Challenges in Sustainability | 2013 | Volume 1 | Issue 1 | Pages 27–28
DOI: 10.12924/cis2013.01010027
Sustainability Science: Progress Made and Directions Forward
Barry Ness
Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS), P.O. Box 170, SE-221 00 Lund, Sweden;
E-Mail:; Tel.: +46 462224809
Submitted: 17 May 2013 | Published: 21 May 2013
I am honored to contribute an editorial for the inaug-
ural issue of Challenges in Sustainability (CiS). It has
provided the opportunity for me to take a step back
and reflect on both the developmental progress in the
field of sustainability science since its formal launch,
now over twelve years ago [1,2], and where the field
might head in coming years. While it may always feel
that the field is changing too slowly to keep up with
the challenges it addresses, the developments have
been noteworthy, especially in academia. I will discuss
three areas: education, research and institutional
The growing offering of sustainability (science)
educational programs at all levels has been an import-
ant part of the field’s evolution. Individual areas of
concentration can include business and management,
leadership, engineering, or policy management, to
name a few. Flagship programs are now found
throughout the world, including Arizona State Univer-
sity, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, and the
University of Tokyo. In addition, programs at smaller
academic institutions such as Furman and Kean
Universities in the U.S. have arisen to meet the
increasing demand for sustainability education. In
Sweden, where I am based, there are international
master’s programs in sustainability at Uppsala,
Stockholm, Malmö, and Lund Universities, as well as
Blekinge Institute of Technology. These programs and
their different foci, seek not only to increase student
knowledge to understand the complexities of
sustainability challenges, but also aim to strengthen
key competency development [3] in areas such as
facilitation and strategic leadership.
In addition to sustainability education, the nature
of research projects and programs in the field has also
changed. The changes have been driven by both top-
down funding priorities to finance research that is
more relevant to society, and bottom-up desire from
scholars to carry out more integrated work. This has
led to the slow evolution from a focus on descriptive-
analytical research, with emphases on understanding
the effects of environmental change, to transitional
(or transformational) research agendas that embrace
working in closer collaboration with societal stake-
holders. Such research may concentrate on, for
example, envisioning and scenario exercises, or
problem-solving strategies beyond change strict policy
change [4,5]. Transitional sustainability science re-
search is being carried out by individuals in innovative
Ph.D. projects focused on single case studies using
particular theories and approaches, and by networks
of researchers in longer-term programs, such as the
Earth System Governance project (www.earthsystem, united by common sustainable de-
velopment themes.
To operationalize the education and research
agendas in sustainability science, new organizational
constellations have developed. Changes have ranged
from the creation of new faculty structures at a
number of universities, to the establishment of inter-
disciplinary research schools and programs. The Lund
University Centre of Excellence for Integration of
Social and Natural Dimensions of Sustainability
( is just one example of a longer-term
program that unites senior and junior staff and Ph.D.
candidates from disciplinary backgrounds including
© 2013 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
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Economics and Economic History, Philosophy, Physical
Geography, Human Geography, Political Science, and
Human Ecology. The frequent interactions via discus-
sions, debates, and joint publications have the goal
of, amongst others, fostering new professionals who
are capable of and accept working with the theoretical
and empirical multiplicities [6] often inherent in
sustainability education and research.
Despite the advancements over the past decade,
there is still much to be done. Continued creativity in
restructuring academic disciplines, departments, and
funding and tenure incentives are necessary to pro-
mote the interaction needed to achieve the interdis-
ciplinary goals of sustainability science. Sustainability
issues must also be strengthened in other areas such
as the arts and humanities utilizing alternative forms
of knowledge dissemination. In the area of education,
additional sustainability programs are still needed, but
more importantly, there must also be increased efforts
in mainstreaming sustainability into all educational
programs at different levels. Finally, the field must
also continue to place strong emphases on reaching
outside of academia in addressing pressing societal
The launch of Challenges in Sustainability repres-
ents an important step in further strengthening the
field. The journal’s broad aims that focus on systemic
analyses of sustainability challenges, solutions and
transition processes, and associated trade-offs within
socio-ecological systems, will create an important
publishing outlet for scholars involved in integrative
research. Furthermore, because Challenges in Sus-
tainability is open access, it will mean that the know-
ledge produced in it can reach a wider range of stake-
holders, adding one more attribute in a sustainability
science we want to create.
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