Transition / transformation / adaptation?

In another blog I will discuss my struggle with the transition-term. However, in this blog post I will show you what the TPM ETLab team discussed during a workshop, which took place on the 13th of July 2021. I facilitated the workshop, provided tasks that should help me to get an outside perspective on transition and illustrate that there is quite some ambiguity pertaining transition terminology.

Just to give some background information. I have already indicated that I am struggling with the transition term. This is as transition theory literature describes processes, being termed transition, which are however, not transitions in my understanding. Not only that I want to know what a transition is, I also want to know, which alternative term I may have to use to describe the type of change I envision as well as how I can illustrate this specific change.

I prepared three tasks, all of them were related to the terms transition, adaptation, evolution, revolution and transformation. The terms were written on a flipchart sheet and displayed separately in the meeting room. All three participants became material to work with, A4 sheets of paper, sticky notes and pens and colored felt pens.

Generally, it needs to be noted that although the TPM ETLab deals with the energy transition, I wanted participants to think about transitions in general. Indeed, they could apply all exercises to the energy system, if they wanted to. Though, none of them did. They all thought outside the box. To me this is relevant as I suppose that the discussed terms should be applicable to most circumstances in a similar way. Moreover, I am interested in the mental models. Thus, I wanted to know to which field, for example, are participants connecting specific terms. To me this is relevant to know, because it makes me aware of different mental models that people apply to the same term. In writing about transition this awareness may equip me with the ability to better bring my message across as I will know how a term could be “mis-interpreted.” In some exercise I already did beforehand, I could already see that we are not only applying different concepts to terms but we also have different imaginaries of these terms. This became apparent in the workshop as well.

Before starting my quest, I thought it might be possible to come up with one illustration of transition that will make sense to everyone. An image that conveys a specific message without much explanation needed. Pertaining science communication this would have been the optimal case. Though, I figured that this may not be possible as imaginaries of the same term are very different from person to person. While I may not be able to design the perfect illustration, exercises performed within this workshop help me to become aware of design features that can be interpreted differently. Thus, I 1) have to be careful how these features are used and 2) I need to pay close attention to these features when I explain my illustrations.

What were the three tasks?

  1. Participants needed to write down a concept, term or idea that they connect with one of the discussed transition terms (transition, adaptation, evolution, revolution and transformation). Each idea should be on one stick note and the sticky notes were then placed on the respective flip chart. I had a look at each stick note but at this point did not discuss the provided ideas.
  2. Participants had to connect the terms with each other. Thus, how are transition, adaptation, evolution, revolution and transformation connected with each other? Are they synonyms, are they opposing each other, is one conditioning the other? Complete freedom was provided. Thus participants could use images, networks, bubbles, figures, numbers, etc. Participants could also indicate the closeness of terms to each other, by for example depicting them close to each other or drawing a thick line between them. In my role as facilitator I first gave as little guidance as possible to not bias participants. However, more guidance was needed, thus I provided the examples mentioned above. I also indicated that they already connected some terms since they used them as synonymy on the sticky notes. For example, evolution was on one stick note being placed on the adaptation flip chart. After receiving the illustrations, I discussed them to the extent I needed clarification. However, not detailed discussion took place at this point.
  3. The final task was to draw each term separately on a A4 sheet. The main requirement for this task was to illustrate the procedural character of the term. As the question came up, I specified that a timeline does not need to be displayed but that it could be if need be. Hence, participants had once more maximum freedom.

What was striking to me is that each of the three participants used different ways to express their mental model. This became apparent in task 2 and 3. What also became apparent is that there is least clarity and / or agreement pertaining the term transition and transformation. The meaning of and delineation from other terms seems to be stronger for evolution, revolution and adaptation. However, there I could also see disagreements.

This exercise has been performed with three people. And although all of them constantly deal with these terms there is not as much clarity and agreement pertaining these terms as I would have expected. The take home message for me thus is that when these terms are used they need to be defined as otherwise the reader will interpret them according to their mental model.

Let me now share the output

Task 1)

Avoid dangerChangeDarwin GuerillaButterfly
EvolutionS curveProgressReplacingTransformers (toy)
ClimateBorderDevelopingFrench RevolutionInnovation
Microlevel, same as transformation?Travel Bloody 
   Changing the way we think (Thomas Kuhn) 
summary of provided sticky notes for each term

Adaptation: here we can find two terms that are synonyms; transformation and evolution. From this it can be assumed that transformation, evolution and adaptation are closely related. Climate makes sense in combination with adaptation being a strategy to avoid a negative effects of climate change. Hence, avoid danger does also fit to the answers given.

