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The recently published UN Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 identifies science as one of four levers — alongside governance, economy and finance, and individual and collective action — that together could bring about the transformations necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Global sustainability-oriented research networks aim to advance high-quality science relevant for understanding and sustaining the social and natural systems of Earth and identifying solutions to sustainability challenges confronting society. Yet considering the ‘wickedness’ of many sustainability challenges, sustainability scholars increasingly argue that the science system itself must transform in order to fulfil its potential to foster the fundamental transformations needed to advance towards sustainable futures.
Various research institutions, funding agencies and global science organizations, such as Future Earth, the Belmont Forum and the International Science Council (ISC), have echoed these calls for changes in the way that scientific knowledge is generated, shared and governed. In particular, they encourage the scientific community across diverse disciplines to build new partnerships with societal actors from government, business and civil society, and to engage in the co-production of knowledge and action. Co-production is understood as ‘iterative and collaborative processes involving diverse types of expertise, knowledge and actors to produce context-specific knowledge and pathways towards a sustainable future’. Under the premise that co-production processes generate new knowledge, capacities, networks, social capital and joint action, they are expected to lead to a more relevant, agile, inclusive, legitimate, impactful and innovative knowledge-action system.
Similarly, arguing for more effective knowledge-action systems for sustainable futures, the benefits of global research networks are increasingly highlighted. Benefits achieved or enabled by these networks include better research coordination, more international and interdisciplinary collaboration, enhanced learning through the sharing of problem understandings and solution approaches, joint value creation, more efficient use of resources, increased capacity to tackle complex problems, greater competitiveness and scholarly productivity, better linkage to policy processes and emergence of coordinated convergent action.
But how can global research networks engage in or advance the co-production of knowledge and action for sustainable development? In this review, the authors address this question and propose a strategic tool for (re)developing network strategies.
The Global Land Programme is one of the 11 networks involved in the study.