Sustainability Science

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 81–93

Structuring complexity for tailoring research contributions to sustainable development: a framework

  • Gabriela Wuelser
  • Christian Pohl
  • Gertrude Hirsch Hadorn
Original Article

DOI: 10.1007/s11625-011-0143-3

Cite this article as:
Wuelser, G., Pohl, C. & Hirsch Hadorn, G. Sustain Sci (2012) 7: 81. doi:10.1007/s11625-011-0143-3


Research aiming at generating effective contributions to sustainable development faces particular complexity related challenges. This article proposes an analytical framework disentangling and structuring complexity issues with which research for sustainable development is confronted. Based on theoretical conceptions from fields like policy sciences and transdisciplinary research as well as on an in-depth analysis of the concept of sustainable development, three meta-perspectives on research for sustainable development are introduced and elaborated. The first perspective focuses on notions of sustainable development, sorting out the problem of unclear or ambiguous interpretations of the general sustainability objectives in specific contexts. The second perspective introduces a broad conception of the policy process representing the way societal change towards sustainable development is brought about. It supports identifying those academic and non-academic actors and stakeholders that are relevant for coming up with effective knowledge contributions. The third perspective identifies different forms of knowledge that are needed to tackle sustainability problems as well as the significance of their mutual interrelations. How the framework perspectives support reflecting on the fundamental complexity issues research for sustainable development is confronted with is illustrated using a case example from natural scientific research in the field of land use. We argue that meeting the complexity inherent in the concept of sustainable development requires joint learning in policy processes, working out shared visions being in line with the core objectives of sustainable development and generating knowledge about empirical, normative and pragmatic aspects.


Complexity Sustainable development Sustainability research Policy-oriented research Science-policy nexus Policy cultures Knowledge forms Science studies 

Copyright information

© Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science, United Nations University, and Springer 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gabriela Wuelser
    • 1
  • Christian Pohl
    • 1
    • 2
  • Gertrude Hirsch Hadorn
    • 3
  1. 1.Institute for Environmental DecisionsETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2., Swiss Academies of Arts and SciencesBernSwitzerland
  3. 3.Institute for Environmental DecisionsETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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