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Findings from the Deep Transitions research project help drive sustainable change in Estonia and globally

Achieving a sustainable society requires groundbraking changes comparable to the industrial revolution, as suggested by the University of Tartu Deep Transitions research group in a recently completed research project. The results of the project show to what extent these changes are already taking place, where breakthroughs are most likely and how to accelerate them. 

As the Deep Transition, researchers consider the development of Western industrial society over the last 250 years, during which socio-technical systems evolved to meet society's needs for food, energy, healthcare, education, mobility, etc. 

Green transition at value level 

The completed project had a significant impact on the future development of research into transitions. Thus, the First Deep Transition, which began at the end of the 18th century and contributed greatly to the growth of wealth but also caused environmental issues, is seen to be changing fundamentally. The Second Deep Transition, according to the researchers, probably started in the 1960s, when environmental damage started to be addressed as a problem. Environmental regulations were also changed in the 1980s, but energy and material consumption is still growing. Another bottleneck is too high expectations for science and technology, which are anticipated to solve all issues. "For the first time, we collected data on ideas, norms and practices across countries to measure the development of industrial societies. Based on this, we can argue that the green transition at value level actually started more than fifty years ago," said Laur Kanger, Associate Professor of Technology Research at the University of Tartu and one of the project leaders. 

The project also led to a theory that explains the geography of deep transitions in terms of the order in which socio-technical systems emerge, concentrate and spread from one place to another around the world. For example, the principles that underpinned mass production emerged in different parts of the world, but were concentrated in the US mobility system, and from there spread again as a set across the globe, adapting to local conditions. The theory was used to create an index to predict which countries in the world could experience a transition comparable to the next industrial revolution. 63 countries were analysed, of which Sweden came out on top and Estonia remarkably placed eighth overall. 

A tool for managing and assessing major change 

An important international impact has been the new intervention point framework developed within the project, which allows for an assessment of whether green actions are sufficient to achieve systemic change. The framework has been applied by, among others, the European Environment Agency to assess measures shaping the European food system, and has been referred to in the report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

The same framework was used by the project team to support the transition process in Estonia. With the help of several hundred experts, the researchers identified and assessed possible actions that could contribute to sustainable changes in Estonia's energy and mobility system. "The results of our project will assist practitioners in guiding large-scale societal processes by allowing them to assess the social feasibility of interventions," said Margit Keller, the project leader and Associate Professor in Social Communication at the University of Tartu, who, together with professor Triin Vihalemm and analyst Maie Kiisel, will publish a handbook on transforming socio-technical systems and people's everyday habits intended for a wide audience of change leaders with the global publisher Routledge. 

The project also analysed the history of Estonia's energy, communication and mobility systems. Based on the material collected, a book on the birth of e-Estonia will be published this year. 

The study of deep transitions will continue in a new project at the University of Tartu, which aims, among other things, to identify how a rethinking of the foundations of industrial society could be expressed in Estonia.   

The Deep Transitions research team brought together social scientists, linguists, historians and economists from the University of Tartu and researchers from the Tallinn University of Technology in the field of innovation management. The five-year project was supported by the Estonian Research Council. 

Further information about the results on the project are available at


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