On 3 November 2022, key players in the field of science for sustainable development met in Bern at the second Sustainability Science Forum. The event of the SCNAT's Sustainability Research Initiative was dedicated to the future of research in support of sustainability transformations. A particular focus was on the nature of societal transformation processes and on promising forms of collective knowledge production for developing possible pathways of change.
In their welcoming remarks, Bernhard Lehmann, President of the SCNAT Platform Science and Policy and Gabriela Wülser, Head of Sustainability Research at SCNAT invited participants to expand their intellectual exchange through experiencing an art installation. The event hall was decorated by three life-sized "Chrysalis" cocoons of artist-scientist Sonja Schenkel. She explained that, after leaving their cocoon, insects no longer just eat or consume but fly, pollinate and inspire. One can sit inside the woollen sculptures to explore a sense of pupation. “You may look odd and you may break it. But that’s what transformation is about”, Schenkel explained.
Outstanding research does not really change the lives of people on the ground
After this special introduction to transformation, Albert van Jaarsveld, Director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis IIASA introduced new perspectives for sustainability science in his keynote presentation.
Given the challenge of producing knowledge that is in true service of society, Jaarsveld argued for anchoring science much more in real world problems: those that are relevant to a particular community in a particular place. Scientific efforts are typically too siloed, and often more focused on understanding the problem than helping to solve it. Research may also produce information that is not trusted by stakeholders. In Jaarsveld’s experience, any truly sustainable solution is very probably based on a nexus approach, because no strategy comes without feedbacks and consequences for neighbouring systems.
“We need to think, as a scientific community, about new ways to undertake our science, to deliver and translate that science into actionable knowledge so that people and communities can actually use it.” Albert van Jaarsveld
To connect research seamlessly with other parts of society in real collaborative efforts, the Global Commission on Science Missions for Sustainability formed by the International Science Council recommends to establish a targeted, mission-oriented set of socio-political science initiatives.
Science missions – developed around key global sustainability challenges – could be organised in the form of sustainability stations around the world. These stations would work on issues emerging from stakeholders using a systems perspective, develop socially acceptable solutions in collaborative efforts, be regionally contextualised and focused on implications of our actions on the Global South.
As a first step, the Global Commission on Science Missions is developing a fundamental submission to the Global Forum of Funders to try and change the multilateral funding landscape. The goal is to mobilise multilateral funding for science missions of at least 400 million US$ per year. Currently, only 2-3% of science funding is multilateral, which is out of all proportion compared to the size and urgency of the universal sustainability crises that affect all of us and require joint action.
Encouraging new meanings of a good life to trigger transformation
In order to better seize these crises and ways of tackling them, the subsequent panel discussion was dedicated to current understandings of societal transformation from a social sciences perspective. According to Eva-Maria Spreitzer, University of Lausanne, societal transformation is a process in a complex system which cannot be controlled. All we can do is intervene on the level of conditions of change. We thus need to go beyond developing good practices based on predictive models. From a future literacy’s point of view, approaches like probing and exploring for novelty are necessary, Spreitzer explained. She furthermore pointed out that this is an inherently difficult task we are not trained for.
So how can societal transformations be shaped, supported or influenced, if at all? For Marlyne Sahakian, University of Geneva, the most impactful ways of intervening in a system are contributing to paradigm shifts and encouraging new meanings of a good life. This may involve propositions for expanding the way we measure prosperity and understand wellbeing, or contesting the dominant imaginary around consumerism. This may lead to making the future meaningful to people today and finding ways for future imaginaries to be performative in the present.
Not everyone is aware of the exceptionality of societal transformation
On top of that, political decisions are crucial for paving the way for societal transformation – be they voluntary or forced. According to Philip Balsiger, University of Neuchâtel, transformative policy making is oftentimes due to a combination of prolonged pressure by social movements and the existence of a severe crisis. The establishment of the social welfare states after the second World War illustrates that transformation is a rare thing to happen: societies do not easily transform.
