Sustainability Science

, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 447–464 | Cite as

Global leadership for social design: theoretical and educational perspectives

  • Roland W. ScholzEmail author
  • Masaru Yarime
  • Hideaki Shiroyama
Original Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Sustainability Transitions, Management, and Governance


The rapid change of technological, social, and cultural structures is challenging universities to offer new educational programs. The Global Leader Program for Social Design and Management (GSDM) of the University of Tokyo can be seen as a forerunner in this field. The paper provides definitions of social design as well as of global leadership and provides a proposal for the definition of the objective of the GSDM program, i.e., multi-level resilient human–environment system. These subjects are embedded in the framework of human–environment systems (HES). We identified the different types of knowledge integration that ‘global leaders for social design’ should master. The core of a sustainable social design is to (1) properly conceptualize and manage “resilient coupled human-environment systems” and to (2) integrate or relate different systems, epistemics, interests, cultures, and knowledge systems. The specific challenge in this context is to cope with conflicting cultural–religious systems or to understand how the vulnerability of different human systems with respect to digital environments. Social design is conceived as all rules, mechanisms, and preferences that govern the interaction of humans with material, biophysical, technological, and socio-cultural epistemic environments. The goal of education for global leadership for social design may have to progress from the T-shaped skills profile (i.e., being specialized in one discipline and having the capability to collaborate with other disciplines) to the π-profile. Students for leadership in global designs must be qualified in a social and an engineering/natural science and literate and capable to know, relate, and govern different disciplines, cultures, or systems which have to be included in the sustainable transitioning of cultural and socio-technological systems. The paper elaborates in what way transdisciplinarity is needed and why resilience management should be seen as a proper objective of GSDM. The challenges of the new educational program for the science system and institutions as well as for students and professors are discussed.


Social design Global leadership Resilience Human environment systems Knowledge integration π-profiles for knowledge integration 

Sustainability asks for new types of leaders and education

Technological and societal change are inducing major changes of universities and their educational goals. With the beginnings of the industrial age, for instance, technical universities such as the École Polytechnique were newly established. A main task of this type of institutions was—besides serving needs of the labor markets—to educate experts and civil servants, who understood and could manage the development of new technologies, “industrial ecology and capitalist agriculture”, and their impacts on society (Torstendahl 1993). Today, at a time when many countries are stepping out of the industrial age and global production, trade, consumption, communication, and power are prevailing, universities are challenged to offer new subjects, curricula, and educational goals. It is remarkable that both in environmental sciences as well as in sustainability science, Japanese universities and academic institutions may be often identified forerunners in scientific development in sustainability science (Ryan et al. 2010).

The institutionalization of groundbreaking educational programs for sustainability in higher education is one of today’s critical challenges (Yarime et al. 2012). The University of Tokyo, Japan’s leading higher education institution to provide human resources to the industry and government sectors, has recently initiated the Global Leader Program for Social Design and Management (GSDM). GSDM aims at developing human resources capable of discovering social problems using specialized and comprehensive knowledge, proposing solutions that integrate innovative scientific technology and public policy, and implementing integrated solutions in cooperation with people from diverse backgrounds (Matsumoto 2014). The program is implemented as a new university-wide initiative to nurture future generations with appropriate skills and capacities for tackling various challenges in global sustainability.

While the global leadership has been strongly discussed in business and policy science in the 1990s (Cacioppe 1998; Ferrer-Balas et al. 2008; Mendenhall and Osvald 2012), the social design is a new and potentially innovative component in this program. Some answer on the question “Social design on what?” has been provided by Junichi Hamada, President of the University of Tokyo, who states “The world today is facing a period of dramatic change, with many social issues to be addressed…. Academia is now required to design a new world and present a road map leading to this new world” (Hamada 2014). The goal of the education is that students should develop advanced expertise and ability to overview society for becoming leaders in international institutions, government agencies, and industry. Following the long-established tradition of providing human resources to the public and private sectors, the university is expecting to send out graduates who have capabilities for analyzing and understanding the complexity of societal issues involving technical, economic, and political dimensions and designing and implementing solutions considering pragmatic and normative implications.

This asks for understanding the different epistemics (i.e., ways of knowing) of different stakeholders and cultures. This indispensably leads to transdisciplinarity, which developed significantly in the last decades (Freitas et al. 1994; Scholz et al. 2000; Thompson Klein et al. 2001; Nicolescu 2002; Max-Neef 2005; Scholz 2011; Scholz and Steiner 2015a, b) as a third way of doing science. Transdisciplinarity means to relate knowledge from a multi-stakeholder process (“experiential wisdom”) with knowledge from an interdisciplinary process (“academic rigor”).

The coping and the understanding of the complex “social issues” is not a mere academic matter. Transdisciplinarity uses and integrates different types of epistemics (from practice to science) to cope with complex, societal relevant problems of the 21st century. Transdisciplinarity is a real challenge that requires a strong societal commitment and a high capability to interact with stakeholders (Scholz 2000; Scholz et al. 2006; Lang et al. 2012; Yarime et al. 2014). Not only the academic dimension but also the societal relevance and legitimacy matter.

Global leadership also asks to collaborate with international institutions. Global taxation or environmental regulation asks for supra-national institutions. This is intellectually a clear venture (Tallberg 2004). Yet it is a highly contested issue and may be in conflict with basic personal and national preferences and identity. We see this challenge in relation to an educational goal of the GSDM program targeting “high-level doctoral-level human resources who can play a leadership role in the world or their country in the near future” (GSDM 2013).

Global leadership for social design: what does this mean?

