Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development

Abstract

The emerging academic field focused on sustainability has been engaged in a rich and converging debate to define what key competencies are considered critical for graduating students to possess. For more than a decade, sustainability courses have been developed and taught in higher education, yet comprehensive academic programs in sustainability, on the undergraduate and graduate level, have emerged only over the last few years. Considering this recent institutional momentum, the time is seemingly right to synthesize the discussion about key competencies in sustainability in order to support these relatively young academic programs in shaping their profiles and achieving their ambitious missions. This article presents the results of a broad literature review. The review identifies the relevant literature on key competencies in sustainability; synthesizes the substantive contributions in a coherent framework of sustainability research and problem-solving competence; and addresses critical gaps in the conceptualization of key competencies in sustainability. Insights from this study lay the groundwork for institutional advancements in designing and revising academic programs; teaching and learning evaluations; as well as hiring and training faculty and staff.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Notes

  1. 1.

    Some scholars articulate apprehension regarding the term ‘sustainability science’ (e.g., Hirsch Hadorn et al. 2006). Even if used in a broad sense including natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, other important fields addressing sustainability issues such as engineering, business, design, and planning are not sufficiently captured and recognized under the term ‘science’. With the formulation used above, we propose to overcome all of these demarcations as the field develops its genuine program beyond disciplinary anchoring (Wiek et al. 2010).

  2. 2.

    This is a selected list of sustainability programs worldwide. The indicated universities are the pioneering ones to offer a PhD program specifically in Sustainability (Science); with the exception of Harvard University, which offers doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships in Sustainability Science. The PhD-granting programs are all members of the nascent International Network of Programs in Sustainability. All PhD programs were initiated between 2007 and 2010.

  3. 3.

    Envisioning methods are a good example of methods that require two ore more competencies to be employed effectively. Here, envisioning requires anticipatory competence, as visions are future oriented, and normative competence, as they focus on desirable future states.

References

  1. Baartman LKJ, Bastiaens TJ, Kirschner PA, Van der Vleuten CPM (2007) Evaluation assessment quality in competence-based education: a qualitative comparison of two frameworks. Educ Res Rev 2:114–129

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bäckstrand K (2003) Civic science for sustainability: reframing the role of experts, policy-makers and citizens in environmental governance. Glob Environ Polit 3(4):24–41

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bammer G (2005) Integration and implementation sciences: building a new specialization. Ecol and Soc 10: article 6

  4. Barth M, Godemann J, Rieckman M, Stoltenberg U (2007) Developing key competences for sustainable development in higher education. Int J Sust Higher Educ 8(4):416–430

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Blackstock KL, Carter CE (2007) Operationalising sustainability science for a sustainability directive? Reflecting on three pilot projects. Geogr J 173(4):343–357

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bowden J, Marton F (1998) The university of learning: beyond quality and competence in higher education. Kogan, London

  7. Brown LR (2008) Plan B 3.0—mobilizing to save civilization. Norton, New York

  8. Brundiers K, Wiek A (2011) Sustainability research education in real-world settings—vision and implementation. Innov High Educ 36:107–124

  9. Brundiers K, Wiek A, Redman CL (2010) Real-world learning opportunities in sustainability—concept, competencies, and implementation. Int J Sust Higher Educ 11(4):308–324

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Burke JW (1989) Competence-based education and training. Falmer, London

    Google Scholar 

  11. Byrne J (2000) From policy to practice: creating education for a sustainable future. In: Wheeler KA, Bijur AP (eds) Education for a sustainable future: a paradigm of hope for the 21st century. Kluwer/Plenum, New York, pp 35–72

    Google Scholar 

  12. Clark W (2003) Institutional needs for sustainability science. Posted to the Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability (available: http://sustsci.harvard.edu/ists/docs/clark_governance4ss_030905.pdf)

  13. Clark WC, Dickson NM (2003) Sustainability science: the emerging research program. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 100(14):8059–8061

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Clayton AMH, Radcliffe NJ (1996) Sustainability: a systems approach. Westview, Boulder

    Google Scholar 

  15. Collingridge D (1980) The social control of technology. St. Martin’s, New York

  16. Crofton F (2000) Educating for sustainability: opportunities in undergraduate engineering. J Clean Prod 8(5):397–405

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Cusick J (2008) Operationalizing sustainability education at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Int J Sust Higher Educ 9(3):246–257

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Dale A, Newman L (2005) Sustainable development, education and literacy. Int J Sust Higher Educ 6(4):351–362

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. de Haan G (2006) The BLK ‘21’ programme in Germany: a ‘Gestaltungskompetenz’-based model for education for sustainable development. Environ Educ Res 1:19–32

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Earth Institute at Columbia University (2008) Report from the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice. New York: Earth Institute at Columbia University and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

  21. Geels F (2005) Technological transitions and system innovations: a co-evolutionary and socio-technical analysis. Elgar, Cheltenham

    Google Scholar 

  22. Gibson R (2006) Sustainability assessment: basic components of a practical approach. Impact Assess Project Apprais 24:170–182

