Sustainability Science

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 81–93 | Cite as

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

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


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 


  1. Arnstein SR (1969) Ladder of citizen participation. J Am Inst Plan 35(4):216–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bagamoyo College of Arts, Tanzania Theatre Centre, Mabala R, Allen KB (2002) Participatory action research on HIV/AIDS through a popular theatre approach in Tanzania. Eval Program Plan 25:333–339Google Scholar
  3. Becker E, Jahn T, Stiess E (1999) Exploring uncommon ground: sustainability and the social sciences. In: Becker E, Jahn T (eds) Sustainability and the social sciences. Zed Books Ltd, London, pp 1–22Google Scholar
  4. Berghöfer U, Berghöfer A (2006) Participation’ in development thinking—coming to grips with a truism and its critiques. In: Stoll-Kleemann S, Welp M (eds) Stakeholder dialogues in natural resources management theory and practice. Springer, Berlin, pp 79–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Boyce JK (1994) Inequality as a cause of environmental degradation. Ecol Econ 11(3):169–178CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brand K-W (2000) Nachhaltigkeitsforschung: Besonderheiten, Probleme und Erfordernisse eines neuen Forschungstypus. In: Brand K-W (ed) Nachhaltige Entwicklung und Transdisziplinarität: Besonderheiten, Probleme und Erfordernisse der Nachhaltigkeitsforschung. Analytica, Berlin, pp 9–28Google Scholar
  7. Brewer GD (1974) Policy sciences emerge—nurture and structure a discipline. Policy Sci 5(3):239–244CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brewer GD (2007) Inventing the future: scenarios, imagination, mastery and control. Sustain Sci 2(2):159–177. doi:10.1007/s11625-007-0028-7 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bridgman P, Davis G (2003) What use is a policy cycle? Plenty, if the aim is clear. Aust J Public Adm 62(3):98–102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Brown Weiss E (1989) In fairness to future generations; international law, common patrimony, and intergenerational equity. The United Nations University and Transnational Publishers, TokyoGoogle Scholar
  11. Checkland P (1994) Systems thinking, systems practice. Wiley, ChichesterGoogle Scholar
  12. Clark TW (2002) The policy process: a practical guide for natural resource professionals. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  13. Collins HM, Evans R (2002) The third wave of science studies: studies of expertise and experience. Soc Stud Sci 32(2):235–296CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Costanza R (2003) A vision of the future of science: reintegrating the study of humans and the rest of nature. Futures 35:651–671Google Scholar
  15. deLeon P (1999) The stages approach to the policy process: what has it done? Where is it going? In: Sabatier PA (ed) Theories of the policy process: theoretical lenses on public policy. Westview Press, Boulder, pp 19–33Google Scholar
  16. Dixon JA, Fallon LA (1989) The concept of sustainability: origins, extensions, and usefulness for policy. Environment Department, Policy and Research Division Working Paper 1989-1. World Bank, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  17. Elzinga A (1996) Shaping worldwide consensus—the orchestration of global climate change research. In: Elzinga A, Landström C (eds) Internationalism and science. Taylor Graham Publishing, Cambridge, pp 223–253Google Scholar
  18. Elzinga A, Jamison A (1995) Changing policy agendas in science and technology. In: Jasanoff S, Markle GE, Petersen JC, Pinch TJ (eds) Handbook of science and technology studies. Sage, Thousand Oaks, pp 572–597Google Scholar
  19. Fergus AHT, Rowney JIA (2005) Sustainable development: lost meaning and opportunity? J Bus Ethics 60:17–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Funtowicz S, Ravetz J, O’Connor M (1998) Challenges in the use of science for sustainable development. Int J Sustain Dev 1(1):99–107CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gallie WB (1956) Essentially contested concepts. Proc Aristot Soc 56:167–198Google Scholar
  22. Gass G, Biggs S, Kelly A (1997) Stakeholders, science and decision making for poverty-focused rural mechanization research and development. World Dev 25(1):115–126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Grunwald A (2004) Strategic knowledge for sustainable development. The need for reflexivity and learning at the interface between science and society. Int J Foresight Innov Policy 1:150–167CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Grunwald A, Kopfmüller J (2006) Nachhaltigkeit. Campus, FrankfurtGoogle Scholar
  25. Hage M, Leroy P, Petersen AC (2010) Stakeholder participation in environmental knowledge production. Futures 42(3):254–264CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hindenlang KE, Heeb J, Roux M (2008) Sustainable coexistence of ungulates and trees: a stakeholder platform for resource use negotiations. In: Hirsch Hadorn G, Hoffmann-Riem H, Biber-Klemm S et al (eds) Handbook of transdisciplinary research. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 315–326CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hirsch Hadorn G, Brun G (2007) Ethische Probleme nachhaltiger Entwicklung. In: SAGW (ed) Nachhaltige Entwicklung. Nachhaltigkeitsforschung. Perspektiven der Sozial- und Geisteswissenschaften. Schweizerische Akademie der Geistes und Sozialwissenschaften, Bern, pp 235–253Google Scholar
