Using six priority themes, the "White Paper on Sustainability Research" outlines Switzerland's most urgent research needs in order to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
‘Sustainability’, far from being an objectively defined concept, is underpinned by assumptions, discursive elements, values and paradigms, many of which are implicit and even contradictory. These need to be identified and debated so that we can develop a shared vision of a sustainable future and a strategy for achieving it. The scientific community can support this societal process with research that is collaborative and inclusive.
Key unresolved questions
When it comes to values there is usually broad agreement within stable societies such as Switzerland. However,
these societal values are typically not explicit, may not be held by everyone, and may not even be consistent.
It is necessary to clarify these value systems, especially because the discourse on ‘sustainability’ often involves competing values that are difficult to reconcile.
What remains to be studied:
– How are values (re)produced and how can they be justified against the background of social conditions? What
processes and institutions enable some values to take
precedence over others, especially in terms of material resources and power relations?
– Who has the power and who – from an ethical perspective – should have the power to define what values are at stake? How might changes undermine values of other groups? What does this reveal about inequalities?
– How can diverse values be brought together, including
concerns for societal well-being, human health, environmental and economic imperatives, etc.?
– Switzerland has long-standing experience with the protection of natural resources, but its biodiversity is declining – including the loss of critical pollination capacity. In certain areas, our drinking water is polluted with
pesticides, and glaciers are melting at a dramatic pace.
How can our social and economic values and norms be made to include much stronger stewardship of natural resources? How can values of human health and well-being be made more inclusive of ecological considerations?
When it comes to visions, unresolved questions remain about how visions emerge through societal processes, and how the development of coherent sustainability visions can be stimulated. The aim of this research should be to learn from bottom-up processes, so that visions of sustainabil-
ity can emerge collectively rather than being imposed by powerful actors.
What remains to be understood is:
– What are societal visions, and what role do these visions play, especially regarding intergenerational responsibilities? Do visions actually have a deeper meaning for people or are they merely ‘constructed’ as part of planning processes or historical narratives?
– What are compelling visions of ‘the good life’, what do they mean for different social groups, and how could related imaginaries be interpreted in practice?
- How can visions be distinguished from the means that intrinsically depend on specific socio-cultural settings and political contexts?
– How can sustainability visions be conceptualized in relation to environmental resources? How can theories of human needs, or systems of provision for material/energy resources, contribute to a sustainable well-being paradigm? What interdisciplinary approaches would be useful in developing such concepts?
– What social and political processes are necessary to develop sustainability visions for Switzerland in its global
context – acknowledging interrelations and interde -
pendencies – and how can science contribute to such
When it comes to pathways, it is important to translate values and visions into practical actions that diverse groups can relate to in their everyday lives. Switzerland’s direct-democracy system offers one important mechanism for evolving pathways, but other types of participatory engagement are also possible and deserve to be investigated. Examples include many bottom-up institutions for
protecting the local environment and managing resources held in common.
What remains to be uncovered is:
– What are the workings of social change processes in relation to complexity? What is the role of digitalization
in these processes? How can systems change be under-
stood and supported?
– What factors were responsible for major societal changes in the past, including both gradual and disruptive changes, and what factors produced stability (i.e. resist-
ance to change)? To what extent are apparent transformations the cumulative effect of many small changes?
– How are changes proposed in our society and in what
way are different measures taken? How can social
change towards ‘sustainability’ be further supported, accelerated, and amplified?
– How can change be understood at different scales and with multiple actors, from policymakers to civil society and the private sector? How can underprivileged groups be included more effectively?
– How can vehicles such as citizen-led and multi-stake -
holder panels help to support efforts towards sustainable pathways, e.g. by accompanying the elaboration of the research agenda presented here – from the early stages of design, through implementation and assess -
– How can the normative dilemmas of socio-economic
pressure and the destruction of ecosystems be reconciled, considering the stakes of diverse actors? How can
the need for integrated knowledge and societal consensus be met?
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