    Article  Google 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(1–2):150–167

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Grunwald A (2007) Working towards sustainable development in the face of uncertainty and incomplete knowledge. J Environ Policy Plan 9(3):245–262

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Guston D (2008) Innovation policy: not just a jumbo shrimp. Nature 454:940–941

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Hirsch Hadorn G, Bradley D, Pohl C, Rist S, Wiesmann U (2006) Implications of transdisciplinarity for sustainability research. Ecol Econ 60:119–128

    Google Scholar 

  27. Hyland T (2006) Competence, knowledge and education. J Philos Educ 27:57–68

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Jucker R (2002) “Sustainability? Never heard of it!” some basics we should not ignore when engaging in education for sustainability. Int J Sust Higher Educ 3(1):8–18

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Kajikawa Y (2008) Research core and framework of sustainability science. Sust Sci 3(2):215–239

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Kates RW, Clark WC, Corell R, Hall JM, Jaeger CC et al (2001) Sustainability science. Science 292(5517):641–642

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Kearins K, Springett D (2003) Educating for sustainability: developing critical skills. J Manag Educ 27(2):188–204

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Kelly P (2006) Letter from the oasis: helping engineering students to become sustainability professionals. Futures 38:696–707

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Kemp R, Parto S, Gibson R (2005) Governance for sustainable development: moving from theory to practice. Int J Sust Dev 8:12–30

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Kevany K (2007) Building the requisite capacity for stewardship and sustainable development. Int J Sust Higher Educ 8(2):107–122

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Komiyama H, Takeuchi K (2006) Sustainability science: building a new discipline. Sust Sci 1(1):1–6

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Loorbach D (2007) Transition management: new mode of governance for sustainable development. International Books, Utrecht

  37. Loorbach D, Rotmans J (2006) Managing transitions for sustainable development. In: Olshoorn X, Wieczorek AJ (eds) Understanding industrial transformation—views from different disciplines. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 187–206

    Google Scholar 

  38. Major E, Asch D, Cordey-Hayes M (2001) Foresight as a core competence. Futures 33:91–107

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. McArthur JW, Sachs J (2009) Needed: a new generation of problem solvers. Chron High Educ 55(40):A64–A66

    Google Scholar 

  40. McIntosh D (2001) The uses and limits of the model United Nations in an international relations classroom. Int Stud Perspect 2:269–280

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. McKeown R, Hopkins C (2003) EE ≠ ESD: defusing the worry. Environ Educ Res 9(1):117–128

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Meadows DL et al (1974) Dynamics of growth in a finite world. Pegasus, Waltham

    Google Scholar 

  43. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) (2005) Ecosystems and human well-being. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 3 volumes. Island, Washington

  44. Nakicenovic N, Alcamo J, Davis G, de Vries B, Fenhann J et al (2000) Special report on emissions scenarios: a special report of working group III of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  45. Orr D (2002) Four challenges of sustainability. Conserv Biol 16:1457–1460

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Ospina G (2000) Education for sustainable development: a local and international challenge. Prospects 30(1):31–40

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Ostrom E (2009) A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325:419–422

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  48. Parkin S, Johnston A, Buckland H, Brookes F, White E (2004) Learning and skills for sustainable development: developing a sustainability literate society. Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability (HEPS), London

  49. Perrow C (1984) Normal accidents: living with high-risk technologies. Basic Books, New York

  50. Porter T, Córdoba J (2009) Three views of systems theories and their implications for sustainability education. J Manag Educ 33:323–347

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Raskin P, Banuri T, Gallopin G, Gutman P, Hammond A, Kates R, Swart R (2002) Great transition: the promise and lure of the times ahead. Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm

  52. Ravetz J (2000) Integrated assessment for sustainability appraisal in cities and regions. Environ Impact Assess Rev 2000(20):31–64

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Robinson J (2003) Future subjunctive: backcasting as social learning. Futures 35: 839–856

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Robinson J (2008) Being undisciplined—transgressions and intersections in academia and beyond. Futures 40:70–86

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Rockström J, Steffen W, Noone K, Persson A, Chapin FS et al (2009) A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461:472–475

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Rowe D (2007) Education for a sustainable future. Science 317(5836):323–324

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  57. Rowe G, Frewer L (2005) A typology of public engagement mechanisms. Sci Technol Hum Val 30:251–290

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Salomon G (ed) (1993) Distributed cognitions: psychological and educational considerations. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  59. Sarewitz D, Kriebel D (2010) The Sustainable Solutions Agenda. Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, Arizona State University and Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts, Lowell

  60. Scholz RW, Lang DJ, Wiek A, Walter AI, Stauffacher M (2006) Transdisciplinary case studies as a means of sustainability learning: historical framework and theory. Int J Sustain Higher Educ 7:226–251

    Google Scholar 

  61. Segalas J, Ferrer-Balas D, Svanstrom M, Lundqvist U, Mulder KF (2009) What has to be learnt for sustainability? A comparison of bachelor engineering education competencies at three European universities. Sust Sci 4(1):17–27

