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Why and how sustainability science must transform

Former leaders at Future Earth, Paul Shrivastava and Mark Stafford Smith, teamed up with Laszlo Zsolnai and Karen O’Brien, to discuss where sustainability science is currently failing, what’s missing, and what can be done about it.Read More


In “Transforming Sustainability Science to Generate Positive Social and Environmental Change Globally” the authors apply some of the latest insights from transformations research to the field of sustainability science itself.

They argue that the evolution of sustainability science has been important and played a significant role in international sustainability and climate agreements, but it clearly has not been enough. They point to sustainability science’s failure to integrate important insights from social sciences and environmental humanities, and argue that this has limited the perceived solution space and meant that sustainability science has failed to engage with the “how” of transformative change.

A more integral approach is needed, which includes considerations of behavioural change, cultural change and changes in meaning making. The field of sustainability science must reflect and rethink its social relevance and social connections, so that it can contribute more effectively to the grand challenges of the Anthropocene.

This should include looking closely at the research ecosystem of universities, funding agencies, policymakers, and decision makers and redesigning core processes, policies administrative processes and reward systems more carefully with intent and recognition of the goals we want to achieve. In addition, more unification is needed across disciplinary lines, as well as a willingness to play a more active, participatory role in the transformations required.

Importantly, sustainability science must recognize that the system is not ‘‘out there,’’ the authors highlight the importance of ‘‘being change,’’ i.e., embodying the changes considered necessary at all levels, right here and now, and critical to the process of creating an equitable and sustainable future. This would also involve modifying the identity and role of scientists; from objective observers to translators of knowledge, communicators to the public, implementors, advocates of solutions, and co-designers who listen deeply and maintain reflective open minds.

Drawing on the Three Horizons Framework, the authors discuss the importance of preparing systems for transformation and suggest a range of measures for achieving this in relation to sustainability science. This framework also highlights the importance of being sufficiently active so that transformational interventions can take place rapidly when the opportunity arises, and the authors see four domains where this can occur:

  1. Pursuing funding and other support for a large network of co-learning innovation hubs
  2. Engaging in an action research mode with high societal leverage points i.e. sustainability science would take on more of an activist role
  3. Having a greater voice in societal processes, such as international UN governance discussions or discourse with global religions and traditional societies
  4. Being transparently goal oriented to pursue transformation and accept the challenging roles implied by this.

“In the absence of clear intentionality in the design of these systems, science is dragged along by the dominant socio-economic forces that themselves should be the subject of change.”
— P. Shrivastava, M. Stafford Smith, K. O’Brien & L. Zsolnai —

The authors conclude by saying, if there has ever been a time to explore paradigm shifts that support an equitable and sustainable world, this is it. “Many global environmental changes are being addressed outside academia through citizen activism, non-governmental organizations, and social movements. Sustainability science could be leading some of these activities instead of merely studying or observing them. However, in order to take such leadership, researchers will need to acknowledge that science is not just a neutral objective pursuit of knowledge when it comes to sustainability.”

Download the One Earth Perpsective “Transforming Sustainability Science to Generate Positive Social and Environmental Change Globally” for free here.


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