Challenges in Sustainability | 2017 | Volume 5 | Issue 1 | Pages 35–42
DOI: 10.12924/cis2017.05010035
ISSN: 2297–6477
Challenges in
Research Article
Methodological Challenges in Sustainability Science: A Call for
Method Plurality, Procedural Rigor and Longitudinal Research
Henrik von Wehrden
*, Christopher Luederitz
, Julia Leventon
and Sally Russell
Centre of Methods, Leuphana University L
uneburg, L
uneburg, Germany
FuturES Research Center, Leuphana University L
uneburg, L
uneburg, Germany
Center for Global Sustainability and Cultural Transformation, Leuphana University L
uneburg, L
uneburg, Germany
Institute of Ecology, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University L
uneburg, L
uneburg, Germany
SPROUT Lab, Geography and Environmental Management, Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo, Waterloo,
Ontario, Canada
Institute of Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University
uneburg, L
uneburg, Germany
Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
* Corresponding author: E-Mail: henrik.von; Tel.: +49 41316771571
Submitted: 13 April 2016 | In revised form: 30 September 2016 | Accepted: 2 February 2017 |
Published: 19 March 2017
Sustainability science encompasses a unique field that is defined through its purpose, the
problem it addresses, and its solution-oriented agenda. However, this orientation creates significant
methodological challenges. In this discussion paper, we conceptualize sustainability problems as wicked
problems to tease out the key challenges that sustainability science is facing if scientists intend to deliver
on its solution-oriented agenda. Building on the available literature, we discuss three aspects that demand
increased attention for advancing sustainability science: 1) methods with higher diversity and complemen-
tarity are needed to increase the chance of deriving solutions to the unique aspects of wicked problems; for
instance, mixed methods approaches are potentially better suited to allow for an approximation of solutions,
since they cover wider arrays of knowledge; 2) methodologies capable of dealing with wicked problems
demand strict procedural and ethical guidelines, in order to ensure their integration potential; for example,
learning from solution implementation in different contexts requires increased comparability between re-
search approaches while carefully addressing issues of legitimacy and credibility; and 3) approaches are
needed that allow for longitudinal research, since wicked problems are continuous and solutions can only
be diagnosed in retrospect; for example, complex dynamics of wicked problems play out across temporal
patterns that are not necessarily aligned with the common timeframe of participatory sustainability research.
Taken together, we call for plurality in methodologies, emphasizing procedural rigor and the necessity of
continuous research to effectively addressing wicked problems as well as methodological challenges in
sustainability science.
Keywords: mixed methods; solution-orientated; transdisciplinarity; wicked problems
2017 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
1. Article Statement and Argument
Sustainability science has gained increased momentum
for dealing with wicked problems [
]. It acknowledges
that cause and effects of complex problems are difficult
to unravel, judgments over potential solutions are value
laden, and tackling the wickedness demands integration of
various knowledge domains [
]. However, often such ob-
servations remain rhetorical arguments and little attention
is given to the implications this has for the practices of a
science dealing with wicked problems. This contribution
aims to increase clarity over the methodological challenges
that sustainability science needs to address to effectively
move forward in dealing with wicked problems.
The methodological challenges of sustainability science
have diverse rooting. Some scholars have emphasized
shortcomings in developing a new community of practices
] that share an agreed upon set of principles [
] for gen-
erating knowledge on the interactions between nature and
society. Jerneck et al. [
] noticed the tension between nat-
ural and social science. While natural science strives for
scientific portrayal with little focus on matters such as justice
and power, social science seeks to understand knowledge
as contextually constructed, often with insufficient com-
prehension of natural science research [
]. In fact, much
like other disciplines (e.g., health science, agricultural sci-
ence) the common ground for sustainability science does
not emerge from shared methods or understandings but
from the problems research addresses and the purpose to
developed solutions [
]. We hope to contribute to this
debate through discussing the methodological challenges
of sustainability science through the problems it addresses.
Accordingly, we focus on the nature of these problems as
urgent and multifaceted rather than on the specific domains
in which they occur (e.g., climate change, biodiversity loss,
social injustice, etc.) and guide our discussion through the
solution orientation of sustainability science.