The term social design is not very often used in literature. Nevertheless, two major lines of thought in social sciences would be found. The first emerges from social psychology and early environmental psychology. The title of the book “Social design: creating building with people in mind” (Sommer 1983) relates social design to community development (Kraus 1948). Today, we have the responsibility to think about what social design the use of new virtual, computerized, technological worlds may ask for (Sawyer et al. 2011). The second is related to law and well expressed by the book title “Constitution as social design” (Ritter 2006). A constitutional order may be seen as an instrument to regulate social relations. The idea of describing and designing the rules of society has already become an issue in new institutional economics. Here, the “formal rules” (Williamson 2000) are considered as the basic layer of a system. Researchers are challenged to think about what rules a society or supra-national systems must have in order to achieve a certain quality of life that people would desire. But the “Social design for sustainable growth without additional material consumption” (Pirages 1977) was promoted by early limits of growth thinkers. A recent paper of Janzer and Weinstein defines social design in its broadest sense as “the use of design to address, and ultimately solve, social problems” (2014), including “social innovation, design for social change, co-design, service design, empathetic design, and human centered design” (Kimbell 2011). As social evolution has become a matter of technology (Nolan and Lenski 2005), we argue that social design has to be broadened to a socio-technological design perspective.

Ecology and evolution is the major anchor of the origin of social design in the natural sciences. The issue is “the making of a social insect” [or species] (Amdam 2012). The foundation here is the genetics of social design instead of socially acquired rules. In this context, an extreme case of social design may be of interest. The slime mold (Dictyostelium discoideum) is a fungus-like organism. Under positive environmental conditions, the amoebae-like cells live separately as single-cell units. However, if the environment becomes less hospitable, the slime mold “forms a multi-cellular organism by aggregation of single cells” (Haken 1983).

The subsequent definition refers to the two streams of social design research. We operationalized global via including all people of the world and thus refer to the human species. Based on the different notions found in literature and of the goals of GSDM, we define as follows:

“A (global) social design consists of all relevant rules, mechanisms combining technological and institutional elements, and preferences that govern the interaction of the human species and its subsystems with material (biotic and abiotic) and socio-cultural environments.”

This system-theoretic definition is in line with Biermann’s (2008) conception of Earth system governance and includes the formal and informal rule system as well as actor networks involved in the co-evolution of human and natural systems (Shiroyama et al. 2012).

What competences do global leaders need for social design?

The discussion about global leadership emerged during the 1990s in business science. After the learning organization has been focused for long from a management perspective (Senge 1990), a swing to “leadership development” (Cacioppe 1998; Mendenhall 2008) took place. This was accompanied by the insight that global business activities ask for special capabilities, as “suddenly leadership was deemed to be more complex …, owing to the onslaught of the processes of globalization” (Mendenhall 2008). A myriad of suggestions were made on what characterizes a successful overseas manager. Traits of successful managers were, for instance, cross-cultural competencies such as being curious and respectful to local knowledge and value systems, or being efficient in dealing with situations and dilemmas (Lobel 1990). Most papers took a view on the “personality and managerial capacities” (Jokinen 2005). The inconsistency of many vague descriptions was soon criticized (Baruch 2002). Some organizational scientists rather stressed that the capability to establish, contribute, and maintain networks is the most essential issue (Bartlett and Ghoshal 1992). The challenge of access to multiple cultures and to anticipate change in culture may be seen a common denominator in most papers. However, factually, very few empirical assessments were made on what aspects really makes a successful leader (Bird 2008).

Much attention was also paid on training and development programs. An issue we consider the most important is that it became not evident how the general education factually contributes to the objective of the organizations. It has been acknowledged that a special personality is needed for global leadership, whose education asks for reshaping minds, new visions, action learning, global focus, etc. (Cacioppe 1998) and to specify what specific subject knowledge global leaders should acquire.

Based on the literature review and experience gathered in many large-scale projects, we identify the following general abilities that promote global leadership. The first is that they must possess the ability to utilize and relate or integrate different types of knowledge from broad perspectives. The second is that they must have the right motivation; they must be aware of their social responsibility, and not only focus on their own interests. The third is that social design managers must have the willingness to accept the so-called otherness of the other (as we living in a global “social multicultural society”). And finally, they should have multiple communication talents and methods (Scholz and Tietje 2002) to moderate or integrate knowledge from different perspectives and to implement scientifically and socially robust solutions based on integrated knowledge through close collaboration and serious engagement with various stakeholders. This is in particular required in transdisciplinarity discourses when knowledge from science and practice is needed for finding satisficing solutions as well as in multiple-stakeholder discourses which asks for accepting the interests of different agents in society. Trust building is considered to be an important part of the last aspect.

Such communication skills are closely linked to the four functions of transdisciplinarity (Scholz 2011, p 384): (1) capacity building (understanding something better); (2) consensus building (about what is the problem and determining which direction to follow); (3) mediation (as during transitions there will always be winners and losers); and (4) political legitimization (i.e., referring to solutions what have been developed by multiple stakeholders).

In the following, we will discuss theoretical considerations with regard to the challenge of conceptualizing and coping with different types of knowledge integration and identify pressing problems that can benefit from the approach. Then case studies are presented to provide to examine the theoretical considerations, which will be followed by discussions and conclusions.

Theory: knowledge integration for resilient coupled human–environment systems

Scholz and Tietje introduced an “architecture of knowledge” (see Fig. 1) that allows to distinguish and to relate different types of knowledge. The basic block of any human knowledge is experiencing. Through enactive (Bruner et al. 1956) and social experience (Kolb 1984), we can gain understanding of complex systems. Understanding is based on intuition and empathy. Understanding helps us conceptualize complex systems, which is the qualitative side of modeling (i.e., defining system boundaries, variables, relations, etc.) including faceting, i.e., the identification of a small set of subsystems (facets) which sufficiently represent all essential aspects of the system. Facets can emerge from a conceptual grid, such as organs in medicine. The last and highest epistemic level is that of explaining, which is usually shaped by propositional logics and reasoning (Johnson-Laird and Byrne 2002). This type of reasoning is consistently applied in humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences (although these domains of science are shaped by different modes of validation). In sum, experience is necessary for determining the right objectives (e.g., a proper guiding question in sustainable transitioning); without experience, you cannot correctly identify any socially relevant questions. As a result, persons with lacking experience will probably end up with some idiosyncratic, irrelevant marginal problems.
Fig. 1

The Architecture of Knowledge

(modified and extended from Scholz and Tietje 2002)

The upper part of the Architecture of Knowledge (i.e., the levels of formulation of a guiding question and the understanding of a system) focuses on intuition, whereas the lower part (i.e., conceptualizing/faceting and explanation) centers on analytic thinking. Thus, there are two different primary modes of thought (Hammond 1981; Scholz 1987; Kahneman 2011). If we step “down” to the level of explanation, we deal with the knowledge of different disciplines. For instance, you may be asked to link knowledge about nuclear engineering with knowledge from philosophy and ethics, which would be a significant challenge since engineers and philosophers have different cultures, languages, and approaches to reasoning/validation. A special challenge is how knowledge can be effectively integrated. Ideally, one of the first steps of the project consists in designing the model for knowledge integration.

