Working with science: transformative knowledge and social innovations for a sustainable development path

In order to embark on a sustainable development path, science also requires the expertise of civil society actors. Science must leave the ivory tower and develop new forms of teaching and learning with the self-organization groups to generate transformation-relevant knowledge. Social innovations are more in demand than ever before. So called „real laboratories“ make this co-production of knowledge possible. This article aims to encourage participation in a transformative science and provides the necessary background knowledge.

In their publication “Transformative Science” (2014), Uwe Schneidewind and Mandy Singer-Brodowski assign outstanding importance to the production and dissemination of knowledge and thus to the scientific system in the context of the “Great Transformation” towards sustainability. Social changes have been strongly science-driven in the last 200 years. In the age of the “Anthropocene” (Crutzen 2002), however, in which humans influence central geo-ecological processes for the first time, the ecological, economic and social side effects of science-driven success become the focus of attention (Schneidewind & Singer-Brodowski 2014). “Humanity must reinvent itself in many ways in the way it is organised in society if it wants to preserve the achievements of modernity. There is much to suggest that such an upheaval must also have repercussions on the way knowledge is produced and the scientific system in the Anthropocene“ (Schneidewind & Singer-Brodowski 2014: 22). Transformative knowledge production is needed to meet the great challenges facing society. According to Schneidewind and Singer-Brodowski, a transformative production of knowledge supports and accompanies the design process towards a development path that is compatible with nature and people in the long term. If societies today have to find adequate answers to problems such as resource scarcity, peak oil and climate protection and adaptation, social polarisation and participation, then new ways and cooperations between civil society, practice actors and science are needed.

In order to better understand complex social transformation processes and to be able to actively support them scientifically, it is necessary to generate system, target and transformation knowledge and to create cooperative organisational structures in knowledge production, to involve civil society as actors in knowledge production and thus to design real laboratories for change (Schneidewind & Singer-Brodowski 2014: 123).

What do “transdisciplinary science”, “social innovations” and “real laboratories” mean?

The aim of transdisciplinary science is to generate system, target and transformation knowledge for the replacement of a unsustainable, postfossil social model.

Dubielzig & Schaltegger (2004: 6) differentiate:

  • „System knowledge: Knowledge of the complex interrelationships of life-world problems on social, ecological and economic levels and between the dimensions (knowledge of what is).
  • target knowledge/evaluation knowledge: knowledge of how standards can be justified and how the options of the three dimensions of sustainability can be combined in the form of sustainable natural conditions, sustainable lifestyles, etc. (Knowing what should be and what should not be).
  • Transformation knowledge: Knowledge of how to achieve the goals, i.e. how to design and implement the transition from the actual to the target state (knowledge of how to get from the actual to the target state)”.

Transdisciplinary science requires not only the orientation towards social challenges and knowledge integration across disciplinary boundaries (interdisciplinarity), but also the inclusion of the experience and context knowledge of relevant actors. Only in this way can “robust knowledge” be gained for transformation processes that can be connected both to the scientific system and to actors outside the scientific community / to those involved in practice (Schneidewind, Ernst & Lang 2011: 134).

A characteristic of transdisciplinary research methods is the interweaving of learning and research – they are both teaching and learning approaches (Dubielzig & Schaltegger 2004: 5). On the one hand, science learns from the actors in practice by reflecting fundamentally on their methods and interests in knowledge and taking up questions that arise from life-world contexts. These are phenomena that are seen by those involved in practice as a problem of sustainable development. On the other hand, the practical actors learn from science by evaluating a phenomenon of the living world as a problem which the practical actors either do not perceive or do not regard as a problem (Mogalle 2001, 40 cited in Dubielzig & Schaltegger 2004: 6). The description of the “issues” – problems and questions from everyday life – is thus not given from the outside, but is developed (Dubielzig & Schaltegger 2004: 9) with the participation of all persons involved in the problem solution.

Knowledge of social transformation has an impact on society. By using scientific knowledge, the processes of change are also influenced. The scientist is always also part of the processes of change examined by him or her (Schneidewind 2014: 2). In addition, the transformation processes (which take place independently of scientific processes) provide insufficient empirical evidence for the functional mechanisms of successful sustainability-oriented transformation processes. For this reason Self City also tried to investigate the logic and functioning of self-organization. Uwe Schneidwind sees a scientifically guided intervention in real political, social and societal contexts as an important means for a better understanding of causal connections in these systems (Schneidewind 2014: 2).

This makes the “experimental turn” currently observed in the social and economic sciences understandable. Social transformation is an open-ended search and learning process, which is jointly supported by practical actors and scientists and which extends the purely observational and model-based approaches in the scientific disciplines (Schneidewind 2014: 2). It is not scientific crisis diagnoses and cause analyses – however high-quality they may be – but the establishment of new guidelines for orientation and convincing action concepts (WBGU 2011: 256) that will support transformation.

New concepts for action emerge within the framework of social innovations, i.e. new institutional and cultural shaping competences to strengthen adaptability and resilience. Social innovations focus primarily on “non-material innovations” (Rückert-John 2013: 13). Social innovations aim at “a better solution to problems than is possible on the basis of established practices“ (Howaldt & Schwarz 2010: 89).

