Roundtable: What does ‘transformation(s) to sustainability’ mean today?

Thursday, 4 March at 15h–16h CET

The Transformations to Sustainability programme (a joint initiative of the International Science Council, the Belmont Forum and the NORFACE network) invites you to an in-depth discussion of some of the critical questions for research on transformations to sustainability in early 2021. Three leading scholars and practitioners – Ulrich Brand, Cheikh Mbow and Karen O’Brien – will discuss vital questions such as:

  • What are the minimum elements of a definition/conceptualization of transformation (to sustainability)? What can and should we agree on?
  • How do we recognize transformation and distinguish it from other kinds of change, particularly as it is happening?
  • When is research itself transformative?
  • What if anything is the COVID-19 pandemic teaching us about ‘transformation’ and ‘transformative research’?


‘Transformation’ has been the order of the day in global sustainability policy for several years already – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is entitled ‘Transforming our World’, the 2018 IPCC special report on 1.5 ºC called for transformative change, and the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report calls for ‘knowledge-based transformations towards sustainable development’.

The transformations discourse signifies that we urgently need to make profound changes in the social and cultural systems, structures, values, norms and practices that create and sustain contemporary socio-ecological problems, from poverty and pollution to climate change and pandemics. It also implies that we need innovation in the way we produce and communicate knowledge for sustainability, to make it more relevant, legitimate and actionable – in other words, transformative.

However, there is no consensus on what ‘transformation to sustainability’ and ‘transformative science’ are. There are many national and international research initiatives, but no universal ‘transformations approach’; many global policy statements invoking transformation, but not enough coordination and coherence in their operationalization. Further, does the COVID-19 pandemic hinder or help, challenge or serve, transformations research, policy and action – what does transformation to sustainability mean in the context of the massive disruption caused by the pandemic and the powerful desire to return to or achieve some kind of ‘normal’?

In this moment of global crisis there is an unprecedented window of opportunity for knowledge about social change to influence debates, visions, policy and action to transform our world. Be part of the conversation!

Contact: Sarah Moore, Science Officer.

Learn more about the T2S programme.


Susanne Moser (moderator)

Susanne Moser, Ph.D., is Director and Principal Researcher of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting in Hadley, Massachusetts and Senior Adviser to the Transformations to Sustainability programme of the International Science Council. Susi’s work focuses on equitable adaptation and transformation in the face of climate change and interlocking stresses; climate change communication in support of social change; and decision support and the interaction between scientists, policymakers and the public.

Photo: Lisa Bolyos

Ulrich Brand

Ulrich Brand is Professor of International Politics at the University of Vienna. His research and teaching focuses on international environmental and resource politics, imperial mode of living, social-ecological transformation, and Latin America. His theoretical works engage the fields of critical state and governance studies, regulation theory, and political ecology.

Cheikh Mbow

Cheikh Mbow is the Director of Future Africa. Previously, he was the Executive Director of START-International in Washington DC. He served for a decade as Associate Professor on remote sensing-GIS and climate change at the Institute of Environmental Sciences, Science Faculty; and Laboratoire d’Enseignement et de Recherche en Géomatique (LERG), Polytechnic Faculty of the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar (UCAD), where he led the research team called CAREX (Climate Change, Adaptation and Environmental Risks). Mbow has proven transdisciplinary skills and expertise on land use, disturbances of natural vegetative systems and sustainability of agricultural systems.

Karen O’Brien

Karen O’Brien, University of Oslo, is an internationally recognized expert on climate change and society, focusing on themes such as climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation, including how climate change interacts with globalization processes and the implications for human security. She is interested in how transdisciplinary and integral approaches to global change research can contribute to a better understanding of how societies both create and respond to change, and particularly the role of beliefs, values and worldview in transformations to sustainability. She is passionate about what potential there is in quantum social theory and the implications for climate change responses.

Background viewing

In advance of the webinar, check out some of the following reflections on transformation and transformative research:

Presentations (of ca. 25 mins) at the Transformations to Sustainability launch event in 2014 on questions such as:

  • What is transformation? What does it look like? (Joseph Tainter, Frances Westley, Mary Watkins, Frans Berkhout)
  • Can transformations towards desired futures be facilitated, steered or managed? (Melissa Leach, Enrique Leff)
  • What does transformative science look like? (Ed Hackett)
  • What does transformative science mean for science policy? (Klaus Toepfer)

‘Towards Transformations in Practice’
Recorded at the Transformations Conference 2019, in Dundee, UK.

Transformation to sustainability: theoretical roots and (some) research directions

Please contact us if you want to share other films or written reflections on the meaning of ‘transformations’ and ‘transformative science for sustainability’.

To keep in touch with discussions on transformations, sign up for the quarterly Transformations to Sustainability newsletter here.

Header photo: Bankim Desai via unsplash.