Based on theoretical arguments and the experience gained in 41 transdisciplinary projects on sustainable transitioning (Scholz 2011), we can identify five types of knowledge integration. First (a), there is the integration of different disciplines of humanities (α-sciences, see Fig. 2), natural sciences (β-sciences), and social sciences (γ-sciences). Second (b), social design managers must integrate different modes of thought, especially intuition and analysis. Third (c), they must be able to integrate different systems/subsystems which refer to the faceting in the Architecture of Knowledge. Fourth (d), it is important to note that we have different interests and perspectives of the stakeholders or of scientists and practitioners. Finally (e), the most challenging, and perhaps the most neglected, is relating different cultures without losing their individual identities.
Fig. 2

Types of knowledge integration and its use in transdisciplinary processes

Resilient human environment systems as an objective

Let us now focus on a key objective of social design. We propose that global leaders of social design must be able to understand and master how to design and contribute to establishing resilient human environment systems (HES), both on local and global scales. Both concepts, resilience and HES, ask for theoretical definitions. We argue that resilient HES are a core characteristic of sustainability.

Conceptualizing inextricably coupled human environment systems

The necessity of looking at inextricable coupled human–environment systems has two major theoretical roots. One is the conception of anthropocene. Crutzen (2002) diagnosed that human has become a geological factor. Climate or the global water cycle may not be understood without the activity of human systems. The second is an idea of Egon Brunswik, who stated that human systems and environment systems have to be looked at on their own as each of them has different properties and a different rationale; both “organism and environment appear as equal partners” (Brunswik 1957, p 300). As one side of a coin cannot exist without the other side, we consider human and environmental systems as inextricable coupled.

In order to provide a consistent definition for all human systems ranging from the cells to the human individuals and to the human species we propose a cell-based definition of human systems. We conceive the human individual as all living cells that emerge from the zygote (i.e., the fertilized egg) and their interactions. The universe minus the cells of the individual may be defined as environment. This definition can also apply to all human systems (above the cell). We define, for instance, the human systems of a company as the activities of ‘all living cells and their interactions’ of the ‘owners of the company and the employees of the company’ which may be (legally) assigned to the company. According to this definition, the machines and the buildings of a company are part of the environment of the human system.

Following anthropologists, we postulate a hierarchy of human systems above the individual. What differentiations of levels emerge depend on the stage of the development of technologies (Chapple and Coon 1953). Thus technology development has induced an increasing complexity and differentiation of societal organizations.

In the proposed cell-based definition of human systems, all levels of human systems are supposed to have a ‘body,’ which corresponds to a material-biophysical layer, and a ‘mind,’ which is the information-processing interaction inside as well as between the cells, corresponding to a socio-cultural-epistemic layer. The mind of a group, for instance, are selected decision rules, group norms and values, means to induce group pressure, group will, and the criteria, which are applied for defining who and what is inside and what is outside the group. This similarly holds true for institutions that are special organizations established by society to maintain society.

There is a new level emerging in the hierarchy of human systems: supranational systems. Supranational (not international) human systems, such as the European Union, include the jurisprudential doctrine known as “Kompetenz–Kompetenz,” in which one cannot leave a certain jurisdiction without high penalty. Naturally, the highest level of such human systems is the human species. Today, the nation states comprise the largest units in society [which is the major subdivision of human society, see (Parsons 1951)]. We should acknowledge that this developed after the Second World War. Before, colonial and kingdom regimes governed the world regime. The emerging supranational systems ask for special rules and discourses of development in the near future, which may become a special subject of educational programs such as GSDM.

An important issue for sustainable development is that human systems above the level of individuals do not show homeostasis, i.e., the tendency of a system to maintain internal stability and equilibrium (Scholz 2011). Homeostasis (e.g., of blood temperature), i.e., equilibrium states, may only be found in the individual and its subsystems (e.g., organs). There is no set-point control for human systems above the level of individuals but homeorhesis. The development of a system (just) follows certain trajectories for certain periods. Thus, large scale HES ask for sustainable anthropogenic management to avoid that they pass critical system boundaries which provide unacceptable vulnerability.

From risk via vulnerability to resilience

The homeorhesis-based nature of large scale and global systems is of interest for the GSDM program. It will be a task of the future to create proper social designs for critical systems which show trajectories that may not endanger the future of human systems. The Panarchy theory by Holling et al. (Holling 1973; Holling et al. 2002) which emerged from Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction (Schumpeter 1950) describes non-homeostatic dynamics. Ecological and social systems such as societies tend to develop into a certain degree of over-maturity (conservation), then these systems tend to collapse (release). After this, they reorganize and exploitation of resources begins. The system becomes more efficient till, again, a state of maturity and collapse take place. We have this cycle of development in nature and in society. A major cause of collapse are revolting subsystems, invasive plants or new technologies (external disturbances).

The concept of resilience is complementary to the concept vulnerability which emerged from risk. Risk can be defined as an evaluation of the potential loss that may emerge from exposure and sensitivity to an uncertain threat or negative event (Paustenbach 2002; Scholz et al. 2012). One example can be seen in financial losses on the stock market. The concept of risk is going to become outdated, as it is (in most cases) a static concept and it does not adequately (if at all) describe anything about how a system may respond if a potential negative event has taken place. This is different for vulnerability which besides exposure and sensitivity (which are the constituents of risk) also includes the adaptive capacity. The adaptive capacity may be operationalized via the likelihood to recover. Thus vulnerability includes the likelihood of a system not to recover after probable negative events took place. Let us consider the case of the Fukushima nuclear disaster as an example (Shiroyama 2015). In this case, an extremely negative (unlikely, but known) event occurred. We may ask whether the Japanese society is vulnerable with respect to this event. The answer depends on its adaptive capacity, i.e., whether the Japanese society shows a high level of preparedness and capability to cope with the destruction and the radioactive contamination of the Fukushima area.

