Transformational Adaptation: An Introduction

Submitted by Antje Lang | published 15th Oct 2018 | last updated 9th Aug 2023


Over the past several years, researchers and practitioners alike have expressed concern over the dominance of incremental adaptation and technocratic solutions. Critics of this approach argue that these types of adaptation fail to address to root causes of differential vulnerability, which are largely social and political in nature. Several concepts have been introduced to remedy this ‘managerial’ approach, one of which is transformational adaptation. This article will provide an overview of the concept of transformational adaptation and how it differs from more traditional approaches to adaptation.


What is transformational adaptation?

Currently, there is no set definition for transformational adaptation. This is because it ‘means different things to different people or groups, and it is not always clear what exactly needs to be transformed and why, whose interests these transformations service, and what will be the consequences.’ (O’Brien, 2012). In their report of transformative adaptation, the UK Climate Impacts Programme identifies definitions that fall into three separate categories: concept, purpose, and place (see p. 8-9 of the report for an extensive list of definitions). No one actor or group can determine what the ‘right’ transformational trajectory might be.  However, the following definitions of transformative adaptation provide some underpinnings:

  • ‘[W]here adaptation is recognized for its potential to address root causes of poverty and failures in sustainable development, including the need for rapid progress on mitigation’ (Revi et al. 2014, quoted in Lonsdale, Pringle, & Turner, 2015).
  • Transformative adaptation approaches are ‘fundamental, systemic changes that help protect development gains, maximize resilience investments and reduce the escalating risk of conflict from climate change’ (World Resources Institute, 2018)

There is debate about how transformative adaptation can occur – can it be planned or is it a strictly organic process? Pelling et al. (2015) argue that transformation can result from ‘adaptive actions that have the capacity to shift existing systems (and their component structures, institutions and actor positions) onto alternative development pathways, even before the limits of existing adaptation choices are met’ (p. 3). That is, the system doesn’t have to fail in order for transformational adaptation to occur. Others emphasize ‘windows of opportunity’ which triggers transformation at particular moments. Figure 1 depicts one visualization of the transformative adaptation cycle.

How is it different from incremental adaptation?

Different streams of environmental thought have raised concerns about the incremental and linear nature of many adaptation plans. These ‘traditional’ conceptualizations of adaptation typically address adaptation within the status quo. In this vein, adaptation is framed as complicated, short-term, apolitical, and there is greater control and/or understanding of the outcome. Conversely, transformational adaptation is viewed as a paradigm shift that addresses complex problems, power imbalances and social justice, and takes a longer view of adaptation. Authors argue that thinking in terms of transformative adaptation can help to shift vulnerability from being situated in the context of climate to being understood in the context of societies and political economies. Moreover, it would raise questions of whose knowledge counts in decision-making and what mechanisms define the subjects of adaptation. For example, WRI has discussed the necessity of shifting livelihoods dependent on coffee plants, which are heat-sensitive and may not provide the necessary yield to make a living anymore, let alone support a nation’s export revenue. Thus, farmers in areas where coffee-growing will become less suitable could experiment with alternative crops that will thrive in the area under hotter conditions. Similarly, coffee plants could be introduced into areas that will become suitable.  

How can it be implemented?

There is no set strategy regarding when or how transformational adaptation can or should be implemented. However, Lonsdale et al. (2015) emphasize three areas that should be strengthened to increase the capacity for transformational adaptation:

  1. Capacity for systemic inquiry – systems-thinking is at the heart of transformational adaptation. Understanding the system’s history and the assumptions that underpin existing structures and processes is crucial to better define why, when, and how transformational adaptation could be pursued or enabled.
  2. Leadership for transformation – practitioners and leaders on adaptation topics on all levels can build transformative capacity by keeping in mind the bigger picture whilst working in the day-to-day, and by learning to cultivate uncertainty in outcomes. They may also work in facilitating/communicating and encouraging system-wide and inter-system participation.
  3. Learning from practice – Transformational adaptation is also derived from learning, particularly the concept of triple-loop learning (see Figure 2) where the framework or observation context is questioned.​

Case Studies

Transformative adaptation in Africa’s Agriculture

This project discusses the overreliance on low- or no-regret adaptation strategies and outlines the need to provide a way for African farmers to fill the rising urban African demands; create opportunities for households with limited land and education; boost agriculture’s growth through regional trade and investments in physical infrastructure, well-targeted social protection programmes, and streamlining regulations and trade barriers.

Transformational adaptation: A review of examples from 4 deltas to inform the design of DECCMA’s Adaptation Policy Trajectories.

This project provides examples of transformational adaptation from four deltas: the Mekong, Mississippi, Rhine-Meuse and Yangtze, with the intention of finding examples of transformational adaptation that can be used to inform the design of adaptation policy trajectories for use in the DECCMA (Deltas, vulnerability & Climate Change: Migration & Adaptation) Integrated Assessment Model. Four adaptation policy trajectories are included, namely: minimum intervention, economic capacity expansion, system efficiency enhancement, and system restructuring.

Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR)

ASSAR is a 5-year research project, (March 2014 to December 2018) funded by Canadian IDRC (International Development Research Centre) and DFID, that seeks to better understand the barriers and enablers to widespread and transformative adaptation at multiple governance scales, and advance adaptive livelihoods for vulnerable groups. ASSAR’s interdisciplinary research teams in southern Africa, eastern, Africa, western Africa, and South Asia worked to identify key knowledge gaps and needs with an aim to develop regional research programmes that generate knowledge and evidence to guide and inform adaptation policy and practice in semi-arid regions.

Further resources