Looking down on the New Oxford Circus crossing at sunset.

Behavioural science was key to pedestrianizing the approach to London’s busy Oxford Street.Credit: Loop Images/UIG/Getty

There was a time when ‘sustainable development’ meant economic development, or perpetual economic growth — not, as we know it today, environmentally sustainable development.

The change in meaning can be traced to the 1987 report Our Common Future, chaired by Norway’s then-prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report involved social scientists, natural scientists, industrialists, environmentalists and policymakers emerging from their silos to talk to each other to understand how humans alter the global environment. The report helped such collaborative processes to become mainstream, alongside the idea of treating the environment and development as one issue.

Some fields quickly grasped that interdisciplinary work is essential to understanding environmental change, and to mitigating — or adapting to — its effects. Confirming a human cause for climate change required the combined efforts of meteorologists, oceanographers and geographers, among others. Replacing the ozone-depleting chemicals used in spray cans and refrigerators needed chemists to talk to product designers. But, as a report this week in Nature Sustainability shows, other fields have not got so far in their interdisciplinary journey (L. Kotz et al. Nature Sustain. 2, 1067–1069; 2019).

In a project convened by the journal and the Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, an international group of architects, designers and engineers spent a year with behavioural scientists, investigating how their disciplines could better work together, and why they needed to do so.

Behavioural science has an existing and essential relationship to the built environment: we have to study how people live, work and move to create liveable buildings and towns. But the group established that, when it comes to sustainability, there’s room for closer working, and the report amounts to an agenda for joint research. Potential questions include: how do architects and designers make decisions? To what extent can behavioural science in other contexts be applied to sustainable design and architecture? Do architects feel a duty to promote responsible energy use?

Cross-disciplinary working requires careful communication and confidence-building. As the example of defining sustainable development shows, disciplines have their own languages and can interpret terms differently.

Lessons in interdisciplinarity can also be learnt from the ‘science wars’ of the mid-1990s, a tense time in the relationship between natural scientists and the sociologists who study how research is done. Part of the ambition for sociologists of science is to place a mirror before researchers, to demonstrate potential flaws in their methods. But some eminent researchers saw these studies as an intrusion, and thought that natural scientists had little to learn from them.

One way to ease disciplinary tensions could be to underscore that sustainability calls for behavioural change at all levels — necessitating more research across all sectors. Governments, for example, often interact with independent researchers who study how to improve policy, including how government itself needs to adapt if it is to drive sustainability more effectively. Similarly, business schools produce case studies on how companies can adapt to facilitate that change. Behavioural research could help all of us — individuals and communities — to make changes to how we behave, whether it is taking more public transport or just turning the thermostat down a degree.

Along with governments, industry and individuals, the built environment consumes energy and produces waste, which makes it just as pivotal to sustainability. As the Nature Sustainability report says, collaborating effectively and learning from each other can be tough. But considering the planetary situation, not doing so has much higher costs.