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 public good.

Transformative research for sustainable development at the IASS

The Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) is committed to advancing these goals. Our research and consultancy activities generate knowledge that supports the transformation towards a sustainable society. The IASS also aspires to undertake transformative research in support of efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. IASS 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, IASS 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?

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

  • Knowledge and democratic governance in the Anthropocene: What are the conditions, barriers and drivers for promising transformations towards sustainability?
  • Fair communities and shared futures: What conceptions of sustainable development exist? How can they be ethically substantiated? And what can be done to facilitate their social (re-)negotiation?
  • Design and facilitation of transformations: How could and should processes of transformation be designed and supported so that they succeed?

A transdisciplinary and co-creative approach to research

The IASS 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, the IASS 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 the IASS 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 groups at the IASS work on diverse aspects of sustainability and are organized across several research areas: Systemic Interdependencies examines the interactions between various technological, political and social developments in relation to issues such as climate engineering and global risks. Perceptions, Values, Orientation explores the role of narratives and identities in the development of shared visions of sustainable futures. Researchers in the Democratic Transformations area study the potential of democratic innovations to advance transformations towards sustainability. Governance for the Environment and Society focuses on political regulatory processes affecting air quality, climate protection, mobility, the world’s oceans and the Arctic regions. Energy transitions take centre-stage in the research area on Energy Systems and Societal Change. The Institute’s Forums and related activities foster dialogue between science, policymakers and civil society.

The Institute’s diverse research activities are enriched by our Fellow Programme, which brings up to 25 scientists and practitioners from around the world to the IASS each year to share their expertise and ideas.

Find out more about our transformative research approach and activities: