Understanding place-based knowledge and its boundaries for sustainability transitions


Transforming food production and consumption practices into sustainable food systems requires integrated knowledge for generating innovative and scalable place-based solutions. A disconnect often exists between the type of knowledge employed in macro-level expert-led guidance and that employed in community-led initiatives and practices. This project investigates the gap between the two, focussing on the regions of Sussex, UK and Java, Indonesia. Specially, it explores the ways in which knowledge plurality can be usefully harnessed in the form of collaboratively produced place-based knowledge for sustainability transitions.

  • Sustainable Development Goals

    This project addresses the following SDGs:

    SDG 2 – Zero Hunger
    SDG 9 – Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
    SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities
    SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production
    SDG13 – Climate Action
    SDG 15 – Life on Land
    SDG 17 – Partnerships for the Goals

    Find out more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Project description

In order to halt and reverse the climate and biodiversity crisis, we must transition to sustainable and equitable systems of food production and consumption. Successful sustainability transitions require integrated knowledge for generating innovative and scalable place-based solutions. Our interactions with diverse stakeholders from previously SSRP-funded initiatives (e.g. under South Coast sustainability) have shown that there is often a disconnect between macro-level, expert-led guidance (e.g. policy frameworks) and local-level, community-led initiatives and practices resulting in uncertainty and ambiguity that impede effective solutions.

Expert-led guidance represents a particular type of codified knowledge that requires further interpretation by local actors, who are uniquely capable of integrating it with the tacit, experiential knowledge and histories of particular places.

This project investigates the gap between these two types of knowledge and the ways in which knowledge plurality can be usefully harnessed in the form of collaboratively produced place-based knowledge. Specifically, the research team seeks to understand the process by which expert knowledge is transformed into integrated place-based knowledge and to identify its boundaries that must be crossed for this integration to occur as community actors work to make sense of guidance for sustainability transitions.

Analysing modes of use of expert-led guidance on changes to land use (production side) and dietary nutrition (consumption side) for place-based food systems, will enable the team to explore interdisciplinary expert knowledge for integrated sustainability transitions. Both the land use and dietary guidelines are holistic, considering the implications for food, land cover, climate, biodiversity, and community health and wellbeing. However, their usefulness in guiding transitions in practice necessitates a further integration into the experiential knowledge that exists and operates in local communities. By investigating the interpretive processes by which community actors collaboratively transform it into place-based knowledge for sustainability in practice, this project has direct relevance to improving the link between expert knowledge and community-led adaptation and innovation for sustainability transitions.

This project addresses SDGs for Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11), and Improved Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture (SDG 2). The results are relevant to the above-mentioned SDGs in particular, but also more widely to any SDG that relies on engagement with diverse stakeholders for community-level adaptation and change, including SDG 17 (Partnerships for Goals), highlighting the challenges and opportunities of transforming knowledge into actionable insights. Involvement of private stakeholders in the adoption of solutions addresses SDG 9 (Industry, Infrastructure and Innovation). The focus on transforming food systems addresses SDG 15 (Life on Land), with implications for food sourcing and consumption, land management and biodiversity, as well as SDG 13 (Climate Change), as the food sector is the second-largest contributor to climate change.

Timeline and funding


January 2024 - July 2024


SSRP funding (£17,600)


The project aims to find place-based solutions to bridge the gap of macro-level guidance and bottom-up knowledge on sustainable food transformations by:

  • undertaking two case studies in the context of food system transitions in two different places (PI Dr Thapa Karki will be based in the South Coast, UK while the Co-PI Dr Parrish Java, Indonesia), focussing on sustainable land use (food production) and sustainable nutrition (food consumption). Both call for community adaptation and behaviour change
  • engaging with key informants/project partners to identify and develop a list of potential participants for focus group discussion. A meeting is planned in early November with the project partners
  • organising eight focus group discussions (four per place) to investigate how local actors interpret and make sense of expert guidance to implement solutions, using Defra’s land use framework and EAT-Lancet Commission’s sustainable nutrition guidelines
  • transcribing and analysing data to produce project report
  • disseminating research findings through community workshop, reports, policy briefs and communications channels

Situating this project in the South Coast, UK, creates synergies with other South Coast sustainability initiatives, supported through SSRP and the University of Sussex.

As a Southeast Asian archipelago nation, Indonesia offers a comparative place-based case in the Global South, addressing the country’s critical challenges of land use and public nutrition in achieving sustainable development goals both nationally and globally. 

Expected outcomes and impacts

The project aims to produce the following research outputs:

  • project report that is accessible to project partners
  • journal article (Food Policy/ Research Policy/Management Studies)
  • policy briefs in the form of recommendations to suggest how to produce information/knowledge to increase uptake of sustainability practices
  • community engagement to share findings and receive feedback from wider groups (outside the participants of focus groups)
  • bid for the ESRC Responsive Grant

This project is designed to identify ways of integrating codified expert knowledge and the tacit knowledge of community actors to produce place-based knowledge amenable to innovative, actionable, and scalable solutions. While the study focuses specifically on production and consumption in the food sector, it has wider applicability to other sectors requiring the integration of expert and local knowledge for sustainability transitions. Results disseminated in the form of policy briefs will help those responsible for implementing sustainability action plans to collaboratively transform knowledge in a way that enables effective local actions.

Expert-led national and regional frameworks are usually implemented through either regulatory constraints or voluntary uptakes. Both approaches pressurise local communities to figure out adaptation strategies. This project will provide evidence (articles/reports) of an alternative way through which community networks can be empowered to integrate two different types of knowledge (expert-led and community-led) to develop solutions that are appropriate to their place. This should be particularly helpful in addressing the low uptake of sustainability practices (circular economy, net-zero, nature-based) by businesses and farmers due to different knowledge boundaries.

The current trend in sustainable food systems research and action involves a deeper integration of different domains of expert knowledge. This project aims to showcase a unique approach to incorporating knowledge, one that transforms expert knowledge into place-based knowledge, crucial for effective sustainability transitions. This contributions offers valuable insights on knowledge plurality to the nascent but growing literature on place-based sustainability science. Additionally, this project will also expand the literature on knowledge networks by widening our understanding of knowledge boundaries beyond the context of organisations to place-based networks. The anticipated findings will be published in peer-reviewed journals.

Furthermore, this research advances the team’s previous work on scaling place-based initiatives for sustainability transitions (currently under review, Organization and Environment), laying a foundation for a subsequently planned larger collaborative research project that involves place-based sustainability science for global food system transitions. 

North-South collaboration links the groundbreaking sustainability work at the University of Sussex to larger-scale international initiatives striving for sustainable food systems. Purposefully selecting contrasting case study locations (UK/Indonesia) and examining specific topics for in-depth evaluation (sustainable nutrition and land use), allows the researchers to build critical new partnerships and strengthen existing ones.

The team

Where we worked

South Coast England, UK; and Java, Indonesia.