Design Criteria of Methods in Sustainability Science

From Sustainability Methods

Note: This entry focuses especially on Methods of Sustainability Science. For a more general conceptual view on Methods, please refer to the entry on the Design Criteria of Methods.

In short: In this entry, you will find out more about how we can distinguish and design our methodological approaches in Sustainability Science.

Design Criteria in Sustainability Science - Why?

The design criteria of methods that I propose for all methods - quantitative vs. qualitative, inductive vs. deductive, spatial and temporal scales - are like the usual suspects of scientific methods. Within normal science, these design criteria are what most scientists may agree upon to be central for the current debate and development about methods. Consequently, it is important to know these normal science design criteria also when engaging with sustainability science. However, some arenas in science depart from the current paradigm of science - sensu strictu Kuhn - and this means also that they depart potentially from the design criteria of the normal sciences.

The knowledge science currently produces is not enough to solve the problems we currently face. In order to arrive at new solutions, we need to re-consider, adapt and innovative the current raster of methods in science. Many methods that are long established are valuable, and all scientific methods have their history and origin, and thus are important. Nevertheless, it becomes more and more clear that in order to arrive at solutions for the problems we currently face, we need to consider if we need methodological innovation. In the past, methodological innovation worked in one of these ways:

  1. new methods were invented,
  2. new combinations of methods were attempted,
  3. and methods were re-designed to be applied in a novel context where they had never been used before.

While all this is fascinating in itself, here I present a different approach towards an amendment of the methodological canon, for one simple reason: Developing the methodological canon of science takes experience in the application of scientific methods, and ideally also contextual experience in diverse methodological approaches. While I am personally deeply critical about scientific disciplines, this is a good argument that in order to become versatile in scientific methods, you may need to channel your development towards being versatile in scientific methods based on textbook knowledge. Normal sciences have textbooks to teach their methodological canon, and while I think we need to be critical of these methodological approaches, they can have a lot of value. If you ask why, the I would say simply, because you cannot re-apply methods in a different context or attempt recombinations of methods if you are not experienced in the application of methods. To this end, it is important to highlight that these methods only look at parts of reality, which is the main reason for being critical. Bias and the fact that accompanying paradigms and theoretical viewpoints of specific methods restrict the validity of specific methods makes me even more critical. Nevertheless, there is no alternative to building experience than through applying methods within active research. You need to get your hands dirty to get experience. Here, I propose that we start with the knowledge we want to produce, and the goal we aim at to produce this knowledge. If we want to empower stakeholders, we need to be aware which methods out of the existing canon might help us, and how we may need to combine these methods in order to produce the knowledge we aim at. Therefore, we present three types of design criteria that serve as a basis for reflection of what knowledge we want to produce.

Key Competencies in Sustainability

In 2011, Wiek et al. analyzed the prevalent literature and presented five Key Competencies that students of Sustainability Science should strive for. This is an excellent scheme to be reflexive about the competencies you want to gain, and to get a better understanding on which competencies can be aimed at through specific methods. These competencies are as follows:

  • Systems Thinking: Systems Thinking competency is the ability to analyze and understand complex systems including the dynamics in the interrelation of their parts. Systems thinking integrates different domains (society, environment, economy, etc.) as well as different scales (from local to global).
  • Anticipatory: Anticipatory competency describes the ability to develop realistic scenarios of future trajectories within complex systems, including positive (e.g. a carbon-neutral city) and negative (e.g. flooding stemming from climate change) developments. This may include rigorous concepts as well as convincing narratives and visions.
  • Normative: Normative competency refers to the ability to evaluate, discuss and apply (sustainability) values. It is based on the acquisition of normative knowledge such as concepts of justice or equality.
  • Strategic: In simple terms, this competence is about being able to "get things done". Strategic competency is the capability to develop and implement comprehensive strategies (i.e. interventions, projects, measures) that lead to sustainable future states across different societal domains (social, economic, ecologic, ...) and scales (local to global). It requires an intimate understanding of strategic concepts such as path dependencies, barriers and alliances as well as knowledge about viability, feasibility, effectiveness and efficiency of systemic interventions as well as potential of unintended consequences.
  • Interpersonal: Interpersonal competence is the ability to motivate, enable, and facilitate collaborative and participatory sustainability research and problem solving. This capacity includes advanced skills in communicating, deliberating and negotiating, collaborating, leadership, pluralistic and trans-cultural thinking and empathy.
Key Competencies for Sustainability. Source: Wiek et al. 2011, p.206

The criteria from Wiek et al are outstanding in the capacity to serve as boundary object, since I do not see these categories as mutually exclusive, but instead strongly interwoven with each other. I can whole-heartedly recommend to return to these criteria then and again, and to reflect on yourself through the lense of these criteria.

