Social tipping points

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In our view, the biggest obstacles to a consistent and democratic renewal of prosperity do not lie in technological barriers or a lack of finance. We are holding ourselves back because we are not resolutely aligning both technology and finance towards these goals. And it is people who decide this.

Social institutions and structures are an expression of a specific objective at a specific point in time. Incentives, key performance indicators, role definitions and rules are set up according to the goals, values and evaluations chosen or set. Form follows function.

Taken together, they shape the system of society and keep developments on a certain course. This facilitates the division of labor enormously. But development also means change. And at some point, there comes a time when the solutions of the past have become the problem of the present. Business as usual is no longer an option. And if we look beyond the normalcy claims of the present, we see that transformation is actually the rule rather than the exception.

However, if things are to happen quickly – and this is where we are today – intense interplay between various drivers of social change is required: prices and availability of alternatives play the most important role, but are in turn the result of political and economic design. And in democracies, these designs are informed by how we think and talk about these changes. What is desirable, normal, realistic, inexpensive or legitimate?

In social science, particular emphasis is therefore placed on the categories of values and norms, on education about changing contexts and on transparency concerning the effects of the measures under discussion. If these evaluations and parameters change, then support, demand and acceptance will change with them. That is why these soft factors are at the heart of our work.

And another piece of good news: once new infrastructures and products are available and the political rules have been renegotiated, a social tipping point will be reached and the transformation will consolidate – future developments will not fall back into old patterns so easily.

This is precisely why consumers can always set important trends, but never be made responsible for enacting structural change. This responsibility rests within the realms of politics and economy, and with all those who talk about the changes we need, evaluate their advantages and disadvantages or inspire others by leading the way.


McNeill, John Robert: quoted after: Jeremy Lent. 2017. The Patterning Instinct. A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. Amherst/New York. Prometheus Books. S. 398.

Otto, Ilona M., Jonathan F. Donges, Roger Cremades, Avit Bhowmik, Richard J. Hewitt, Wolfgang Lucht, Johan Rockström, et al. 2020. „Social Tipping Dynamics for Stabilizing Earth’s Climate by 2050“. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117 (5): 2354–65.

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