SI Series 12: Social Innovation in Transition

Due to the large scale nature of the systemic challenges that social innovations are apt to address, some people are leaning towards social innovations in urban areas that consider a grassroots perspective. An example of this type of social innovation that has a specific goal of addressing complex problems like climate change and the challenges that an oil-based and globalized economy can bring, is the Transition initiative.

The Transition initiative (‘Transition’) began in October 2005 with a film screening on the subject of peak oil and the subsequent inspired idea by Rob Hopkins to create a plan for the town of Totnes, England, to ‘transition’ away from oil dependency, act on climate change, and to revive the local economy (Hopkins, 2010). The plan was rooted in permaculture principles, which is a creative design process based on whole systems thinking for agricultural sustainability (‘permanent-culture’). The process mimics natural systems such as interdependence, integration of relationships, resilience and efficiency, and can be applied to gardening as well as economies and social systems. Hopkins’ plan was implemented in Totnes to be a ‘Transition Town’ in 2006, and the idea has since spread to over a thousand registered towns and cities across the world. Transition can be considered as a hybrid environmental and social movement, and has elements of its own culture (Neal, 2013). Transition reacts to oil dependency, climate change and an increasing recognition of the failing aspects of capitalism and globalization, becoming apparent after the financial crisis of 2008 (Feola & Nunes, 2014). However, more recently it sees itself less as reactive and more proactive as a movement rooted in prosperous communal reciprocity to create a more sustainable world (Hopkins, 2015). Transition has two key themes, resilience and relocalisation, which it enacts through the “unleashing” of the creative energy, philosophical alignment and incentive, and the intelligence and local expertise of communities (Feola & Nunes, 2014). “Organic food production, affordable and accessible social resources from heating, health care, education and transport to bottom up, localised and community centred politics which emphasise mutuality and collective action can all be identified as initiatives and/or areas of concern within Transition culture” (Neal, 2013, culture, p. 62). Transition, however, does not purport to opt out of mainstream culture, but rather attempts to change it, “by thinking transversally and embracing more eco-sustainable ways of living to reorient the objectives of material and immaterial production” (Scott-Cato & Hillier, 2010, p. 878).


Grassroots and collective organisation of city-wide initiatives serve as interesting examples due to their local and broad impact. The Transition initiative, which as a culture seeks to affect resilience and relocalisation of communities in facing energy decent, globalization and climate change, is a world-wide movement of local initiatives, organisations or programs that is novel, has broad impact, meets an important need, is effective in its projects making change, and engages perhaps hundreds of thousands of individuals to live a life for a more sustainable world. Urban centres, as multidimensional and multi-sector composites of complex social problems with increased concentration potential for negative impacts of climate change, can be positively effected through Transition initiatives. As a social innovation, Transition has elements of creative destruction (see blog SI Series 10: The Complex Social Problem of Climate Change), which through the continuous novel adaptation of dominant social forces, upsets and replaces old systems (such as challenging capitalism and incessant oil consumption) in the creation of new ones (i.e. localism of economies and reducing the carbon footprint).

Indeed, Transition is a social innovation that has broad impact and stimulates grass-roots perspectives of social populations to activate local solutions. It is a classic example of a social innovation. For more information, see here or here.

– Mike Unrau


Feola, G. & Nunes, R. (2014). Success and failure of grassroots innovations for addressing climate change: The case of the Transition Movement. Global Environmental Change, 24, 232-250.

Hopkins, R. (2010). Localisation and resilience at the local level: The case of Transition Town Totnes (Devon, UK) (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from


Hopkins, R. (2015, November 2). The Transition story: Time to stop talking about climate change? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Neal, S. (2013). Transition culture: Politics, localities and ruralities. Journal of Rural Studies, 32, 60-60.

Scott-Cato, M. & Hillier, J. (2010). How could we study climate-related social innovation? Applying Deleuzean philosophy to Transition Towns. Environmental Politics, 19(6), 869-887. DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2010.518677



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