Deep Transitions: Learning from History to Imagine the Future

Find out about the Deep Transitions project, involving academics across SPRU.


A new cutting-edge research project led by Professor Johan Schot examines the revolutionary concept of ‘Deep Transitions’ (DT) – the coordinated change of many socio-technical systems in the same direction, over a period of time, which result in large-scale social and economic impact, transforming the nature of world societies. The Deep Transitions project is linked to the aims of the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium as part of its research programme.

The DT programme will involve a number of additional SPRU faculty, including: Professor Ed Steinmueller, Dr Caitriona McLeish, Dr Daniele Rotolo, Dr Laur Kanger, Dr Frederique Bone and Dr Phil Johnstone. The Deep Transitions project will also have significant links with the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC).


The development and unfolding of industrial progress over the last 250 years (seen as the First Deep Transition) has created high levels of wealth and welfare in the Western world, but also increasing global ecological degradation and widespread social inequality. Now innovative social science thinking is needed to address the interconnected social, economic and ecological challenges facing humanity – including the core challenge of guaranteeing a humane quality of life for the nearly 10 billion people on the planet by the year 2050.

It is clear that the current paradigm of industrial mass production and individualized mass consumption based on intensive use of fossil fuels and production of a massive amount of waste cannot be extended to all of the world’s population without exceeding Earth’s planetary boundaries. Additionally, despite continuing economic growth, in many parts of the world many people still live in poverty. Rising inequalities are resulting in a highly uneven distribution of the benefits and costs of growth and development. If high enough, these inequalities may start to undermine the values on which democratic societies are based.


To meet the accumulated economic, social and ecological challenges we face as a result of the First Deep Transition and the unsustainable direction it has taken us in, will require transformative change. This will not only be in the socio-technical systems themselves, but also in the combination of rules and meta-rules underlying them. The project aims to understand how rules and meta-rules emerge and how their application accelerates and stabilizes leading to long waves and socio-technical system changes in specific directions. Informed by this learning, it will then assess various scenarios for the unfolding of a possible Second Deep Transition.

The Deep Transitions framework (developed by Professor Schot and Dr Laur Kanger) can be broken down into four propositions, which seek to characterise each of the four elements of a Deep Transition:

  • EMERGENCE: Deep Transitions begin when the seeds for new meta-regimes emerge simultaneously in niches of different socio-technical systems, initially interacting in a largely uncoordinated manner.
  • ACCELERATION: Deep Transitions accelerate through the establishment of couplings between multiple regimes.
  • STABILIZATION: macro-level shocks and crises such as wars provide a significant push enabling the dominance of a single meta-regime thereby stabilizing Deep Transitions.
  • DIRECTIONALITY: the directionality of Deep Transitions is characterized by a portfolio of dominant and alternative meta-regimes (sustained in individual regimes and niches), built up through successive surges.

After some initial work to develop the propositions and method, the project will break down into three core projects, all with an underlying focus on socio-technical system change in three areas – (1) mobility, energy and agro-food, on (2) the Transatlantic World; (3) the period 1900-2050:

Historical Mapping of First and Second Deep Transition (and thus long waves)

To see whether and how rules and meta-rules (as defined by Deep Transitions Theory) can be detected and researched and whether their development follows the trajectory of emergence, acceleration, stabilization, directionality in a wave-like pattern, as assumed in the Deep Transitions framework. For this purpose, various bibliometric techniques such as topic modelling and co-word analysis will be applied to textual data extracted from news articles and professional trade journals covering the period 1900-2017, using input from various experts to define key-words and assess results.

Analysing Tipping Points/Controversies

An assumption in the framework is that the way controversies are solved is crucially important for the unfolding pattern of the waves of the First and Second Deep Transition. They lead to tipping points. The main goal of this project is to clarify how controversies around rules and meta-rules emerge, leading to tipping points, how they then are resolved, and how the waves develop a specific directionality. It will focus on three controversies: (1) mass production for global markets vs. socially useful and craft-based production for local markets; (2) linear resource-intensive economy based on the use of fossil fuels vs. circular waste-free economy based on the use of organic materials; (3) individual vs. collective consumption. The project will look at case-studies for these controversies and in addition focus on the role of World Wars and so called New Wars and international organizations in current times on shaping developments in these three controversies.

Imagining the Second Deep Transition

The main aim of this project will be to explore how best to study the future unfolding of a Second Deep Transition. It will focus on using two methods: modelling and scenarios, combined with new ways of visualising future developments using techniques explored in the historical mapping project. Scenarios and modelling will be combined in a variety of ways to interrogate and test the growing evidence base, as modelling is a useful way of exploring certain assumptions that develop within scenarios. These interactions will be organized in an experimental controlled setting (the Deep Transition Lab).

A Synthesis Project will follow the three projects described above. This will bring together the findings of the earlier work, with an analysis of potential next steps.


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Further information

Read the SPRU Working paper ‘Deep Transitions: Emergence, Acceleration, Stabilization and Directionality’ by Prof Johan Schot and Dr Laur Kanger.

Watch the Deep Transitions Programme introductory video on the SPRU Youtube channel.

Follow @SPRU and @TIPConsortium on Twitter