Transition: the procedural character is strong here. Change has a procedural character similar to travel and journey. The S-curve is a concept from transition research and has also a procedural character as it describes phases of change. It is interesting that although all five terms describe some sort of change, the term change is only used for transition.

Evolution: all three terms provided have a procedural character. Progress has a positive connotation. At least it is related to some forward movement (pro-) in contrast to a backward movement (re-gress). Development can be interpreted in different ways. Something can also develop in a negative way. The reference to Darwin (not in the table, the participant drew seperate elements that depicted the object growing and developing) indicates a purposeful procedural change triggered by the environment. In that sense as stated for adaptation evolution is an adaptation to external (negative or changing conditions).

Revolution: the character of the terms suggested is unpleasant, disruptive, and violent. Thus, a revolution is in contrast to the other terms seen as something disruptive. Interesting is also the term replacing. Replacement could mean to exchange an old broken part with the same but new part. It could also mean to replace something old and broken with something entirely different. Say one needs to replace a light bulb, or one replaces a dictatorship with democracy. The disruptiveness of replacement can thus vary depending on the situation. A revolution can also be positive in this sense. If a dictatorship is replaced with a democracy, it could be understood as a positive change. The reference to Thomas Kuhn and the “way of thinking” can be related to the French Revolution. Both are about a paradigm shift related to how humans perceive the world. Interestingly the model developed by Thomas Kuhn culminates in the replacement of the old with the new paradigm which becomes the new norm.

Transformation: Butterfly (not in the table, the participant drew a butterfly) as well as the Transformers refer to a concept where one thing becomes something else. The Transformers modify their appearance though this is not permanent and can be reversed at will. The butterfly changes permanently, the change is not at will, but is a forced natural change. Both concepts have an element of surprise as one would not expect a caterpillar to become a butterfly and a car to become a talking robot with superpowers. For one participant transformation is synonymous to innovation. It is described as something formerly impossible or non-existent to become possible and existent. The way it is described it is connected to the butterfly image.

Task 2)

Concept connection provided by participant A
Concept connection provided by participant B
Concept connection provided by participant C

For one participant a transition is only a slight change, one that might not be seen with the naked eye. In contrast a transformation is a substantial change where one thing becomes something distinctively new. The evolution is described as a transformation 2.0. Thus, the transformation of something leads to an even better end-result. An interesting aspect in the illustration is that all three terms incorporate some event that seem to have triggered the process of change. Two conditions for change are provided, adaptation and revolution. Adaption seems to be related to the individual level whereat a revolution is understood to be on a group level. This is related to the terms and concepts that were provided before. Only the revolution of the mind could happen on individual as well as on group level. The reference to Thomas Kuhn though, could indicate that some revolution of the mind starts on individual level and is completed when all have taken over this new way of thinking.

For another participant transformation and transition seem to be synonymous, revolution seems to have a negative relation to evolution and evolution a positive with adaptation. Evolution and adaptation have been mentioned before as synonyms. Including the direction of the arrow it can be stated that evolution is positive for adaptation. In contrast revolution and evolution are antagonistic where revolution affects evolution negatively.

Finally, the third participant also includes the notion of macro and micro level. It is interesting to note that adaptation is again understood to be on the micro-level (individual), whereat revolution together with evolution is perceived to be a macro-level phenomenon. Another aspect of a previous conceptualization is taken up here; the connection between adaptation and evolution. Though in this case the relationship seems to be mutual. It is also noteworthy that this participant connects all terms with transformation. Thus, transformation seems to be synonymous with all other terms. This indicates that the other terms are much more distinct than the transformation term which seems to encompass a spectrum of meanings. The transition term seems to be unclear, and somehow related to evolution and revolution, but not with adaptation. This can be seen in contrast to the other two conceptualizations where 1) transition is a slight change or 2) the same as transformation.

Task 3)

At last, I asked the participants to draw the procedural character of the respective term. What is strikingly is that I only received 2 illustrations for transition both of which containing a question mark. This highlights the fuzziness of the term and that it is not clear at all what it means. The three different illustrations for (almost) each term show that the way each of the participants think differ greatly. One participant thought linear, one in time frames, and one in structures or concepts.

The first illustration of transition is in reference to the S-curve. It is combined with a question mark to illustrate the participants doubt about this concept (more can be read in this insightful blog post). The time horizon of a transition could be anything from seconds to millennia.

Adaptation has for one participant a negative connotation. It is to adapt to external circumstances and hence one is subject to change rather than the one who is instigating change. Therefore, one is in a dominated position which is understood to be negative. Also, the adaptation leads to further deterioration of the status quo, instead of an improvement.