Knowledge for action-oriented sustainability science

At the heart of Sustainability Science are, among other elements, the premise of intentionally developing practical and context-sensitive solutions to existent problems, as well as the implementation of cooperative research modes to do so jointly with societal actors, supporting social learning and capacity building in society. To this end, Caniglia et al. (2020) suggest three types of knowledge that should be developed and incorporated by Sustainability Science:

Types of knowledge for action-oriented sustainability science. Source: Caniglia et al. 2020, p.4

This showcases that this knowledge - and more importantly - the perspective from a philosophy-of-science viewpoint is only starting to emerge, and much more work will be needed until our methodological canon and the knowledge we want to produce enable us to solve the problems we are facing, but also to create these solution in ways that are closer to a mode how we want to create these solutions. We may well be able to solve certain things, and to produce knowledge that can be seen as solutions. I would however argue, that it also matters how we create these solutions and how we create knowledge. Only if people are empowered and society and science work seamlessly together - with ethical restrictions and guidelines in place, of course - will we not only produce the knowledge needed, but we also produce it in a way how we should as scientists. Science is often disconnected and even arrogant, and building an educational system that is reflexive and interconnected will be maybe the largest challenge we face. This is why we give you these criteria here, because I think that we need to consider what further design criteria can be in order to enhance and diversify our conceptual thinking about the scientific methodological canon. Plurality on scientific methods will necessarily mean to evolve, and in this age of interconnectedness, our journey is only beginning.

Interaction with stakeholders

Scientific methods can engage with non-scientific actors on diverse levels, depending on the extent of their involvement in the process of scientific inquiry. Interaction with stakeholder may be especially relevant in transdisciplinary research.
Here, we refer to four levels of interaction:

  • Information: Stakeholders are informed about scientific insights, possibly in form of policy recommendations that make the knowledge actionable. This is the most common form of science-society cooperation.
  • Consultation: A one-directional information flow from practice actors (stakeholders) to academia, most commonly in form of questionnaires and interviews, which provides input or feedback to proposed or active research. Stakeholders provide information, which is of interest to the researchers, but are not actively involved in the research process.
  • Collaboration: Stakeholders cooperate with academia, e.g. through one of the aforementioned methods, in order to jointly frame and solve a distinct issue.
  • Empowerment: The highest form of involvement of non-scientific actors in research, where marginalized or suppressed stakeholders are given authority and ownership to solve problems themselves, and/or are directly involved in the decision-making process at the collaboration level. Empowerment surpasses mere collaboration since stakeholders are enabled to engage with existing problems themselves, rather than relying on research for each individual issue anew.

You can find more on these four categories in Brandt et al 2013, where a general introduction to the research landscape of transdisciplinary research in sustainability science is given. More will follow later on such approaches, and so much more still has to follow in science overall, since the declared distinction of science being in an ivory tower is only slowly crumbling. We need to question this paradigm, and be critical of the status quo of normal science. More knowledge is needed, and especially, different knowledge.


  • Wiek et al. 2011. Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science 6. 203-218.
  • Caniglia, G., Luederitz, C., von Wirth, T., Fazey, I., Martín-López, B., Hondrila, K., König, A., von Wehrden, H., Schäpke, N.A., Laubichler, M.D. and Lang, D.J., 2020. A pluralistic and integrated approach to action-oriented knowledge for sustainability. Nature Sustainability, pp.1-8.
  • Brandt, P., Ernst, A., Gralla, F., Luederitz, C., Lang, D.J., Newig, J., Reinert, F., Abson, D.J. and Von Wehrden, H., 2013. A review of transdisciplinary research in sustainability science. Ecological economics, 92, pp.1-15.

The authors of this entry are Henrik von Wehrden and Christopher Franz.