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Without knowledge of the past there is no future

By Wim Grommen - posted Thursday, 27 June 2013

Humanity is being confronted with the same problems as those experienced at the end of the second Industrial Revolution, such as decreasing stock exchange rates, rapidly increasing unemployment, towering company and government debt, and bad financial positions of banks. Every production phase or civilization or other human invention must go through a so-called transformation process, a transition. In this article I will use one such transition to demonstrate the position of our present civilization.

The third Industrial Revolution

When we consider the characteristics of the phases of a social transformation we may find ourselves at the end of what might be called the Third Industrial Revolution. Transitions are social transformation processes that cover at least one generation (25 years). A transition (according to Professor Jan Rotmans) has the following characteristics: 1) it involves a structural change of civilization or a complex subsystem of civilization, 2) it shows technological, economical, ecological, sociocultural and institutional changes at different levels that influence and enhance each other, and 3) it is the result of slow changes (changes in supplies) and fast dynamics (flows).


Examples of historical transitions are the demographical transition and the transition from coal to natural gas that caused transition in the use of energy. A transition process is not fixed from the start because during the transition processes will adapt to the new situation. A transition is not dogmatic.

Four transition phases

In general, transitions can be seen to go through an ‘S curve’ and we can distinguish four phases: 1) a pre-development phase of dynamic balance in which the present situation does not visibly change, 2) a takeoff phase in which the process of change starts because of deviations in the system, 3) an acceleration phase in which visible structural changes take place through an accumulation of sociocultural, economical, ecological and institutional changes influencing each other; in this phase we see collective learning processes, diffusion and processes of embedding, and 4) a stabilization phase in which the speed of sociological change slows down and a new dynamic balance is achieved through learning.

Three drastic transitions

When we look back over the past two centuries, we see taking place three transitions with far-reaching effects.

1. The first Industrial Revolution


The first Industrial Revolution lasted from around 1780 to 1850. It was characterised by a transition from small-scale handwork to mechanised production in factories. The great catalyst in the process was the steam engine, which also caused a revolution in transport as it was used in railways and shipping. The first Industrial Revolution was also centered on the coal industry. Because steam engines were made of iron and ran on coal, both coal mining and the iron industry also flourished. The beginning of the end of this revolution was in 1845 when Friedrich Engels, son of a German textile baron, described the living conditions of the English working class in The Condition of the Working Class in England.

2. The second Industrial Revolution

The second Industrial Revolution started around 1870 and ended around 1930. It was characterised by ongoing mechanisation because of the introduction of the assembly line, the replacement of iron by steel, and the development of the chemical industry. Furthermore, coal and water were replaced by oil and electricity and the internal combustion engine was developed. Whereas the first Industrial Revolution begun through (chance) inventions by amateurs, companies invested a lot of money in professional research during the second revolution, looking for new products and production methods. In search of finances, small companies merged into large-scale enterprises that were headed by professional managers and offered shares on the market. These developments caused the transition from the traditional family business to limited liability companies and multinationals. After the roaring twenties this revolution ended with the stock exchange crash of 1929.

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This article was originally published in Dutch in Civis Mundi, a magazine of political philosophy and culture edited by Prof. Dr. Wim Couwenberg.

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About the Author

Wim Grommen was teacher in mathematics and physics for ten years at secondary schools. The last twenty years he trained programmers in Oracle-software. He worked almost five years as trainer for Oracle and the last 17 years as trainer for Transfer Solutions in the Netherlands. The last 15 years he has studied transitions, social transformation processes, the S-curve and transitions in relation to market indices. Articles about these topics have been published in various magazines and sites in The Netherlands and Belgium.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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