“We have to think of the fact that broad transformative social changes happen in times of broader crises because this offers opportunities for these new ways of thinking, new paradigms, new social forces to bring about this change.” Philip Balsiger
According to Balsiger, transformation is mostly triggered bottom up, through social movements – which also represent experimentation spaces for imagining the future. Sahakian mentioned promising citizen collectives that are emerging in Switzerland on top of the already existing political instruments of the direct democracy, such as citizen-induced votes and referendums.
Move forward at a faster pace – while creating spaces for reflection
Transformation thus hardly comes from the top, i.e. the authorities – at least in democratic systems. However, there are also those who benefit from the exisiting system and thus oppose change. For Sahakian, this is a reason for applying inclusive and participatory processes in support of transformation. More than anything, it is about amplifying results and trying to move forward at a faster pace, she explained. Despite of this time pressure, it is also important to create spaces and processes for reflection, to look at assumptions and motives to intervene. The future literacy labs of UNESCO are an example for this.
Sahakian also pointed out that we should not over-individualise the responsibility to change. The concept of consumption corridors, for example, introduces a lower and an upper limit to consumption on a collective level and makes sure that both social justice and the integrity of natural systems are respected. She stressed the general need to take inequalities into account in transition processes.
Cross-cutting initiatives in sustainability science
Sustainability topics are often complex, overarching and need to be studied in interdisciplinary teams. This can be a challenge in an academic system that is still highly disciplinary. However, in recognition of this problem, a number of initiatives that facilitate and support cross-sectoral partnerships and interdisciplinary collaboration on sustainability topics have been founded at Swiss research institutions in recent years. Five such competence centres and networks for sustainability research were invited to present themselves at the Forum.
The of ETH Zurich encompasses over 50 different research groups from the ETH Domain to combine expertise and knowledge from diverse disciplines to work towards sustainable food systems. Activities include not only inter- and transdisciplinary research, but also educational programs and connecting to society and governments to translate scientific knowledge into societal relevance.
The of the University of Basel was founded in 2021 and brings together 19 research groups from 5 faculties to collaborate on diverse topics such as energy and climate, the interaction between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and the potential of digitalisation for sustainable development.
Another young initiative is , that aims to reinforce interdisciplinary exchange and research on climate-related topics between the University of Lausanne and EPFL. Sixty laboratories and research groups from the two research institutions are affiliated to CLIMACT. A major focus lies on initiating implementation projects on the energy transition and creating bonds with society via targeted events and activities.
Established as a service to the research and teaching community of the University of Lausanne, the tries to foster and promote interdisciplinary work on questions concerning the social and ecological transition across all research domains.
Last but not least, the most recently founded network that presented itself was the . This initiative is sustained by the University of Zurich, ZHAW, ZHdK and PH Zürich with the goal to facilitate interdisciplinary research between members of the four institutions on sustainability topics. The Centre provides a co-working and event space to promote networking and exchange and is actively seeking motivated groups to co-develop new projects and teaching formats.
Challenges and potential of cross-cutting centres and networks at Swiss research institutions
The presented centres and networks may be at different stages of development and maturity, but nearly all are faced with the challenge of limited funding and support offered by the research institutions they are affiliated with. Annika Sohre from the Network Sustainable Futures pointed out that an institutionalisation of these centres “not just anywhere, but at a higher level” would give them the magnitude and credentials that better correspond to the importance and urgency of the topics they work on. By being placed in a more strategic position, these centres could also advocate for better conditions and career incentives for researchers engaging in interdisciplinary work. Augustin Fragnière from UNIL’s Centre de competence en durabilité added, that most academic institutions are not adapted to such new ways of scientific work and called for diversifying roles and positions in academia:
“We need people that are generalists, that understand what different disciplines are doing, that can find cross-cutting themes and issues and manage to gather the right people together to work on these questions”. Augustin Fragnière
These kind of job profiles are still rare at Swiss research institutions and would help to facilitate research for sustainable development.
