Transformations to Sustainability

After an exciting and productive nine years, the pioneering Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) programme ended in December 2022. The programme was designed to enable social sciences to bring their unique and urgently needed contribution to international sustainability research, with a focus on the human and social dynamics of global change and transformation.

Transformations to Sustainability

Launched in January 2014 by the International Social Science Council (ISSC) with funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the programme funded 38 seed grants, followed by three international projects which ran from 2016 to 2019. Each project, or ‘transformative knowledge network’, was led or jointly led by a social scientist in the Global South; involved research partners in an average of eight countries across the Global North and South from a wide range of social science and environmental science disciplines; co-designed and co-produced research with societal partners; and nurtured a cohort of post-doctoral scholars in transformations research and practice.

Inspired by the ISSC model, the Belmont Forum then engaged with the New Opportunities for Research Funding Agency Cooperation in Europe network of social science funders, the European Commission and the ISC to develop a ‘collaborative research action’. This effort generated EUR 11.5 million of research funding for a further 12 international projects, running between 2018 and 2022. In this partnership, the ISC funded researchers in low-income countries to participate in the international projects, coordinated cross-project knowledge exchange and activities.

Altogether, the T2S projects collectively explored solutions to a wide range of socio-environmental problems, using a rich variety of conceptual and methodological approaches. The common factor was the social framing of problems and potential solutions, the deep involvement of non-academic partners in the joint framing, design and implementation of the research, and the effort to understand and nurture processes of social change towards more sustainable and socially just situations.

‘The history of the T2S programme is part of the history of science and the realization that interdisciplinary collaboration between the natural and social sciences was essential to the effort to tackle global challenges.’

Heide Hackmann, Director, Future Africa Institute (and former ISC CEO and ISSC Executive Director)

Altogether, the programme involved about 370 people across more than 35 countries, including about 180 project members based in the Global South. Several thousand more were involved in participatory forms of research. The projects were prolific, producing more than 400 academic publications, including three cross-project special issues, and a myriad of non-academic and multi-media outputs. All the projects produced impressive scientific, practical and policy outcomes over their lifespans, with more expected in the coming years as the seeds planted by the projects mature, come to fruition and create offshoots.

Exemplary outcomes of the projects

Since 2018, the Bioleft community, an offshoot of the Pathways Transformative Knowledge Network, has been building an open seed exchange and breeding network in Latin America. The platform has made it possible to register and transfer open seed varieties to hundreds of agricultural producers.

An app developed by the Waterproofing Data Research project allows communities in flood-prone areas to monitor and manage their own flood risk, which has already contributed to the saving of lives. The Brazilian National Centre for Disaster Monitoring and Early Warning has adopted and institutionalized the application.

The MISTY project was instrumental in the process which led, in 2021, to the Government of Bangladesh adopting a comprehensive displacement management strategy with a rights-based framework for internally displaced people.

CONVIVA project members are working with the Dutch Planning Bureau for the Environment to build convivial conservation scenarios that can inform post-2020 biodiversity frameworks. 

The project outcomes and learnings can be explored on the T2S programme websites. In 2022, the ISC produced a set of short films and ‘impact stories’ illustrating the value of transdisciplinary research approaches in re-imagining and supporting social transformations. The dedicated website hosting the films and impact stories registered 3,500 pageviews in its first five months and the centrepiece film on social transformations was featured at the World Science Forum expo in South Africa in December.

The T2S programme has been a hugely challenging and rewarding initiative. It represented a significant and daring step up in scale and scope for sustainability research cooperation and leadership in the social sciences. It made it possible to test experimental transdisciplinary research designs which validated the knowledge of non-academic stakeholders. Crucially, it offered opportunities for equitable research participation and leadership from the Global South.

‘The T2S programme made the improbable possible, due in large part to the collective intellectual strength of an amazing network of philosophers, researchers and practitioners.’

Leo Saldanha, Governance of Sociotechnical Transformations project member, Environmental Support Group, India

An independent final evaluation conducted in 2022 concluded that the projects had made great contributions to theoretical and conceptual debates around concepts of transformation to sustainability. The panel saw the programme as a forerunner in the evolution of sustainability research towards more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches, and as instrumental in normalizing the idea that social scientists should lead research for sustainability.

Lessons learned and recommendations from the experience of the T2S programme are still being harvested. Reports synthesizing knowledge on social transformation gleaned from the projects will be published in 2023, as will a programme design study drawing lessons from the variations in programme design between the first and second generations of projects. A chapter in the Handbook of Transdisciplinarity: Global Perspectives (Lawrence, forthcoming 2023) offers learning from a cross-programme comparison between the two phases of the T2S programme and the LIRA 2030 programme.

‘The explicit demand for non-academic knowledge products in the T2S programme was transformative.’

Adrian Ely, Pathways TKN coordinator, University of Sussex

The T2S programme has confirmed that transdisciplinary research can be truly transformative and must be part of local and global, integrated efforts to achieve social and environmental sustainability. However, the T2S experience also shows that academic science systems are not conducive to transdisciplinary research. Science itself will need to transform, in its funding and incentive structures, evaluation cultures, training approaches, and interfaces with practice and policy, to enable transdisciplinary research to flourish. Transformations to environmental and social sustainability can be achieved, but only with fundamental shifts in social relations, including with and within the scientific community. 

Stories of transformation, in film and articles, can be accessed online.

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