Against the backdrop of global environmental change and the necessity to stay within planetary boundaries, the German Advisory Council on Global Change has called for a new social contract between science and society in order to achieve a ‘great transformation’ to sustainability. To this end, scientists will need to engage with new forms of transdisciplinary research in collaboration with ‘practice partners’ from civil society. The concept of transformative science not only involves new ways of doing science, it redefines the role of science as a catalyst for social change towards sustainability. This reorientation will also require institutional reforms, including the institutionalisation of sustainability-oriented education in universities. Transition theory provides an analytical framework for understanding and promoting processes of institutional change in national science systems. Complementing policy reforms, ‘real-world laboratories’ provide an institutional framework for the implementation of this new social contract. A real-world laboratory functions as a ‘boundary object’, where scientists and practice partners work together to solve a specific sustainability problem. It provides a space for interaction between science and practice and thereby contributes to a shared understanding of the problem situation. The focus is on intervention and the development of context-specific social innovations.