Headline: Our Approach

Transformations towards sustainability in the Anthropocene

We live in an age of constant and rapidly accelerating change. Since the mid-twentieth century the human footprint has become so profound that we are now the single most decisive factor influencing the development of the Earth system. Human-induced climate change and the spread of foreign substances such as microplastics to the remotest places on Earth are among the most prominent impacts of this development. In light of this, there is now widespread support within the scientific community for the view that a new geological age has dawned: the Anthropocene.

We must respond to this global transformation by pursuing development pathways that enable us to build globally just, environmentally sustainable and economically viable societies for the present and the future. Achieving this will require that we align our politics, culture, economy and technologies with the vision of sustainable development. The scope of this transformation is reflected in the catalogue of goals adopted in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Among these are the protection of the environment and the climate, the preservation of the natural and material resources that ensure an efficient supply of goods and services to all, and a peaceful society with an equitable social system based on the principle of the common good.

Transformative research for sustainable development at RIFS

The Research Institute for Sustainability (RIFS) is committed to advancing these goals. Our research and consultancy activities generate knowledge that supports the transformation towards a sustainable society. RIFS also aspires to undertake transformative research in support of efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. RIFS research projects study the natural and ecological foundations of sustainable ways of living and examine the complex interactions of the Sustainable Development Goals and how these goals can be achieved within the complex political, economic and cultural contexts of modern societies. To name one example, we conduct research aimed at understanding how certain pollutants enter the atmosphere and how their emissions can be effectively reduced. Building on these findings, RIFS researchers consider how the available technical options and political steering mechanisms could be used more effectively to improve air quality without incurring unintended negative consequences for the environment or society. Applying this approach, the Institute’s research areas engage with some of the key challenges of sustainable development. For example: How can we ensure that transitions to low-carbon energy systems are fair? What opportunities does the coal exit harbour for the transformation and revitalization of coal-mining regions? How can we create new and sustainable mobility systems.

Our definition of sustainability

In the perspective of RIFS, sustainability is a guiding concept to secure and foster humane living conditions for all people worldwide, in the present and future, and to facilitate restoring and preserving the environmental foundations to enable this.

Research undertaken by the interdisciplinary research groups at RIFS on these and related sustainability challenges is shaped by our RIFS Vision and Mission (see below) and by these guiding questions:

  • Which essential environmental and societal conditions, characteristics, dynamics and drivers affect sustainability-oriented societal transformations, positively or negatively, and how do such transformations in turn affect the natural environment and societies?
  • How does RIFS transdisciplinary research practice, including co-creative communication and participative processes, contribute to shaping and facilitating sustainability-oriented transformations, particularly based on democratic principles and the goal of social justice?

A transdisciplinary and co-creative approach to research

RIFS pursues a transdisciplinary approach to research, engaging in regular dialogue with representatives and organisations from politics, civil society and the private sector. This enables the Institute’s research groups to bring together all relevant forms of knowledge generated both within and outside science in order to better understand problems and identify appropriate solutions through collaboration. The Institute also supports transformations towards sustainability by advising stakeholders in politics, civil society and the private sector on the basis of its research findings.

The Institute’s transdisciplinary research and consultancy activities are frequently characterised by a co-creative approach. These collaborative research processes seek to harness the expertise and perspectives of diverse participants in such a way that new forms of knowledge, agency, and creativity can emerge. The Institute tackles problems that require a deeper understanding of sustainability challenges and their possible solutions. Developing a common understanding that is underpinned by scientific evidence, RIFS enables stakeholders from politics, civil society and business to pursue their values and interests as they work together to identify solutions that are effective, efficient, resilient and ethical. With its unique approach RIFS supports decision-makers in politics, civil society and business in their efforts to create a sustainable future and to ensure that both current and future generations inhabit a world that is worth living in.


The research structure of RIFS is composed of six areas that relate to three overarching reference points to the Institute’s transformative and transdisciplinary approach: The first is the area Transformative Methods, Processes and Practices. This area is mainly concerned with the development, application and evaluation of the RIFS approach in cooperation with the other areas. Second, four areas apply the RIFS approach in collaborative research projects to support sustainability-oriented transformations: The area Global Implications of Socio-technical Change examines the interactions between various technological, political and social developments in relation to issues such as climate engineering and global risks. The researchers in the area Democracy and Sustainability study the potential of democratic innovations to advance transformations towards sustainability. The research groups in the area Environmental and Societal Change focus on political regulatory processes affecting air quality, climate protection, mobility, the world’s oceans and the Arctic regions. In the research area Energy Transitions and Social Change, energy transitions take centre-stage. Third, the area Science-Society Platforms aims to strengthen the approach, impact and visibility of the work of RIFS in various platforms and networks.

In addition to these research areas, research work at RIFS is vitalised by the Fellow Programme. Every year, up to 25 researchers and practitioners from all over the world contribute their expertise and ideas to the Institute's work.

Find out more about our transformative research approach and activities: