In its mission statement, VITO commits itself to promoting sustainable development via scientifically underpinned  advice and support. Within VITO ‘transitions’ and ‘transition management’ are the guiding concepts for the effective realisation of sustainable development and for the research intended to contribute to this objective. 

Transitions are processes of radical, structural change in a society and its diverse socio-technical systems. They encompass fundamental changes in the established structures, cultures and modes of action. Consequently, transitions are long-term processes - the typical time horizon covers several ‘generations’ - typified by complexity and insecurity. While examples of historical transitions (e.g.  from transport by horse-and-carriage to automobiles, or from sailing ships to steam ships) often boil down to radical and structural change processes without a well-defined and pre-set objective, the present concept of ‘transition’ as working framework is clearly linked to an explicit goal: sustainable development. 

Based on the literature and on our own interactive reflection process, VITO adopts a ‘transition’ framework that synthesizes a number of basic theories and that allows us to embed our own research activities.

Analysing systems

The first step in changing a system is understanding it. The elements of a sound system description include a determination of the relevant players and their interrelations, key system functions, the institutions and regulations, flows and barriers… A balanced mix of quantitative data (statistics, flows, evolutions…) and qualitative information (stakeholders, routines…) is needed for a comprehensive mapping and understanding of the system under consideration.

Vision for the future

A path to a more sustainable society or system is initiated mainly by an appealing and inspiring vision, by which we mean clear, visual or non-visual "images" of desired systems based on shared principles (of sustainable development). Working with visions means replacing ‘having to’ by ‘wanting to’ and replacing ‘re-active’ by ‘pro-active’ and ‘creative’. Inspiring visions preferably arise in rather limited ‘arenas’ of frontrunners. Truly inspiring visions of the future should be seen as a basket of diversity: multiple ‘end images’ or narratives complying with established basic principles, leaving room for individual choice in the quest for a shift towards a sustainable future.

Exploring pathways

Starting from an inspiring and clear vision, different pathways to the desired system can be outlined. This ‘backcasting’ exercise (returning to the present from an image of the future) results in a number of strategic paths that can be followed to co-establish the new system. These pathways constitute a portfolio of options, that comprises diversity and choice, a highly significant characteristic of stable and resilient systems. Models and scenarios can contribute to assessing and underpinning the effects and impacts of the different pathways and hence their potential contribution to the desired change. They also indicate whether concrete actions fit the pathways described.


Transition experiments are real-life actualisations of drastically alternative ways of working and/or thinking, that fit with new system approaches. Such daring and frontier breaking experimental settings often need a certain degree of protection from the ruling ‘regimes’ of institutions, legislation, power, routines, etc. to enable them to prove their effectiveness/feasibility and to develop into ‘niches’. Establishing and/or facilitating such experiments and demonstrating and diffusing their results are potential triggers for enabling their acceptance and accelerating the transition. Failure of experiments is also part of the game, and is not an impediment as long as learning experiences and knowledge are gained.


In the course of the different pathways to the vision, instruments can be designed for effective follow-up of actions that are undertaken. These instruments should be based on the same principles that were employed to envision the future. Products, processes, technologies… can all be the subject of various types of monitoring and assessment, with their compliance being examined with respect to the diverse sustainability criteria of the new systems. Methods based on indicators (whether or not merged into an index), cycle assessments, multi-criteria analyses… can all be a part of the assessment toolbox. Just as important as the tools themselves, is their effective use. Indeed, assessment instruments are not designed to ‘measure’ but rather to trigger action, to further system change in a desired direction.


In order to actually initiate dynamic processes of systemic change, experiences from the different typical transition activities must be incorporated and multiplied in (new) ‘mainstream’ actions on the part of the relevant system stakeholders and in the structures of the system in question. Stakeholders include governments, industry, consumers, researchers, entrepreneurs... By translating the lessons learned into change-inducing actions, the entire system is incrementally displaced (‘transitioned’) towards a (dynamic) sustainable equilibrium.