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Transformations to Sustainability: Key activities from 2020

It has been a challenging but nevertheless productive year for the Belmont Forum-NORFACE Transformations to Sustainability programme, which supports solutions-oriented research for sustainability led by social scientists and jointly produced with societal stakeholders.

The Transformations to Sustainability projects, which were launched in late 2018, were arriving at mid-point in early 2020, with all twelve international projects deep in fieldwork and data collection when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. In view of the delays engendered by Covid-19, the programme has been extended by one year, until the end of 2022. In this blog we look at some of the programme’s most important activities in 2020.

Bringing knowledge on social transformations to the debate

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures to contain it over the past 12 months have profoundly disrupted research in all disciplines all over the world, but they have also brought debate on the socio-environmental dimensions of pandemics to a far greater audience than before. The Transformations to Sustainability community has responded actively to the demand for knowledge about the social dimensions of pandemics and the possibilities of deep social change, sharing insights from their areas of expertise and illustrating how the pandemic is affecting local communities on the ground and in different regions of the world. In the early months of the pandemic the projects offered many reflections on the pandemic in relation to research foci for collection on the T2S webpages.

Read all of the reflections and posts on the regularly updated page.

Navigating the politics of engaged, transformative research became more urgent

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the T2S mid-term workshop took place virtually. But the theme selected by the project members eight months previously – ‘the politics of engaged, transformative research’ – was, under the circumstances, even more relevant and timely. The workshop was held over five days, with a keynote talk by Giuseppe Feola on the topic of ‘Unmaking capitalism’ and about 100 participants over the course of the event.

It was an opportunity for projects to re-connect with each other and discuss progress and learning, before and since the COVID-19 crisis, with a view to identifying needs and opportunities for future collaboration that could contribute to knowledge for social transformation.

Find out more and read the post-meeting reflections.

Establishing a knowledge base on the social science of sustainability – a peer-reviewed collection of critical literature reviews underpinning the T2S projects due in 2021

A special issue of the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (COSUST) featuring contributions from all 12 T2S projects was in preparation in 2020, for publication in April 2021. The objective of the special issue is to capture critical social science thinking on transformations to sustainability and to track emerging conceptual framings and methodological innovations. The special issue is intended to make a significant contribution to the 6th assessment report of the IPCC and the IPBES assessment of transformative change. The editors of the special issue are Eleanor Fisher (GOLD MATTERS project), Emily Boyd (MISTY project) and Eduardo Brondizio (AGENTS project).

Project reports and a midterm programme review demonstrated the growing global networks of people and activities working on transformations to sustainability.

The annual project reports in March 2020 showed that there were 263 people across 29 countries involved in the 12 project teams. As of March 2020, they had produced approximately 350 outputs between them, including journal articles, conference presentations, briefs and videos.

The midterm evaluation of the programme in the third quarter of 2020 concluded that the T2S programme was indeed helping to build capacity for North-South collaboration in transdisciplinary social science sustainability research. It also identified a growing need and potential for cross-project synergies, synthesis and communication as the projects mature.

Early-career T2S researchers took part in media skills training with

In late November 2020 the T2S team at the ISC organized media skills training for 25 early career researchers in the projects. The training was provided by, the online journal of science and development news and analysis.

The aim of the training was to give early-career researchers the skills and confidence to reach policy audiences and the wider public with their research findings through the media. To meet that aim, the course provided guidance on how to identify newsworthy information from research and techniques to make that research interesting to the media and public.

‘The course instructor and contents were outstanding, and I was able to develop valuable skills and abilities.’ (anonymous feedback).

Akriti Jain, from the IPACST project, shared a write-up of the training on the IPACST blog.

T2S researchers re-connect at the end of the year to reflect on what they have achieved and learned under challenging circumstances

A screenshot capturing some of the participants

An informal virtual get-together of the project members, funders and Sounding Board was convened in mid-December 2020 to allow the projects and funders to share notes and pool ideas about emerging needs and opportunities. Despite the huge challenges posed to fieldwork and data collection by the Covid-19 pandemic, it was heartening to hear how strongly the project teams and their non-academic research partners had pulled together to keep the projects on track, by making use of digital information technologies, adapting strategies and methodologies, and adjusting goals. The new virtual ways of meeting and conducting business within projects were found to be more inclusive and democratic, but a major challenge identified was in maintaining engagement with communities at the local level, often the most vulnerable communities in society and the most difficult to connect with in the new virtual ways. Other insights from the discussion at this meeting will be captured in the near future.

Keep an eye on these pages in the coming months for more from the T2S programme.

Find out more on the Transformations to Sustainability programme.

The ISC participates in the NORFACE–Belmont Forum Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) programme launched in 2017. The programme is the product of a partnership between the Belmont Forum and NORFACE in a joint effort to advance research on transformations to sustainability. The ISC, with the support of Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), coordinates the knowledge exchange and dissemination work package of the programme.

The ISC is also the coordinator of the Transformations to Sustainability Programme originally launched by the International Social Science Council (ISSC) in 2014 and supported by Sida.

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