Sustainability Science

, Volume 7, Supplement 1, pp 25–43 | Cite as

Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges

  • Daniel J. LangEmail author
  • Arnim Wiek
  • Matthias Bergmann
  • Michael Stauffacher
  • Pim Martens
  • Peter Moll
  • Mark Swilling
  • Christopher J. Thomas
Special Feature: Original Article Sustainability science: bridging the gap between science and society


There is emerging agreement that sustainability challenges require new ways of knowledge production and decision-making. One key aspect of sustainability science, therefore, is the involvement of actors from outside academia into the research process in order to integrate the best available knowledge, reconcile values and preferences, as well as create ownership for problems and solution options. Transdisciplinary, community-based, interactive, or participatory research approaches are often suggested as appropriate means to meet both the requirements posed by real-world problems as well as the goals of sustainability science as a transformational scientific field. Dispersed literature on these approaches and a variety of empirical projects applying them make it difficult for interested researchers and practitioners to review and become familiar with key components and design principles of how to do transdisciplinary sustainability research. Starting from a conceptual model of an ideal–typical transdisciplinary research process, this article synthesizes and structures such a set of principles from various strands of the literature and empirical experiences. We then elaborate on them, looking at challenges and some coping strategies as experienced in transdisciplinary sustainability projects in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, and Asia. The article concludes with future research needed in order to further enhance the practice of transdisciplinary sustainability research.


Transdisciplinary sustainability research Design principles Challenges Evaluation 



We would like to thank the four anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on previous versions of this article. Furthermore, we want to thank Christopher Lüderitz and Rob Cutter for their helpful assistance. We acknowledge the feedback from the participants in the session on “Solution-oriented transdisciplinary research for sustainable development” at the 2nd International Conference on Sustainability Science (ICSS 2010), Sapienza University Rome, Italy, June 23–25, 2010, on critical issues discussed in this article. Arnim Wiek acknowledges support through the Swiss National Science Foundation grant PA0011-115315.


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Copyright information

© Springer 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel J. Lang
    • 1
    Email author
  • Arnim Wiek
    • 2
  • Matthias Bergmann
    • 1
    • 3
  • Michael Stauffacher
    • 4
  • Pim Martens
    • 1
    • 5
  • Peter Moll
    • 6
  • Mark Swilling
    • 7
  • Christopher J. Thomas
    • 8
  1. 1.Institute of Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research, Faculty SustainabilityLeuphana University of LüneburgLüneburgGermany
  2. 2.School of SustainabilityArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  3. 3.Institute for Social-Ecological ResearchFrankfurt am MainGermany
  4. 4.Institute for Environmental Decisions (IED), Natural and Social Science Interface (NSSI)ETH ZurichZürichSwitzerland
  5. 5.International Centre for Integrated Assessment and Sustainable Development (ICIS)Maastricht UniversityMaastrichtThe Netherlands
  6. 6.Science DevelopmentWuppertalGermany
  7. 7.School of Public LeadershipUniversity of StellenboschBellvilleSouth Africa
  8. 8.Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural SciencesAberystwyth UniversityPenglaisWales, UK

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