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Shephard K (2007) Higher education for sustainability: seeking affective outcomes. Int J Sust Higher Edu 9(1):87–98

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Sipos Y, Battisti B, Grimm K (2008) Achieving transformative sustainability learning: engaging heads, hands and heart. Int J Sust in Higher Educ 9(1):68–86

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Spady WG (1994) Outcome-based education: critical issues and answers. American Association of School Administrators, Arlington

  65. Steiner G, Posch A (2006) Higher education for sustainability by means of transdisciplinary case studies: an innovative approach for solving complex, real-world problems. J Clean Prod 14(9–11):877–890

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Sterling S (1996) Education in change. In: Huckle J, Sterling S (eds) Education for sustainability. Earthscan, London, pp 18–39

  67. Sterling S (2001) Sustainable education—re-visioning learning and change. Schumacher Briefing No. 6. Green Books, Dartington

  68. Sterling S, Thomas I (2006) Education for sustainability: the role of capabilities in guiding university curricula. Int J Innov Sust Dev 1(4):349–370

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. Sterman JD (2002) All models are wrong: reflections on becoming a systems scientist. Syst Dynamics Rev 18(4):501–531

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Svanström M, Lozano-García FJ, Rowe D (2008) Learning outcomes for sustainable development in higher education. Int J Sust Higher Educ 9(3):339–351

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Swart RJ, Raskin P, Robinson J (2004) The problem of the future: sustainability science and scenario analysis. Glob Environ Chang 14(2):137–146

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Talwar S, Wiek A, Robinson J (2011) User engagement in sustainability research. Sci Public Policy (in press)

  73. The Cloud Institute (2010) Education for sustainability. Online source (retrieved January 4, 2010): http://www.sustainabilityed.org/education/

  74. Turner BL II, Robbins P (2008) Land-change science and political ecology: similarities, differences, and implications for sustainability science. Annu Rev Environ Resour 33:295–316

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Turner BL II, Matson PA, McCarthy JJ, Corell RW, Christensen L et al (2003) Illustrating the coupled human-environment system for vulnerability analysis—three case studies. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 100:8080–8085

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  76. van Dam-Mieras R, Lansu A, Rieckmann M, Michelsen G (2008) Development of an interdisciplinary, intercultural master’s program in sustainability: learning from the richness of diversity. Innov High Educ 32(4):251–264

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. van Kerkhoff L, Lebel L (2006) Linking knowledge and action for sustainable development. Annu Rev Environ Resources 31:445–477

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Voorhees RA (2001) Competence-based learning models: a necessary future. New Dir Instit Res 110:5–13

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Wals A, Jickling B (2002) Sustainability in higher education: from doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. Int J Sust Higher Educ 3(3):221–232

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Warburton K (2003) Deep learning and education for sustainability. Int J Sust Higher Educ 4(1):44–56

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. Welsh MA, Murray DL (2003) The ecollaborative: teaching sustainability through critical pedagogy. J Manag Educ 27(2):220–235

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. Wiek A (2010) Transformative sustainability science. Working Paper. School of Sustainability. Arizona State University

  83. Wiek A, Walter A (2009) A transdisciplinary approach for formalized integrated planning and decision-making in complex systems. Eur J Oper Res 197(1):360–370

    Article  Google Scholar 

  84. Wiek A, Withycombe L, Redman CL (2010) From eclectic to genuine sustainability curricula in higher education. Working Paper. School of Sustainability. Arizona State University

  85. Wiek A, Withycombe L, Redman CL (2011) Moving forward on competencies in sustainability. Environment- Sci Policy Sustain Dev 53:3–13

    Google Scholar 

  86. Willard M, Wiedmeyer C, Flint RW, Weedon JS, Woodward R, Feldmand I, Edwards M (2010) The sustainability professional: 2010 competency survey report. International Society of Sustainability Professionals

  87. Withycombe L, Wiek A (2010) Anticipatory competence as a key competence in sustainability. Working Paper. School of Sustainability. Arizona State University

  88. WCED (1987) Our common future. World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Download references

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Beth Mercer-Taylor (University of Minnesota), Anne Kapucinski (Dartmouth College), and Kathleen Lambert (Dartmouth College) for helpful comments on our research. We would like to thank Katja Brundiers for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article (Arizona State University) and Robert Kutter (Arizona State University) for editorial support.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Arnim Wiek.

Additional information

Edited by Didac Ferrer-Balas, Technical University of Catalonia, Spain.

Appendix

Appendix

Table 3 Excerpts from the literature on systems-thinking competence
Table 4 Excerpts from the literature on anticipatory competence
Table 5 Excerpts from the literature on normative competence
Table 6 Excerpts from the literature on strategic competence
Table 7 Excerpts from the literature on interpersonal competence

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Wiek, A., Withycombe, L. & Redman, C.L. Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustain Sci 6, 203–218 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0132-6

Download citation

Keywords

  • Education for sustainable development
  • Curriculum development
  • Sustainability expertise
  • Sustainability professional
  • Transformative learning