Workshop on collective behavior change for sustainable futures

Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies
Potsdam, Germany
February 7-9, 2016

Workshop Topic Enhancing critical research on transformative change toward just, equitable, and sustainable futures through the lenses of social science, humanities, and art
Format 2-day expert workshop to brainstorm and refine conceptual and methodological approaches for understanding collective behaviour change, leading to publication(s) and forming the basis for organizing an international symposium on case studies
Participants Social scientists, natural scientists, humanities scholars, artists
Location Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), Potsdam, Germany
Organizers Ilan Chabay ( and IASS Potsdam) and Stefan Schäfer (IASS Potsdam)

In recent years the debate has become increasingly intense and urgent on the impacts and origins of environmental degradation (including climate change), the existential challenge of sustainability, and the fundamentally human-defined relationships with the natural systems in which all societies are embedded. The framing of the discourse has shifted from mid-20th century concern for preservation of environments, to “The Limits To Growth” in 1972 and the public introduction of the idea of sustainable development with “Our Common Future” in 1987, to the framing of the relationship between humanity and the planet as the Anthropocene Era at the turn of the millennium.

These crucial issues concerning humanity within the entirety of nature have been variously framed, described, and debated. In that discourse, questions on the role of science, technology, and innovation in society and their relationship to societal transformations have also arisen. However, while many calls have been issued for changes to rectify what is perceived of as crises in need of global solutions, the motivations for and processes of societal change have not yet been addressed adequately. In the ISSC report on Transformative Cornerstones, Hackmann and St. Clair write, “The purpose here is to understand what drives individual and collective processes of change, as well as change in social practices” [Hackmann and St. Claire (2012)]. A new, concerted effort to understand these fundamental issues of societal transformations as collective behavior changes toward sustainable futures through the wide range of intellectual lenses of the social sciences, art, and humanities is urgently needed, which is exactly the purpose of the workshop proposed and framed in this concept paper.


What arguments for the need for transformations are in play? Strongly worded proposals have emerged for rethinking humans’ relationship to nature, captured prominently in narratives of a new geological age: the Anthropocene. These argue that human activity has imprinted itself on the Earth system globally and to a degree where the traces of human activity will persist on geological timescales, thus justifying a classification of contemporary time as “the age of humans”.

But even within the intellectual framework of the Anthropocene, the concept and its implications are contested. There are multiple ways of thinking about the entanglement of humanity and nature. The dominant narrative of the Anthropocene sees the Earth System and its subsystems – humanity being one of the subsystems – as needing to be managed toward specific, quantifiable goals, such as staying within ‘planetary boundaries’ [Röckstrom, J., et al. (2009); Steffen, W., et al. (2015)]. Research supporting this narrative has importantly identified and brought to the fore the evident current and likely future levels of available resources and the physical, geological, chemical, and biological limits to stability in the Earth system in the context of the challenges of global change. This has led to claims that the knowledge alone of the scale and scope of these critical limits and potential tipping points in the planetary system provide a sufficiently compelling impetus and focus for humanity to manage changes in global policy and practice necessary to avert, mitigate, or adapt to serious negative consequences for current and future societies, with a strong reliance on science and technology as potential enablers of such management practices.

A second approach is illustrated by the proposal for an ambitious set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [Open Working Group Proposal for SDGs (2014)] for 2030, which will likely be soon adopted by the UN. In the introduction to the proposed SDGs, it states, “Poverty eradication, changing unsustainable and promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and production and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development are the overarching objectives of and essential requirements for sustainable development.” The daunting tasks of meeting these goals will require major international commitments to implementing substantive changes in attitudes, policies, and practices.

A third view was put forth by Raworth, who represented humanity’s challenge as trying to remain within a “doughnut” or an annulus that forms a safe and just operating space for humanity situated between the environmental ceiling (planetary boundaries) and social foundations of inclusion and justice [Raworth, K. (2012)]. This representation provides a conceptual conjunction of the societal challenges delineated in the Sustainable Development Goals with the planetary boundaries narrative.

The SDGs, the planetary boundaries arguments, and the “doughnut” representation make their respective cases that changes are needed for the well-being of humanity and perhaps the very survival of contemporary forms of societies. However, they don’t acknowledge or address the diverse, contested conceptions of sustainability and of human agency in the relationship between humanity and the natural environment. Robinson and Maggs [GTN (2015)] argue that “the underlying assumptions of the planetary boundaries approach tie our hands behind our backs to the extent that they ignore our agency in creating the pictures of the world we are confronted with and postulate a reductionist picture of human society and decision-making.” [see also Castree, et al. (2014), and Lövbrand et al. (2015)] Nor do these three approaches engage with the crucial questions of what is needed to enable and catalyze societal transformations – collective behavior changes – toward sustainability with equity and justice in the myriad of social, economic, cultural, and political contexts that comprise human societies.


