The Meaning of Transformations


  • Bruce Evan Goldstein University of Colorado, Boulder
  • David Manuel-Navarrete Arizona State University
  • Raksha Balakrishna Arizona State University
  • Hallie Elrod University of Colorado, Boulder


systems change, transformations, systems thinking, practitioner, transdisciplinary


“Transformations” are increasingly being sought as humanity approaches planetary boundaries that define the environmental limits within which societies can safely operate. Within social-ecological systems (SES) research, transformations are understood to affect different system elements simultaneously, occur at different rates and in distinct phases, and impact the system at multiple levels and temporal, spatial, and organizational scales. As this complexity implies, transformations are not predictable or controllable and can, at best be navigated. We draw on interviews with sixty practitioners within the Transformations Community to explore how their conception of ‘transformations’ highlights differences between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary action research. Practitioners described transformation as a complex multi-level and multi-phase process and an engaged and embodied practice. They suggest that the ability to practice transformation is predicated on experiencing personal transformation, which involves re-examining assumptions and core beliefs through disruptive learning experiences. Transformations rely on forging alliances with marginal actors and communities to redress historical injustice, engaging powerful social and political actors and institutions who often resist the actions needed for sustainable and equitable futures. Accordingly, these practitioners emphasize that transformation was slow and unpredictable, requiring patient work by many people. Acknowledging that their work often has little immediate impact on transformation, transformation practitioners emphasize the importance of developing transformative capacity, which may lie latent until the time is right to catalyze systems change.

Author Biographies

Bruce Evan Goldstein, University of Colorado, Boulder

Bruce Evan Goldstein is an Associate Professor in the Program in Environmental Design at the University of Colorado Boulder. He develops partnerships with learning networks and other transformations initiatives in order to understand how professionals and communities combine forces to adapt to social and ecological challenges and foster transformational change. Bruce leads the Transformations Community of Practice.

David Manuel-Navarrete, Arizona State University

David Manuel-Navarrete is associate professor in sustainability at Arizona State University. He studies subjective dynamics in coupled social-ecological and technological systems, and inner sustainability transformations. His most recent research explores adaptation, resilience, and transformation of water infrastructures in Mexico City, and the promotion of indigenous biocultures and knowledge co-production to advance sustainability in the Amazon.

Raksha Balakrishna, Arizona State University

Raksha Balakrishna is a PhD (Sustainability) student at the School of Sustainability, Arizona State University. Her research is focussed on studying collective action for natural resource management, resource governance and institutions. She is interested in understanding how policy shapes shared management of resources in transitional spaces along the rural-urban continuum. Previously, she has worked with communities in rural India on management of land and water commons, securing tenurial rights, and strengthening resource-based livelihoods including agriculture and livestock rearing.

Hallie Elrod, University of Colorado, Boulder

Hallie Elrod is a Masters of the Environment student at the University of Colorado Boulder specializing in Urban Resilience and Sustainability. Her areas of study include transforming the private sector through corporate social responsibility, the capacity of local government in climate action, and the role of policy in creating sustainable food systems. Hallie currently works in the ESG space.




How to Cite

Goldstein, B. E., Manuel-Navarrete, D., Balakrishna, R., & Elrod, H. (2022). The Meaning of Transformations. Social Innovations Journal, 15(5). Retrieved from



Transformations Practitioners