Better Together: Knowledge Co-Production to Address Sustainability Challenges

Another paper co-authored by members of the SES group at Leuphana


From biodiversity loss to food security issues, finding solutions for the challenges we face in the Anthropocene requires working with multiple groups of people. The co-production of knowledge through the collaboration of academics and non-academics has proven to be an effective way to generate new insights and ideas to address sustainability challenges. In a recent paper published in Nature Sustainability, an international team of 36 sustainability scientists reflect on the use of knowledge co-production in sustainability research and present four principles for high-quality knowledge co-production in sustainability research. 

Co-producing knowledge is not a new concept. Over the past 40 years, different forms of knowledge co-production have become more and more prominent. For example,  problem-oriented participatory and transdisciplinary research approaches have emerged as a response to current environmental challenges. Today, a shift towards knowledge co-production is increasingly seen as a possibility to foster sustainable futures. However, to date, the term knowledge…

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Our new book for stakeholders: food and biodiversity in SW Ethiopia

By Joern Fischer

As this post is going online, we’re in Ethiopia talking to stakeholders — about a new project, and about our new book (freely available here)! The book summarises the last five years of research by my research team, and also includes some research findings by Kristoffer Hylander. Indeed, it is Kristoffer who inspired me to work in Ethiopia in the first place, so a special thanks to him!

The book is of potential interest to stakeholders in Ethiopia, but also might be of interest to other researchers working on social-ecological systems elsewhere. Every chapter is an accessible summary of findings published in the peer reviewed literature (with “further readings” indicated at the end of every chapter).

You can click through the short presentation above to get a sense of what the book is all about. Enjoy, and feel free to share this open access product widely through your networks!

The Sky is the Limit? Drones in Biodiversity Conservation

Visit our new blog by several researchers at Leuphana


Conservation management requires large amounts of high-quality data on wildlife, habitats, land use and all other kinds of systems, movements and patterns. While on ground sampling remains crucial for data collection, aerial surveys facilitate a change in perspective. They allow for reliable and up-to-date data acquisition across highly variable ecosystems and large patches of land. In their recent paper, Pascal Fust and Jacqueline Loos (2020) give an overview on the potentials and pitfalls of employment of unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, for biodiversity conservation.

Will drones play a larger role in the collection of data for conservation management in the future?  

The idea of collecting data from a bird’s eye view is not new to conservation: Remote sensing techniques have been applied for many decades. First, visual observations were carried out from airplanes. Later, satellites were used to capture images of habitats and landscapes. However, the capacity to…

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New Questions for a New Decade


A recent study on knowledge gaps regarding people-nature relationships offers a glimpse into what sustainability and conservation research might look like in the coming years, showing a possible shift in research priorities. While the functioning of social-ecological systems will remain an important focus, indigenous and local knowledge for the sustainable use and management of nature’s contributions to people are set to increase in importance in future research.

Changes in the importance of policy-relevant knowledge gaps for achieving sustainability from 2005 to 2018
according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform
for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Mastrangelo et al. 2019, 5).

In the study by Mastrangelo et al. (2019) published at the end of last year, a group of social-ecological systems researchers from all over the world identify 708 knowledge gaps and assess their relevance for global sustainability goals. The paper draws on recent assessments by the

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New article: Three principles for co-designing sustainability intervention strategies: Experiences from Southern Transylvania

By David Lam

In our new article, we present our experiences of co-designing a sustainability intervention strategy with non-governmental organizations in Southern Transylvania, Romania. This was part of our transdisciplinary case study work of our research project “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation”.

Transformational research frameworks highlight the importance of co-designing intervention strategies towards sustainability with local actors. However, they often lack guidance on the process of co-designing intervention strategies that include initiatives from local actors.

Based on our experiences with working with local actors in Southern Transylvania, we propose three principles that facilitate the process to co-design intervention strategies which build on contributions and knowledge from local actors of change:

(1) Explore existing and envisioned initiatives fostering change towards the desired future.

(2) Frame the intervention strategy to bridge the gap between the present state and desired future state(s), building on, strengthening and complementing existing initiatives.

(3) Identify drivers, barriers and potential leverage points for how to accelerate progress towards sustainability.

We exemplify the three principles using our transdisciplinary case study carried out in Southern Transylvania. These principles potentially inform diverse transformational research frameworks and can be applied in similar real-world contexts, where local actors foster transformative change with local initiatives towards sustainability.

Link to our article:

Lam, D. P. M., A. I. Horcea-Milcu, J. Fischer, D. Peukert, and D. J. Lang. 2019. Three principles for co-designing sustainability intervention strategies: Experiences from Southern Transylvania. Ambio.

New article: Indigenous and local knowledge in sustainability transformations research: a literature review

By David Lam

Our new study investigated the role of indigenous and local knowledge in sustainability transformations research. Sustainability transformations entail fundamental alterations of how people interact with nature.

In sustainability science, indigenous and local knowledge has been acknowledged to make vital contributions, for instance, for biodiversity conservation and environmental resource management. Furthermore, global sustainability research initiatives, such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) specifically include indigenous and local knowledge into their assessments because of its in-depth local, and place-based character.

Our comprehensive study reviewed 81 peer-reviewed articles on transformation, transition, and change that include indigenous and local knowledge.

Our results show that this body of literature often applied indigenous and local knowledge to confirm and complement scientific knowledge in contexts of environmental, climate, social-ecological, and species change. This research can be clustered according to the environments in which researchers as well as indigenous peoples and local communities observe change: Arctic, terrestrial, coastal, as well as grass and rangelands environments.

Most important, we also conclude that research on sustainability transformations neglects to understand transformations from the perspective of indigenous peoples and local communities.

