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Voices of research on sustainability transformations

In interviews with researchers, we explored specific aspects of research on sustainability transformations. Key observations are summarized below.

Claudia Keller: The urgency of issues like climate change and the biodiversity crisis are of great concern to me. The importance of personal engagement, such as in solidarity agriculture, has grown for me, as well as my desire to connect it with my research (e.g. through the experience of the pandemic).
The transformation research movement offers broad scope for addressing these challenges. As a literary scholar with a focus on cultural studies, I see narrative texts as offering a way of critiquing ideas we take for granted and of sharing other modes of thinking. That’s how literature becomes transformative.

Anne Zimmermann: The question of motivation is key – you can’t conduct good research without examining it. We are facing multiple crises: poverty, war, climate change, loss of biodiversity, etc. For me, the source of motivation is not fear, but rather the fact that what I love is in danger of disappearing. That’s what compels me to do something – in life and in research.

Olivier Ejderyan: My interest in transformation and transformation research began with my interest in change on behalf of greater sustainability and justice – the two go hand in hand for me. What also intrigued me initially was the sudden interest in talking about transformation, for example, as opposed to sustainability. It’s a term my own work is embedded in, a term that surrounds me. But it’s also ambiguous and I try to look at it critically. Sometimes I see it as little more than an empty vessel. I’m concerned with questions such as: “Transformation from what to what?” “Who is involved?” “What concept and what practices are behind the term?” “Why is this new terminology necessary?” “Which areas of play are opened up and which ones are shut down?” In my own work, I help to shape these transformation processes, but I also strive to view them somewhat critically.

Basil Bornemann: The transformation discourse emerged in the course of my doctorate on policy integration in the context of sustainability strategies. This raised the question of what exactly is associated with transformation and what the term signifies; what other practices, other ideas of social organization, or concepts of governance arise with the introduction of transformation to sustainability thinking. These considerations were the starting point of my own engagement with transformation. I adopted the term, on the one hand, but also approached it sceptically, on the other, viewing it initially as an empty shell that needed to be filled with contents.

This act of filling it then occurs by observing how the term is used in society and critically reflecting on it. However, I don’t think that use of the term contrasts sharply with what was already being discussed in the previous discourse on sustainability. To my mind, sustainability has always been about comprehensive, integrative, fundamental change, so the added value of the transformation concept is somewhat limited. Instead, I think the term accentuates or lends emphasis to certain aspects of sustainability – especially its far-reaching quality, implications for the global South and North, and the fluidity and openness of developments. But I don’t think it shifts the paradigm.

Nikolina Fuduric: I reached a point in my job – I believe it was 2016, I had a tenured professorship – where I was tired and uninspired. I didn’t feel like my job had any impact on society. I started reading various things, including about systems thinking. I realized why I felt so tired. It was because I didn’t see the interconnections (anymore). I was working in structures that prevented me from seeing the big picture. I took a year off, read a lot, thought about the philosophical “why?” questions, and contemplated the purpose of education and research. I grappled with the desire to make a difference and transform things. I returned to my job with the aim of focussing on sustainable marketing, but I found that the field was a huge mess.

I thought: We’re confronting an urgent situation globally – we’re all involved, and we have to do something! So, I set out to bring order to the field of sustainable marketing, which is a precondition for impact.

Although we talk a lot about interdisciplinarity, we actually have few opportunities to network across disciplines and research collaboratively at our universities because the system doesn’t support it. Today’s incentive systems have instrumentalized us and commodified things so much that we’ve lost sight of what’s important and why we do things. That’s why I began bringing together colleagues who work on sustainability. We founded the “Sustainability Salon” among the eight universities belonging to the FHNW. We regularly exchange ideas online. We had a certain degree of activism, so we created a small movement. Several interdisciplinary projects grew out of the core Sustainability Salon group, and we just received funding from the directorate to create a “Sustainability Navigator”. It will show where people are doing research on sustainability and diversity, so they can locate each other quickly. We also aim to involve societal actors – they can also use the Navigator.

Research on sustainability transformations often communicates the urgency of doing without things – doing without a car, without eating meat, without flying, etc. How should we communicate such calls for restraint?

