What does transformative research for sustainability look like?

Composite image of a segment of the sun showing different light wavelengths

by Patrick van Zwanenberg, Hallie Eakin, Ethemcan Turhan, Mutizwa Mukute and Fiona Marshall

Efforts to nurture more sustainable, just futures are happening all around us, albeit in the context of a rapidly changing and highly unequal world that is on the brink of irrevocably dismantling the ecological foundations that sustain human life. The researchers and partner organizations in the Transformations to Sustainability Programme are learning from and accompanying some of those ongoing efforts, in order to shed light on key processes in transformative change, and to better understand how such efforts might be facilitated, adapted, joined up and enhanced across different contexts and scales.

While the overarching goals are quite similar, each of the three networks associated with the programme is approaching ‘transformative research for sustainability’ in different ways. We recently had an opportunity to reflect on the differences, and the synergies between our approaches, following the Transformations 2017 conference in Dundee.

Looking at different wavelengths

Each of our networks brings a particular lens to the enormously complex issue of sustainability transformations. The metaphor of satellites circling the Earth emerged in one of our discussions, with the planet and its social and ecological complexity the subject of our collective interest and focus. Nevertheless, each ‘satellite’ – or each research network – is focusing on different wavelengths of light emanating from Earth, capturing potentially high-resolution insights into specific dimensions of transformative change processes. But a complete picture of transformation would need engagement with and across all these wavelengths (and others that were not yet being monitored or understood).

The PATHWAYS network involves a wide range of disciplinary perspectives including development studies and science and technology studies. It engages diverse sets of actors in participatory processes to explore alternative framings of problems, and novel ideas for moving towards more just and sustainable configurations of socio-technical-ecological systems. More metaphorically, the Pathways network is honing in on the ‘wavelength’ of the politics of knowledge, and in particular the social interactions that enable alternative, more sustainable directions of change to be realized. This includes both the processes through which possibilities for alternative trajectories of change become recognized, and through which they are able to gain traction.

The ACKNOWL-EJ network, informed by Latin American perspectives on power dynamics and Indian work on alternative transformations, focuses on the co-production of academic/activist knowledge about local community resistance to extractive industries. Its teams are learning from historical experiences of community-led resistance and change, and are working with place-based communities to better understand and identify opportunities for defending and developing more sustainable and just forms of resource use. To continue with our metaphor, the ACKNOWL-EJ network is honing in on the ‘wavelength’ of resistance to unsustainable practices in highly conflictive situations, and the practices for nurturing transformative change that this can precipitate.

The T-LEARNING network, informed by socio-ecological-systems perspectives, political ecology, and expansive, dialogical, and reflexive social learning theory, focuses on supporting radical social learning on issues and at sites involving simultaneous food-water-energy-climate-social justice challenges. Metaphorically, the T-LEARNING network is honing in on the ‘wavelength’ of the learning involved in fostering forms of human activity and social practice that are more sustainable and socially just.

Beyond ‘looking’

Our work extends beyond the realms of the satellite metaphor. The teams in each of our networks are not only observing and attempting to understand; we are actively engaged and interacting with (transformative) change processes in disparate locations across the globe, and indeed also with each other, within and between networks.

Our three networks, taken together, comprise research teams based in 17 different countries on five continents, most of which are low and middle-income countries. This truly global meta network – unusual for international research projects – is important not least because we appreciate that sustainability challenges, desired solutions, and the agents and processes assumed to be central to trying to achieve particular ends, are highly dependent on context, and are deeply contested. We share a normative concern that sustainability transformations, in whatever form and direction they might take, need to be both environmentally viable and socially just, and recognize that this requires particular attention to how the perspectives and concerns of vulnerable and marginalized people play out in debates about desired (sustainable) futures, and in processes of social-ecological change.

Beyond that broad shared framing, our theoretical lenses and research foci are quite distinctive. Nevertheless, our brief time together in Dundee suggested that we have a number of analytical and strategic ambitions in common, and that there are potentially many complementarities and synergies between our different approaches.

