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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
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).
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).
IPCC in Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) Summary for Policymakers (WMO, 2018).
Díaz, S. et al. Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change. Science 366, eaax3100 (2019).
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).
Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 1259855 (2015).
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).
Wolfram, M. Conceptualizing urban transformative capacity: a framework for research and policy. Cities 51, 121–130 (2016).
Etzion, D. Management for sustainability. Nat. Sustain. 1, 744–749 (2018).
Ostrom, E. A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 15181–15187 (2007).
Jerneck, A. et al. Structuring sustainability science. Sustain. Sci. 6, 69–82 (2011).
Kates, R. W. What kind of a science is sustainability science? Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 19449–19450 (2011).
Cash, D. W. et al. Knowledge systems for sustainable development. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 8086–8091 (2003).
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).
Mitchell, S. D. Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy (Univ. Chicago Press, 2009).
Davidson, D. Actions, reasons, and causes. J. Philos. 60, 685–700 (1963).
Anscombe, G. E. M. Intention (Harvard Univ. Press, 1957).
Dewey, J. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (Minton, Balch, 1929).
Lubchenco, J. Entering the century of the environment: a new social contract for science. 279, 491–497 (1998).
Nowotny, H., Scott, P., Gibbons, M. & Scott, P. B. Re-thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty (SciELO Argentina, 2001).
Ravetz, J. R. What is post-normal science. Futures 31, 647–653 (1999).
König, A. Sustainability Science: Key Issues (Routledge, 2018).
Wyborn, C. et al. Co-producing sustainability: reordering the governance of science, policy, and practice. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 44, 319–346 (2019).
Lang, D. J. et al. Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustain. Sci. 7, 25–43 (2012).
Umpleby, S. A. Second-order cybernetics as a fundamental revolution in science. Constr. Found. 11, 455–465 (2016).
Irwin, E. G. et al. Bridging barriers to advance global sustainability. Nat. Sustain. 1, 324–326 (2018).
Norström, A. V. et al. Principles for knowledge co-production in sustainability research. Nat. Sustain. 3, 182–190 (2020).
Scoones, I. et al. Transformations to sustainability: combining structural, systemic and enabling approaches. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 42, 65–75 (2020).
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).
Norton, B. G. Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management (Univ. Chicago Press, 2005).
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).
Ansell, C. K. & Bartenberger, M. Varieties of experimentalism. Ecol. Econ. 130, 64–73 (2016).
Caniglia, G. et al. Experiments and evidence in sustainability science: a typology. J. Clean. Prod. 169, 39–47 (2017).
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).
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).
Grunwald, A. Working towards sustainable development in the face of uncertainty and incomplete knowledge. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 9, 245–262 (2007).
Bratman, M. Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason (Harvard Univ. Press, 1987).
Midgley, G. in Systemic Intervention 113–133 (Springer, 2000).
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).
Sperling, G. B., Winthrop, R., Kwauk, C. & Yousafzai, M. What Works in Girls’ Education (The Brookings Institution, 2016).
Jones, T. M. Ethical decision making by individuals in organizations: an issue-contingent model. Acad. Manag. Rev. 16, 366–395 (1991).
Pelenc, J., Bazile, D. & Ceruti, C. Collective capability and collective agency for sustainability: a case study. Ecol. Econ. 118, 226–239 (2015).
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).
Djoudi, H. et al. Beyond dichotomies: gender and intersecting inequalities in climate change studies. Ambio 45, 248–262 (2016).
Schlüter, M. et al. Capturing emergent phenomena in social-ecological systems: an analytical framework. Ecol. Soc. 24, 11 (2019).
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).
Luederitz, C. et al. Learning through evaluation – a tentative evaluative scheme for sustainability transition experiments. J. Clean. Prod. 169, 61–76 (2017).
Berkhout, F. et al. Sustainability experiments in Asia: innovations shaping alternative development pathways? Environ. Sci. Policy 13, 261–271 (2010).
Freeth, R. & Caniglia, G. Learning to collaborate while collaborating: advancing interdisciplinary sustainability research. Sustain. Sci. 15, 247–261 (2020).
Polanyi, M. The Tacit Dimension (Univ. Chicago Press, 2009).
Lansing, J. S. Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali (Princeton Univ. Press, 2009).
Nonaka, I. & Takeuchi, H. The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation (Oxford Univ. Press, 1995).
Lam, D. P. M. et al. Indigenous and local knowledge in sustainability transformations research: a literature review. Ecol. Soc. 25, 3 (2020).
Ryle, G. Knowing how and knowing that: the presidential address. Proc. Aristot. Soc. 46, 1–16 (1945).
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).
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).
Messerli, P. et al. Expansion of sustainability science needed for the SDGs. Nat. Sustain. 2, 892–894 (2019).
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).
Schäpke, N. et al. Jointly experimenting for transformation? Shaping real-world laboratories by comparing them. GAIA 27, 85–96 (2018).
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).
Ploum, L., Blok, V., Lans, T. & Omta, O. Toward a validated competence framework for sustainable entrepreneurship. Organ. Environ. 31, 113–132 (2018).
Blok, V., Gremmen, B. & Wesselink, R. Dealing with the wicked problem of sustainability in advance. Bus. Prof. Ethics J. https://doi.org/10.5840/bpej201621737 (2016).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
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). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00616-z
Leverage points for sustainability transformations: nine guiding questions for sustainability science and practice
Sustainability Science (2021)
Strategic Organization (2021)
Ecosystems and People (2021)
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences (2021)
Transdisziplinäre Forschung mit transformativem Anspruch: Zehn Jahre NaWis: Rückblick und Vorausschau
GAIA - Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society (2021)