Overline: Methods
Headline: Making Sustainability Research Deliver on Its Promise

What approach must sustainability research take in order to sucessfully advance the transformation toward a sustainable future? In a new publication, IASS Scientific Director Ortwin Renn outlines an approach that integrates different research concepts.

Sustainability research must combine different forms of knowledge to deliver on its promise
Sustainability research must combine different forms of knowledge to deliver on its promise

Sustainability science aims to improve our understanding of how we can secure humane living conditions for all and preserve the natural foundations of life. At first glance, the natural sciences would seem well suited for this task, with the social sciences playing a supporting role at best. However, knowledge alone does not lead to behaviour change. Confronted with new insights, we must weigh the consequences for the physical environment against other consequences for the economy and society.

Ortwin Renn's concept seeks to combine three approaches in sustainability research: (i) analytical, curiosity-driven, (ii) goal-oriented, strategic, and (iii) catalytic, formative approaches. Analytical knowledge creates the foundation for a better understanding of the interactions between human interventions in the natural environment and their consequences. Goal-oriented knowledge comprises the normative guiding concepts as well as the scenarios and options that build on these concepts in order to achieve certain goals, such as the energy transition, effectively and in a manner that is socially compatible and equitable. Catalytic knowledge helps actors in politics, business, and society to shape communicative and political decision-making processes.

According to Renn, the following three aspects are crucial to ensuring that sustainability research achieves its aims:

  • The integration of the three approaches (analytical, goal-oriented and catalytic) so that our understanding of critical challenges identified by society can be translated into actionable knowledge.
  • The dovetailing of knowledge generation and selection with socially legitimized objectives so that the concept of sustainability translates into political action.
  • The synthesis of the theoretical claim to explanation with the practical claim to efficacy. This requires the application of quality criteria for both knowledge generation and selection: The process must facilitate effective, fair, and informed judgment within the context of democratic decision-making.

According to Renn, the integration of these three approaches is essential to a transdisciplinary approach to the challenges of sustainable development. It is particularly important that factual knowledge about the consequences of actions be complemented with orientation knowledge in order to determine whether consequences can be deemed acceptable. This is not merely a matter of considering the relevant legal norms but also encompasses the ethical appraisal of consequences, their discursive negotiation within the framework of dialogues with the affected actors from politics, business and civil society, and their legitimation through democratic processes.

Renn, O. (2022). Anforderungen an ein tragfähiges Konzept der Nachhaltigkeitsforschung. Nachhaltigkeitsrecht: Zeitschrift für das Recht der nachhaltigen Entwicklung, 2(1), 6-17.