of transformation thinking can be a framework or tool to facilitate this kind of knowledge integration.

  4. Thanks for this. You may be interested in this take on transformation and the SDGs [Moderator update – In November 2022, this link no longer available: acfid[dot]asn[dot]au/blog-post/working-towards-transformational-development-and-sustainable-development-goals]

  5. Thank you. Do you consider the three schools to be mutually exclusive? Take the issue of roadlessness and forest certification for example. New tools – remote sensing and realtime tracking of deforestation, taken over by an informal alliance of like-minded agents of change – in academia and civil society – shaping new institutions – forest certification and their inclusion of the concect in their standards – that in turn provide incentives to economic actors – logging companies – to join a voluntary scheme of forest stewardship. There is a seemingless flow between each of the pathways to transformation, and that power to merges into power with to become power over.
    Also – hopefully we can include ethical nudging in the list of power over, don’t you agree?

    • The three schools are certainly neither an exhaustive list nor do we consider them to be mutually exclusive. I think your example illustrates well that this often is not the case and that there is indeed (a need for) integrated perspectives and a combination of drivers or pathways. That’s a point that is made in other comments on this post as well and what we want to suggest here is that a framework like the three schools of transformation thinking can help make underlying and often implicit assumptions more explicit. In this way what we call ‘transformative literacy’ and more integrated forms of cooperation between groups or actors, scientific disciplines etc. may become possible. Thank you for your insights and nudging could definitely be an interesting issue in this respect.


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