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From complex systems analysis to transformational change: a comparative appraisal of sustainability science projects

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  • Sustainability science: bridging the gap between science and society
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Sustainability science is being developed in constructive tension between a descriptive–analytical and a transformational mode. The first is concerned with analyzing problems in coupled human–environment systems, whereas the second conducts research on practical solutions to those problems. Transformational sustainability research is confronted with the challenges of generating actionable knowledge, incorporating knowledge from outside academia, and dealing with different values and political interests. This study approaches the theory and promise of sustainability science through a comparative appraisal of five empirical sustainability science projects. We exemplarily appraise in how far sustainability science succeeds and fails in yielding solution options for sustainability problems based on an evaluative framework (that accounts for the particularities of sustainability science). The selected sustainability projects cover a range of topics (water, bioenergy, land use, solar energy, urban development), regions (from coastal to mountainous, from rural to urban areas, in several countries in Africa, Europe, and South and North America), spatial levels (from village to country levels), and research approaches. The comparative results indicate accomplishments regarding problem focus and basic transformational research methodology, but also highlight deficits regarding stakeholder participation, actionable results, and larger impacts. We conclude with suggestions on how to fully realize the potential of sustainability science as a solution-oriented endeavor, including advanced collaborative research settings, advances in transformational research methodologies, cross-case generalization, as well as reducing institutional barriers.

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  1. The concept of “solving sustainability problems” and “solutions for sustainability problems” does not follow a simple “command and control” approach, but is based on participation, coordination, iteration, and reflexivity (cf. van Kerkhoff and Lebel 2006).

  2. In the terminology of the vulnerability framework, the two proposed streams would entail: (1) research on what resilient human–environment systems (systems with manageable levels of vulnerability) would function and look like (visions or desirable future states); (2) research on what viable response options would transition the system from its current state to a resilient state.

  3. There are several preceding scientific initiatives to leave the safe space of descriptive–analytical knowledge production and bridge science and practice, e.g., in transdisciplinary work, community-based participatory studies, action research projects, or scientific consultancy work (for a critical review and discussion of these, see Scholz 2011).

  4. The selected village remains unnamed in this case study in order to protect the villagers from unsolicited contacts and impacts.

  5. See


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We would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers, as well as Michael Stauffacher, Roman Seidl, Roland W. Scholz (all ETH Zurich), Robert Huber (Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research [WSL]), and Maryam Nastar (Lund University) for their helpful comments on earlier versions of the case study descriptions. We acknowledge the feedback from the participants of the 2nd International Conference on Sustainability Science (ICSS 2010) (Sapienza University Rome, Rome, Italy, June 23–25, 2010) on issues discussed in this article. Arnim Wiek acknowledges support by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant PA0011 115315). Fridolin S. Brand acknowledges scholarship support by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

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Correspondence to Arnim Wiek.

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Wiek, A., Ness, B., Schweizer-Ries, P. et al. From complex systems analysis to transformational change: a comparative appraisal of sustainability science projects. Sustain Sci 7 (Suppl 1), 5–24 (2012).

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