Skip to main content

Solution-focused sustainability research inspires change

Arnim Wiek portrait
July 15, 2013

Sustainability is complex, but most sustainability scientists acknowledge that it involves maintaining a healthy society, a healthy economy and a healthy environment over the course of many generations.

For more than a decade, sustainability scientists have worked to create knowledge and evidence in support of sustainability – by exploring things like energy-efficient technologies, social entrepreneurship initiatives or smart lifestyles.

But turning knowledge into action is easier said than done, according to Arnim Wiek and his international colleagues. Wiek is an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, and he studies the processes and methods that scientists follow when conducting sustainability research.

“Science in general,” says Wiek, “is largely dominated by describing and explaining the world, and only little inspired by transforming the world. The question is then: How do sustainability scientists move from ‘only’ describing and analyzing sustainability problems to actually contributing to sustainable solutions?”

Award-winning topic

This question was the topic of an award-winning paper by Wiek and his co-authors, titled From complex systems analysis to transformational change: a comparative appraisal of sustainability science projects. In July, the journal Sustainability Science designated the article as its 2012 Paper of the Year.

People are interested in this article because it examines real cases of how solutions-focused sustainability research is currently conducted. “I am grateful for this recognition,” says Wiek.

What makes this article particularly relevant, according to Wiek, is that it challenges the notion that sustainability scientists really deliver solutions to sustainability problems.

“The article shows that it is not easy to do solution-focused research, and it explores some of the reasons for this,” says Wiek. “We cannot just continue doing research we used to do – describing and explaining the world – and hope that the results will lead to real impact and progress towards sustainability.”

A study of five studies

The award-winning article examines five sustainability science studies across a broad range of topics, including water, bioenergy, land use, solar energy and urban development. The studies also cover a variety of locations – urban and rural, across different continents.

While the research methods varied among the five studies, they all addressed a sustainability problem, and all had the goal to develop viable solutions to the identified problems.

What the authors found is that it is hard to get all the pieces in place when conducting research that pursues sustainable solutions. Sustainability scientists have to think carefully about who is on the research team, who are the collaborating partners from professional practice, and what kind of knowledge needs to be created and combined.

Further, if the research is going to lead to solution options, who is going to implement them and are they even interested in solving the problem? Recent studies suggest that some stakeholders might prefer not to solve the problem because they benefit from the status quo.

Stakeholder buy-in is critical for developing viable solution options, so sustainability scientists need to engage with a broad range of perspectives and interests. Moreover, they must include people with the influence and ability to effect change.

From a scientific perspective, then, sustainability scientists need to carefully analyze both the problem and the stakeholders before beginning a solutions-focused participatory research effort.

Additionally, while it is easier to develop a solution option that is targeted to a specific location and specific stakeholders, we know that sustainability problems are global and diverse. Sustainability scientists therefore should gather enough evidence to be able to scale up and transfer their findings.

Sustainability science of the future

As competence and experience grow, and as scientists and stakeholders collaborate more effectively, transformational sustainability research will begin to lead to actionable knowledge that really has the potential to make a difference.  

The key, say the authors, is building capacity, agreement and legitimacy in research methods that can generate evidence-based solution options, while also clarifying expectations of the stakeholders who might implement these solutions. Once you have the right knowledge base, the right goals and the right influencers at the table, real change is possible.