The nature of sustainability problems is best conceptu-
alized through defining them as wicked problems [
Wicked problems are novel combinations of complex prob-
lems that are only understood after a solution is found [
It is controversial as to whether solutions can actually be
reached or wicked problems are at best mitigated since they
are likely to be continuous and have long-lasting impacts
]. Since wicked problems depict real-world challenges,
repeated solution attempts are inconceivable because work-
ing to implement a solution alters a given situation signifi-
cantly, thus demanding a suite of solution attempts [
]. Fur-
thermore, the complexity of wicked problems makes it even
more challenging to develop transferable solutions because
the contextual specifics of the problem vary, thereby cre-
ating novel combinations of problems features. Additional
complexity is seen in the existence of ‘super-wicked prob-
lems’, an example of which is climate change. Research
on climate change suggests that time to find a solution is
running out, and the creators of the problem are also the
same as those with the potential to solve it [
]. While we ac-
knowledge the importance of super-wicked problems (e.g.,
]) our goal in this manuscript is not to address them per
se, but rather focus on a more modest goal of exploring how
inter- and trans-disciplinary methodological approaches can
be used to progress the sustainability agenda. Particularly,
because super-wicked problems as a concept does not
significantly add to or change the conceptual thinking we
propose in this manuscript, we find increased merits in fo-
cusing more narrowly on sustainability as a wicked problem.
Current problems such as climate change, changes
in biosphere integrity, and land use change, share the
key characteristics that define super-wicked problems [
These problems are typically multifaceted and complex, im-
peding comprehensive understanding and demanding so-
lutions beyond mere panaceas [
]. While problems need
to be urgently addressed, potential solutions need to be
salient, credible, and legitimate to have relevance outside of
science (e.g., for policy [
]) and require novel approaches
because existing knowledge does not address their sys-
temic causes [
]. Many of these problems span the
whole globe in their impact but demand recognition of local
context and the integration of stakeholder interests for ap-
proximating viable solutions [
]. For instance, while climate
change occurs on a global scale, the negative impact of cli-
mate change is often observed and felt at the local scale [
Just as with climate change and adaptation to it, solution
attempts to wicked problems leave no room for errors as
only one solution attempt is possible. Yet these problems
are continuous in nature and solutions can therefore only
be approximated on an ongoing path [
]. Besides the prac-
tical challenges presented by wicked problems, they also
require sustainability science to benefit from advances in
other domains [
]. In order to effectively address wicked
problems integration and cooperation between scholars
and practitioners are crucial to establish a solution-oriented
agenda [21] that is use-inspired and addressing real world
place-based problems [22].
The tension between the disciplinary roots of sustainabil-
ity science and its solution-oriented agenda creates method-
ological challenges, among other problems [
]. The field
comprises two stands of research, the disciplinary rooted
descriptive-analytical and the solution-oriented transdisci-
plinary science [
]. With regard to the first, research com-
prises disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches that fo-
cus primarily on describing and understanding sustainability
problems through descriptive analysis and advanced mod-
eling [
]. This research follows a knowledge-first mode for
understanding the root-causes and underlying mechanism,
with its core interest focus on the problem [
]. Transdis-
ciplinary sustainability science encompasses research on
evidence-supported solutions generating actionable knowl-
edge to solve and mitigate context specific problems [
This research focuses on transition pathways towards so-
lutions, with its core interest laying on the solution(s) itself
], yet we acknowledge the complexity of consolidating
a project team [
]. While both strands of research have
their merits for sustainability science [
], the methodologi-
cal gaps between disciplinary and integrated approaches
hamper efficient knowledge production. There is a need
to effectively move from a mere problem analysis to creat-
ing solutions. In addition, there is insufficient exchange of
methodological approaches between different fields. Thus,
while necessary approaches to generate knowledge might
exists in one field, they are unknown in other fields.
In this discussion paper, we focus on three aspects
where we highlight methodological challenges in sustain-
ability science.
descriptive-analytical research often relies on estab-
lished methods despite diversity and complementary
approaches that are available to address wicked prob-
solution-oriented research may potentially lack the re-
quired scientific rigor in procedures and ethical stan-
dards to account for the unique features of sustain-
ability problems;
both standards of research have failed to deliver on
their promise to facilitate longitudinal research which
is necessary for wicked problems, as the creation of
solutions does not contain stopping rules, since solu-
tion can only be approximated, but never reached.
