Transformations to Sustainability

Working Paper

STEPS Working Paper 104
September 2018

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlight how transformations to sustainable economies and societies are a major global challenge. This Working Paper offers a brief overview of different conceptual approaches to transformation, and outlines a set of practical principles for effective research and action towards sustainability. We review three approaches to transformation, labelled: ‘structural’, ‘systemic’ and ‘enabling’. We show how different ways of understanding what we mean by transformations can affect what actions follow.

But these approaches are not mutually exclusive. We use global examples on low-carbon economy transformations, seed systems, wetland conservation and peri-urban development to show how they can be complementary and reinforcing. We describe three cross-cutting practical challenges and responses that must be taken seriously for effective transformations to sustainability: diverse knowledges, plural actors and the political nature of transformation. Realising the ambitions of the SDGs, we conclude, requires being clear about what we mean by transformation, and recognising these basic methodological principles for action.