Transdisciplinary sustainability research

New understanding of social-ecological transformations

The call for social-ecological transformation has gained in urgency during the corona crisis, but it is in fact not new. The consequences of unabated climate change and species extinction are proving to be so far reaching and consequential that the need for a change of course has long been discussed – in society, science, politics and also in the economy. But how can sustainable transformations be successful? In a current article published in the journal GAIA, scientists from ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research show that a new understanding of shaping transformations is a prerequisite for successful transformation processes.

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Soap bubble (© Svetlana /
Soap bubble (© Svetlana /

How can the shaping of a social-ecological future be successful if it requires joint action in the present? As long as there exist so many different, sometimes competing and even irreconcilable ideas of the “right” way, a change of direction towards sustainable developments must be assumed as unlikely. “We could even speak of a struggle for the sovereignty of interpretation and discourse when it comes to the question of the right way to deal with the global crisis of societal relations to nature and those of its consequences already being felt today”, write ISOE scientists in the current GAIA article, “a struggle that is accompanied by the erosion of a basic democratic consensus”.

But what is required now is fast, consistent action. This becomes obvious when we look at the predominantly gloomy facts about climate change, the loss of biodiversity or the excessive use of resources. All crisis diagnoses in this present period, including that of the corona pandemic, reflect crisis-ridden societal relations to nature. The authors point out that every crisis also includes opportunities to overcome it – provided there is a common understanding of how the future can be shaped collectively. “Any solution to complex problems must be preceded by an understanding of shaping processes”, says Thomas Jahn, spokesperson of ISOE’s executive board and scientific director. “In theory, this may be taken for granted. In practice, however, there is a lack of successful concepts for how shaping, as a intended intervention in existing contexts, can be supported by collective ideas about the direction in which these changes should actually move.”

An invitation to discussion: principles of shaping for transdisciplinary sustainability research

The ISOE authors advocate a new understanding of social-ecological shaping in the Anthropocene, the “Age of humankind”, and present six principles of shaping for discussion. These include principles for dealing with complexity, for the participation of actors in democratic processes or for strengthening the resilience of social-ecological systems in face of the consequences of environmental changes such as climate change. The authors point out in particular that a methodologically sound and thus transparent, transdisciplinary cooperation between science and society is necessary for the application of successful shaping processes. 

With their contribution, the ISOE authors primarily address transdisciplinary sustainability research. Such research relies on knowledge drawn from many different sources in the search for answers to complex questions, such as the sustainable use of water resources or the protection of biodiversity. In other words, not only the scientific expertise of various disciplines, but also the empirical knowledge of affected actors has to be integrated into the research process. Providing practical examples from transdisciplinary research, the authors illustrate how the principles of shaping can be made effective.

Jahn, Thomas/Diana Hummel/Lukas Drees/Stefan Liehr/Alexandra Lux/Marion Mehring/Immanuel Stieß/Carolin Völker/Martina Winker/Martin Zimmermann (2020): Sozial-ökologische Gestaltung im Anthropozän. GAIA 29 (2), 93-97

Jahn, Thomas/Diana Hummel/Lukas Dress/Stefan Liehr/Alexandra Lux/Marion Mehring/Immanuel Stieß/Carolin Völker/Martina Winker/Martin Zimmermann (2020): Shaping social-ecological transformations in the Anthropocene. ISOE-Diskussionspapiere, 45. Frankfurt am Main

Scientific contact:

Dr. Thomas Jahn
Tel. +49 69 707 6919-0

Media contact:

Dr. Nicola Schuldt-Baumgart
Tel. +49 69 707 6919-30