Taken together, there is a need to consider diverse per-
spectives and coherent procedural frameworks in order to
enable knowledge generation on a given problem state,
desired futures, and solution implementation.
2. Analysis and Discussion
Solutions to wicked problems require three types of knowl-
edge. The first is systemic knowledge that involves di-
agnostic understanding of the underlying dynamics and
conditions. The second is normative knowledge to indi-
cate the direction of change; and the third is transformative
knowledge and solution strategies that effectively transform
the problem at hand. Thus the three-fold knowledge can
be pragmatically differentiated into system, normative and
transformational knowledge [
]. System knowledge refers
to rigorous empirical research on the multi-scalar nature,
facets and complexity of wicked problems. This knowledge
often has a profound disciplinary rooting and is usually
generated through specific disciplinary lenses and sets of
methods. Normative knowledge relates to norms, values
and objectives that define how desirable a situation is, and
thus provides a specific orientation and aim in decision-
making and the development of solution options. Normative
knowledge deals with the human perception of the situation
demanding increased input from the social science and hu-
manities for evaluating and valuing decision stakes. Finally,
transformative knowledge requires development of solu-
tions strategies and instructions to transform the analyzed
problem for making progress towards greater sustainabil-
ity. Transformative knowledge is least often generated and
is typically unique to solution-oriented transdisciplinary re-
search in sustainability science.
In the following sections we employ this knowledge ty-
pology in order to facilitate discussion of the methodological
challenges in sustainability science. With regard to wicked
problems we discuss, first, the need for diversity in methods,
second, procedural and ethical challenges, and third, the
demand for and necessity of longitudinal research.
3. Diversity of Methods in Times of Wicked Problems
The three types of knowledge—system, normative and
transformative—foreshadow the need for diversity of ap-
proaches to work on wicked problems [
]. In fact, borders
between natural and social sciences are not helpful to holis-
tically understand environmental characteristics and soci-
etal dynamics of wicked problems (systemic knowledge)
]. Explicit normativity in judging trade-offs in decision-
making on wicked problems is crucial for orienting actions
toward solutions. This requires methods that capture the
multiplicity of values in order to disentangle the politics of
change and clarifying whose values count (normative knowl-
edge) [
]. Novel approaches and methods are needed
for advancing “evidence-supported strategies that match
the complexity of the problems they address” because the
characteristics of what transformational knowledge entails
and its implementation remains vague [30].
The differentiation into knowledge types illustrates the
difficulties in linking results obtained through different
methodological approaches because the application of spe-
cific methods and generation of knowledge are often sub-
ject to specific disciplines. A key challenge in the gener-
ation of system knowledge is that few studies apply inter-
and transdisciplinary approaches. However, the use of
boundary objects—which are defined as plastic objects or
concepts that can integrate across different disciplines or
knowledge domains [
]—can bridge perspectives and dis-
ciplines. Prominent examples of this approach include the
application of frameworks such as the Ostrom framework for
diagnosing and analyzing social-ecological systems [32].
Within the realms of wicked problems typical boundary
objects were coined “big hairy audacious goals” [
], which
indicate problems that can help to align and integrate a
diversity of people towards achieving these goals. A classic
example would be a lake that has collapsed and that scien-
tists and stakeholders try to restore. While we acknowledge
the existence of a wide array of methods to approach such
problems, it remains a key challenge to ensure that diverse
approaches are undertaken to generate a foundation for
possible solutions.
Mixed method approaches (which we define as a com-
bination of different methods, often qualitative and quantita-
tive methods) could allow researchers to generate knowl-
edge across different disciplines. This would, however,
require research teams with competencies in and across
different disciplines [
]. We therefore propose that in order
to approach wicked problems the reflection on knowledge
diversity, which we define as taking advantage of sources
that generate a wide array of knowledge is a key component
in any research project.
Normative knowledge gives rise to questions over which
values are important and how to account for these [
]. In
addition, solution-oriented research on wicked problems
demands increased reflexivity. Researchers need to criti-
cally reflect on underlying worldviews of proponents that
engage in sustainability transitions, while being sensitive to
co-optation of experimentation and reflect on who benefits
from solutions [
]. Besides reflexivity, a solution orien-
tated agenda would also benefit from an increase in the
accountability and legitimacy of generated knowledge [18].