In the first round the term climate adaptation was brought up. Indeed, this is not necessarily a positive idea. The climate change debate has shown a shift from fighting climate change, to mitigating and finally adapting to it. It has become an unavoidable circumstance one can only adapt to. In contrast to this another participant offered a rather neutral interpretation of adaptation which is the choice of one possible option of change. And finally, the time frame for adaptation seems to have a short time horizon of weeks and months.

Evolution gives a more positive impression, looking at the linear depiction. Though, I need to be aware of my own hermeneutics. The way my cognition is conditioned I interpret an upward sloping line as positive and a downward sloping line as negative. My interpretation of the line may however not be correct. This is something I will discuss in another blog in more depth. For now, let me state that I have clarified, and the participant understood evolution as a positive development. Participant two connected the concept of adaptation to the one of evolution (which is consistent to the previous ideas of this participant). The evolution seems to be the actual step of choosing one of the possible options. Though the choice is not guided by serendipity but rather by the circumstances. In that sense it fits to the negative idea of adaptation of the other participant where adaptation is a reaction to sub-optimal circumstances. Of all terms evolution has the longest time horizon. This is interesting as adaption and evolution have been connected by the other participants. One could understand evolution as the summative process of adaptions. Then it would make sense that adaptations only take months and evolutions take ages.

A revolution has a longer time horizon than an adaptation but does still take decades. Further it has also been depicted as a substantial change in the way the world is perceived. The analogy of changing from a geocentric to a heliocentric world view was presented. The linear illustration shows the disruptiveness of a revolution and the softer return to pre-revolution levels. I have asked whether it was intended that the end-line is higher than the starting line. While it was maybe not a deliberate move to have an altered end-result, the participant indicated that the end-result of the revolution may be better than the starting point.

Differently than transition, transformation was illustrated in different ways. Transformation seems to take as long as adaptation. It is not clear why that is. The images provided in the previous round do not indicate a close relation between transformation and adaptation. However, another participant depicted the process of innovation, by indicating the creation of an amphora out of clay. The linear illustration shows that transformation has an oscillating, upward trend. Thus, it is not as straight forward as evolution, which is an interesting differentiation.

The linear depiction shows that only adaptation seems to be negative. The other terms have a positive end-result. The positive end-result is however reached in different ways; direct path, oscillating, disruption followed by slow recovery. One could try to integrate the depictions of the terms to one major image. Then adaptation could be the downwards trends in revolution as well as in transformation. The upwards trend in transition and revolution could be the evolution illustration. In that sense evolution and adaption are aspects of transformation and revolution.

The time horizons could also indicate the connection between adaptation and evolution, where multiple adaptations make up evolution. Within this evolution time horizon, revolutions may take place.

For another participant adaptation and evolution are closely related, where the evolution is the actual “selection” of one option based on the respective circumstances. Adaptation seems to be more related to the potentiality of different options. The depiction of revolution as well as of transformation have a revolutionary character. The discovery of clay may have been as revolutionary as the discovery of the heliocentric model.


From this workshop I learned that participants connect evolution and adaptation in some way, that revolution as disruptive and on a macro-level. Evolution is too on a macro-level, while adaptation is on a micro-level. Adaptation might be understood as summative steps of or try and error phases to reach an evolution on a macro-level. However, there may also be some sort of connection between evolution and revolution.

Transformation and transition are sometimes synonyms and sometimes not. I can draw least conclusions about these two terms. They are sometimes described in a very precise way and sometimes very fuzzy. For one participant transformation and adaptation may be the same. This is inconsistent with a later depiction, where transformation is a crosscutting term and transition is rather something between revolution and evolution. Another person used transition and transformation as synonym but did then not provide the same illustration and description for these two terms. Transformation seems to be a clearer term than transition, though. This is worrying when considering that all participants are dealing with sustainability transition topics in their research.

My take home message is that when one talks or writes about transition, one needs to explain what is meant by that term. If it is not explained the mental model of the reader is applied. However, the mental model of the reader my not be the same as the mental model of the writer pertaining the transition term. To me this is a valuable lesson pertaining science communication.

Furthermore, to me it explains why I am troubled by a very well-known transition concept. I apply my mental model to this concept and this leads to confusion as the logic of this concept and my mental model do not add up. It tells me that those who developed and use this concept have a different mental model than I have and this on its own leads to miscommunication. For me the task is to either find or develop a concept that better fits my mental model of transition. If I succeed I am aware that I have to very clear when explaining this concept to avoid miscommunication.

If you want to give me feedback, please reach out!