  28. Hirsch Hadorn G, Bradley D, Pohl C, Rist S, Wiesmann U (2006) Implications of transdisciplinarity for sustainability research. Ecol Econ 60:119–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hirsch Hadorn G, Hoffmann-Riem H, Biber-Klemm S, Grossenbacher W, Joye D, Pohl C, Wiesmann U, Zemp E (2008) The emergence of transdisciplinarity as a form of research. In: Hirsch Hadorn G, Hoffmann-Riem H, Biber-Klemm S et al (eds) Handbook of transdisciplinary research. Springer, Heidelberg, pp 19–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hisschemöller M, Cuppen E, Dunn WN (2009) Stakeholder dialogue as a social experiment. ESF workshop mapping interfaces: the future of knowledge. Reykjavik, IcelandGoogle Scholar
  31. Hornby AS (1995) Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary of current English. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  32. Howard C (2005) The policy cycle: a model of post-Machiavellian policy making? Aust J Public Adm 64(3):3–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hubert B, Meuret M, Bonnemaire J (2008) Shepherds, sheep and forest fires: a reconception of grazingland management. In: Hirsch Hadorn G, Hoffmann-Riem H, Biber-Klemm S et al (eds) Handbook of transdisciplinary research. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 103–126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hueston WD (2003) Science, politics and animal health policy: epidemiology in action. Prev Vet Med 60:3–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Jabareen Y (2008) A new conceptual framework for sustainable development. Environ Dev Sustain 10:179–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Jacobs M (1999) Sustainable development as a contested concept. In: Dobson A (ed) Fairness and futurity. University Press, Oxford, pp 21–45Google Scholar
  37. Jann W, Wegrich K (2007) Theories of the policy cycle. In: Fischer F, Miller GJ, Sidney MS (eds) Handbook of public policy analysis—theory, politics and methods. Taylor & Francis Group, Boca Raton, pp 43–62Google Scholar
  38. Jantsch E (1972) Towards interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in education and innovation. In: Center for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) OECD (ed) Problems of teaching and research in universities, Paris, pp 97–121Google Scholar
  39. Jasanoff S, Wynne B (1998) Science and decision making. In: Rayner S, Malone EL (eds) Human choice and climate change. Battelle Press, Ohio, pp 1–87Google Scholar
  40. Jerneck A, Olsson L, Ness B, Anderberg S, Baier M, Clark E, Hickler T, Hornborg A, Kronsell A, Lövbrand E, Persson J (2010) Structuring sustainability science. Sustain Sci 1–14. doi:10.1007/s11625-010-0117-x
  41. Kates RW, Parris TM, Leiserowitz AA (2005) What is sustainable development? Goals, indicators, values, and practice. Environment 47(3):8–21Google Scholar
  42. Koontz TM, Moore Johnson E (2004) One size does not fit all: matching breadth of stakeholder participation to watershed group accomplishments. Policy Sci 37:185–204CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lafferty WM, Langhelle O (1999) Sustainable development as concept and norm. In: Lafferty WM, Langhelle O (eds) Towards sustainable development. On the goals of development—and the conditions of sustainability. Macmillan, Basingstoke, pp 1–29Google Scholar
  44. Lasswell HD (1971) A pre-view of policy sciences. American Elsevier, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  45. Lasswell HD (1972) Communications research and public policy. Public Opin Q 36(3):301–310. doi:10.1086/268012 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lawrence JES, Cook TJ (1982) Designing useful evaluations: the stakeholder survey. Eval Program Plan 5(4):327–336CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lélé SM (1991) Sustainable development: a critical review. World Dev 19(6):607–621CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. MacMynowski DP (2007) Pausing at the brink of interdisciplinarity: power and knowledge at the meeting of social and biophysical science. Ecol Soc 12(1):20.
  49. Messerli B, Messerli P (2008) From local projects in the Alps to global change programmes in the mountains of the world: milestones in transdisciplinary research. In: Hirsch Hadorn G, Hoffmann-Riem H, Biber-Klemm S et al (eds) Handbook of transdisciplinary research. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 43–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Meyer LH (2008) Intergenerational justice. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (fall 2008 edition).
  51. Midgley G (2003) Systems thinking. SAGE, LondonGoogle Scholar
  52. Mitcham C (1995) The concept of sustainable development: its origins and ambivalence. Technol Soc 17(3):311–326CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Mitchell RK, Agle BR, Wood DJ (1997) Toward a theory of stakeholder identification and salience: defining the principle of who and what really counts. Acad Manag Rev 22(4):853–886Google Scholar
  54. Mittelstrass J (1987) Die Stunde der Interdisziplinarität? In: Kocka J (ed) Interdisziplinarität. Praxis—Herausforderung—Ideologie. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, pp 152–157Google Scholar
  55. Mushove P, Vogel C (2005) Heads or tails? Stakeholder analysis as a tool for conservation area management. Glob Environ Change Hum Policy Dimens 15(3):184–198Google Scholar
  56. Noelting B, Voß J-P, Hayn D (2004) Nachhaltigkeitsforschung—jenseits von Disziplinierung und anything goes. GAIA 13(4):254–261Google Scholar
