Sustainability is complex: it emerges at the interface of ecology, society, economy, and culture and is subjected to influences from normative and political issues of equity and justice. This inherent complexity requires a wide range of actions and capacities in order to address interconnected sustainability challenges. In a recent publication, Caniglia et al. (2020) introduce a systematic approach that clarifies how knowledge emerges from and simultaneously supports processes of action and capacity building for sustainability. The authors present the main kinds of knowledge that support sustainability interventions and outline a pluralistic and integrated approach to connecting different kinds of action-oriented knowledge.
Action-oriented research in sustainability science aims to build knowledge in support of interventions and capacities for sustainability. In other words, it bridges the disconnect between scientific outputs and the knowledge needed to address fundamental sustainability challenges. Importantly, Caniglia et al. (2020) argue that actions and knowledge cannot be separated as action generates knowledge and knowledge supports and reinforces action. Thus, knowledge should emerge from entangled processes of action, learning, and capacity building through co-production and transdisciplinary involvement of diverse societal actors.
Actions to enhance sustainability in a given system can vary widely yet share some key commonalities. Caniglia et al. (2020) suggest that actions for sustainability are (1) intentionally designed to create transformative change towards sustainability, (2) involve shared agency of multiple actors, and (3) materialize through contextual realization in constantly evolving and emergent settings. These three dimensions are interrelated and, in combination, capture the main characteristics of intentional, collective, and context-specific action and capacity building processes that contribute to creating transformative change towards sustainability.
Caniglia et al. (2020) highlight that bringing about sustainability-related change requires working with a multiplicity of kinds of knowledge that are normative, political, and context-specific. The three dimensions of actions for sustainability introduced above help organize different kinds of knowledge: Intentional design of actions is informed by generative, prescriptive, and strategic knowledge. Next, shared agency is enhanced by addressing differences in interests, views, values, and power with the help of critical, empowering, and co-produced knowledge. Finally, emergent, tactical, and situated knowledge enables the realization of actions in specific contexts.
Finally, Caniglia et al. (2020) emphasize the role of acknowledging both the importance of multiple kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing as well as the need to integrate them when working with complex phenomena. This integrative pluralism can provide individuals or groups with the knowledge how to take action for sustainability. Importantly, one may never reach an end-goal of enough knowledge when tackling complex phenomena, because the kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing involved are always being developed through action and interactions in complex and recursive learning processes.
Based on the pluralistic and integrated approach outlined above, Caniglia et al. (2020) suggest that a central mission of research institutions should be to contribute to creating conditions inside academia (internal) as well as within the broader society (external) for collective processes of knowledge generation to flourish. In other words, research institutions committed to sustainability should aim to create the conditions for change to emerge, rather than attempting to direct change. This entails embracing a learning attitude as well as experimenting with knowledge, action, and capacity building processes in a pluralistic and integrated way.