Updated: Dec 3, 2020

A transformation is a change of a system from one state to another, this change may be in the component parts of the system, on the micro-level, or a macro-level transformation in the entire system. A nonlinear macro transformation is a complete change in the structure and functioning of a system that creates, or it brought about by, a systemic change in its environment. This macro-level nonlinear process of change may be called a systems transformation.1

In contrast, a micro-level transformation involving a change in a component part to the system can be understood as a linear transformation. In mathematics and logic, a transformation is a process by which one element is converted into another that is equivalent in some important respect but is differently expressed or represented.2 Linear transformations do not affect the overall system but simply change the internal component parts, according to the rules of the transformation.


All systems exist within some environment and are defined to a greater or lesser extent by their role or function within that environment. Systems are adapted to a particular environment through their interaction with other systems. A pebble on a beach is the way it is because of its interaction with the sea’s motion and other elements around it. A plant is the way it is, because of the ecological conditions under which it has evolved. Likewise, a technology like a USB stick has its structure and function because of its need to interact with other technological elements in its environment.

Systems exchange energy and matter with their environment and through this their overall structure, makeup, and functioning become shaped and defined by that environment. As long as the system stays within the parameters of its environment then it will retain this overall macro structure. Component parts may be changed in response to changes in the environment but this will not have an overall effect in transforming the system. A system is transformed when it goes outside of the parameters of its environment. Changing environments means a qualitatively new set of rules acting on the system and thus the system needing to evolve new characteristics and functions in order to adapt.


A system that exceeds its environmental limits requires a transformation of some kind. The environmental limits may be in space, in energy or other resources required for the system’s functioning. All systems that grow faster than their environment will ultimately reach some limit. A classical example of this being exponential growth within a microbial population as they find a new food source; reproduce rapidly leading to exponential growth; ultimately become overpopulated for the available food source; reach a limit and collapse.3

Typically as the limits to an environment are met there is a crisis situation.4 The system starts to encounter limits providing it with feedback that change needs to occur in order for it to continue. At this stage, the system must either be transformed in order to continue growing, collapse down to a lower level or reduce its operation to that which can be sustained within its normal environment. Though often this last option is not possible as the system has become adapted to operating in an unsustainable fashion, or the environment was only ever transitory. For example, the stages of growth in a human being are transitory. Once it is time to change the context, i.e. be born, become an adolescent, or an adult, then the previous environment ceases to exist. At this stage, there are only two options, one either fails to develop into the new environment or one succeeds in making the transformation, either way, one will not stay within the old context.

Space of Possibilities

Once a system has reached the limits of its environment it starts to receive feedback signals that make it more and more difficult to operate within its current modality. An example of this within a social system would be the stress that an individual experiences when nearing some limit. Such as the stress one might feel from overworking. When we work more than normal stress builds up, the farther away from our normal working regime we go the more the stress builds. At this stage, we can choose to go back to the previous state by stopping working, or eventually we will reach some limit and move into a new regime.

If the environmental limit prevents the system from following its long-term development – for example, the person is working very hard because they have to finish a project on time in order to get promoted and continue with their careers – and where the option of returning to a normal state is not possible, then the system must search for a way to transform itself and this is called, exploration of the state of possibilities. This means that the system will “explore” new options, different ways of working and organization because it has found a particular constraint that will not allow it to develop further.5

For example, the person trying to complete the project may have to re-assess their whole mode of operating i.e. their work processes and way of organizing themselves. If they can find a new system of organization they can achieve a new level of efficiency, reach the next level and in so doing go through a transformation into a new environment.


Emergence plays a central role in a system’s transformation, as at a limit the system is forced to create something new, self-organize into a new organizational pattern that is more efficient and thus enables it to operate in a new, broader, more complex environment; or else it must move back to the previous regime, or collapse to a lower level.6 Professor Eve Mitleton-Kelly of LSE talks about this emergent process engendered within transformations as such “what happens is when a system is pushed far-from-equilibrium the following characteristics come into play to create the new order. It will self-organize, it will explore possible solutions, it will co-evolve, new structures will emerge, there will be a sense of coherence, but also the precise behavior can neither be predicted, nor controlled.”7

These macro transformations can be seen in the long-term development of economies and societies. A subsistence agrarian economy can only support a limited number of people within a given area. If a society is to support a higher more dense population than this limit will allow its economic base has to shift into an industrial regime, which represents a whole new macro structure to the technology infrastructure, economic organization, and social institutions. This critical limit between environments represents a phase transition, an unstable region where the system cannot maintain itself for long as it is in disequilibrium. At a phase transition limit, a system is typically expending large amounts of energy that can not be sustained for prolonged periods. The current process of industrialization within China is an example, a period of rapid change, with very high growth and energy consumption, wherein most people will be transformed from rural peasants working the land to urban life working in factories and other industrial jobs; a whole new socio-economic modality.

Transformation Theory

Transformation theory is a theory of transformation to  structures of change in natural and social systems.8 The theory illustrates change as a series of successive S-shaped curves, each stage of development within the model engenders three distinct phases of growth and two breakpoints, where the rules at a certain level are discontinued.9

Phase One is characterized by experimentation, in which the system attempts to find a connection with its environment. Assuming this connection is found, the first breakpoint is reached. It is at this point that the rules change from experimentation to replication of success. The system must cease searching and begin capitalizing on its connections by simply repeating its formula for success. In Phase Two, the system enjoys major growth, limited only by the environment that provides resources for that growth.

Assuming the system is allowed this ideal growth without unexpected changes, it eventually consumes those resources. At this second breakpoint, the system enters a bifurcation: it begins to open up to innovative changes, to accept information or resources that were explicitly rejected in Phase Two, and it simultaneously reinvents itself. A new S-curve is born at the second breakpoint. For example, when applied to the creative process we can see how it maps onto three distinct phases in the process; invention, improvement, and innovation.10


Systems Innovation

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