  57. Norse D, Tschirley JB (2000) Links between science and policy making. Agric Ecosyst Environ 82:15–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Oreskes N, Conway EM (2010) Merchants of doubt: how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. Bloomsbury Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  59. Ostrom E (2009) A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325(5939):419–422CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Pannell DJ, Roberts AM (2009) Conducting and delivering integrated research to influence land-use policy: salinity policy in Australia. Environ Sci Policy 12(8):1088–1098. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2008.12.005 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Parkin S (2000) Sustainable development: the concept and the practical challenge. Civ Eng 138:3–8Google Scholar
  62. Parris TM, Kates RW (2003) Characterizing a sustainability transition: goals, targets, trends, and driving forces. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 100(14):8068–8073. doi:10.1073/pnas.1231336100 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Pohl C (2008) From science to policy through transdisciplinary research. Environ Sci Policy 11(1):46–53. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2007.06.001 Google Scholar
  64. Pohl C, Hirsch Hadorn G (2007) Principles for designing transdisciplinary research—proposed by the swiss academies of arts and sciences. Oekom Verlag, MünchenGoogle Scholar
  65. Pohl C, Rist S, Zimmermann A, Fry P, Gurung GS, Schneider F, Speranza CI, Kiteme B, Boillat S, Serrano E, Hadorn GH, Wiesmann U (2010) Researchers’ roles in knowledge co-production: experience from sustainability research in Kenya, Switzerland, Bolivia and Nepal. Sci Public Policy 37(4):267–281. doi:10.3152/030234210X496628 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. ProClim/CASS (1997) Research on sustainability and global change—visions in science policy by Swiss researchers. CASS/SANW, BerneGoogle Scholar
  67. Quevauviller P, Balabanis P, Fragakis C, Weydert M, Oliver M, Kaschl A, Arnold G, Kroll A, Galbiati L, Zaldivar JM, Bidoglio G (2005) Science-policy integration needs in support of the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive. Environ Sci Policy 8:203–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Redclift M (1992) The meaning of sustainable development. Geoforum 23(3):395–403CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Reed MS, Graves A, Dandy N, Posthumus H, Hubacek K, Morris J, Prell C, Quinn CH, Stringer LC (2009) Who’s in and why? A typology of stakeholder analysis methods for natural resource management. J Environ Manag 90(5):1933–1949. doi:10.1016/J.Jenvman.2009.01.001 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Robinson J (2004) Squaring the circle? Some thoughts on the idea of sustainable development. Ecol Econ 48(4):369–384. doi:10.1016/J.Ecolecon.2003.10.017 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Sabatier PA (1999) The need for better theories. In: Sabatier PA (ed) Theories of the policy process: theoretical lenses on public policy. Westview Press, Boulder, pp 3–17Google Scholar
  72. Schellnhuber HJ (1999) ‘Earth System’ analysis and the second Copernican revolution. Nature 402(Supp 2):C19–C23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Sneddon C, Howarth RB, Norgaard RB (2006) Sustainable development in a post-Brundtland world. Ecol Econ 57(2):253–268. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2005.04.013 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Start D, Hovland I (2004) Tools for policy impact: a handbook for researchers. Research and Policy in Development, Overseas Development Institute, LondonGoogle Scholar
  75. Strang V (2009) Integrating the social and natural sciences in environmental research: a discussion paper. Environ Dev Sustain 11:1–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Thompson J, Scoones I (2009) Addressing the dynamics of agri-food systems: an emerging agenda for social science research. Environ Sci Policy 12(4):386–397CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. UN (1993) Agenda 21: earth summit—The United Nations Programme of Action from Rio. United Nations, Department of Public Information, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  78. UN (2000) United Nations Millennium Declaration. A/RES/55/2, Section II, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  79. Voss J-P, Kemp R (2006) Sustainability and reflexive governance: introduction. In: Voss J-P, Bauknecht D, Kemp R (eds) Reflexive governance for sustainable development. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, pp 3–28Google Scholar
  80. WCED (1987) Our common future. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  81. Weber M (1962) Basic concepts in sociology. Citadel Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  82. Weiss TG (2000) Governance, good governance and global governance: conceptual and actual challenges. Third World Q 21(5):795–814CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Williams CC, Millington AC (2004) The diverse and contested meanings of sustainable development. Geogr J 170(2):99–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Wolf S, Eugster W, Potvin C, Buchmann N (2011a) Strong seasonal variations in net ecosystem CO(2) exchange of a tropical pasture and afforestation in Panama. Agric For Meteorol 151(8):1139–1151CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Wolf S, Eugster W, Potvin C, Turner B, Buchmann N (2011b) Carbon sequestration potential of tropical pasture compared with afforestation in Panama. Glob Change Biol 17(9):2763–2780CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Wynne B (1991) Knowledges in context. Sci Technol Hum Values 16(1):111–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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

Personalised recommendations