Transformative research for sustainability: characteristics, tensions, and moving forward

Andra Ioana Horcea-Milcu*, Ine Dorresteijn, Julia Leventon, Milutin Stojanovic, David P.M. Lam, Daniel J. Lang, Angela Moriggi, Christopher M. Raymond, Sanna Stålhammar, Annika Weiser, Silja Zimmermann

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Abstract

Technical summary The question of how science can become a lever in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals permeates most recent sustainability research. Wide-ranging literature calling for a transformative approach has emerged in recent years. This 'transformative turn' is fueled by publications from fields such as sustainability science, social-ecological research, conservation science, sustainability transitions, or sustainability governance studies. However, there is a lack of a shared understanding specifically of what is meant for research to be transformative in this developing discourse around doing science differently to tackle sustainability problems. We aim to advance transformative research for sustainability. We define transformative research and outline six of its characteristics: (1) interventional nature and a theory of change focus; (2) collaborative modes of knowledge production, experimentation and learning; (3) systems thinking literacy and contextualization; (4) reflexivity, normative and inner dimensions; (5) local agency, decolonization, and reshaping power; (6) new quality criteria and rethinking impact. We highlight three tensions between transformative research and traditional paradigms of academic research: (1) process- and output-orientation; (2) accountability toward society and toward science; (3) methodologies rooted in scientific traditions and post-normal methodologies. We conclude with future directions on how academia could reconcile these tensions to support and promote transformative research. Non-technical summary Dominant ways of doing research are not enough to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The typical response of science to dealing with the current local and global sustainability crises is to produce and accumulate more knowledge. Transformative research seeks to couple knowledge production with co-creating change. This paper defines the transformative way of doing research to pro-actively support society's fight against pressing societal and environmental problems. We present six characteristics of transformative research. We reflect on the challenges related to implementing these characteristics in scientific practice and on how academia can play its part.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere14
Number of pages16
JournalGlobal Sustainability
Volume7
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 11 Apr 2024

Keywords

  • mode-2 science
  • power
  • reflexivity
  • systems thinking
  • transformation knowledge

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