The generation of social innovations requires new experimental platforms on which new patterns of living and consumption can be developed and lived and thus checked for practicability and on which familiar things can be arranged in a new way. You should answer the following questions: Which sustainable futures are desirable and conceivable? What change knowledge and instruments do we need to do justice to the complexity of the necessary transformation process to a humane and nature-compatible development path? How can the everyday knowledge of the shaping actors be integrated into the production of knowledge so that it can guide action for a transformative practice?

Research will become “transformative research” (WBGU 2011) or “transformative science” (Schneidewind & Singer-Brodowski 2014): it will actively accompany and catalyze transformation processes in order to better understand them (Schneidewind 2014). Self-organization groups are important actors in a transformative science, as they develop new knowledge, practice new knowledge applications and at the same time reflect these with the scientists in the context of a real laboratory.

Schneidewind (2014: 3) defines a real laboratory as follows: “A real laboratory is a social context in which researchers carry out interventions in the sense of “real experiments” to learn about social dynamics and processes. The idea of the real laboratory translates the scientific laboratory concept into the analysis of social and political processes. It follows on from the experimental turn in the social and economic sciences. There are close links to concepts of “field and action research”.

Criteria of real laboratories are (Schneidewind 2014: 3 based on MWK Baden-Württemberg 2013: 30):

  • The joint design, development and implementation of the research process by scientific, civil society and practical actors;
  • A transdisciplinary understanding of research by all involved actors;
  • The long-term support and investment of the research design;
  • A broad disciplinary spectrum involved in the research process (“multidisciplinarity”)
  • The continuous methodical reflection of the procedure
  • If possible, coordination should be carried out by institutions that are experienced in transdisciplinary processes.

Participation and participation in real laboratories of civil society actors is not trivial and conditional – this is the result of the Self City project (although it does not meet all the criteria of a real laboratory):

  • In addition to the tasks, most of which are carried out on a voluntary basis, there are now also tasks for transformative science. There is a risk of being overstretched over time.
  • Furthermore, a basis of trust must be built up. SO groups must open up to the common transformative science and allow insights into internal processes and show the willingness to change them with the help of science.
  • Volunteers with a non-academic background can be rather “deterred” by the scientific approach and must first be stimulated to cooperate by particularly low-threshold actions. “Language barriers” need to be overcome.

These hurdles can, of course, be worked on – e.g. through expense allowances, small salaries for the actors in the practice, by planning a long phase of the development of a common language ability, etc.. In our opinion, real laboratories represent an extremely important form of knowledge generation for transformation and the encouragement can only be: Scientists and practitioners open up for this socially significant generation of knowledge. And: it is also a lot of fun!


Stories of success

A real laboratory at the Stuttgart University of the Arts came to an interesting conclusion about how we deal with space (see Schneidewind in Sommer & Welzer 2017: 185). The requirement was a moratorium: no new space will be used. This political commitment to sustainability in settlement development was also the germ for new creativity: “Once you say that no more space can be used, and now let’s think about how we deal with it. How we use it more intelligently, how we can share it better. Completely new cultures of space and housing suddenly emerge. And this will only become possible when the classic linear path is radically cut” (Uwe Schneidewind in an interview in Sommer & Welzer 2017: 185). Models of space sharing for space-saving settlement development are developped. In the cooperation between science and civil society, creative designs for a good life can emerge under new political guidelines and framework conditions.


Further Information

Crutzen, P. (2002): Geology of mankind. In: Nature 415/2002.

Dubielzig, F. & Schaltegger, S. (2004): Methoden transdisziplinärer Forschung und Lehre. Ein zusammenfassender Überblick. Lüneburg.

Howaldt, J. & Schwarz, M. (2010): „Soziale Innovation“ im Fokus. Skizze eines gesellschaftstheoretisch inspirierten Forschungskonzepts. Bielefeld.

Rückert-John, J. (2013): Einleitung. In: Rückert-John, J. (Hrsg.): Soziale Innovation und Nachhaltigkeit. Perspektiven sozialen Wandels. Wiesbaden: 13-18.

Schneidewind, U. & Singer-Brodowski, M. (2014): Transformative Wissenschaft. Klimawandel im deutschen Wissenschafts- und Hochschulsystem. Marburg.

Schneidewind, U. (2014): Urbane Reallabore – ein Blick in die aktuelle Forschungswerkstatt. In pnd online: ein Magazin mit Texten und Diskussionen zur Entwicklung von Stadt und Region. Online verfügbar unter:, Zugriff am 20.12.2017.

Schneidewind, U., Ernst, A. & Lang, D. (2011): Institutionen für eine transformative Forschung. Zur Gründung der NaWis-Runde.  In: GAIS 20/2: 133-135. Online verfügbar unter:, Zugriff am 24.04.2018.

Sommer, B. & Welzer, H. (2017): Interview mit Uwe Schneidwind. In: Sommer, B. & Welzer, H. (Hrsg.): Transformationsdesign. Wege in eine zukunftsfähige Moderne. München: 183-184.

Wissenschaftlicher Beirat Globale Umweltveränderungen (WBGU) (2011): Welt im Wandel. Gesellschaftsvertrag für eine Große Transformation. Berlin.

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