A clear understanding of the different possible modes of
exchange and communication needs to be facilitated. This
demands an active integration of stakeholder knowledge in
the research process across different scales [
], enabling
joint problem framing, as well as the co-creation of solutions
]. We recognize that for many topics and branches of sci-
ence, a recognition or exploration of normative knowledge
is less prevalent (e.g. [
]). However, system understand-
ing and normative knowledge needs to be effectively linked,
since most systems are managed and dominated by hu-
mans, which is why it is important to account for human
perceptions of system dynamics.
Since existing knowledge has not led to addressing
the systemic causes of wicked problems, transformational
knowledge demands development of new methods that al-
low for generating of evidence-based solutions. This again
is challenging since transformation per se needs also to
be facilitated and the implementation of changes cannot
be made by scientists, but involves a wider array of ac-
tors and recognition of power structures. Methods to sup-
port transformation are, to date, probably the weakest link
within the three types of knowledge (system, normative and
transformative), and we have only begun to explore the
methodological approaches necessary to gain transforma-
tive knowledge and understand and act using such novel
associated approaches [37].
Wicked problems demand higher diversity and comple-
mentarity in methodologies to allow generating evidence
across the three knowledge types, which we propose is still
widely lacking to date. As such, wicked problems might
as mentioned serve as boundary objects to integrate dif-
ferent disciplines, raising awareness of the resources and
approaches needed to approximate solutions. In order to
serve as boundary objects, wicked problems would need
to be sufficiently understandable to all stakeholders [
because the recognition of a wicked problem can also be
variable within a system [
]. While a concrete goal can
aid to integrate diverse stakeholders, many wicked prob-
lems are more complex and harder to communicate and
explain. Challenges such as the refugee crisis, resource
depletion, or loss of biodiversity can be seen with this logic
as wicked problems. All these problems are essentially
novel, continuous, and demand the approximation of solu-
tions. For instance, a large body of knowledge exists on
climate change, yet mitigation (preventing climate change),
and adaptation (implementing solutions for the impacts of
climate change), remain as challenges [40].
The generation of transformational knowledge should
therefore consider a diversity of methods [
] beside the
development of novel methods (see above). This does not
mean that system and normative knowledge do not demand
recognition of available methods, however a stronger coher-
ence and experience of knowledge generation is already
at hand. While knowledge produced through disciplinary
lenses is the necessary first step in better understanding
wicked problems, it does not translate itself into the solu-
tions to address them [
]. To effectively address wicked
problems sustainability science needs to identify and clar-
ify specific sets of methods that are considered suitable
for: 1) generating different knowledge types; 2) facilitating
pragmatic selection of appropriate methods to generate
knowledge; and 3) allowing for increased coherency in fu-
ture research.
The core criteria to identify suitable methods is that
they help to approximate solutions, even if only indirectly.
In addition, this needs to be integrated against research
availability. It is clearly beyond the scope of this paper
to provide criteria that help to identify suitable methods,
given that solution attempts for wicked problems cannot
be pre-defined following a simple checklist, yet this paper
suggests some initial approaches. However, we suggest
that mixed method approaches are hardly explored to date
in the literature compared to the majority of papers that rely
on single-method approaches.
Regarding the diversity of knowledge, claims for gener-
ating gains through interdisciplinary reach back decades
], and knowledge from outside of academia is also in-
creasingly demanded [
]. Knowledge diversity as such
can thus be mapped out both within academia (i.e. be-
tween different disciplines), as well as inside and outside
of academia. System thinking presents a classic approach
to the integration of diverse knowledge, for instance by
focusing on resources [
]. In order to realize a transforma-
tional agenda, modes of governance of the systems that
need sustainability solutions [
] and interaction need to
change [
], even going beyond established societal goals
and transdisciplinary paradigms [50].
The question on sufficiency of results obtained from dif-
ferent methods can naturally not be easily answered due
to the nature of wicked problems. Yet recent frameworks
suggest that novel approaches may trigger our thinking
of shorter pathways to solutions, while also considering
the diversity of system, target, and transformational knowl-
edge. A typical example is the leverage points approach
proposed by Donella Meadows [
], which suggested the
existence of different intervention types to tilt systems to-
wards a more sustainable state. This represents in many
aspects a solution orientated framework that may allow to
approach typical problems from e.g. resilience theory. While
resilience proposes shifts in systems from one state to an-
other [
], leverage points may serve as “counter levers” to
create solutions away from undesirable states of the sys-
tem. Accordingly, we propose that such frameworks such
as leverage points may demand further consolidation (e.g.
transdisciplinarity [
]), while recognizing the wide array of
methods at hand [
]. Yet in the context of wicked problems
it is especially unclear which combination of methods may
allow an approximation towards solutions.
