Learning from, through and about transdisciplinary research for transformations

A new open access publication highlights findings from the PATHWAYS network – part of the Transformations to Sustainability programme – on the role of transdisciplinary research in transformations.

workshop image

Transformative Pathways to Sustainability, which was published earlier this month by Routledge, draws on findings from five years of transdisciplinary research involving over a hundred researchers across five contents through the ‘PATHWAYS’ Transformative knowledge network (TKN).

This book – over five years in the making – clearly illustrates the powerful potential of internationally-networked, transdisciplinary research. It marks an important step forward in the study of social transformations for sustainability, and is a key resource for those who concern themselves with today’s important challenge of transforming science.

Heide Hackmann, Chief Executive Officer, International Science Council (ISC)

The book – and the research project on which it was based – explore the notion of ‘transformative pathways to sustainability’ through experiences in six different sites across the world – in Argentina, Mexico, Kenya, China, the UK and India, across three domains:

Sustainable agricultural and food systems for healthy livelihoods

  • Transformations to sustainable food systems in Brighton and Hove (Europe hub – STEPS Centre, University of Sussex, UK with inputs from Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden)
  • The future of seeds (and agriculture) in Argentina (South America hub – Centre for Research on Transformation (CENIT), Buenos Aires, Argentina)

Low carbon energy transitions that serve the needs of the poor

  • Low carbon energy transitions that meet the needs of the poor (Africa Sustainability Hub – African Centre for Technology Studies, Nairobi, Kenya)
  • China’s green transformations (China Hub – Beijing Normal University School of Social Development and Public Policy, China)

Waste and water for sustainable cities

  • Water governance challenges, Mexico City (North America hub – Arizona State University, USA and National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico)
  • The urban system of water and waste management in Gurgaon, India (South Asia hub – Transdisciplinary Research Cluster on Sustainability Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi India)

The network brought together different groups and applied a range of social science methods to research and intervene in the sustainability challenges in each of the sites above. One approach that the group experimented with was convening ‘Transformation Labs’ (T-Labs) to explore people’s visions, values and ideas for transformation and develop innovative responses.


An introduction to T-Labs:


As well as exploring findings from the transdisciplinary research in each of the hubs, the book identifies comparative insights and develops a synthesis on transformative pathways to sustainability. It offers lessons for integrating knowledge from the social and natural sciences with other non-disciplinary specialism around locally specific sustainability challenges. Finally, it sets out a future agenda for international, engaged social science research on sustainability transformations, and offers learnings for the coordination and funding of international transdisciplinary research programmes.

Rather than attempting to set out a single overarching theory of transformations to sustainability, the book cautions that “there is unlikely to be a single theory of change that works across all disciplines, cultures and contexts”, and highlights the importance of an enabling approach focused on fostering transformative agency, and of challenging the power relations that can act as a barrier to sustainability alongside action-oriented, engaged scientific enquiry and activism.

Find out more:

Pathways Network. 2021. Transformative Pathways to Sustainability: Learning Across Disciplines, Cultures and Contexts, Taylor and Francis.

This book draws together theoretical, methodological and empirical contributions from the last five years of the TKN’s work. It is edited by Adrian Ely and involves collaborators from across the network – a total of 33 researchers from twelve institutions across nine countries.


Image: Mapping problems and opportunities in transformations to sustainable food systems, STEPS Centre via Flickr.

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