Vulnerability is the complement of specified resilience, which is the ability of a system to cope with a known negative impact. This is not the case with general resilience that refers to the ability of a system to cope also with an unknown risk (Scholz et al. 2012). A system that shows general resilience is capable of processing the impact of unknown negative threats/events such that the viability of the system is not endangered.

Resilience thinking is an utmost important issue of sustainable transitioning (Adger 2000; Folke et al. 2010). Resilience management includes both adaptation and reorganization after a threat has happened (Folke 2006; Scholz 2011; Shiroyama et al. 2012). Resilient systems are particularly invulnerable with respect to unknown revolting subgroups. The general idea of resilience management is to promote systems that “perform in a sufficient organized and efficient manner so as to maintain integrity over time (Shiroyama et al. 2012). The creation of strategies to cope with novel threats and of fallback positions needed for keeping a system’s vitality is part of this management.

Let us consider the final theoretical question—what types of environments must be distinguished when we discuss resilient human–environment systems? We refer to Herbert Spencer’s (1855) concept of total environment that included all parts of the universe that directly or indirectly affect life. The concept developed after the beginning of the industrial revolution in Europe when the vitality of ecosystems and viability of some human system became endangered.

Resilience with respect to the biophysical and socio-epistemic-cultural layers of human systems

For consistently defining human systems we introduced cell-based definition for all human systems. The dynamics and behaviors of cell systems are supposed to differ fundamentally from (abiotic) chemical reactions. Cell systems and biotic systems are supposed to have a mind including a memory and other related functions. Regarding the human system, in a simplified form, the mind may be seen as software and the cells as hardware (though the mind seems much more closely linked to the body as the software to the hardware of computers). Defined in this way, in any operating cell systems, aspects such as life, mind, and decisions are supposed to exist. For example, the immune system is supposed to have a mind.

It is important to understand the mind–body complementarity in terms of interactions with the environment (see Fig. 3). For example, when someone speaks, he/she produces certain sound waves that spread into the material layers of the environment. The environment also includes the biotic environment which humans are a part of. Consequently, (non-deaf) humans receive these sound waves through their ears and if they are familiar with the sender’s language, they can decode and understand what was spoken. The understanding of the words as well as the attribution of meaning concerns the mind. What is the most important for the HES approach is that not only the human individual but also higher ordered human systems (such as a company or a society) have a mind which includes all knowledge, motivational systems and the social rules that govern actions.
Fig. 3

Coupled HES with three main dimensions: human vs. environment; material–biophysical vs. social–epistemic–cultural layer; abiotic vs. biotic environments (Scholz 2016)

The interaction among the different levels of the human system may cause interferences. Individuals, for instance, are members of a group while the other group members are part of the material environment. In order to assess vulnerability or (specified) resilience, we must study the possible threats resulting from the interactions between the different levels (e.g., individual, group, organization such as company, societies, etc.).

Any action of a human system has an impact on the environment. For instance, if a farmer is harvesting rice, then the nutrient load status of the rice field is decreasing. We refer to such unintended effects on the environment as secondary feedback loops (see Fig. 4). The farmer has to invest and is challenged to apply fertilizer, if he wants to get the same amount of harvest in the next year. For almost any human action, we can identify these secondary feedback loops. The challenge is to identify these secondary feedback loops and to incorporate them into our cognitive model. In some cases, we may even anticipate such feedback loops (i.e., the farmer adds fertilizers already to the first harvest to maintain the nutrient balance or the farmer may choose to harvest every other year, especially if atmospheric nitrogen is necessary, or he may apply other forms of crop rotation). In this regard, we can consider the anticipation of secondary feedback loops and consequently anticipatory management as a core of sustainability learning. Educating students in learning to anticipate secondary feedback loops may also be attractive and a key component for educational programs such as GSDM.
Fig. 4

Anticipatory management is the key for promoting resilient human environment systems. There are primary feedback loops such (1)→(2)→(3) and secondary environmental feedback loops such as (1)→(4)→(5)→(3). The cognizing of feedback loops (1)→(4)→(6)→(9) based on experience or by cognitive anticipation (based on inner, mental action; (1)→(7)→(8) is the art of sustainability learning

The presented ideas in this section refers to the HES framework which includes seven postulates or systems theory assumptions. These postulates were identified as essential aspects that were involved in studies on sustainable transitioning. For instance, the complementarity between human and environmental systems (HES Principle P1, see Scholz 2011, Chapter 15, see Fig. 3), the hierarchy postulate (P2), the interference between different levels of human systems (P3), and the feedback loop postulate (P4). These postulates facilitate the analysis of complex coupled-HES. The HES framework takes a decision theoretic view (Lee 1971). Human systems are decision makers (such as any human or living system) and have strategies, outcomes and preference functions (P5). The HES framework rather refers to the theory of bounded rationality (Simon 1979) than to rational choice theory (von Neumann and Morgenstern 1944). However, what rationale is proper depends on the situation and the decision maker. Yet, human systeAnticipatory management isms show different awareness regarding what the consequence of their actions will be (P6). They may be completely ignorant, recognize the impacts on the environment or even be able to anticipate the impacts of their actions of today on the action of tomorrow. Furthermore, there is a methodological postulate P7 that the study of a specific human–environment relationship should begin with an analysis of the environment and not what the humans wish to achieve. The idea of P7 is that you should not propose sustainable action or social design without having thoroughly studied the environment.

We mention this framework in this place as it is one theoretical template to study resilient HES. There are similar to Ostrom’s socio-ecological approach (Ostrom 2009), transition management (Rotmans and Loorbach 2008) and recent approaches which focus the resilience of HES (Turner et al. 2003; Schimel et al. 2015; Bauch et al. 2016; Scholz 2017). Thus, the Global Leader Program for Social Design and Management may find sufficient theoretical equipment. From these approaches, we can draw a general conclusion as follows:

“Social design managers need theories and consistent conceptual toolkits to investigate, design, and manage resilient coupled HES on a global scale”.

