Three schools of transformation thinking

Community member post by Uwe Schneidewind and Karoline Augenstein

Uwe Schneidewind (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.

Karoline Augenstein (biography)

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.

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).

9 thoughts on “Three schools of transformation thinking

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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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