Leveraging capacity for transformative sustainability science: a theory of change from the Future Earth Pathways Initiative

Related GLP Member: Davnah Payne, Flurina Schneider, Cornelia Krug, Ariane de Bremond, Mark Stafford Smith, Odirilwe Selomane


The increasing body of descriptive-analytical knowledge produced by sustainability science over the last two decades has largely failed to trigger the transformation of policies, norms, and behaviors it was aiming to inform. The emergent transformative strand of sustainability science is a proactive alternative approach seeking to play an active role in processes of societal change by developing knowledge about options, solutions, and pathways, and by participating in their implementation. In principle, scientists can enhance their contribution to more sustainable futures by engaging in transformative research. However, a lack of skills and competencies, relatively unmatured transformative methods and concepts, and an institutional landscape still geared toward disciplinary and descriptive-analytical research, still hinders the sustainability science community from engaging more widely in transformative research. In this paper, the Future Earth Pathways Initiative introduces a theory of change (ToC) for increasing the capacity of sustainability scientists to engage in this type of research. This ToC ultimately aims to build a growing community of practitioners engaged in transformative research, to advance concepts, methods, and paradigms to foster ‘fit-for-purpose transformative research’, and to shape institutions to nurture transformative research-friendly contexts.