Transformative Knowledge Network

This project investigates how realising the ambitions of the SDGs needs radical new ways of thinking about and practising sustainability.


Sustainability science (defined as ‘research that supports and drives sustainable development’) is growing significantly as a proportion of world scientific output, and is highly collaborative. But it is still – with the important exception of China – an endeavour dominated by rich countries. High income countries produce three quarters of all research output on sustainability. Low-income countries account for only 2% of publications.

The minor role played by low and middle income countries in producing global sustainability research – and their even more limited opportunities to set research agendas and priorities – are almost certainly characteristic of all areas of science, technology and innovation.

But sustainability challenges, and future pathways, are highly dependent on context. They are also deeply contested. This makes the Northern bias of research agendas especially unfortunate.

Project summary

With six international partners, the STEPS Centre, jointly hosted by SPRU and IDS, were awarded a grant of €850,000 over three years (2016-2019) from the International Social Science Council’s “Transformations to Sustainability” programme. The project is co-led from Argentina, with STEPS partners from both low and middle income countries (Kenya, India, and China) and high income nations – Sweden, the USA and the UK.

The grant will fund the STEPS Centre consortium “Transformative Knowledge Network” to further develop the ideas explored in previous seed-funded co-design workshops that were held in Argentina, the UK, Kenya, China, India and the USA to:

  • conduct transdisciplinary social science research in each locality
  • generate lessons about the role of such research in enabling transformative pathways.

Adrian Ely said: "This grant provides a great opportunity to work with partners and organisations in a variety of countries to bring about new policies and practices for a sustainable future, and to learn about the wider role of social science in bringing about transformations to sustainability"

Anabel Marin said: “ This project is an important step in the direction of developing research on sustainability issues that is driven by institutions and researchers from the South, and that better reflects the distinctive agendas and priorities of stakeholders from low and middle income countries.”

The network will investigate locally-defined sustainability challenges focussed on three themes, each of which were explored in the initial co-design workshops:

Theme 1 – Sustainable agricultural and food systems for healthy livelihoods

Theme 2 – Low carbon energy transitions

Theme 3 – Water and waste for sustainable cities

At the same time, the Transformative Knowledge Network has been designed to foster reflection and cross-learning around the role of transdisciplinary social science research in enabling transformations in each of these areas.

Ian Scoones, director of the STEPS Centre, said: “Realising the ambitions of the SDGs needs radical new ways of thinking about and practising sustainability. The Transformative Knowledge Network on pathways to sustainability led by partners of the STEPS Global Consortium will be an important platform for doing just this.”

The ISSC’s Transformations to Sustainability Programme aims to harness the potential of the social sciences to contribute to solving some of the world’s most urgent sustainability challenges through better understanding of the processes of social transformation. It is hoped that the network will contribute to the ‘global knowledge trust’ envisaged by the ISSC, and to the wider ambitions of the Future Earth programme.

Partners and links

The network will be jointly co-ordinated by Adrian Ely (SPRU/STEPS Centre) and Anabel Marin (CENIT, Argentina).

They will work with teams from Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, Arizona State University, USA, African Centre for Technology Studies, Kenya, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden, and Beijing Normal University, China.