Sustainable development

A strategic compass for global sustainability research networks

Solving complex sustainability problems requires the knowledge of many different scientific disciplines. But the experiential and everyday knowledge of societal actors also plays a crucial role. To achieve effective results for societal transformations, science must therefore open up to the co-production of knowledge. Research networks can support this process. In a study led by Flurina Schneider, scientific director of ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research, scientists have investigated what is important in this process. 

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Foto: Stephan Böhm –

The UN Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 identifies science as one of four levers for achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), alongside governance, economics and finance, and individual and collective action. However, an increasing number of voices highlight the need for science itself to transform in order to produce effective solutions to the complex issues of sustainability transformation. This includes, for example, the call for changes in knowledge production processes. 

It is argued that in order to tackle global challenges such as climate change, purely scientifically generated knowledge is not enough. Rather, the experiential knowledge of social actors must also be taken into account as the joint production of knowledge increases the relevance, accountability and implementation of research results. For science, engaging in new partnerships across different disciplines with actors from government, business and civil society for the co-production of knowledge is still comparatively new. A recent study has now examined for the first time how global sustainability research networks can help to promote the co-production of knowledge.

Network compass for the co-production of knowledge

In their study “Co-Production of Knowledge and Sustainability Transformations: A Strategic Compass for Global Research Networks” the authors led by Flurina Schneider show the potential these networks have for knowledge co-production in research and how they can exploit it with the help of a “network compass.” Eleven global sustainability-oriented research networks such as the Global Land Project, the Mountain Research Initiative or the Alliance for Inter- and Transdisciplinary Research participated in the study. “The Network Compass highlights four interrelated fields of action through which global research networks can engage in processes of knowledge co-production,” explains Flurina Schneider, scientific director at ISOE and professor at Frankfurt Goethe University.

For example, research networks can start by bringing together different actors and thereby enable joint knowledge production (e.g. by organizing conferences). They can also provide targeted support to individual member institutions in co-producing knowledge (e.g., through training courses). Furthermore, the promotion of co-production processes between member institutions plays an important role in enhancing their overall transformative power (e.g., via synthesis activities for global assessment bodies such as IPCC). Finally, innovation within the network itself is crucial: “For networks to effectively engage in the co-production of knowledge, they often need to change their own structures and processes. This ranges from revisiting strategic plans to implementing model projects (prototypes),” says Flurina Schneider. 

Strategic tool for planning and evaluation in sustainability research 

The background to the study, now published in the prestigious journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, was the authors' observation that a variety of tools for co-producing knowledge in local contexts already exists, especially for specific research projects. “However, we have seen that global research networks do not yet have suitable strategic tools to accompany and strengthen the process of co-production of knowledge and sustainability transformations,” Schneider said. Here, the Network Compass can be a key tool, as it not only provides research networks with a suitable tool for future strategic planning, but can also be helpful for evaluating past sustainability activities.  

Schneider, Flurina/Theresa Tribaldos/Carolina Adler/Reinette (Oonsie) Biggs/Ariane de Bremond/Tobias Buser/Cornelia Krug/Marie-France Loutre/Sarah Moore/Albert V. Norström/Katsia Paulavets/Davnah Urbach/Eva Spehn/Gabriela Wülser/Ruben Zondervan (2021): Co-production of knowledge and sustainability transformations: a strategic compass for global research networks. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 49 (April), 127-142