On knowledge generation and use for sustainability

Sustainability relevant research is rapidly evolving with focus on the interactions among natural, social and engineering systems. It found impetus in the concept of sustainable development — formally introduced in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development — and has gone through continued refinement and strengthening thanks also to the efforts of the United Nations, most recently through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the global community’s response to the urgent sustainability challenges of our time. To achieve the SDGs, this study offers a perspective on how sustainability relevant knowledge could be generated to find solutions to complex problems.

Tree Model to a Web Model

The way knowledge is generated, integrated and disseminated co-evolved with advancements in science and technology. By the 17th century, the invention of the printing press had made books less expensive, facilitating the broader dissemination of knowledge and stimulating scientific advancement. Following the Industrial Revolution, scientific enterprise expanded through the proliferation of scientific publications, resulting in the categorization of scientific endeavours into sub-specialties, and sub-sub-sub specialties.

The dominant metaphor illustrating this type of organizational strategy of science is a tree, in which disciplines are represented as limbs and sub-disciplines as branches, with the individual specialists as leaves at the end of their disciplinary twigs. The ‘tree model’ was first proposed in the Dewey Decimal Classification system in 1873 and was later adopted by libraries worldwide.

The Industrial Revolution improved the living conditions of many, but combined with other factors, industrial growth has resulted in several complex planetary challenges including water scarcity, climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. These challenges are complex and interconnected and as a result cannot be addressed by individual disciplines operating in silos. The study proposes the need to move away from disciplinary and linear approaches to knowledge generation, and suggests embracing interdisciplinary approaches to conceptualizing questions, generating knowledge and developing solutions.

Thus, the study suggests that the tree model, where researchers stay within their disciplines to establish a scholarly reputation, should be replaced with a ‘web’ model, in which researchers weave knowledge between the disciplinary branches and build on the connections across disciplines to develop solutions.