Anne Zimmermann: Restraint is difficult in a society where “never enough” is the motor of development. Doing without things has negative connotations. We should think about what gives value to our lives and focus on that. We can practice doing without in communities, making it easier and taking away the fear.

But transformation processes always include people who lose out or people who criticize or reject these processes because they threaten their lifestyles, values, or identities. How can we address these groups?

It’s fundamental to listen to these people. “Deep listening” – that means taking a step back from yourself and your own ideas and really listening. You have to listen, take others seriously, and acknowledge what they are saying.

Assuming research wants to bring about sustainability, how can it support achievement of its visions? How does one promote restraint or doing without?

Claudia Keller: These questions preoccupy me, too. There is the question of renunciation versus joy. Amitav Gosh showed that literary texts aren’t simply harmless – they can present cars as a symbol of freedom, associating joy with burning fossil fuels (The Great Derangement, 2016). The task of literary studies, then, is to examine, for example, what form of happiness is conveyed by a text. When other, alternative forms of happiness are communicated, it can spark reflection and transformation by presenting a different experience.

Are there narratives that also actively grapple with the “losers” of sustainability transformations?

Claudia Keller: Literature likes to take the side of human and non-human living beings who are marginalized by the dominant discourse. Jeremias Gotthelf, for example, questioned the costs of socioeconomic transformations during the industrialization. And in Judith Herrmann’s novel “Daheim”, one of the protagonists has a huge pig farm, but the author describes the character without passing judgment. It’s a strength of literature that you can address the out-of-step in a non-judgemental way.

How do you communicate sufficiency or doing without?

Nikolina Fuduric: With joy!! It has to be joy and inspiration – these disaster narratives don’t accomplish anything. We have studies proving this. We must change the story. We consume more than we need because we’re trying to fill a void. I think the narratives should counter this void with something else: friendship, solidarity, joy, inspiration, aesthetics. We need to become aspirational. Instead of telling ourselves what we shouldn’t do, we should create aspirational solutions. Things that can help here include storyboards, gamification, and collaborating with the art world.

How do you address the sceptics or those who stand to lose out in transformation processes?

Nikolina Fuduric: They are part of our system and could lose their jobs. We must recognize this. You have to see the big picture and have respect for other opinions and life circumstances.
Personally, the way I deal with it is by considering my own sphere of influence. I don’t see my own scope for action as making it possible to satisfy everyone – instead I look for where I can have the greatest impact. I made a conscious decision not to focus on consumer behaviour, but rather on helping companies become more sustainable because I can have the biggest impact there.
And I hope that our society will show up and provide support for those who lose their jobs. That’s what we needed during the industrial revolution, that’s what we needed in the US when NAFTA was signed, and that’s what we need today. It’s a moral issue. We can’t leave people behind.

In North–South research, there is always the question of cultural dependency or specificity. How is transformation dealt with in other regions? How can we learn from them?

Anne Zimmermann: The concept of transformation is strongly influenced by the North and has a political dimension. It would be good if we could flip the research process so that researchers from the global South could conduct research in the global North and could choose who they want to collaborate with there. We need this kind of reversal. Transformation also requires openness to other scientific norms, openness to other concepts such as Pachamama* or Ubuntu**.

* Pachamama refers to the personified Mother Earth who gives life, nurtures, protects, and communicates through rituals. Pachamama forms part of the identity of certain indigenous Andean societies in Latin America, also providing a basis for present-day socio-political resistance and hope for a good life.
**Ubuntu is a philosophy of life from southern Africa, which is underpinned by concepts of humanity and compassion and reflects the awareness that we are but one part of a greater whole.

Anne Zimmermann: The difference is historically based. While transdisciplinary research still puts a lot of emphasis on different disciplines, these are less important in transformative research. In transformative research, the focus is on the (change) process itself.

Is the new emphasis on transformative learning an “achievement” we owe to the concept of transformation? Or could it simply have been based on mutual learning, which was already a strong focus of transdisciplinary research?

Anne Zimmermann: For me, mutual learning isn’t enough. Mutual learning is important, but it doesn’t mean that one is willing to change. The urgency of the situation means we have to go further. Transformative learning implies a willingness to change oneself: not simply to “learn from others”, but rather to radically question and change one’s own perspective. It also means having a willingness to unlearn.