Theories such as the HES framework will also help you not to get lost in the complexity of the global system.

Identification of the pressing problems: for what problems is global leadership for social design necessary?

Human–environment problems that have been already recognized, well-understood, and addressed

The (environmental) opportunity costs of the industrial age (Fisher and Krutilla 1975) is a well-understood problem. There are well-developed methods (such as cost-benefit analysis) measuring how humans affect the environment (Goedkoop and Spriensma 1999), how people react to environmental damage (Carlsson and Martinsson 2001), and what flows and environmental burdens are related to material flows between industries (Hendrickson 2006). However, there are also new issues such as defining the planetary boundaries (Rockström et al. 2009; Steffen et al. 2015), which are difficult to assess due to the complexity of the environment and the fact that the boundaries depend on the diverging values and levels of acceptable risk of different societies. We also face new challenges in terms of nuclear power. For instance, when anticipating the potential effects of radiation on the biosphere (life), radioactive waste management requires us to think forward in a time frame of one million years (Moser et al. 2013; Moser et al. 2014). This is raising, for instance, new ethical questions.

New fundamental problems of human-environment systems that are yet to be tackled properly

Governing a global system

If we focus on new global challenges that are not yet well understood, then the question will be, “by what processes and what institutions do we need to solve the pressing global problems, such as war of conquest or social and ethnic equity?” The essential question here is regarding the necessity and role of supranational systems. As shown earlier, let us use the example of the European Union (EU). The EU has the authority to penalize member states if they deviate from consented rules (Kunz 1952; Beck 2011). If we consider the 2001 Stockholm Convention, 178 states (currently there are 193 in the United Nations) signed this convention. This raises a critical question: how will global institutions, systems or mechanisms look like that assure that all nation states are following conventions for avoiding critical environmental deterioration? The United Nations, which includes the Security Council, is only an international organization and not a supranational authority (Ulfstein and Christiansen 2013). If some countries do not agree with a certain issue, then they can deviate (if the country feels strong and independent enough).

There are many questions regarding where we need better global management. From an educational perspective, these issues do not only ask for a good legal knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, but also for experience in the multicultural perspectives as well as of the cultures and the world-views taken. We may take the issue of global natural resources management as an example. Fossil energy management is a well-known and interesting example. Phosphorus is essential for any biomass production. Half of the current agricultural yield depends on mineral phosphorus fertilizers (Galloway et al. 2008). Approximately 75% of the currently identified phosphorus reserves are in Morocco and up to 20% of the world production is forthcoming from this country (United States Geological Survey 2014). What happens if Morocco would take the path of Syria, and the world supply of phosphorus becomes scarce at least for some time? Though the mid-term supply is not endangered since there are also abundant phosphate reserves outside of Morocco (Scholz and Wellmer 2016), we may take this as a thought experiment as new mines have to be activated and ask: Should there be the right to ignore national Morocco sovereignty? Which supranational institution may help to support supply security for essential elements? We need expertise to answer such questions. In this case, GSDM may develop such answers.

The challenge to accept the otherness of the others religion

This example focuses on the interaction of human systems with important (environmental) social systems, which is the religion, here the example of (fundamentalist) Islamic religion. The topics of ethnicity, religion, and culture in the 21st century are utmost important issues that are not well understood by many stakeholders. For example, religion may be considered as a basic layer of social rules and social design. This in particular holds true for the Islamic Sharia belief system. And we have to acknowledge that key (Western) politicians only have minor knowledge about this religious tradition (Stein 2006). There are only few who, for instance, may explain the reasons of fierce attacks between Sunnites and the Shiites. And who knows a process on how this controversy may be mitigated? Or, more fundamentally, in which way may we apply the Western human rights and ways of conflict resolution to the Islam? Many Muslims completely reject human rights as a Western product and threat (Tayob 2011). “The Koran is the constitution and the Bill of Rights of the Islamic state” (Khadduri 1956). How may two missioning cultures such as Christians (about 2.2 billion followers, Pew Research 2012) and Muslims (1.6 billion followers) communicate and develop peaceful collaboration?

We argue that the developing of strategies for understanding and of developing interaction in daily life, policy, and business asks for genuine transdisciplinary approaches in which dialogs that further mutual acceptance are complemented by interdisciplinary description and analysis. There is no straightforward translation-like knowledge integration or mutual learning. We rather may meet what anthropologists call the emic/etic principle (Harris 1976) in the sense that different cultures have built closed rationales (or cosmologies) which do not allow an access or understanding of the other culture. Crossing fundamental cultural boundaries may well be seen as a challenge to the GSDM program.

There are other social designs of a similar challenging caliber such as corruption, bribery, and embezzlement, which is a prevalent and persistent moral impurity (Klitgaard 1988; Weber 2010). Here again the cultural layer is the most important one. What is corrupt in one society is not necessarily corrupt in another, and what may be seen as “competitive tax management” is internationally spreading. There is surprising silence on this topic, but we should note that, for instance, food distribution in poor and catastrophic regions is a common field of corruption. Corruption is in line with many other issues in which the social environment plays the key role. Issues such as disaster management, health protection (including pandemics), the current transition of energy systems, etc. also ask for proper social design managing the large-scale interaction with technological means.

Social designs for digital environments

We want to conclude this section with a remark on the digital environment. The computer has been changing the interactions that occur between humans and their physical and social environments. Even small children at the senso-motoric stage of development below two years encountered with new digital toys and learning environments. In addition, nanotechnologies offer or may offer new electronic approaches for manipulating cell and gene activation (Nikitin et al. 2014; Scholz 2017). On a societal level, discussions regarding virtual sex (Orzack and Ross 2000), virtual money (Perry 1997), and virtual companies (Chesbrough and Teece 2002) have developed, accompanied by relatively few research on their social implications. In addition, personal data have been increasingly stored in this digital environment, which includes everything from travel arrangements, purchases, and individual DNA data. However, this rise in technology has spawned cybercrimes (Yar 2013) that have become more profitable than drug racketeering. Against this background, the promotion of the charter of digital human rights (IGF 2014) is certainly an important matter of social design.

