Transformational adaptation: what it is, why it matters & what is needed

Submitted by Julia Barrott | published 5th Oct 2015 | last updated 2nd Nov 2020


Within the climate change adaptation research community there is a growing tendency to discuss adaptation using the language of transformation, reflecting a sense that the current status quo will not secure a sustainable future, especially in light of the lack of sufficient progress to mitigate the causes of anthropogenic climate change. 

This language, and the concepts which underpin it, offer hope that as a society we are capable of ‘big change’ in a world that increasingly demands reinvention and innovation in response to a myriad of interconnected pressures, thresholds and boundaries. However, these terms may also threaten our sense of stability; a steady change from business as usual may be far more palatable than change which may require us to question what we value and the way we live.

No regrets and win-win adaptation options are far better suited to current political timescales and appear to offer pragmatism in the face of a limited appetite for significant action to adapt to a changing climate. However, if we only focus on this low-hanging fruit, do we risk ignoring the more substantive, systemic changes which may be needed to respond to a changing climate in a rapidly changing world? 

Drawing upon recent literature on transformation and climate adaptation and reflecting upon a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conference (University of Oslo, 2013) and a workshop on transformational adaptation we organised in March 2015 for practitioners and academics, we consider whether transformational adaptation is simply a means of categorising the nature of our response to climate change risks, or has potential to provide practical tools for more effective adaptation.

This paper is not a rigorous review but an attempt to draw out key themes from the literature, with a focus on the practice implications, as a starting point for exploring what is required to move transformation from an attractive concept to something more tangible and policy-relevant. 

*Download the paper from the right-hand column. The key messages from the publication are provided below. See the full text for much more detail.

Understanding transformational adaptation

Mustelin & Handmer (2013) observe that despite the increasing use of the term transformation in relation to adaptation, the concept is still vague and defined in different ways. As O’Brien notes (2012) it means “different things to different people or groups, and it is not always clear what exactly needs to be transformed and why, whose interest these transformations serve, and what will be the consequences”.

How transformational adaptation is framed affects how it is then tackled, who or what is considered relevant to making improvements, what risks are given priority, what options are considered plausible and what outcomes are seen as desirable.  

Figure 1 from p. 11 of the report (redrawn from Thornton & Manasfi, 2010). Do incremental and transformational adaptation operate along a spectrum (as presented in this figure) or is a paradigm shift required in the way that the issue is framed? See the report for in-depth discussion (download available in the right-hand column of this page).

Key messages from the report:

  • There is a growing tendency to use the term transformation, reflecting a sense that greater, more significant adaptation responses will be required in the face of a global failure to mitigate the causes of anthropogenic climate change.

  • Transformational adaptation is frequently contrasted with incremental adaptation and is characterised by:

    • system-wide change or changes across more than one systems;
    • a focus on the future and long-term change;
    • direct questioning of the effectiveness of existing systems, social injustices and power imbalances.
  • There are several ways to conceive transformational adaptation and there is a distinct lack of clarity about the spatial scale (or scales) and sectoral scope at which transformational adaptation operates, as well as the level of control that can be exerted over the outcomes of the change process.

  • There is some doubt about our ability as humans to adequately anticipate the changes likely to result from a changing climate and allow sufficient time to prepare for the scale of change required for deliberate transformation. 

What are the transformational capacities we need to develop?

Capacity for systemic inquiry: The interconnections between players in any given system are complex, and poorly designed attempts to make changes can have negative unintended consequences or introduce new failures or inequalities. Supporting transformational adaptation requires the capacity to inquire systematically. This means to inquire into a system of interest, to understand the history of that system (e.g. around sources of control, legitimacy and knowledge) and challenge the assumptions that underpin existing structures and ways of doing things. Reproducing ‘solutions’ without assessing what holds the current system in place may result in simply reinforcing existing failures and inequality. By developing a more detailed sense of the system as it currently exists, we can design interventions and feedback mechanisms that enable us to learn as ideas for system improvements are put into practice. 