Indigenous and local understandings of transformations can be vital keys to reach a more sustainable society. In sustainability transformations research, we have very scientific, positivistic, and Western understandings of how we can make our society more sustainable. We focus a lot on new cleaner technologies, carbon reduction, and renewable energies. But recent studies highlight that it is our connection and values to nature that need to change. Indigenous peoples and local communities have very different connections to nature and can therefore complement our scientific understanding of what we can do to foster transformations towards sustainability.

Finally, we propose future research endeavors that could yield a plural understanding of transformations and hence, provide an enriched picture of how we could foster inclusive transformations in times of pressing sustainability challenges. Collaborating with indigenous peoples and local communities for transformations has the potential to substantially enrich and question scientific approaches to transformations by providing, for instance, alternative and complementary goals to sustainability, such as Buen Vivir or Ubuntu. Sustainability transformation research needs to avoid the risk of neglecting nonscientific knowledge systems and the risk of perpetuating the supremacy of Western scientific knowledge systems as we endeavor to foster transformations toward just, equitable, and sustainable futures.

Link to our new article:
Lam, D. P. M., E. Hinz, D. J. Lang, M. Tengö, H. von Wehrden, and B. Martín-López. 2020. Indigenous and local knowledge in sustainability transformations research: a literature review. Ecology and Society 25(1):art3.


The impacts of social-ecological system change on human-nature connectedness: A case study from Transylvania, Romania

A new paper by Ágnes Balázsi, co-written with people from Leuphana. Our empirical work on “reconnecting” people and nature is beginning to come out, yay!

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Ágnes Balázsi

How were social and institutional shifts of the last century perceived by communities of rural areas in Transylvania and how have those changes influenced the connectedness of locals with nature and their landscapes? – These were the starting research questions in our case studies carried out in 2017 in Erdővidék and Aranyosszék. The answers were revealed to us because locals shared stories about their perceptions on landscape changes and confessions about inner connections to nature.

In our recently published paper we distinguished four major governance eras that have influenced human-nature connections:

(1) formal and informal institutional governance after the World Wars and before socialism (before 1947), (2) top-down governance during socialism (1947–1989),

(3) during sovereign state governance and transition to European Union (1990–2006), and

(4) multilevel governance since European Union accession (after 2007).


The two areas were similar at the beginning of the 20th century, but developed…

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Two PhD positions in our new project on future scenarios of ecosystem services in southwestern Ethiopia

We are excited to advertise two PhD positions in our new interdisciplinary project entitled “ETH-Coffee – Towards a sustainable bioeconomy: a scenario analysis for the Jimma coffee landscape in Ethiopia”. The project will analyze the flow of ecosystem services in the rural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia under different future scenarios. Specifically, the project will quantify both local and distant benefits generated by ecosystem services; it will identify who benefits from these different services; their impacts on biodiversity conservation; and will examine which stakeholders have an interest in and influence on different ecosystem services. 

The PhD positions are summarised in the following, with links to each of the two full advertisements. 

They will be based at Leuphana (in Germany), with fieldwork in Ethiopia.

PhD 1: Ecology and biodiversity conservation Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) The generation of spatially explicit maps of land use, for four pre-existing socio-economic land use scenarios; (2) Biodiversity modelling based on the results of the scenario land use maps; (3) Natural capital mapping and conservation planning using the INVEST program. Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here:

PhD 2: Flows of ecosystem services Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) Spatially explicit identification of ecosystem service beneficiaries; (2) Spatial modelling of value flows resulting from four pre-existing socio-economic land use scenarios; (3) Disaggregation of (telecoupled) ecosystem service benefits. Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here:

Deadline: 31 August 2019

For questions, please contact Prof. Joern Fischer (, Prof. Dave Abson ( or Dr. Jannik Schultner (

Another special issue: Human-nature connectedness as leverage point for sustainability transformation

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Maraja Riechers

The notion of human-nature connectedness and specifically the idea of reconnecting people to nature are rapidly gaining prominence in sustainability science, conservation biology, environmental psychology and education. Scholars argue, for example, that an emotional and experiential connection with nature has many positive outcomes for human well-being, especially health or the cognitive development of children and pro-environmental behavior and may promote conservation initiatives of natural and cultural heritage.

Ignoring these effects could lead to a downward spiral of ever increasing disconnection of people and societies from nature, which may further exacerbate the global environmental crisis by enhancing un-sustainable behavior patterns. Based on this, scholars state a need for strengthening human connections with nature. Yet, many calls for such ‘reconnection’ lack concrete insights about what human-nature connection means and how it might be fostered.

In our special issue in the journal Ecosystems and People we would like to address…

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Learning to collaborate while collaborating

An interesting new paper by Rebecca Freeth on how to collaborate in interdisciplinary contexts. Originally posted on the Leverage Points blog.

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Rebecca Freeth

None of us was born knowing how to collaborate. We learn to collaborate. For most of us working as researchers or practitioners in the field of sustainability, collaboration is intrinsic to how we work. Which gives us endless opportunities to learn to collaborate while collaborating.

There’s ample evidence that projects designed for intensive collaboration, whether inter- or transdisciplinary, get watered down to “additive multidisciplinarity” (Roy et al., 2013: 745). This is at least in part due to failures to navigate collaboration challenges, from finding conceptual common ground to managing interpersonal tensions (Haider et al., 2017; Klein, 1996; Strober, 2011). Indeed, collaboration is “unabatedly demanding” (Defila and Di Giulio, 2018: 101). Even if you’re a researcher with considerable team experience, a new project can present novel and unexpected collaboration challenges. Learning to collaborate is life-long.

In the Leverage Points project, we also experienced some challenges. During my interviews…

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