We suspect that, since we are now building a new material environment that is able to process information, humankind is stepping toward a new stage of evolution. In some respect, humans are departing from themselves based on this creation of new, human-made, digital information processing environments. Virtual environments and digital worlds are changing how people interact and live. In other words, they are changing social design. The design and implementation of resilient digital environments, which is a genuine matter of social design, will become a major challenge for science and society.

Case studies on the development of global leadership for social design

At GSDM several key challenges have been identified as concrete issues in the interface of natural and social systems which ask for integrating knowledge and expertise in engineering and public policy. Challenges involve health and medical care, advanced energy and energy security, aerospace and global competitiveness, resilience of civil life and social activities, resources, and information. In the field of health and medical care, equipment development and regulations in medical–engineering collaboration is identified as one of the most pressing issues. With regard to energy, the introduction of renewable energy sources is understood to require coping with many challenges in technological development of sophisticated grid systems as well as appropriate settings on pricing and regulations.

The students in the program are expected to cultivate two types of skills and capabilities, namely the first type is related to subject-specific expertise and the other one concerns management and leadership. Expertise-based capabilities consist of two types: one is an ability to broaden their perspectives in tackling societal challenges, based on solid foundations of interdisciplinary knowledge covering both natural and social sciences, whereas the other is an ability to design, which includes framing societal issues for agenda setting and articulating solutions by understanding and deploying appropriate technologies, systems, and policies.

Management and leadership skills and capabilities include two types of skills and capabilities. One type is practical skills and capabilities, which include an ability to develop project management ability for implementing necessary measures for solutions, communication skills particularly in multi-cultural and national environments, and leadership skills in groups with diverse backgrounds given global perspectives and when taking into account both industrialized and industrializing countries,. The other type concerns individual capacities. GSDM students are expected to develop capacities for considering normative implications of the issues at hand and making balanced judgments taking them well into account. They are also strongly encouraged to be open-minded to different views and perspectives of others and self-motivated to learn and understand them with intellectual curiosity and integrity. (Further details about the experience and challenges in GSDM are provided in the appendix.)

We can illustrate what transdisciplinary really means to GSDM by the actual case of the Global Transdisciplinary Project on Sustainable Phosphorus Management, Global TraPs (Scholz et al. 2014b). The large-scale project Global TraPs started In February 2011. The anthropogenic global phosphorus cycle was faceted by the nodes of the supply chain: exploration, mining (& beneficiation), processing, use, and dissipation and recycling. Global TraPs included representatives of all the key stakeholder groups of these nodes including geological surveys (e.g., USGS) mining companies (e.g., OCP, Morocco), fertilizer producers (e.g., Agrium, Canada), farmer associations (e.g., Kenya Cereal Farmer Organization), recycling companies working on phosphorus recovery at sewage plants, and NGOs (e.g., Greenpeace). The guiding question (see Fig. 1) was negotiated in a long consultative procedure among people from science and practice. This question reads: “What new knowledge, technologies and policy options are needed to ensure that future phosphorus use is sustainable, improves food security and environmental quality and provides benefits for the poor?” In order to guarantee the use of epistemics from science and from practice, co-leadership (Binder et al. 2015) was established for the leadership of the project and all the subprojects which were identical with the nodes of the supply chain.

Different types of knowledge integration (see Fig. 2a–e) are related to interdisciplinarity (upper lens) and to a multi-stakeholder discourse (see lower Fig. 2). This usually contributes to getting a more realistic view of the world. Let us consider how the five types of knowledge integration work. If we want to transfer the current unsustainable phosphorus management (locally, regionally or globally) to a sustainable one, then it is apparent that you need scientific knowledge from different sciences such as soil sciences, plant sciences, chemical engineering, and economics. Thus, you need knowledge from different disciplines that have to be related or integrated (leading to interdisciplinarity; see icon a). A specific challenge of integrating sciences is that a comprehensive or holistic view of the system (see icon c) is maintained. In the case mineral fertilizer use is sustainable, we have to relate the knowledge gained about the different subsystems/nodes of the supply chain in a way that the guiding question can be answered. Icon (c) visualizes exemplarily the integration of terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric systems (holism) that is factually important for the case of phosphorus.

In the Global TraPs project we had to acknowledge that soil productivity by increased mineral fertilizer use may provide a tradeoff with aquatic pollution (eutrophication). This tradeoff may become subject of a multi-stakeholder discourse or even ask for analytic mediation (see icon d), for instance, between fertilizer companies and environmental NGOs. Tradeoffs or conflicts between different stakeholders may become most challenging when the different stakeholders are coming from different cultures, which are iconized by symbols related to world religions (see icon d).

A transdisciplinary process relates findings and insights from problem-oriented interdisciplinary research with the knowledge developed in a multi-stakeholder discourse. It is evident that for answering the guiding question of Global TraPs (e.g., finding proper policy options to provide access to phosphorus for the poor), “global leaders” have to facilitate processes that relate or integrate the different types of epistemics (i.e., “ways of knowing”, see Fig. 1), cultures, and interests (see Fig. 2) in transdisciplinary processes. This asks for acknowledging “all relevant rules, mechanisms combining technological and institutional elements and preferences that govern the interaction of the key actors” (see above). We should mention that Global TraPs project is co-led by a scientists and by a practitioner. This practice coleader is ideally a socially (e.g., democratically) legitimized person. In the case of a national study, for instance, the head of the national agricultural agency may be a (practice co-) leader.

The integration of knowledge from science and practice requires that social design managers have a high competence to interact with stakeholders. This asks for participatory research, i.e., knowledge and values of stakeholders (e.g., what should be answered/investigated first) are integrated in research. Based on this, research becomes partly directed by practitioners. For instance, the guiding question is negotiated by scientists and practitioners. Scientists have to leave the desktop study work; this has coined the phrasing “From science for to science with society” (Scholz and Stauffacher 2009).