Leadership for transformation: People in positions of leadership have to make choices between investing time and resources on day-to-day maintenance activities and activities focused on coping well in the future. This requires the capacity to shift between the details of current activities while maintaining an awareness of the bigger picture, and being conscious of long-term goals when making short-term plans. The capacity to ‘cultivate uncertainty’ about the situation of interest may also be essential to avoid too quickly making assumptions about a situation, and limiting the exploration of its complexity and the range of possible improvements that could be tried. The leader also plays an important role in articulating the issue and encouraging system-wide (or even inter-system) participation. 

Learning from practice: To be present and notice things, cultivate uncertainty and learn from experience. To create opportunities to reframe understanding based on practice and to inform the development of new approaches. To facilitate the learning process to ensure it provides sufficient challenge (through incorporating dissonant information or opposing views) and support (to encourage wide participation to include seldom heard and disparate voices). 

Key messages from the report:

  • Systems and complexity approaches help us to gain a picture of the whole system, the history of the situation and why it is currently dysfunctional or unfair. By understanding this, and including the perspectives of others in this system, we can start to open up new ways of seeing the current situation and new visions for the future.

  • As well as understanding the complexity and interdependencies of the system, leaders of transformational processes need many competencies, some of which may be quite rare. For example, they have to be comfortable with paradox and capable of paying attention to many different groups and perspectives at the same time.

  • To make sense of complex systems in order to be able to transform requires us to develop our capacity to learn as individuals, as organisations and as systems.

  • Action-learning and action-research approaches can be used to engage people in the system through the process of setting the questions for enquiry, collecting material, and in reviewing and evaluating what results.

  • To aid system-wide learning there should be investment in learning facilitators and the deliberate design of intermediary processes, organisations and objects to bring people together, and open up space for sharing experience and planning future experiments and interventions.

  • Ensuring the necessary richness and depth of learning requires courage, honesty and profound enquiry which can seem risky and counter-cultural, especially in more technical organisations. 

Themes for future research and practice

Applied practice: Future work has to be embedded in the real-life practice of making interventions in the systems that concern us. In order to make sense of this term, we need to ground concepts from the literature in examples, as without understanding the context we are limited to abstract conversations.

Learning focus: Learning has to be an intentional aspect of designing and progressing future work in order to obtain the level of detail and depth that we need to understand the complexity of the systems of concern we are working with. This requires honesty and profound enquiry that can seem risky and counter-cultural, as it involves a shift from ‘best practice’ accounts that gloss over ‘failure’ to real, messy practice. The roles of brokerage and intermediation are important in developing intentional learning, carrying it to other places and creating the space and enabling environment for change. Are we learning effectively from what is already happening in relation to transformational change, and could this research and practice be more effectively shared in the future? How we can develop our capacity to notice things and learn from our experiences?

A systemic approach: A systems approach is needed to understand the interdependencies between sub-systems that can make transformation difficult. What is the institutional infrastructure that will allow us to take a systemic approach? What impedes or enhances our ability to encourage transformational change? How might we fund it? How should we decide to invest our resources? The term ‘pathway’ implies a rational approach, whereas transformational adaptation requires something more revolutionary. What can we learn from socio-technical literature about developing new visions, utopias, alternative worlds entrepreneurs, niche experiments, ‘sharp breaks’, small scale initiative, learning and innovation? As well as creating new ways forward we need to simultaneously be destabilising and dismantling old ones, e.g. coastal defences as a response to sea level rise. 

Investing in capacity and skills for transformational action: Transformational adaptation requires leaders and others who are prepared to innovate and take calculated risks. This requires courage and a capacity to reflect on experience. This type of work can be rewarding but, potentially, demoralising. It can inspire and catalyse positive change but can also entail decisions that may be unpalatable to some, to which there may be strong resistance. It requires that someone in the system of concern needs to want to change. Other aspects that need to be understood include: where is the energy for action in the existing regime? Who has autonomy, influence, power over decisions, and the motivation and sustained energy to make necessary changes? The amount of control someone has, their pressures, targets and what they have seen and understand of the whole system, depends on their position in the system. For example, small transitions at a farmer level might be a result of more radical decisions higher up the supply chain. 

