Headline: About us

Transformative research for sustainable development

The Research Institute for Sustainability conducts research with the goal of understanding, advancing, and guiding processes of societal change towards sustainable development. Our research approach is transformative, transdisciplinary, and co-creative: RIFS researchers collaborate with diverse actors from science, policymaking and public administration as well as business and civil society to develop a common understanding of sustainability challenges and generate potential solutions.

Transformative sustainability research aims to bring together all relevant forms of knowledge generated both within and outside science in order to understand the problems of sustainable development, identify appropriate solutions, and support their implementation in cooperation with relevant actors and affected communities. RIFS involves these stakeholders in its transdisciplinary and co-creative research processes from the outset and does not view them as mere addressees of its research findings. The Institute also discusses its findings with representatives from politics, industry and civil society and supports transformation processes through this kind of consultation.

Our research and consultancy activities are organized across five research areas: Democracy and Sustainability, Global Implications of Socio-Technical Change, Transformative Methods, Processes and Practices, Energy Transitions and Societal Change, and Environmental and Societal Change. Our Science-Society Platforms and other activities foster dialogue between science, policymakers and civil society. These activities are complemented by a Fellow Programme, which fosters global dialogue and connects researchers working in the field of transformative research for sustainable development.

Our history

In 2007, the Nobel Laureate Symposium “Global Sustainability – A Nobel Cause” was held in Potsdam under the patronage of Chancellor Angela Merkel and attended by a host of internationally renowned scientists and political figures. The symposium’s widely regarded outcome document, the Potsdam Memorandum, called for a joint effort to tap into “all sources of innovation and invention” in an effort to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century and establish a new “global contract” to promote sustainable societies in the age of the Anthropocene.

In the wake of this symposium, in 2008, the German Science Alliance developed a concept for a novel research institute, the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), the predecessor to today’s Research Institute For Sustainability – Helmholtz Centre Potsdam (RIFS). The IASS was founded in 2009 as a joint initiative of the Federal Government, the State of Brandenburg and the research organisations of the Science Alliance. Potsdam was chosen as the location for the new institute due to its outstanding research landscape, including institutions such as the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, as well as its close proximity to policymakers and political institutions, media organisations, and chambers and associations in Berlin.

Following two periods of project funding and its successful evaluation by the German Science and Humanities Council in 2020, the institute will join the Helmholtz Association from 2023. It will operate under the new name “Research Institute for Sustainability – Helmholtz Centre Potsdam” (RIFS) as a part of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences from 1 January 2023. This enables the Institute's scientists to continue their transformative research supported by a permanent funding stream.