Despite the weight of accumulated knowledge of bio-geo-physical conditions and the formulation of sustainable development goals, these have not been, nor will they be truly adequate by themselves to enable or guide changes in individual and collective behavior toward sustainable futures (plural). As Renn writes, “Sustainability as an iterative social process builds on a value based socialization on the macro level and individual’s convictions on the micro level” [Renn (2012)]. Values, beliefs, habits, and cultural patterns play significant, often determining roles – tacit or overt – at individual and collective scales. Regarding sustainability as an ethical concept and the questions that it raises about values, responsibilities, and justice, Miller et al. write “Unless those values are understood and articulated, the unavoidable political dimensions of sustainability will remain hidden behind scientific assertions, thus preventing necessary democratic deliberation and convergence on more sustainable pathways” [Miller et al. (2014)]. This suggests a critical role for humanities-based scholarship.

The familiar trope of the gap between knowledge and action has often misdirected attention from the core issue, because the critical gap is not simply a matter of acquiring and accessing what is deemed sufficient knowledge and then deciding or acting on policy and practice. Stirling effectively reframes the conventional dichotomy of knowledge and action in writing that “Entwining knowledge and action in ways that are not as separate and sequential as prescribed in notions of control, a caring disposition recognises that transformative interventions are best undertaken as combining both” [Stirling (2014)].

The difficulty lies in reaching informed and effective decisions leading to collective actions in heterogeneous groups given the multiplicity of meanings and values attached to the available information and the theory-framed and value-laden nature of the knowledge base itself. Also contributing is the lack of sufficient understanding of the processes of societal transformation at different scales and in different contexts – including motivating, enabling, or inhibiting factors. This strongly suggests two complementary avenues of social science and humanities research on transformations to sustainable futures: 1) examining the role of narratives and worldviews in motivating, enabling, or inhibiting support for actions and policies and 2) investigating how models, scenarios, as well as the narratives and visual representations derived from them, affect the construction of meaning from available information – particularly under uncertainty and ambiguity – by shaping attitudes and informing decisions and actions by stakeholders who may hold widely divergent values, beliefs, worldviews, and conceptual framings. In both cases it will be important to examine the potential role of the arts as processes of epistemological exploration and meaning-making.

In regard to the SDGs, Nilsson and Costanza write, “a ‘narrative of change’ is missing, both in terms of how the pursuit of specific goals would lead to broader outcomes of social change and in terms of how this change actually takes place (Costanza 2014; Ostrom 2014). There is no clear means-ends continuum (Costanza et al. 2014a) or ‘theory of change’ (Weiss 1995) underpinning the framework” [Nilsson and Costanza (2015)].

One possible approach is to shift from damage limitation approaches to a search for opportunities to create net positive outcomes that improve both human and environmental wellbeing. This is suggested by Robinson and Cole (2015) who write “success in converting sustainability into collective existential opportunities aligns well with the concept of ‘regenerative sustainability’, trading harm reduction strategies and the disengaging imperative to ‘do less bad’ for a central role in ‘socio-planetary’ rejuvenation.”

Shifting the focus includes the need to recognize and acknowledge multiple narratives of change, as well as diverse sources and forms of knowledge based in particular socio-ecological contexts as key elements for transformations to sustainable futures. Open dialogues among multiple, often discordant voices of stakeholders representing diverse communities and institutions with different knowledge and divergent views, when mediated or balanced in regard to differences in stakeholder power, resources, and influence and limited in scope, offer a basis for mutual learning in examining collective development of new narratives and behavior changes [Tàbara and Chabay (2013), Stöhr and Chabay (2014)]. Stakeholder and expert dialogues can play an important part in identifying pathways toward more sustainable futures that are perceived by stakeholders as “more legitimate, more reasonable, more informed, more effective and more politically viable” (Renn and Schweitzer 2009). Such dialogues and social learning processes have been enriched and facilitated through the use of contextually rich and specific scenario modeling tools to allow for more meaningful exploration of possible futures (e.g., Robinson 2003). Such engagement processes can be fruitfully complemented by engaging the artistic community, not as communicators of the sustainability message, but as explorers of the fundamental philosophical and existential questions posed by our modern condition.

