Transformation by design

Eine Illustration

When it comes to the conditions for successful social renewal, it becomes obvious very quickly that infighting and a lax approach to dealing with facts are not helpful. Nevertheless, it is these behaviours that dominate the current discourse. Transformation research discusses this phenomenon as a symptom of an ‘interim period’ and provides helpful pointers on how we can navigate this challenge.

Transformation research is often consulted for distinguishing normal change from transformative change. Put simply, normal change refers to optimisations within an existing system and transformative change alters the system itself. A common definition describes transformation as a ‘process of fundamental and irreversible change in the culture, (institutional) structures and practices of a society’ (Dutch Research Institute for Transitions, DRIFT, 2017).

To simplify this distinction, the International Futures Forum has developed the concept of the three horizons:


Infographic: International Futures Forum / Bill Sharpe 2020

  • The first horizon describes the present (business as usual). This system of perpetuating the status quo is in crisis. There are clear qualitative and quantitative indicators of this. The mindsets and structures that support this system can no longer guarantee achieving the desired goals. The future viability of the status quo is diminishing ever faster.

  • The third horizon (viable future) shows the way out of the crisis. It contains the ideas and solutions that are promising under changed framework conditions, but are still perceived as deviations from normality. They are niche phenomena which are both inspiring to and being fought against by separate sets of actors.

  • The second horizon (innovation towards a) encompasses the clear though gradual realignment of social structures so that they can continue to serve the desired goals in a rapidly changing world. The figures and narratives we use to measure success and progress are important for this navigation, as they shape our perception of impact.

If we look at the current debate, we observe a number of barriers to goal- and understanding-orientated cooperation: representatives of the status quo and proponents of the viable future are portrayed as opponents, as losers and winners, or, increasingly, as irreconcilable lifestyle rivals. The yardstick for legitimate or goal-orientated measures continues to be based on the figures and narratives of the past. This means that many opportunities remain blocked.

In addition to this, far too little public attention is paid to the navigational work being done by the second horizon: actors in science, civil society, business and politics who do translation work, build transitions, put social cohesion above particular interests and align themselves with future-oriented goals for success, progress and prosperity.

And thus, we are stuck in a downward spiral of negative symptoms. Pluralistic ignorance and self-fulfilling prophecies are just two buzzwords from research that serve to illustrate how social tipping processes can tip in two directions: In the direction of a self-reinforcing acceleration comprised of many individual actions towards a democratic, active transformation by design – or in the direction of a transformation by disaster, when the thing thrown back at us is the anger stemming from lack of perspectives, and outdated structures are defended until powerful factors, for example the climate crisis, irrevocably transform our living conditions without us having a say in how.

Today, we are at such a tipping point. That is why we are all called upon to work towards a future we want to live in.


Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT). 2017. „Transitions“.

Sharpe, Bill. 2020. Three Horizons. The Patterning of Hope. 2nd edition. Triarchy Press.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. „It’s Time to Retire Metrics like GDP. They Don’t Measure Everything That Matters“. The Guardian, 24. November 2019.

Tainter, Joseph A. 1988. The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge University Press.

Consciously consequential

Consciously consequential

What it's about

What it’s about