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Research into sustainable development

Participatory approaches are growing, says Jill Jäger

A broad international agreement on a vision of sustainability has emerged. It is to foster a transition toward development paths that meet human needs, while preserving the Earth’s life support systems and alleviating hunger and poverty. This should be achieved through forms of governing that are empowering and also sensitive to the needs of future generations.  

The European Commission Directorate General for Research recently organised a conference in Brussels, ‘Sustainable Development: A Challenge for European Research’. It heard several good examples of the use of participatory approaches to engaging stakeholders in the search for pathways to sustainable development.

Structural change and cities

It is clear that sustainable development goals cannot be achieved by small modifications of present-day practices. Major structural changes will be required. A prize-winning paper by Derk Loorbach and Niki Frantzeskaki, discussed how a participatory approach can be used to stimulate continuous structural changes in culture, structure and practices to bring about transitions to sustainable development. Stakeholder engagement is necessary both to explore the possibilities for such changes and to build up a network of actors to support the change processes. Loorbach and Frantzeskaki are currently testing this approach in the Netherlands.  A further test in the area of waste management in Belgium was reported by Karel van Acker.

Another prize-winner, J. David Tabara of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, focused on the need to develop a participatory approach to address persistent problems like climate change.

In discussing urban issues, delegates emphasized the need for participatory approaches to build bridges between the research community and a wide range of decision-makers. In a session on sustainable cities, it was pointed out that the city of the future must be able to cope with climate change, population increases and increasing scarcity of resources such as water and energy. Stakeholder involvement during the planning and operation phase of sustainable urban water management, for example, was seen to be crucial. These discussions highlighted the benefits of using collaborative approaches to engage citizens and researchers in a dialogue about pathways to sustainable development in cities.

Natural sciences too

It was very interesting to see that even projects that are strongly based in the natural sciences are beginning to recognize the value of engaging stakeholders. For example, the EPOCA (European Project on OCean Acidification) project, funded by the European Commission, which was launched in June 2008, aims to advance the understanding of the biological, ecological, biogeochemical, and societal implications of ocean acidification. The EPOCA project has established what it calls a Reference User Group to examine in detail the types of data, analyses and products that will be most useful to managers, policy advisors, decision makers and politicians, the format and nature of key messages arising from the EPOCA research, and the dissemination procedures.

Scientific research is crucial to achieving sustainability goals, but a large gap persists between what the research community thinks it has to offer, on the one hand, and what society has demanded and supported, on the other. In particular, research has been strong in identifying complex problems of unsustainability, while society is increasingly asking for solutions. The engagement of stakeholders in the research process would help to bridge this gap through making the public and politicians more aware of the nature and magnitude of the challenges posed by transitions to sustainability. Participation also supports the finding of robust solutions for a more sustainable future. Partnerships with all major stakeholders will be necessary, including the private sector, the public health sector and civil society. Indigenous and traditional knowledge must also play a greater role in addressing sustainability challenges.

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Dr Jill Jaeger
Dr Jill Jaeger is an Independent Scholar inVienna,Austria
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