When asked what his “wishlist” would be if more funding was available, Nicolas Tetreault from CLIMACT replied that having the financial means to respond more directly to the questions and concerns voiced by societal actors, politicians and industry leaders from the region would be highly relevant for an initiative such as CLIMACT. Instead, researchers need to find funding from more centralised sources that are aligned to federal policies and often disconnected from the field. This is a slow and inflexible process, when in fact responsiveness to existing challenges and the fast generation of results would be more important. Having access to flexible funding that is specifically aimed at implementation, network-building and making scientific results visible to relevant stakeholders would be another help to support cross-cutting centres in their work, according to Cathérine Hartmann of the ZKSD. Martijn Sonnevelt from ETH’s World Food System Centre added that a further challenge cross-cutting centres are faced with is finding a real connection between disciplinary, fundamental science and application. Facilitating co-creation between researchers and stakeholders and especially fostering a mutual understanding of each other’s different perspectives remains a difficult task.
After the lunch break, participants had the opportunity to attend one of four parallel sessions on diverse topics associated to the conference theme “Shaping research for our future”:
Lighthouse programmes in sustainability science
In his input, Peter Edwards, President of the Sustainability Research Initiative, explained that one promising mechanism to support the kind of research that is needed is to establish large, integrated research programmes. Such ‘lighthouse programmes’ would be highly interdisciplinary and, to ensure adequate disciplinary coverage, involve scientists from several fields. In addition to providing actionable knowledge for decision makers, an important objective of lighthouse programmes would be to strengthen the research base for sustainability science and promote change in the research system itself.
This session presented key characteristics of lighthouse programmes collected in a recent expert workshop and invited participants to share ideas and experiences on effective designs for large sustainability research programmes, focusing on achieving impact, building effective networks for longer term work on “grand challenges” and working on interrelated issues in larger contexts.
Participants stated that impact is very difficult to measure. Ideas often get adopted, but are hard to track back to research. They also called for more flexible funding.
According to the participants, building effective networks – or collectives, as was suggested – for longer term work on “grand challenges”, requires funding over extended periods of time. This would also allow forming trustful and valuable personal and institutional relationships. Partnership-building needs to be supported actively, and barriers to participation reduced.
Large lighthouse programmes have the advantage to look into interrelations between different sustainability goals and challenges. How can this be supported? Ideas developed so far are the establishment of platforms for continuing reflection, capacity building for sustainability research, and allowing for a bigger diversity of research outcomes. Participants agreed that time for reflecting on one’s learnings and being allowed to adjust research plans accordingly would be very helpful. In this way, one could develop a certain openness to the unexpected. They also advocated for allowing “good failures”, so failing for the right reasons. This makes quality assessments much more difficult, because classic measures cannot be applied. New, creative quality indicators are therefore necessary.
How can the sciences and arts touch people?
This session explored the ability and means of the arts and design to touch and sensitise people on emotional levels that the sciences may not reach. The organisers of the session, Karin Zindel (ZHdK) and Bianca Vienni-Baptista (ETH Zürich) asked the participants to reflect on two main questions:
- How can the arts touch people, and be an inspiration for the sciences in addressing societal challenges?
- How can the sciences touch people, and be an inspiration for the arts in rethinking sustainable futures?
Participants could experience how the arts and design can approach sustainability topics in two hands-on student projects. In her project “With the senses of a spider. An arachnocentric experience”, Barbara Schuler, Master student at ZHdK, studies what happens to our empathy and awareness when we leave our anthropocentric viewpoint and experience the world through the eyes of a spider in a storytelling and virtual-reality experience. Can such an exercise raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity by changing our attention and perspective and ultimately our behaviour? As one participant formulated it: “Through storytelling we can find solutions to societal problems without waiting for research findings”.
The ”Soil experimental lab collective”, introduced by Alisha Dutt Islam, ZHdK and Eric Pinto, Terrabiom & University of Bern, is an initiative that wants to raise awareness of the value and importance of soil. They strive to make the invisible biodiversity in soil understandable to the population via art installations and participatory living labs. According to Pinto, the process of interaction and collaboration with artists is also transformative for researchers themselves, though a prerequisite is that both artist and scientist are “open and willing to see the other as a real collaborator”.