What do we have in common?

Systemic contexts

Each network, and within each network each team, is working at different scales within wider systems, whether that be with specific place-based communities, or local networks of actors. But we all understand our work with particular groups and networks in relation to the need for transformation of the broader socio-technical-ecological systems in which they are located. As such, we are all attempting to reflect on how relatively localized activities interact with and can influence processes in higher ‘system’ levels.

For example, the ACKNOWL-EJ network, which focuses on working with and within grassroots movements confronting environmental injustice, is interested in how radical collective agency is and might best be mobilized and exercised strategically in more formal legal and policy contexts, and how ideas about environmental justice can be translated across different political and cultural contexts.

The PATHWAYS network, which focuses on how multi-stakeholder interactions can create and nurture new ideas and initiatives in particular socio-technical-ecological systems, is interested in how such processes might, amongst other things, help to ‘reframe’ and shift mainstream policy agendas and policy initiatives, for example, in relation to how city or national governments set priorities for ‘sustainable’ energy, agricultural and urban futures, and the concrete ways in which they intervene to achieve those visions.

The T-LEARNING network, which focuses on the transformative and transgressive learning involved in bringing sustainability ideas into practice, is interested in how such forms of social learning can lead to new forms of individual and collective agency, and how this can catalyze social change within wider socio-ecological systems.

Alliances and coalitions

We are exploring various mechanisms through which this kind of higher ‘system’ level influence might be pursued.

  • For example, several teams are interested in how the formation of novel kinds of alliances and coalitions – with more powerful actors, and/or actors with complementary resources (of say expertise, organizational capacity or political authority) – can help to expand the capabilities and reach of networks of people who are already engaged in trying to create more equitable and sustainable practices.
  • Or how coalitions between actors that otherwise have different interests, priorities and motivations can build support for strategies that simultaneously address sustainability and other development ambitions.
  • Or how new kinds of alliances can also help shift understandings of problems; such as persuading urban elites and governments that decentralized approaches to waste and water management, and constructive engagement with the informal sector, can better support the health and livelihoods of urban residents than mainstream singular technocratic approaches; or of persuading state actors that support for agro-ecological production should not be seen only as a matter of social welfare policy, to support communities who are marginalized from mainstream agricultural activity, but also one of agricultural innovation per se.

Knowledge systems matter

Here the common tactical interest is in better understanding and engaging with the knowledge systems and social and political infrastructures of sustainability transformations. Specifically how activities and interventions with and within place-based communities or with relatively small networks of actors can help to challenge the various forms of discursive and institutional power – that provide, respectively, the narrative ‘glue’ and policy support and authority for unsustainable and inequitable systems – and how those forms of power can be shifted in ways that can facilitate more sustainable system configurations and practices.

What do our projects add up to?

Beyond this shared strategic ambition (and no doubt others too), we also think that our distinct foci and activities begin to ‘add up’ to a broader picture of what doing transformative research for sustainability can involve. Our respective attention to and insights into new forms of learning, the creation of collective agency, processes of mobilization and resistance, efforts to reframe sustainability problems and solutions, the creation of novel alliances and coalitions, and processes of experimentation and social innovation starts to bundle various of our metaphorical ‘wavelengths’ together into a more multi-dimensional, living assemblage of what transformative research for sustainability might involve.

Even a brief meeting, between only a few of the members of our respective networks, was informative in terms of beginning to reflect on how we are trying to do ‘transformative research for sustainability’. We hope to continue that conversation, both amongst ourselves, and with the many other scholarly and community perspectives through which transformations to sustainability are being imagined.

Patrick van Zwanenberg, Hallie Eakin, and Fiona Marshall are members of the PATHWAYS Network project team. Ethemcan Turhan is part of the ACKNOWL-EJ Network team and Mutizwa Mukute is part of the T-LEARNING Network team.

This is a slightly edited text of a blog post that first appeared on the Transformations to Sustainability website. It is reproduced by permission of the authors. You can view the original article here.