COVID-19 revealed that transformation is considered necessary, and it is possible to promote large-scale rapid behavioural changes to address emerging social-environmental challenges. But social changes can be resisted, such as those leading to the reduction of privileges or personal freedoms.

The roundtable discussion, ‘transformation(s) to sustainability’ was held on Thursday, 4 March and a recording of the session is available on the International Science Council website.

The discussion highlighted the realisation that a shared, common definition of transformation to sustainability might not be a priority. Focusing on the practical implications for going forward, using lessons learned about transformation during the pandemic, and the role of the research community in promoting transformation would be more engaging.

Four important issues were highlighted:

The consensus that sustainability means living, consuming, investing in a way that does not deplete natural resources, while promoting equity, hence a strong social and economic dimension in addition to the obvious environmental dimension.

Transformation to sustainability means much more than technology, it must include shared values, integrated perspectives and common sense for deliberate change. There is some scepticism that the current power system(s) will support diverse structural transformation. There is thus a need for more robust debate on how we perceive transformation in various contexts.

Although it would be good to provide a set of metrics and measurements to monitor progress, the needed transformation depends more so on the current state and on local conditions and aspirations that must be acknowledged.

In the field of research, more widespread use of “commons-like” or open-source approaches may support transformation by democratising research and wide sharing of its results.


Untangling the problems
A pragmatic view of transformation was suggested by Cheikh Mbow in his statement that transformation is continuously taking place – it is not always visible and often occurs more often in the background. He thus proposed ‘intentional’ transformation and investigating the possibilities of both the how to make a difference and means to ensure cross-cutting knowledge towards the establishment of research-action networks.

The perception of transformation depends on a subjective worldview or perspective, as pointed out by Karen O'Brien: what is transformative for one person might be ‘business as usual’ for another.

Whilst the transformative effect of repurposing the cell phone in Africa is an impressive example of the positive and life-changing impact of technology, there was agreement that some problems were and cannot be solved by technological solutions but requires to be addressed through social solutions.

Ulrich Brand did not see the need for a definition but for a core understanding of a post fossil fuel society as a way to drive the change we want. The kind of change that would rate as transformative, would be “when resource use and emissions use go remarkably down”. Brand further commented that the entry point for such a discussion should start with unpacking interests. It is important to determine if the state is part of the solution or part of the problem - a case of “the sustainability of unsustainability”.

Research sphere
In the field of research, more widespread use of open-source approaches may support transformation by democratising access to research results. Additionally, it is necessary to become central to the action framework to engage with policy makers. Mbow underscored that transformation requires intensive investment, for which specific elements would be vital: engagement with communities; transformative actions, engagement with business (both private and public – as well as with people).

However, as noted by O’Brien, the universities sphere must overcome their traditional separation of faculties and engage in a transdisciplinary model towards science. A key message from the discussion was the need for the research community to promote transformation and thus support researchers “getting out of their universities” and connecting with the people for whom the developed policies will be implemented. Tapping into this knowledge is the prerequisite for the co-production of knowledge and the co-design of research. In practice, this is the model utilised by the Future Earth initiative.

Covid-19 created hope that transformation is probable, demonstrating that large-scale rapid behavioural changes are possible; but it also raised concerns that it will be resisted. O’Brien highlighted that the pandemic displayed both winners and losers yet serves as a great example how society can move forward in a collective manner.

About the event: The roundtable discussion was held on the 4 March 21, based on the theme of transformation(s) to sustainability. Organised by the International Science Council together with the Belmont Forum and the Norface Network. The discussion was moderated by Susanne Moser, Director and Principal Researcher of Susanne Moser Research and Consulting in Hadley, Massachusetts, and Senior Adviser to the Transformations to Sustainability programme of the International Science Council.

From left: Prof Ulrich Brand, Professor for International Politics, University Vienna; Prof Karen O'Brien, Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo; and Prof Cheikh Mbow, the Director of Future Africa Science Institute, University of Pretoria.