Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

A pluralistic and integrated approach to action-oriented knowledge for sustainability


Sustainability science needs more systematic approaches for mobilizing knowledge in support of interventions that may bring about transformative change. In this Perspective, we contend that action-oriented knowledge for sustainability emerges when working in integrated ways with the many kinds of knowledge involved in the shared design, enactment and realization of change. The pluralistic and integrated approach we present rejects technocratic solutions to complex sustainability challenges and foregrounds individual and social learning. We argue that research institutions devoted to sustainability should focus more on creating the conditions for experimenting with multiple kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing to foster sustainability-oriented learning.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout


  1. Ferrier, S. et al. IPBES Summary for Policymakers of the Methodological Assessment of Scenarios and Models of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 2019).

  2. Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T. M., Barnard, P. & Moomaw, W. R. World scientists’ warning of a climate emergency. BioScience 70, 8–12 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  3. IPCC in Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) Summary for Policymakers (WMO, 2018).

  4. Díaz, S. et al. Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change. Science 366, eaax3100 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Fazey, I. et al. Ten essentials for action-oriented and second order energy transitions, transformations and climate change research. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 40, 54–70 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 1259855 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Turnhout, E., Metze, T., Wyborn, C., Klenk, N. & Louder, E. The politics of co-production: participation, power, and transformation. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 42, 15–21 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Wolfram, M. Conceptualizing urban transformative capacity: a framework for research and policy. Cities 51, 121–130 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Etzion, D. Management for sustainability. Nat. Sustain. 1, 744–749 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Ostrom, E. A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 15181–15187 (2007).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Jerneck, A. et al. Structuring sustainability science. Sustain. Sci. 6, 69–82 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Kates, R. W. What kind of a science is sustainability science? Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 19449–19450 (2011).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Cash, D. W. et al. Knowledge systems for sustainable development. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 8086–8091 (2003).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Cumming, G. S., Olsson, P., Chapin, F. S. & Holling, C. S. Resilience, experimentation, and scale mismatches in social-ecological landscapes. Landsc. Ecol. 28, 1139–1150 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  15. Mitchell, S. D. Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy (Univ. Chicago Press, 2009).

  16. Davidson, D. Actions, reasons, and causes. J. Philos. 60, 685–700 (1963).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Anscombe, G. E. M. Intention (Harvard Univ. Press, 1957).

  18. Dewey, J. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (Minton, Balch, 1929).

  19. Lubchenco, J. Entering the century of the environment: a new social contract for science. 279, 491–497 (1998).

  20. Nowotny, H., Scott, P., Gibbons, M. & Scott, P. B. Re-thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty (SciELO Argentina, 2001).

  21. Ravetz, J. R. What is post-normal science. Futures 31, 647–653 (1999).

    Google Scholar 

  22. König, A. Sustainability Science: Key Issues (Routledge, 2018).

  23. Wyborn, C. et al. Co-producing sustainability: reordering the governance of science, policy, and practice. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 44, 319–346 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  24. Lang, D. J. et al. Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustain. Sci. 7, 25–43 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  25. Umpleby, S. A. Second-order cybernetics as a fundamental revolution in science. Constr. Found. 11, 455–465 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Irwin, E. G. et al. Bridging barriers to advance global sustainability. Nat. Sustain. 1, 324–326 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  27. Norström, A. V. et al. Principles for knowledge co-production in sustainability research. Nat. Sustain. 3, 182–190 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  28. Scoones, I. et al. Transformations to sustainability: combining structural, systemic and enabling approaches. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 42, 65–75 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  29. Clark, W. C., van Kerkhoff, L., Lebel, L. & Gallopin, G. Crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 4570–4578 (2016).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Norton, B. G. Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management (Univ. Chicago Press, 2005).

  31. Popa, F., Guillermin, M. & Dedeurwaerdere, T. A pragmatist approach to transdisciplinarity in sustainability research: from complex systems theory to reflexive science. Futures 65, 45–56 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  32. Ansell, C. K. & Bartenberger, M. Varieties of experimentalism. Ecol. Econ. 130, 64–73 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  33. Caniglia, G. et al. Experiments and evidence in sustainability science: a typology. J. Clean. Prod. 169, 39–47 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  34. Wiek, A., Ness, B., Schweizer-Ries, P., Brand, F. S. & Farioli, F. From complex systems analysis to transformational change: a comparative appraisal of sustainability science projects. Sustain. Sci. 7, 5–24 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  35. Preiser, R., Biggs, R., De Vos, A. & Folke, C. Social-ecological systems as complex adaptive systems: organizing principles for advancing research methods and approaches. Ecol. Soc. 23, 46 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  36. Grunwald, A. Working towards sustainable development in the face of uncertainty and incomplete knowledge. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 9, 245–262 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  37. Bratman, M. Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason (Harvard Univ. Press, 1987).