The arts and design can open new “experience spaces” which are a valuable addition to the reflecting nature of the sciences. This can raise awareness of sustainability issues, support co-creation processes and promote more inclusive collaboration. At the same time, by collaborating with the arts through facts and data, the sciences can offer a deeper connection to current debates and discourses.
Find out more on this topic by reading with Karin Zindel and Bianca Vienni-Baptista.
Rethinking paradigms for societal transformation
In his introductory presentation, Markus Zürcher, (secretary general of the Swiss Academy of Social Sciences and Humanities) reinforced that the leading paradigms on which our society is built are crumbling: economic growth can no longer be equated with societal progress and the accelerated and unlimited use of natural resources is surpassing planetary limits. Consumption has become a recreational activity in western culture to reward us after a hard day’s work, but leads to massive resource depletion and an accentuation of social inequalities. New guiding principles and new perspectives aligned to sustainable and nature-positive outcomes are needed, according to Zürcher. Many ideas exist already, such as Better Life (OECD 2011), Living well within Limits (LiLi) and the Economy of the Common Good. These consider values such as solidarity, social justice and democratic participation as pillars of a healthy society. However, they are still “niche” initiatives and have not reached the mainstream. Zürcher also advocated for more investment in human capital, care work, social relations and self-realisation.
Christoph Küffer, president of the Network for Transdisciplinarity, re-iterated in his presentation that a paradigm shift is necessary, and that it needs to be closely accompanied by scientific reflection in an inter- and transdisciplinary environment. Developing alternatives to the current system cannot be attempted without dialogue across disciplines and sectors. What does leading a good life actually mean to people, and what reward and incentive systems can they imagine? According to Küffer, an inter- and transdisciplinary dialogue needs to be fostered very early, already in the education of students. Institutional and structural barriers remain a major challenge, though.
Policy making for sustainability
Policy-making for sustainability refers to the political handling of complex, “wicked” sustainability problems (e.g. biodiversity loss, social inequality, food security) on the basis of interrelated goals such as the SDGs. Understanding these interrelations requires scientific expertise, while minimising trade-offs and making the most of synergies between goals is a complex task for governments. This session focussed on gaining a better understanding of the meaning of interrelated sustainability goals for policy-making and the challenges and limits that are faced at the science-policy interface. The session organiser, Basil Bornemann from the University of Basel, highlighted in his introduction that sustainability-oriented governance is needed to create an enabling environment for societal transformation to take place. There are, however, different models of sustainability governance design.
Two examples presented during the session illustrated how interdependencies and trade-offs can be addressed in the science-policy interface: The initiative “Ernährungszukunft Schweiz” of the Swiss Sustainable Development Solutions Network SDSN, and the research project “Evidence-based dialogue on trade-offs in wicked societal problems (ENGAGE)” that was presented by Christian Stamm of Eawag. “ENGAGE” is a joint initiative of the ETH domain that will set up a dialogue platform that includes scientists, public authorities and political parties to address wicked societal problems and make trade-offs related to them transparent.
The project “Ernährungszukunft Schweiz” aims to develop a strategy for a sustainable Swiss food system. For this purpose, an expert panel, a citizens' council comprising about 100 participants and a parliamentary group on the SDGs were founded. After expert inputs, excursions and deliberation, the citizens' council has drawn up a series of recommendations that will soon be presented to the public and to parliament. The advantage of such an independent group is that the proposed solutions should not be influenced by interest groups or lobbies.
Both ENGAGE and Ernährungszukunft Schweiz have overlapping goals and stakeholders, but work on different scales and time frames. Managing such overlaps and making the most of synergies between different projects could be an important role for a networking initiative such as the SDSN, according to Küng. Public funding of such tasks is rare, however.
Research in support of sustainability transformations must go beyond analysis
If we want to more strongly support societal transformation processes, we also need to talk about promising research formats. One such format are “real world experiments”, an approach that was presented by Michael Stauffacher to kick-off the panel discussion moderated by Bianca Vienni (both ETH Zurich). As Vienni pointed out, real world experiments provide spaces for reflection that allow looking at assumptions and motives of intervention – as had been asked for in the morning panel discussion. Such an experimental space was established at the Hunziker Areal in Winterthur. Inhabitants and researchers jointly developed lifestyles aligned to the principles of sufficiency and experiment with respective new practices. This process was accompanied scientifically.
