Transformation: An introductory guide to fundamental change for researchers and change makers in a world of crises

Prof Ioan Fazey, and Dr John Colvin
Resource type:
Reports and discussion papers

Transformation is fundamental change that happens over time. Transformation is different to changes like adjustments or reforms, which generally focus on sustaining or improving a status quo. Instead, transformation is systemic, and usually includes changes in the core dynamics and goals of a system. While transformation is a distinct form of change, what is considered transformational also depends on a person’s perspective and values. Transformation can therefore lead to both desirable and undesirable outcomes depending on a person’s view or their experience of the impact of the change.  Transformations can occur at different social, geographical or time scales, with transformation at one scale often being dependent on change at other scales. Inner transformations – shifts in a person’s beliefs, values, mindsets, cultures – are usually necessary for outer transformations to occur.

Supporting a process of transformation requires working with and across many different interacting elements. This can include different layers or spheres of transformation, such as an inner sphere of behaviours and technologies, a middle sphere of systems and structures, and an outer sphere of mindsets, cultures and patterns that hold other spheres in place. It can also include working with multiple actors in a system and changing the power dynamics that exist between them.

This report provides an overview of the concept of transformation to highlight some of the critical aspects that need to be considered when embarking on an initiative, approach or campaign which is intended to be transformational. The concept of transformation is growing in relevance because of the complex nature of the challenges we face. Overcoming serious challenges, such as climate change, hunger, obesity, mental health, and inequalities, cannot be achieved by just improving what we already do. Instead, we need much deeper and more fundamental kinds of change to transcend the systems, thinking, and mindsets that have led to, and perpetuate, the challenges. 

There are many different conceptual models and frameworks of transformation. Three useful ones described in detail in the main report are:

  • The iceberg and leverage points model that helps focus on deep aspects of transformational change;
  • The Three Horizons framework and associated approach which seeks to promote dialogue among different actors to identify transformational pathways;
  • A model for transformation through conflict and resistance and the building of social movements. There are also many examples of how transformation is playing out, and which illustrate the different aspects mentioned above.

We highlight three examples in the main report that relate to transformation of food systems:

  • How the agroecology movement has gradually emerged over a 90-year period;
  • How Nordic countries have co-operated to shift identity and food cultures;
  • How different actors in Costa Rica have been supporting transformation through bottom-up processes; developing strong visions; and strategic action to turn the country into the first in the world to meet all its needs within the means of the living planet


Photo by Megan Thomas on Unsplash