Lövbrand, et al. point to the limitations of the scientific Anthropocene narrative in terms of social change and argue that: “In order to turn the Anthropocene into a critical event and a compelling story of social change, it is important to revisit and debate the cultural and social assumptions that inform how we collectively make sense of and respond to a changing environment” (Lövbrand et al. 2015). However, critical social scientific understanding and humanities insights into sense making and collective decision making in the context of different narratives and with it, the ability to empower and engage individuals in responses to these challenges will require new efforts. In particular, a broadly encompassing social science- and humanities-rich, intellectually diverse research framework and roadmap is needed. This is essential to improve our understanding of the basis of transformations to sustainable futures and our capacity to engage constructively with civil society, the private sector and polity.


As the essential next step in developing this framework and roadmap, IASS will host a workshop in February 2016. The purpose of the workshop is to provide a space for brainstorming and identifying the analytical, epistemological, and methodological resources needed to more adequately address substantive questions of transformative societal change toward sustainable futures. It will draw from a wide range of intellectual resources of the participants, as well as building on the Science Plan of the Knowledge, Learning, and Societal Change Alliance – originally called KLSC, now referred to as KLASICA – (Blackmore, et al 2011, accessible on The immediate output from the workshop will be a joint paper, report, or manifesto that puts forth a research framework on collective behavior change toward sustainable futures, as noted above.


The workshop will be organized and held under the auspices of the Emerging Technologies and Social Transformations research program at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany (IASS), which focuses on the multi-directional interplay between science, technology, societies and their transformations. It will bring together about 35 participants over 2 full days. The Knowledge, Learning, and Societal Change Alliance will serve as a platform for this workshop and further development of this initiative.

The workshop and research framework is entirely consistent with the mission and vision of IASS and KLASICA, as well as with Future Earth. Thus the outcome of the workshop will constitute a basis for a request to bring KLASICA into Future Earth as a sustained partner, with the goal of contributing to a critical reflexivity in the solution-focused, stakeholder engaged, transformative research championed by Future Earth. The workshop should also lead to forging links and collaborations with other research groups and platforms with closely related agendas.


What emerges from the workshop at IASS in February 2016 will update and strengthen the 2011 Science Plan of KLASICA and become the basis for a subsequent major symposium (and perhaps additional symposia) on case studies of collective behavioral change in global change research projects. The conceptual framework and methodologies of KLASICA will be the basis for analysis and discussion, obtaining long-term funding, and organizing the symposium.

In accord with the conceptual, analytical, and methodological framework emerging from the February 2016 workshop, the symposium will focus on analyzing empirical evidence for success or failures of collective behavior change in the context of sustainability. It will examine lessons learned from projects with varying degrees of perceived success or failure, including projects that did not narrowly or intentionally focus on behavior, but which nonetheless may yield valuable information on transformation through collective behavior change. It will also be an opportunity to evaluate the different approaches to collective behavior change for sustainability for their effectiveness, inclusivity, and scalability. Examples of research questions that may be addressed in the symposium in the framework of collective behavior change include:

What drivers and enabling factors of coherent social movements focused on sustainability challenges can be identified empirically? What are the countervailing forces that lead to their dissipation? What can we learn about patterns of collective behavior from studies of other types of social movements (e.g., labor, civil rights)?

What can we learn from past transitions (e.g., from mid-20th century levels of energy consumption and CO2 production to the present) in terms of the knowledge, perceptions, and intentions in play at the time?

What is the role of science and technology in different narratives of societal transformation? What roles have science and technology played in past transformational dynamics?

How are individuals’ perceptions of their agency and responsibility in pursuit of shared values and goals shaped, especially when facing global and local challenges that are spatially and temporally disperse and uncertain?

What are the roles and importance of leadership, narratives, and traditional and social media in establishing and maintaining social movements in the many different contexts in which sustainable futures are being discussed?

What worldviews and personal or community identities underlie particular narratives of change or of opposition to them and how do they evolve in different contexts?

What are the characteristics of successful change agents, both individual and institutional in terms of knowledge, values, interests, and preferences? How are institutional change agents (e.g., NGOs) and social movements related and in what ways do they operate at different levels or processes?

What are effective means of enabling and expanding inclusive dialogues for mutual learning among stakeholders with divergent views and differing resources and power? What are appropriate metrics of effective outcomes of mutual learning processes? Are such dialogues effective in building social cohesion toward common interests regarding challenges of sustainability?

How do science, technology, and social innovation interact in different contexts/cultures? Can their co-evolution be facilitated effectively and could it/does it lead to social transformations for sustainable outcomes, e.g., in affordable renewable energy supply or sustainable agricultural practices?

The symposium would be held in late 2016, and could be organized in conjunction with a Future Earth or other global change research event.


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