What is transformational change?

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(District Heating Plant, Vienna, Austria (Friedensreich Hundertwasser))

Transformational changes are part of the human condition. The term can be applied to changes in the:

  • Social structure
  • Economic environment
  • Political regime
  • Physical environment
  • Way we think.


A transformational change can apply to changes in a local community or involve an entire nation. We have also seen transformational changes that encompassed the entire globe.

Transformational change goes beyond incremental change to changes that alter the context in which it is taking place. It is not business as usual, and tomorrow will not be the same as yesterday.

To make things a little more complicated, the term transformational change can, as well, apply to a change in the way we think, and especially to our understanding of the world we live in.

Finally, transformational change takes place on each of these levels at the same time.

A good example of a transformational change that occurred on each of these levels is the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism in Europe. Fed by the ideas of scientific and liberal thinking, this was not a change that occurred quickly. It took centuries, and the speed of the transformation varied from country to country.

Nevertheless, the shift from feudalism to capitalism, from rural/agrarian to urban/industrial, totally altered the way society was structured politically, socially and economically. The power of both the aristocracy and the church was challenged. Local communities were transformed, as was the entire landscape. This was when we first saw the emergence of modern cities.

The transition to capitalism also changed the way we think, and the way that we think about ourselves. Ideas about liberty and equality played a crucial role in this shift. People began to question the idea that their place in society was something that God decided. Liberalism rejected the idea of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. Increasingly, people embraced the idea that each individual had some free will and accepted that a human being had not only the capacity, but might have a duty, to fulfil their potential. Fed by colonisation, these concepts were transmitted across the globe and accompanied by an economic transformation in the ownership of the earth’s resources.

Traditionally, human beings had tended to regard such major transformational changes as the business of the gods, of authoritative figures and of chance. However, in the 20th century, we ceased to accept the world as it is and began to understand that we could intentionally influence its direction. Dramatic changes in the planetary environment resulting from human activities, such as the increase in the size of the ozone hole and a rise in mean temperatures, have confirmed this belief.

This was the moment when we began to understand that humans have the capacity to trigger transformational change at a planetary scale, while at the same time they are not in control.

At present there is both social and environmental transformational change, with increases in global warming, ethnic violence, chemical pollution and food insecurity which are threatening life on Earth on the one hand, and global flows of people, finance, natural resources, and communication on the other which are offering endless possibilities for the future, good and bad.

Are you interested in finding out more about transformational change?

Further reading:

Transformational Change Book Cover

In The Human Capacity for Transformational Change, Valerie A. Brown and John A. Harris explore in detail the concept of transformational change.