  38. Midgley, G. in Systemic Intervention 113–133 (Springer, 2000).

  39. Tengö, M., Brondizio, E. S., Elmqvist, T., Malmer, P. & Spierenburg, M. Connecting diverse knowledge systems for enhanced ecosystem governance: the multiple evidence base approach. Ambio 43, 579–591 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  40. Sperling, G. B., Winthrop, R., Kwauk, C. & Yousafzai, M. What Works in Girls’ Education (The Brookings Institution, 2016).

  41. Jones, T. M. Ethical decision making by individuals in organizations: an issue-contingent model. Acad. Manag. Rev. 16, 366–395 (1991).

    Google Scholar 

  42. Pelenc, J., Bazile, D. & Ceruti, C. Collective capability and collective agency for sustainability: a case study. Ecol. Econ. 118, 226–239 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  43. Farjoun, M., Ansell, C. & Boin, A. PERSPECTIVE—Pragmatism in organization studies: meeting the challenges of a dynamic and complex world. Organ. Sci. 26, 1787–1804 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  44. Djoudi, H. et al. Beyond dichotomies: gender and intersecting inequalities in climate change studies. Ambio 45, 248–262 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  45. Schlüter, M. et al. Capturing emergent phenomena in social-ecological systems: an analytical framework. Ecol. Soc. 24, 11 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  46. von Wirth, T., Fuenfschilling, L., Frantzeskaki, N. & Coenen, L. Impacts of urban living labs on sustainability transitions: mechanisms and strategies for systemic change through experimentation. Eur. Plan. Stud. 27, 229–257 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  47. Luederitz, C. et al. Learning through evaluation – a tentative evaluative scheme for sustainability transition experiments. J. Clean. Prod. 169, 61–76 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  48. Berkhout, F. et al. Sustainability experiments in Asia: innovations shaping alternative development pathways? Environ. Sci. Policy 13, 261–271 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  49. Freeth, R. & Caniglia, G. Learning to collaborate while collaborating: advancing interdisciplinary sustainability research. Sustain. Sci. 15, 247–261 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  50. Polanyi, M. The Tacit Dimension (Univ. Chicago Press, 2009).

  51. Lansing, J. S. Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali (Princeton Univ. Press, 2009).

  52. Nonaka, I. & Takeuchi, H. The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation (Oxford Univ. Press, 1995).

  53. Lam, D. P. M. et al. Indigenous and local knowledge in sustainability transformations research: a literature review. Ecol. Soc. 25, 3 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  54. Ryle, G. Knowing how and knowing that: the presidential address. Proc. Aristot. Soc. 46, 1–16 (1945).

    Google Scholar 

  55. Sahni, U. From Learning Outcomes to Life Outcomes: What Can You Do and Who Can You Be? A Case Study in Girls’ Education in India (Center for Universal Education at Brookings, 2012).

  56. Luederitz, C., Abson, D. J., Audet, R. & Lang, D. J. Many pathways toward sustainability: not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives. Sustain. Sci. 12, 393–407 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  57. Messerli, P. et al. Expansion of sustainability science needed for the SDGs. Nat. Sustain. 2, 892–894 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  58. Balvanera, P. et al. Key features for more successful place-based sustainability research on social-ecological systems: a programme on ecosystem change and society (PECS) perspective. Ecol. Soc. 22, 14 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  59. Schäpke, N. et al. Jointly experimenting for transformation? Shaping real-world laboratories by comparing them. GAIA 27, 85–96 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  60. Brundiers, K., Wiek, A. & Redman, C. L. Real-world learning opportunities in sustainability: from classroom into the real world. Int. J. Sustain. High. Educ. 11, 308–324 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  61. Ploum, L., Blok, V., Lans, T. & Omta, O. Toward a validated competence framework for sustainable entrepreneurship. Organ. Environ. 31, 113–132 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  62. Blok, V., Gremmen, B. & Wesselink, R. Dealing with the wicked problem of sustainability in advance. Bus. Prof. Ethics J. (2016).

Download references


G.C. thanks the Marie-Curie Individual Action (grant no. 752135) for supporting the project ‘What Epistemology for Sustainability Science? Experiments and Theories for Social Transformations’. D.J.L. thanks the Volkswagen Foundation and the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture for funding the project ‘Leverage Points for Sustainable Transformations: Institutions, People and Knowledge’ (grant no. A112269). G.C., D.J.L. and M.D.L. thank the Volkswagen Foundation and the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture for funding the project ‘Complexity or Control: Paradigms for Sustainability Science’ (grant no. A112135) and the Smart Family Foundation for support. We thank researchers in the Faculty of Sustainability at Leuphana University for engaging in critical and constructive conversations that have inspired many of the thoughts and arguments in this Perspective.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



G.C. with the support of C.L. developed the idea, laid the conceptual foundations and led the writing and revision process. T.v.W., I.F. and D.J.L. contributed to the development of the main arguments and to the writing. B.M.-L., K.H., A.K., H.v.W., N.A.S. and M.D.L. contributed to the conceptual development, to some of the writing, and to improving the structure and style.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Guido Caniglia.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Caniglia, G., Luederitz, C., von Wirth, T. et al. A pluralistic and integrated approach to action-oriented knowledge for sustainability. Nat Sustain 4, 93–100 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing