The Domino Effect: the Mobility Transition as an Engine for the ‘Great Transformation’

In a number of ways, the change of today’s car-dependent society is like a domino for a ‘Great Transformation’. There is hardly any field that is as intensively linked to the other key ‘transitions’ to a sustainable society, and there is no other field with such a close connection with the specific functionalities of the current economy. Therefore, ‘future literacy’ in the area of mobility goes far beyond the transport sector.

By Uwe Scheidewind. ?Translated by Kevin Bongard & Kevin Beckmann.

The term great transformation that was introduced in the eponymous flagship report of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU 2011) describes the comprehensive technological, economical, political and cultural transformation of modern societies towards a sustainable development.

In the course of this, the Great Transformation is taking place as a process of closely interconnected transitions (see fig. 1 in the factory magazine Mobilty): These range from a fundamental energy and resource transition to the development of new consumption patterns and models of wealth. They take concrete form in a comprehensive transformation of our cities (urban transition), industrial production (industrial transition) or nutrition habits and food production (nutrition transition). 

At that point the mobility transition plays a key role. The transport sector alone consumes almost 30 percent of the required delivered energy in Germany. The resource challenges of the automobile production and automobile use take on a new dimension with the transition to electric engines. And today nothing stands more for prosperity and consumption transition than mobility in cities, where heavily developed bike, foot and local public transport are the new symbols of high urban livability, as such cities as Copenhagen or Groningen show. Therefore, the urban and industrial transition are not only taking place especially in the German mobility sector but also in Copenhagen and Groningen. The mobility and transport transition is a central domino for all further transitions of the Great Transformation.

The Automotive Industry as the Key Industry of Today’s Economic System

In the case of mobility, it is also becoming clear how closely our modern car-dependent society is linked to the side effects of our modern economic order (see fig. 2 in the factory magazine Mobilty): No other sector owes its current economic success to the extensive use of ecological resources without having to pay their ‘real prices’. Few other industries are currently so aimed at growing in order to stabilize their successful model and have such an intense impact on the cultural code of modern affluent societies. And both the current organization of traffic — especially in cities — and the emerging structural change are associated with considerable social distortions.

A sustainable development of the mobility sector is therefore also a compass for a future-oriented development of our economy as a whole.

The Art of the Automotive Transition

For the art of an ‘automotive transition’, politicians and companies must interact intelligently along four dimensions (see fig. 3 in the factory magazine Mobilty). It is particularly the automobile manufacturers that need to assume a special role.  

On the one hand, the massive disruptive potential of new technologies (such as electromobility, autonomous driving, digital networking) must be translated into business models that meet the requirements of sustainable development (see this factory p. 28 and 43). On the other hand, it is just as important for industry to take on a new regulatory and ‘culture-shaping’ co-responsibility. It is a question of political participation that is not limited to protecting the status quo for as long as possible. This has been the practice of the past decades and it is becoming an increasing threat to Germany as a business location. In China, but also in the USA, new alliances between policy-makers and the mobility industry have long been emerging, creating innovative boundary conditions for the industrial transition to new mobility. 

It is also important to use the tremendous communicative power of the industry in a different way. Only if it is used for the positive communicative charging of new forms of mobility will industry live up to its responsibility for securing society's future.

Make the Domino Fall in the Right Direction

The mobility transition is key for the Great Transformation. It is hoped that both the mobility industry and the policy-makers at local, regional and national level will use wise future literacy to make this domino fall in the right direction.?

Prof. Dr. Uwe Schneidewind is President of the Wuppertal Institute and, among other things, a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, which advises the German Federal Government. His latest book was published in October 2018 and is called Die Große Transformation. Eine Einführung in die Kunst gesellschaftlichen Wandels (The great transformation. An introduction to the art of social change) at the Fischer-Verlag (German publishing house).


Schneidewind, U./Wuppertal Institute (2018): Die Große Transformation. Eine Einführung in die Kunst gesellschaftlichen Wandels. (The great transformation. An introduction to the art of social change). Fischer-Verlag, Frankfurt 2018.

WBGU (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen: German Advisory Council on Global Change) (2011): World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability. Berlin: German Advisory Council on Global Change, Berlin 2011.

More articles on the topic of mobility and transport transition you will find in our correspondent factory-magazine Mobility. This you can download free of costs and it is pleasantly readable on screens and tablet-computers. As every time it is also nicely illustrated and contains all articles in the compact tablet-format plus appropriate numbers and citations. Online in our topics section a few articles are also available – there you can comment and rate them.

Beiträge online


Magazin als PDF

News zum Thema