28 October 2015

Life within planetary boundaries

The ‘Transformations2015’ conference explored ways in which humankind could live within the limits of our planet’s assets. The field of ‘transformation research’ is central in work to combat climate change and depletion of Earth’s resources.

‘Transformations2015’ attracted 230 researchers from 32 countries. During the conference, which was held at Stockholm University by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), the Centre’s director Johan Rockström emphasised that we are the first generation to know what is happening to the planet and that ‘business as usual’ is therefore not an option.

But how should we act? Transformation research is geared to providing answers to this question. Exploration of transformation into sustainable development is a rapidly growing field. It involves using scientific methods to initiate processes of change and also study the changes involved.

‘The conference was part of our efforts to initiate interdisciplinary research and develop this research field. One of the aims was to be able, after the conference, to formulate a number of guiding principles for transformation,’ relates Per Olsson, a researcher at SRC and moderator for the conference whose work involves studying change processes, in particular.

‘For us, it’s interesting to see how industrialism, for example, developed from an idea into somethign that permeates almost all our everyday doings. Similarly, we want to understand whether and how the sustainability paradigm can come to permeate all human activities.’

Here, what is called for is not only the study of sustainability processes. It may be equally fruitful, for example, to study the transformation that took place when apartheid was abolished in South Africa, Olsson thinks. The conference involved substantial inputs from researchers in various disciplines, such as sociologists, historians and anthropologists.

The large element of interdisciplinarity means that the terms are still under discussion, and Olsson urged everyone to have an open mind.

Broad grip on change

The research is thus about how to make progress but also when action is feasible. Expressions like ‘windows of opportunity’ cropped up frequently and the conference was imbued with a sense of urgency. A third question is who should drive the transformation. Agents of change — who they are, how they work and what happens when they disappear — are central aspects of transformation research.

Another typical problem is the difficulty of scaling up good initiatives. Sociologist Frances Westley is a doyenne of sustainability research.

‘We must change our way of seeing individual phenomena and instead look at dynamics, processes and how they are designed. We have a clean river: that’s good. But the questions of why this river is clean, where it comes from and how we are to ensure that all watercourses in this region are clean are more important. Scaling up best practice and joining the dots are absolutely essential. Similarly, we need to see how individual innovations function in a system,’ Westley says.

Economic aspects central

What, then, is the biggest problem?

‘The main enemy right now is the global economic system. Fairly tough interventions are needed, but they don’t look like happening. The system will collapse eventually and we can only hope that it won’t be too violent.’

Westley thinks that in her own field, sociology, there has been a phobia about wanting to influence reality. This has historical reasons: there is a fear of being called a ‘social engineer’.

‘If we’re to learn how research changes the world, we must look at other disciplines. In medicine there are lots of methods of “translating” research findings into clinical reality. The same applies to business economics, an area I’ve studied myself,’ she says.

The conference was one in a series of conferences on the theme of transformation. The previous one was held in Oslo in 2013, and Dundee is now expected to take up the baton.

Text: Thomas Heldmark, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

Mistra Webbredaktör