For Stauffacher, research can play a crucial role through encouraging and testing alternative ways of meeting concrete needs; respective change may not always happen by itself. For him, transformation research – observing and analyzing from the distance – and transformative research – engaging with transformation – are two extremes in a spectrum. There are many extents of intervention in between that may make sense in a certain place.
What are roles of art as research formats in support of sustainability? From studying ways in which art and culture can be a lever for transformation, Sonja Schenkel, Storytex, identified particular challenges where they become relevant. Those challenges include situations in which there is a crisis of imagination: Art and culture may be able to go beyond the present; situations where there is a lack of expression and language because what we experience may be so complex that we cannot seize what is going on; or situations where big risks need to be taken to go into a transformation which is never easy because there are things to lose.
One approach that might be promising is artfulness. Comparable to future literacy, it means being able to deal with whatever might be emerging in life. In a research project, artfulness can mean that the personal relationships that are created in a crisis like the COVID pandemic, for example, are so helpful to cope with the situation that they positively impact the result of the project. In Schenkel’s experience, the concept of artfulness is also an ability to inspire others.
Sometimes science is rather self-isolating, instead of inviting
Lucas Müller, Swiss Young Academy and University of Geneva, agreed that relationships are key. He saw a big interest by different actors in building relationships. It is important to listen to what people are interested in. Relationship building is also at the core of living labs: according to Stauffacher, it is an important prerequisite that researchers are actually present spatially. Other important factors include time – Müller pointed out the perseverance of researchers that may be needed to support societal transformations, which may take decades to actually happen. For young researchers with short term contracts, both the perseverance and the relationship building issue can be a big challenge, however.
“Fun is also in the word funding – which is essential if you think about new formats”. Sonja Schenkel
Müller and Stauffacher summed up that stable jobs are generally a prerequisite for developing new formats in support of sustainability transformations. It would also be helpful to align funding to long- term research in support of transformation processes. Seed money can support co-designing collaborative projects. This kind of research needs more flexibility in the actual use of the funds. Offering spaces where people can come together (like the cross-cutting initiatives presented in the morning) is also helpful so that people no longer work in isolation on crucial societal issues.
Schenkel encouraged allowing for different kinds of research outputs. It is problematic if science still sticks to scientific papers as a main output format, while engaging with and working in support of society. Sometimes science is rather self-isolating, instead of inviting.
The fundamental role of social sciences and the arts
Peter Edwards, President of the Sustainability Research Initiative, closed the event with a summary of his personal impressions. At this event much was said about social science. It is clear that social sciences play a fundamental role in sustainability research as well as the arts. For Edwards, Schenkel’s statement on science sometimes being self-isolating is very true. We often present the data and the results that nobody understands except ourselves. We need the arts with their skills in communicating and interpreting.
Edwards pointed out that we are dealing with an academic research system that is unprepared for the role which it plays in society. Science needs to produce knowledge, suggestions and ideas that society can consider as it tries to make decisions moving towards sustainability. Initiatives are emerging around the country, but they are far smaller than they ought to be. The resources they are working with are inadequate considering the magnitude of the challenges we face. Like Albert van Jaarsfeld already said: Society is far off track regarding the SDGs.
The SCNAT’s Sustainability Research Initiative has various goals. One is to build a community to those interested in research for sustainable development. In addition, we want to support funding for sustainability research, for example with our project on “lighthouse programmes”. The SRI also envisages a new project on science and policy coming up in 2023. Its main question is: How can we be as effective as possible in the science-policy dialogue, what formats work and what kinds of activities are suitable? We want to understand what is needed on both sides. Your suggestions on all of these activities are very welcome!
Authors: Dr Gabriela Wülser, Anja Bretzler, Anne-Catherine Minnig