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A tipping point alone will not guarantee a transformation, what comes afterwards is crucial

Opportunities for change need to be navigated carefully or else the consequences can exacerbate unsustainable and inequitable circumstances. Efforts in South Africa to offer safe access to water and sanitation to all have over the years been severely hampered. Photo: Sustainable Sanitation Alliance/Wikimedia Commons

Story highlights

  • Whether a shock or crisis provides an opportunity for transformation depends on a range of variables
  • Opportunities for transformation need to be navigated carefully or else the consequences may be furthering inequitable and unsustainable circumstances
  • Capacities related to preparedness and navigating socio-political shocks are required

A successful transformation goes through phases, and each phase must be navigated carefully

WHEN OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: Can COVID-19 help make our world fairer, greener and more compassionate? There are plenty of those who believe that amid the tragedy that surrounds this virus, the world has been given an opportunity it may never get again.

However, opportunities need to be navigated carefully or else the consequences risk furthering unsustainable and inequitable circumstances.

In a study published in Global Environmental Change, centre researchers Maja Schlüter, Per Olsson and Carl Folke, together with colleagues from Germany and Chile, investigate the opportunities for transformation created by large-scale socio-political shocks such as the end of apartheid or the break-up of the Soviet Union.

A successful transformation depends on factors such as preparedness for change, an enabling environment, stewardship and capacities to navigate these phases.

Maja Schlüter, co-author

Complex and fragile process

With case studies from South Africa, Chile and Uzbekistan the authors demonstrate the complex and fragile process of navigating towards biosphere stewardship:

  • In South Africa the political and economic change after Apartheid resulted in a transformation to a more egalitarian system where safe access to water and sanitation became available to more than just a White minority. Efforts have since been hampered by a constantly changing staff, a lack of strategic leadership and implementation.

  • Uzbekistan experienced a socio-political shock in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Intense cotton production had for decades put a strain on water resources, however, transfer of water management to Uzbek authorities after independence did not result in a transformation towards more sustainable water management. Not even two devastating droughts in 2000 and 2001 triggered any major reforms.

  • The democratization process after the end of 17 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile was used to transform the governance of coastal fisheries from top-down government interventions to a system based on Territorial User Rights for Fisheries (TURF). Today, TURF is increasingly influenced by global trade and price drops which is decoupled from the local management.

High demand

“A crisis can create a window of opportunity for large-scale transformation and positive change, but there needs to be capacities to navigate the subsequent process towards equitable and sustainable futures,” co-author Per Olsson adds.

There is high demand for this knowledge and change-makers such entrepreneurs, investors, NGOS and governmental agencies must be made aware of this more nuanced understanding of a transformation if they want to use the current COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity for positive change.


The researchers selected cases that experienced a large socio-political shock and have a looming ecological crisis. They delineated the different phases of transformation in each case study based on the timing of the shock (distinction between preparation and navigation phase) and other major changes on the landscape level, but also by the occurrence of new social interactions and change of old ones within the respective governance regime itself (distinction between navigation and stabilizing phase).

From the literature, they identified a number of features, which were associated as critical elements of transformations. Changes in natural resource governance or lack thereof before and after the shock were analysed with respect to the features and the levels they operated at.

The paper is primarily based on analysis of secondary data documented in the literature, results of own field work of the authors in all three case studies, as well as reports. This literature review has been supplemented by revisiting field notes and interviews of the authors´ previous research projects in the case study countries.

Link to publication

Published: 2020-09-21


Herrfahrdt-Pähle, E., Schlüter, M., Olsson, P., Folke, C. Gelcich, S., Pahl-Wostl, C. 2020. Sustainability transformations: socio-political shocks as opportunities for governance transitions. Global Environmental Change, Volume 63, July 2020, 102097, DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102097

Link to publication

For more information about the publication, contact:

Maja Schlüter’s research focuses on social-ecological interactions and mechanisms that can explain various cases of social-ecological interactions

Per Olsson leads the centre's work on transformations for sustainability, working with agency and system entrepreneurship


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