Let us illuminate the educational aspect for global leadership for social design. There have been 12 MSc and PhD students involved in the project (Engbers et al. 2014). Each of these students—together with a senior scientist—had to take responsibility for the planning, organization, and facilitation of case-based mutual learning sessions (MLS) or a topic-based dialogue session (DS; the sessions are documented on at the 2013 Global TraPs world conference in China. The students had to acquire an understanding (see top of Fig. 1) of deficiencies in the global phosphor cycle and of its anthropogenic origin on different levels of human system. The MLS and DS took place in the third year of the Global TraPs project which included more than 250 practitioners and scientists from many countries. The project was facetted (see Fig. 1, third level) by the above-mentioned ‘nodes’ of supply–demand chain (see Scholz et al. 2014a, p 71 and p 87).

For developing resilient (anthropogenic) phosphorus flows, there were critical issues for each node. The DS and MLS hat to deal in particular with critical feedback loops, in particular unintended secondary environmental feedback loops (see Fig. 4) such as environmental impacts from not recovering phosphorus from sewage. But also the increase of phosphorus consumption by human diets or long-time supply security of the finite resource phosphorus was subject of research. Both issues touch tangible aspects of lifestyles and political order as key elements of social design. The MLS took place at sites, e.g., at Chinese farms, animal factories, or sewage plants. Between 8 and 20 international practitioners and scientists involved in the global TraPs project, ranging from representatives from phosphorus mines, via farmer organizations to members of Greenpeace China participated in each of the MLS and DS.

Thus, the multiple types of knowledge integration presented in Fig. 2 had to be mastered in an extensive manner. We should note that the students also were responsible to compose readers including salient information about the cases where the MLS took place and about the topics of the DS. These readers were allocated to the participants of the MLS and DS before the meetings. This demanded linking of case data with disciplinary knowledge and stakeholder perspectives (see Fig. 2, icon a and d). Thus the students became able to reflect what disciplinary knowledge (see upper lens of Fig. 2, bottom part), and what stakeholder groups (see lower lens of Fig. 2) had to be involved. The intercultural experience was prevalent among the participants from the global TraPs project and in particular in the interaction with the local Chinese stakeholders. Based upon the experiences gained, the paper “Case based mutual learning sessions: Knowledge integration and transfer in transdisciplinary processes”(Vilsmaier et al. 2015) was published. Besides, six (master) theses were written. Students, for instance, analyzed the Japanese phosphorus recycling from wastewater plants (Wemyss 2012) or “human–environment-systems of a phosphate rock mine” in South Africa (Baumann 2013).


For understanding this complex issue, we have introduced system-theoretic backgrounds on how these may be approached. The investigation, design, and management of resilient HES for basic problems of the human species is a great challenge for science and society. The examples of environmental conservation, natural resources, disaster, and public health/pandemic management, the finding of social design for a computerized digital world, or nuclear power use, all have a strong natural and engineering background. Human’s curiosity and convenience induce sometimes to build (technological and social) systems, whose impacts and long-term rebound effects may make human systems vulnerable and affect their viability.

Societies should be prepared for coping with unintended side effects (unsee(ns)) of technologies, and social designs have to be developed to anticipate and/or to cope with these unsee(ns). But there are also historic bugs in the social design such as sometimes unbridgeable gaps between cultures and religions, which could endanger the development and viability of the human species. This certainly asks for groundbreaking innovation in conceptualizing, understanding, and managing social–cultural–economic structures and socio-technological systems. Against this background, programs such as the GSDM may become forerunners in the field of sustainability science. The discussion reflects on the (1) theoretic, scientific prerequisites; (2) the personal challenges for students, scientists and professors; and (3) the requirement that institutions and societies are facing in the course of developing innovation in global leadership for social design.

Prerequisites for science and theory development

A major challenge for science in the context of this paper is to develop a proper methodology for integrating knowledge from different disciplines, modes of thought, perspectives or interests, cultures or systems. A specific challenge is that it is sometimes difficult, perhaps impossible, to integrate or merge concepts and methods from (non-neighbored) disciplines (Piaget 1972; Nicolescu 2014; Scholz and Steiner 2015a). This would ask for theories of science strategies or means to link sciences where traditional knowledge integration by interdisciplinarity does not work. This has been called Mode 1 transdisciplinarity (Scholz and Steiner 2015a). Complementary to this, the integration of knowledge from science and practice—as it has been first launched by Jantsch (1972)—may be called Mode 2 transdisciplinarity.

The challenge of going beyond interdisciplinarity has also been repeatedly approached, for instance, by the unity of science discussion (Oppenheim and Putnam 1958). As Scholz and Steiner (2015a) pointed out, the interrelating of Mode 1 and Mode 2, i.e., an inner science consistency to improve real-world societies functioning may be seen as a key challenge for the future. For Mode 2 research, basic challenges are (a) to develop strategies for how high scientific standards may be kept and added value can be generated to disciplinary science systems when working in transdisciplinary processes and (b) how to cope with various normative dimensions involved in transdisciplinary processes.

Personal challenges for students and professors

The successful study and practice of global leadership for social design asks for a very special type of teachers. From a science perspective, they should master discipline-based interdisciplinarity in transdisciplinary discourses. This asks you to radically depart from the socio-intellectual comfort zone of a disciplinarian. Instead of being acknowledged to be a specialist in one field, you are asked to utilize sound, thorough and useful disciplinary knowledge dependent on the issue which asks for global leadership. The expert on global leadership for social design has to understand the technical systems and natural science foundations as well as the socio-political and cultural processes that further or hamper a meaningful sustainable transition.

This means that both students and professors should ideally have some in-depth knowledge in both (one domain of) social science and (one domain) of natural-/engineering science. Practically this means that the objectives of education may need to progress from a T-person (i.e., someone who has in-depth knowledge in one field and some breadth) to a π-person. The latter has ‘two legs,’ i.e., some in-depth knowledge in one field of social science and one field of natural/engineering science. But what is more important is that this person may relate these domains of knowledge and utilize them also for theory–practice collaboration. A special challenge for representatives of this type/mode of doing science is that these “specialists for integration and the general” are also acknowledged by their colleagues from the disciplines.

