for sustainable development


The world as a laboratory: experimental formats for transdisciplinary sustainability research

Research formats such as real-world laboratories (RwL) are still relatively new, but are becoming increasingly popular. In the transdisciplinary sustainability research community, they have already initiated an important debate on whether and how it is possible to experimentally accelerate social transformations for sustainable development. In the RwLs, scientists together with actors from business, politics, administration and civil society reflect and shape concrete social-ecological processes of change on the spot. The GAIA special issue “Labs in the Real World” is now devoted to scientific and practical questions on this format and its necessary research infrastructure.

Cover GAIA Special Issue "Labs in the Real World"

Take Baden-Württemberg, for example: Since 2015, the Ministry of Science has been funding 14 RwLs projects as part of the “Science for Sustainability” initiative. The aim is to establish “"learning spaces” in which different social attitudes, needs and questions between the participants are considered with a microscopic view. The aim is to find practicable and locally accepted solutions for concrete transformation processes, from urban renewal to the introduction of sustainable mobility systems.

The “BaWü-Labs” are accompanied by two research teams. Both have contributed their experiences with the research format to the special issue of GAIA. The accompanying research team “ForReal”, which consists of researchers from the ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research, the Leuphana University of Lüneburg and the Wuppertal Institute, is a guest editor of the special edition, providing an insight into the current scientific discourse on RwLs and similar formats.

Real-world lab: Sustainable concept at the interface between science and society

In addition, the authors of “ForReal” dedicate themselves in a contribution to the concrete implementation: How can a joint experimenting at the interface between science and society for transformation succeed? By means of empirical findings, they illustrate how laboratories have to be designed in order to be successful.

Among the 13 forum and research articles is also an interview with Helga Nowotny. The professor emerita for scientific research at ETH Zurich and former president of the European Research Council ERC, answers critical questions on sustainability research posed to her by ISOE researcher Matthias Bergmann. Helga Nowotny stresses: “Real-world labs are a great idea that has finally reached the social sciences. We need additional spaces to experiment with new ideas, tracing their possible consequences and impact.”  

All articles are in English and will be published via Ingenta as Open Access articles: and



Nicola Schuldt-Baumgart

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