Societal Innovation: Between Dream and Reality Lies Complexity

DRIFT Research Working Paper

89 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2006

See all articles by Jan Rotmans

Jan Rotmans

University of Maastricht - ICIS

Date Written: June 3, 2005


There are no easy, off-the-shelf solutions for persistent societal problems, because these are caused by fundamental flaws in our societal systems. Such systemic errors demand radical changes in our thinking and actions, i.e. transitions and system innovations. Transitions require a long period (one to two generations), and take time, patience, money, confidence, but also courage, daring and perseverance to gain the upper hand over various types of resistance. Research into transitions is by definition multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. For this we need knowledge and experience from systems analysis, social administration, history, innovation science, economics, business administration and technology. The nature of research into transitions is fundamental, explorative, creative and practical. A conceptual framework for research into transitions is presented that consists of four interlinked conceptual building blocks, which in turn provide an outline of a transition theory in its embryonic stages. These concepts are rooted in common notions from complexity theory, new forms of governance and social theory. Central here is the concept of transition management, for which a new management framework is developed. Transition management is an attempt to tackle persistent stubborn problems by steering them in a more sustainable direction, through a visionary, cyclical process of putting issues on the agenda, learning, orchestrating and experimenting. Not based on management and control but through clever, subtle changes and adjustments at several levels concurrently. Transition management is a very promising management concept that can initially be applied to a wide range of complex societal problems: from health care to energy provision, and from social security to mobility. Transition management can also be applied to complex processes of change in a business context.

Note: Downloadable document is in Dutch.

Keywords: transitions, system innovations, transition management, sustainable development, societal innovation, governance, complex systems, social theory, corporate social responsibility, interdisciplinary

JEL Classification: M0, F23, M14, P51, O39

Suggested Citation

Rotmans, Jan, Societal Innovation: Between Dream and Reality Lies Complexity (June 3, 2005). DRIFT Research Working Paper, Available at SSRN: or

Jan Rotmans (Contact Author)

University of Maastricht - ICIS ( email )

P.O. Box 616
Maastricht, 6200MD

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