Further resources

  • Recommended citation:

    Lonsdale, K., Pringle, P. & Turner, B. 2015. Transformative adaptation: what it is, why it matters & what is needed. UK Climate Impacts Programme, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    ISBN: 978-1-906360-11-5

    © UKCIP 2015 


    UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP)

    UKCIP supports adaptation to the unavoidable impacts of a changing climate. It works at the boundary between scientific research, policymaking and adaptation practice, bringing together the organisations and people responsible for addressing the challenges climate change will bring. Based at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, UKCIP coordinates and influences research into adapting to climate change, and shares the outputs in ways that are useful to stakeholders. 


anna taylor fractal profile pic v small - climate adaptation.

Thanks Kate et al. this is a really useful resource! Much of what you say resonates with the research I have been doing on climate adaptation working with local government in South African cities.

Some of our metropolitan local governments are making progress on multiple fronts when it comes to adapting, including:

  • Writing climate change considerations into new and revised policies;
  • Developing climate adaptation plans that list a whole lot of necessary changes to be made to reduce climate risks and vulnerabilities;
  • Creating new organizational units and posts that have climate change as part of their mandate;
  • Raising awareness of climate change with political representatives;
  • Co-hosting large events and conferences with climate change as a theme;
  • Starting to engage with other municipalities, provincial and national government departments to see what more can be done and how to create a more enabling legal, policy and financial environment to address shared climate change concerns.

Much of this progress stems from leadership and innovation within the public administration, often with some support from external donors, academics and alike. But often these activities come up against structural and institutional blockages that are difficult to unblock. So some of the things South African municipal governments are really struggling with include:

  • Linking long-term and short to medium term planning to move from principles to practice – for example numerous metros have goals of climate resilience and climate smart development written into their City Development Strategies, Spatial Development Plans and alike, and to some extent even a bit in their 5 year Intergrated Development Plans, but then when it comes to allocating and spending money at the department level on an annual basis it tends to be more of the same (this is of course true on many fronts in South Africa and beyond, not just relating to climate adaptation)
  • Coordinating more effectively, between:
    • Departments and directorates – for example such that water management, transport and environment can work together better to improve water quality in our rivers;
    • Technical, administrative and political decision-makers with different priorities and performance criteria;
    • Municipalities and other spheres of government who hold key mandates and resources;
    • Municipalities and other sectors of society that shape our cities, especially the financial sector, business community, social movements and civic organizations
  • Sustaining engagement with the research community to collect data and produce new knowledge that meets the particular needs of local government for monitoring change, evaluating interventions and adjusting plans. 

In light of these difficulties and the lessons that you point to in this article, I think that we need to get better at relating climate change concerns with the core developmental concerns of residents, of politicians and of business leaders – climate change is about what land gets built on, how houses are constructed, what toilet technologies we use, how we charge for water usage, how insurance is structured, etc. As you suggest, climate change requires us to think beyond maintaining the status quo under different climate conditions – for example freeing up more land near wetlands, rivers and along the coast for property developments in spite of projected increases in extreme water levels – it requires us to work towards longer-term, bigger picture goals while dealing with the flow of building applications, increasing the housing stock and installing new public transport routes. We need to get much better at bringing people from diverse backgrounds and with very different knowledge and skill sets together to better diagnose the complexities of our local climate sensitivities, to co-design locally appropriate solutions that can attract the necessary finance, and to implement, monitor and adjust them as time goes by and climate change unfolds alongside a whole host of other changes. We have to get better at doing this together because no one organization or sector can manage climate risks single-handedly. For all this to happen we need, amongst other things, to get much better at transdisciplinarity, participatory action research, deliberative and evidence-based decision-making and at social auditing and accountability.  I think common across these is something about surfacing and regularly revisiting questions around values and ethics, connecting practices with principles. 

I think we have a good base to work from in South Africa, from our Constitution all the way through to some committed and forward thinking municipal officials. But there is still much to do and our government entities need both pressure and support in doing what they do. They can’t protect us from climate change alone. International donors, financial institutions, businesses, NGOs, faith based organizations, schools, universities – we all have a critical role to play. But of course with varying degrees and directions of influence, which need to be surfaced and grappled with.

So, once again, thanks for the useful and thought-provoking article!

Hi, are there any case studies on Transformational Adaptation?