Depending on the system boundaries, the scale and the pace of the transformation, different types of challenges arise. We see a need for enhanced clarity on the many uses of the transformation concept in climate and sustainability science and policy. The authors (and Forum participants) of Sustainability Transformations: Agents and Drivers Across Societies suggest a basic framework to distinguish between fundamental aspects of systems change.

First, they reflect on the boundaries of the societal system that is being transformed, ranging from specific parts of civilizations to entire civilizations. Second, they consider the pace at which such transformations are thought to occur, from the perspective of a decade to centuries.  Examples include:

  • Rapid and comprehensive transformations on a civilizational scale, such as the reshaping of cultural and economic practices coinciding with the development of electronics, information and communication technologies;
  • Relatively fast transformation of particular institutions, such as when Britain abolished slavery in the early 19th century, where slavery had been seen as a natural order five decades earlier;
  • Protracted processes spanning centuries such as the great European civilization transformation identified as industrialisation or modernisation (depending on what drivers are in focus); and
  • Relatively slow, gradual transformations of particular segments of society, such as carbon net-zero energy and urbanization.

Based on these distinctions, we get four overarching types of societal transformations.  First, the quantum leap approach to transformation is characterised by a rapid pace and a civilization-wide approach to transformation. The quantum leap approach encompasses rapidly accelerated social changes that break with prevailing patterns of social organization.

Second, the convergent approach is rapid in pace and includes novel initiatives aiming for abrupt change, but addresses particular segments or sectors of society.

Third, the emergent approach is protracted in pace and civilization-wide in scope. The emergent approach  commonly rests on evolutionary conceptual breakthroughs, recombining well-known elements that contribute to changing world views and fostering new social organization.

Fourth, the gradualist approach is protracted in pace and particular in scope. The gradualist approach includes customary initiatives that are repackaged into targeted piecemeal governance approaches aimed at addressing particular issues or societal sectors.