Topic E: Understanding the processes of societal transformations in different contexts

There is a growing consensus that deep systemic changes – transformations – are needed to achieve the SDGs and other global agreements in the next decade.

Transformation and transformative action have become common phrases in policy and public action, as well as in many areas of contemporary scientific inquiry. But what does transformation mean? How do we recognize processes with the potential for fundamental or radical systems change? There is a growing body of evidence on these issues. Whilst its focus falls predominantly on the challenges of global sustainability, its foundations have been built by sustained scholarship in the social and human sciences that addresses complex and often contested processes of socio-political, economic and cultural change, and the belief systems and institutional power structures that facilitate or obstruct it. This body of knowledge needs to be further harnessed and synthesized, and effectively utilized in the service of the 2030 Agenda.

Harnessing scientific knowledge on processes of societal transformations, past and present

Areas for scientific inquiry include:

  • Building an understanding of how to realize societal transformations in ways that are equitable and just, socio-politically feasible and culturally acceptable;
  • Understanding how to manage change in a complex system that includes humans: what are the limits of our abilities to deliberately change systems? Under deliberate transformations, what are the better and worse ways of doing it?
  • Identifying effective ways of overcoming key obstacles, pitfalls and sources of resistance to change to the sustainability transition; and
  • Developing new, critical discourses that can transform and replace old, dominant discourses about the way society, economy and science are organized.

Creating culture, beliefs and behaviour change, and building capacities for biosphere stewardship

Areas for scientific inquiry include:

  • Bridging divides between disciplinary perspectives on culture, beliefs and behaviour, and how they interact with natural and anthropogenic physical systems;
  • Understanding approaches to, and the pros and cons of, deliberatively steering behaviours, beliefs and culture for sustainability efforts, for the long term and at scale;
  • Understanding how to create new social norms for sustainability: understanding how habits are formed, broken and sustained; who the right messengers and champions are; how to change behaviour and decisions in different business, community and government organizations;
  • Clarifying the mechanisms by which individuals’ beliefs and behaviour are enabled and constrained by systems they participate in, and by which individuals contribute to change in those systems;
  • Understanding which behavioural models and frameworks to apply where and when;
  • Identifying effective mechanisms for mobilizing individual and collective action for sustainable development; and
  • Developing novel educational concepts, pedagogical approaches and tools for preparing professionals and the future generation to understand and deal with the complex global challenges.

Go back: A priority action agenda for science


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