While we review the concepts and research approaches used in the context of sustainability transformations, allow us to briefly explore innovation research. Which concepts of innovation influence you the most? Where do you see points of intersection between innovation research and transformation or transformative research?

Olivier Ejderyan: In terms of approaches that explicitly address the link between innovation and transformation, I’ve been most influenced by the theoretical approaches of the SPRU school in England (Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex), especially the work of Andy Sterling. These are essentially approaches to transformation research that have emerged from innovation research, so there’s a clear connection in my view. There are also schools of transformation research that come from other directions, for example from development studies or transdisciplinary research. For me, these approaches are strongly linked because they also view processes of innovation and transformation with a critical eye. In my opinion, transformation research also represents a way of mainstreaming innovation research. Transformation is also an academic-political project in research: it serves as a way of positioning oneself, of entering particular research landscapes, or of staking a claim in research fields where innovation research had less of a role in the past. In my view, transformation research can link up to innovation at the academic-political level and in connection with public–private partnerships, so that non-academic stakeholders also take an interest and transformation is understood as a driver of innovation. In this sense, it’s a way of bringing different worlds together.

Basil Bornemann: I see it similarly. Transformation is a discourse that allows you to link up with various innovation-oriented actors from science and practice and incorporate them into sustainability discussions and thinking, enabling connectivity and integration into the mainstream. For me, transformation is somehow more general, it is the umbrella concept. Societal transformation processes towards sustainability include innovation, but they also encompass other processes and activities relevant to transformation. Societal transformations also involve transformation of governance. In my view, actually, the gateway to transformation has always been governance and innovation.

Olivier Ejderyan: “Social innovation” is very prevalent in transformation research but is also a somewhat ambivalent concept: On the one hand, the focus is on social processes, countering the notion that everything can be solved with “technical fixes” or technological approaches. On the other, the desired changes emerge from a normative perspective, that is, desired changes are portrayed as innovations. But then there is also the question of what processes are allowed, how they are managed, etc. – this all influences what happens in practice.

So, who manages social innovation?

Olivier Ejderyan: Perhaps framing is a better word. I’m thinking in particular of financial support, flagship projects, etc. But maybe it has more to do with processes of legitimation than managing.

Olivier Ejderyan: “Seeds of Good Anthropocenes” is an innovation approach that presents change in a much less linear way than, for example, the transition approach that promotes the path “from niche to mainstream” (cf. Geels 2011). “Seeds of Good Anthropocenes” suggests that different seeds – that is, different individual initiatives – are scattered about and then grow as they are scaled up and transform. This approach is, of course, less appealing to policymakers because it means innovation lends itself to less control. But it is a concept that has taken root in certain circles and bridges different worlds, including between research, activism, and alternative forms of entrepreneurship.

Basil Bornemann: There’s one other critical point that could be mentioned in complement to the dominance of niche–innovation–regime–transition (cf. Geels 2011) thinking: The reason for turning to the concept of transformation could be because it introduces several critical perspectives, which are also partly discussed in connection with “exnovation”. Shifting to the transformation concept creates an opening for questions of resistance, power dynamics, etc., making them easier to discuss. It also makes it possible to think more about other stakeholders, social movements, and political movements that might have been rather neglected in the fields of innovation and sustainable development – even if this isn’t the mainstream. One other possible development is the idea that we can draw on the power of these stakeholders, such as in the area of “global governance”, where civil society actors have suddenly been afforded a central role in demanding and driving innovation processes at the governance level. And maybe there’s an aspect of shifting to a more inclusive model that isn’t just viewed normatively, but also emerges from consideration of all the difficulties and critical points.

Basil Bornemann: I see my role as enlightening, supporting, and reflecting on the knowledge and practices of science and practitioners. This might sound like an old-fashioned understanding of science. But from a practical perspective, the question of validity is often central when working with scientists. I see my role in maintaining a critical distance, serving as a critical guide in transformation processes and in thinking about what kinds of knowledge science can contribute.

