Towards a new, holistic framework of systems change: Adapting Geels’ Transition Theory

Tatiana Fraser
Refuge for systems leaders
5 min readNov 13, 2020


Tatiana Fraser and Juniper Glass

We love transition theory, otherwise known as Socio-technical Transition Theory (STS).

We use it in our work all the time. Working at multiple scales and levels, one of the insights that STS embodies, is a key capacity for systems change.

We use STS to visualize and make sense of collective and ecosystem strategies. STS helps system actors see how their work fits into the whole, see new connections, and identify gaps, opportunities and pathways forward.

The STS model is used in systems change strategizing to map out and analyse interventions at multiple levels in the system. It is useful as it highlights the importance of interactions between three levels:

a) “niche”: local and smaller-scale initiatives, collaborations, and innovations,

b) “regime”: broad structures, policies and institutions, and

c) “landscape”: large economic, environmental, narrative and cultural influences on society.

Systems change requires efforts at each of these levels, from multiple points in the system.

Intersection of gender and systems change

Over the last few years, we have been working with several different collaborations focused on advancing systemic change for gender equity. These collaborations were all unique. Some addressed access to housing or economic security, while others focused on justice for survivors of sexual violence. Yet through the strategic learning process that we led with all of them together, we saw patterns in how they worked and made impact. STS was a useful tool for advancing their work, but it also missed something — something big.

The three layers in the STS model did not capture the deep work at the grassroots and cultural level that these gender equity initiatives were doing. This layer of action engaged women who had lived experience of the issues, and the local communities and organizations close to the issues. This important effort of listening, valuing lived experience, empowerment, deep relationship building, finding connections between issues and communities, understanding intersectionality and sense making was the foundation of their efforts to influence change in their respective systems. Their initiatives could not have impact without this groundwork. Everything they did was rooted in the truths, values and experiences of people with lived experience.

A new holistic framework of systems change: The Power Shift Framework

It’s time to adapt the STS model — to shine light on the importance of this deeper level of action necessary to systemic change.

We have added another layer to Transition Theory and call it: the Power Shift Framework.

© 2020 System Sanctuary, Tatiana Fraser and Juniper Glass

This new, foundational level is defined by lived experience and community including: grassroots movements, personal and community transformation and healing, raising voices, self-empowerment, and holistic understanding of the intersectionality of issues.

We imagine the new layer as the “deep root systems” of social change, the work that happens in the soil. This is a space that is invisible to most of the world, which is only focused on what is happening above the ground. Soil and root systems nurture and feed plants and trees. Scientists are only recently learning about how root systems communicate with each other and between different tree species, how they distribute life giving resources, and how they take care of each other to ensure the entire ecosystems gets what it needs.

What can the Deep Roots System level teach us? Shifting power by scaling deep.

While “scaling up” is focussed on shifting policy, structures and systems, and “scaling out” is about replicating successful innovations to more locations, scaling deep involves bringing about change at the cultural and personal levels.

All the work to center lived experience and to deepen relationships in the community are scaling deep. This work is relational and it includes shifting mindsets, perceptions, cultural practices, habits and values. We believe that without such profound shifts, changes in structures and policies may not be sustained over time or have the desired impact.

We often see systems change interventions attempt to address dominant powers directly by trying to engage from the centre of the system. The work at the Deep Roots System level can be seen as de-centering dominant power structures and creating multiple centres of gravity in the traditionally ‘marginalized’ space — that are able to influence change. In this way, grassroots initiatives can shift the power centre of gravity. They can create the space to establish new norms and experiment with approaches to doing this differently, outside of dominant cultures and systems.

The work at the Deep Roots System level reflects deep empowerment: valuing self, strengthening collectives of like-minded groups and communities, valuing lived experience, and turning marginalization and oppression into strength.

The Power Shift Framework also recognizes that different types of power exist. Beyond the mainstream and dominant types of power in the system, other centres can be generated. Power is not just held in the highly visible and traditional places (elected officials, company CEOs, heads of institutions, etc). Power can be built in the margins, from authentic connections between people and groups working in solidarity.

Once strong, these centres of gravity can pull focus and start to become seen as sources of expertise and solutions, but on their terms rather than those of the dominant system. This individual, local and community power feeds the niche innovation level, interacts with the landscape level and provides alternatives to polarizing or power struggle directly with the regime level.

We hope that this model of how systems change happens can feed systems change movements and give visibility to their brilliant strategies already in action.

How might we strengthen our efforts for change by decentering power away from dominant systems? How might we follow the lead of communities doing the work to shift culture at a deep level? How can we shine light on and resource the work in the Deep Root Systems that values lived experience, supports healing and transformation?

To read more about all of this check out our publication: Bridging Feminist and Systems Change: Building ecosystems for gender equity



Tatiana Fraser
Refuge for systems leaders

writer, coach, systems change leader, passionate about collective learning at the edge