The interaction with and the acceptance from practice ask for a transdisciplinary personality. The authentic acknowledgement of the otherness of the other, here different practitioners with various types of experience and education, is regarded as a fundamental prerequisite. The challenge is that practitioners and scientists both learn to diagnose what knowledge is better and more functional for what problem at what stage of a process (Kruetli et al. 2010). Practitioners often have fundamental knowledge on how real system works or what the social priorities are. The classical study on the impact assessment on the Chernobyl fallouts in an English county showed that farmers had better local system knowledge than scientists (Wynne 1996).

If scientists want to take or participate in global leadership, the question of when practitioners devote time and money to acquire knowledge from science is a challenging issue. To address key stakeholders with different intellectual and cultural background is an important ability. To attract and to motivate disciplinarian specialist to participate for better understanding open problems is another intriguing challenge which asks for special personal characteristics and abilities.

GSDM students are trained in principle as a skilled problem-solver who can become a manager and leader. What is novel about the program is that they are expected to reflect on societal (normative) implications of technological innovations and are required not only to write classical disciplinary papers but also to address critical issues to science and society at large. As the president writes, “using their high sense of ethics and outstanding communication skills, these leaders are able to accurately and promptly identify the global-scale issues facing society and spearhead their resolution by integrating a wide range of specialized knowledge of science and technology, social systems, and public policy and by creating systems that optimally harness society’s resources” (Gonokami 2017). It would be critically important to facilitate moving towards societal responsibility in an integrated way.

Leadership, however, is considered in a somewhat restricted way: “leadership, capability to define and solve problems, sense of responsibility and mission, communication skills, information literacy, and sense of ethics” (GSDM 2017). The main message is to work broader. As “GSDM aims to develop leaders—persons with advanced doctoral degrees who can be entrusted in the near future with leadership roles nationally and internationally” (Gonokami 2017), the vision for establishing a resilient coupled HES in transdisciplinary processes would be just what is needed. The president aims “to develop new academic disciplines that go beyond national, cultural and generational boundaries and transcend the existing areas of study known as the humanities and the sciences.” Yet, science–practice collaboration when acknowledging the differentiation of roles in which science is a public good has not been explicitly stressed or expressed so far.

A clear vision of GSDM to establish resilient coupled HES in transdisciplinary processes only functions effectively in certain contexts of specific cultural and institutional settings both for science and for practice. The basic a priori capabilities of Europeans, being discursive process facilitators, and of Japanese, becoming reflective multi or interdisciplinary problem solvers, are complementary in principle. In the context of “disciplined interdisciplinarity in transdisciplinary discourses” (Scholz 2011), the European students of today may have to stress the first part, disciplined interdisciplinarity (as they are master of communication and sometimes lack specific disciplinary modelling abilities); in contrast the Japanese the latter (as students are aspiring often disciplinary excellence). The process side might be more challenging for Asians, because of their primary mode of (individual) thinking in comparison with the (interactive) verbalization habit of Westerners (Nisbett 2003). Thus, “Teach[ing] students communication skills and initiative by giving them experience overseas and exposure to foreign cultures” (Gonokami 2017) is a prerequisite to educate GSDM students to become capable to establish resilient HES in transdisciplinary processes for sustainability transitions.

Institutional and societal requirements

We also need to tackle institutional and societal barriers discouraging talented academics to take an inter- or transdisciplinary track in career development. Academic researchers are under growing pressure to publish scientific papers in specialized academic journals and would have little or negative incentive to collaborate with researchers in different fields of knowledge. Evaluation of the preparedness and performance of faculty members would need a significant change. That would require us to establish new institutional structures which allow students to develop solid (multi)disciplinary understanding and capabilities as well as the understanding or even the facilitation of multi-stakeholder discourses. High-level students who follow these tracks should be promoted by proper incentives, particularly tenure track opportunities. As global leadership is essential, students and researchers, particularly at earlier stages, should be able to explore mobility and working in different disciplinary settings. Historically, there have been genuine international institutions, such as the modeling-oriented International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), which stipulated interdisciplinarity. The challenge of global sustainable, social design or resilient, coupled human-environment systems may ask for similar genuine transdisciplinary (university) institutes where GSDM students should spend some time.

Institutional environment also should motivate stakeholders to participate actively in transdisciplinary research. This motivation is certainly promoted when conveying that transdisciplinary research is able to utilize the state-of-the-art knowledge for all essential aspects of a study (Lang et al. 2012; Yarime et al. 2012; Scholz and Steiner 2015a). The expectation of stakeholders and processes and outcomes of collaborating with stakeholders, therefore, require careful evaluation and assessment both from educational and research perspectives. This would help academic programs such as GSDM to articulate and demonstrate their value and obtain a certain level of recognition and legitimacy in society. This would not only be effective in attracting necessary human and financial resources but also encourage high-profile students who look for a career in academia as well as in industry, business, and the public sector.


The core of global leadership programs on sustainable social design consists in properly conceptualizing and managing resilient coupled multi-level human–environment systems and integrating or relating different systems, epistemics, interests, cultures, and knowledge systems. Social design is conceived as all relevant rules, mechanisms, and preferences that govern the interaction of humans with material, biophysical, technological and socio-cultural epistemic environments. We suggest that (1) designing, establishing, and managing resilient coupled human–environment systems may serve as proper societal and educational objective. This asks that (2) students as well as researchers become π-persons who are able to analyze and manage complex systems based on discipline-based knowledge from both the social and the engineering/natural sciences. We argue that (3) transdisciplinarity provides a proper methodological approach which requires both the facilitation of (multicultural) multi-stakeholder discourse and of relating of these processes to a problem-oriented interdisciplinary research process. Finally, (4) universities will be challenged in providing proper institutional constraints including interdisciplinary curricula, transdisciplinary projects, but also adapted criteria for academic careers for this type of complexity science.


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department for Knowledge and Communication Management, Faculty of Economics and GlobalizationDanube University KremsKremsAustria
  2. 2.Natural and Social Science Interface, Department of Environmental System SciencesETH Zürich (CH)ZurichSwitzerland
  3. 3.Fraunhofer IGBStuttgartGermany
  4. 4.School of Energy and Environment (SEE)City University of Hong KongKowloonHong Kong
  5. 5.Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP)University College LondonLondonUK
  6. 6.Graduate School of Public Policy (GraSPP)University of TokyoTokyoJapan

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