What gives me pause is thinking about what it even means to assume a critical role. How can I take on a critical role and fulfil my “mission” of enlightenment without stifling the transformation itself with my critical stance? This point is increasingly important to me. How do you conduct transformative research and remain critical? Maybe it’s a matter of combining external and internal critique in a productive way: On the one hand, we can incorporate and translate critical tools from science (normative benchmarks, best practices, etc.) into practice. On the other, we can strive to understand what critical articulations arise within a field of practice, such as in cantonal administrations or in food policy, and in turn challenge scientific perspectives. We then have to integrate these perspectives in a way that makes critique accessible and transformative in the field.

Nikolina Fuduric: As a researcher, I aim to bring order to a large system in order to help people orient themselves within it – so that marketing, for example, isn’t seen as just being about products and greenwashing. For this reason, I created a Sustainability Marketing Canvas. I’m an action researcher and I like to solve problems. I have multiple roles: sense-maker and midwife. I’m an outsider (coming from the pharma/chemical industry, I didn’t finish my dissertation until I was 41), so I’m good at doing unfamiliar things and challenging the status quo of research goals and procedures.

But honestly, I find my role in the classroom and in continuing education with managers just as important: There, too, I’m a sense-maker and midwife – but also a challenger who asks: “Are you sure you’re doing enough? Are you realizing your sphere of influence?”

I really want to transform education. Is it our task as an educational institution to train young people to function as tools of a neoliberal society? Or do we need healthy young people who also strive for transformation and impact? We are at a tipping point, leaning towards a new philosophy of education and work. We as educational institutions should respond to this trend.

Olivier Ejderyan: I see my role pretty clearly as that of a critical observer who sees these processes as important, but also realizes that certain risks come with them – risks that need to be anticipated. In this way, as a researcher, you might bear more responsibility than other stakeholders in the process who don’t have the tools to anticipate and explore these risks.

What risks do you mean specifically?

Olivier Ejderyan: I’m thinking of the depoliticization of certain processes, the risk that important questions are no longer brought up. Depoliticization includes silencing certain categories of stakeholders as well as certain research practices; I’m thinking of qualitative research, ethnographic methods, for example. This kind of research takes time, but since everything must be done faster and has to be measurable, it gets pushed aside, or has to be completed in a couple of weeks. It’s a bit paradoxical: on the one hand, such methods are being increasingly adopted, but they’re simultaneously being watered down and standardized – for example, interviewing. The natural sciences incorporate such methods, but adapt them or force them to fit certain processes – I see that in a lot of inter- and transdisciplinary projects.

The interviews were conducted in German and then translated into French and English.

In conversation with:

Claudia Keller

Claudia Keller, Dr., German Seminar UZH

Claudia Keller’s research includes sustainability transformations in narratives (Link) from the perspective of the history of science and by means of literary analysis. She is also active in solidarity agriculture (Link) and works as a journalist (Link).

Anne Zimmermann

Anne Zimmermann, Dr., Associated Senior Research Scientist at CDE

Anne Zimmermann has been working on aspects of sustainability transformations, especially in the context of North–South research, since her university studies. Among other things, she focuses on questions of education for sustainability (cf. saguf working group). She is currently active in the project “TRACCskills – Transformational, cross cutting people skills for the SDGs”.

Basil Bornemann

Basil Bornemann, Dr., Departement Gesellschaftswissenschaften, UniBas

Basil Bornemann has been involved in sustainability at the University of Basel for nearly ten years. He has an interdisciplinary environmental science background, specializing in social science issues and sustainability since his university studies. His current projects may be found at this link.

Olivier Ejderyan

Olivier Ejderyan, Dr., Department of Agricultural and Food Systems, FIBL

Olivier Ejderyan is a human geographer who has frequently worked in other disciplines or in a transdisciplinary way. He leads the “Society & Innovation” group that runs a Transformation Lab aimed at co-designing a transformation roadmap for Swiss agriculture.

Nikolina Fuduric

Nikolina Fuduric, Prof. Dr., Institute for Competitiveness and Communication, FHNW

Nikolina Fuduric is co-founder of the FHNW Sustainability Salon and focuses on transformation in business and education. She created the Sustainability Marketing Canvas and is engaged in the development of the Sustainability Navigator for the FHNW and its stakeholders.