4. A Need for Rigor in Procedure and Ethics in Times
of Wicked Problems
The development of solutions to wicked problems demands
methodological procedures and ethical considerations to
facilitate a structured approach for researching effective
solutions. It would be beneficial to integrate and learn from
other disciplines while advancing sustainability procedures
and research ethics. Besides procedural guidelines that
clearly structure and exemplify how to select and adopt suit-
able methods for testing solutions to wicked problems, the
experimentation with real-world transformation demands
explicit ethical considerations.
Procedural guidelines for solution-oriented research in
sustainability science needs to facilitate the development of
methodologies that are explicitly oriented towards designing
and testing solutions for wicked problems [
]. Wiek and
Lang [
] outlined such a methodology with the transforma-
tional sustainability research framework. Reflecting on their
proposal we distill the core features to inform procedural
guidelines in sustainability science:
Orienting the research by defining questions and goals;
Designing the research: selecting frameworks and
methods; and
Testing solution options: evaluating efficiency and
By dividing the orientation, design and evaluation of
research into these steps, we argue that necessary ethi-
cal constraints can be made more transparent, and thus
explicitly considered within research projects. We agree
that more reflection on the necessary ethical rigor would
be needed in future research, yet propose the suggestions
mentioned by Wiek and Lang [
] as a vital starting point
to integrate these approaches with the necessary reflection
within the research process.
The first step ‘orienting the research’ refers to the identi-
fication of the research objectives [
]. This involves clar-
ifying the questions the research aims to answer as well
as setting its goals. In addition, one needs to identify the
wicked problem that is subject to the research and explicate
its wickedness and sustainability relevance. This also helps
to situate the research in relation to system, normative and
transformational knowledge.
The second step designing the research’ refers to
selection of appropriate frameworks and suitable meth-
ods as well as detailing their application. This involves
reflection on the limitations and virtues of the selected
framework(s) with regards to the research objectives and
clarification of potential biases. However, with regard to
the aforementioned need for method plurality we empha-
size the need for triangulation and explicit consideration
of participatory setting for collecting data.
The third step ‘testing solution options’ refers to the ap-
plication of generated knowledge to the identified wicked
problem. This involves an experiential approach includ-
ing base-line assessment, implementation of solutions and
evaluation of observed effects [
]. The use of experimen-
tal settings provide an advantage in that solutions can be
tested in small-scale settings that allow for evaluation of
the effectiveness of solutions without changing the entire
constellation of the investigated wicked problem. However,
sustainability science needs to engage in an explicit reflec-
tion of the ethical dilemmas and consequences that this
might pose, also to consider resource designation within
research to focus on specific problems.
Ethical considerations of solution-oriented research in
sustainability science need to account for the unique fea-
tures of sustainability problems [
]. To date no clear pro-
cedure exists, which gives reason for concern, as research
involves not only investigation in systems including people,
but also aims to transform these systems towards sustain-
ability. There may be trade-offs, winners and losers, and
unexpected impacts to both the social and physical realms
of the sustainability problem. Within other branches of
science—most prominently medicine—clear and strict eth-
ical guidelines are available, and ethical committees and
checklists are often part of the research process. In sus-
tainability science, ethical considerations are most often
driven by the vigor of the disciplines included in a certain
research project, yet we are not aware of any procedure
that documents research projects in sustainability science
under ethical concerns. We argue that such guidelines are
crucial in the case of wicked problems, since in these cases,
solutions can only be identified in retrospect.
Sustainability science emerged out of different disci-
plines, which is one reason why it is so difficult to establish a
coherent ethical standard. Since researchers investigate a
wide cultural and societal diversity of normative dimensions,
and are often even embedded into the research process,
documentation and evaluation are crucial [
]. Transforma-
tion towards sustainability can follow different trajectories,
which are subject to politics of change. Since wicked prob-
lems can only have one solution approximation, numerous
other trajectories are potentially less effective or can create
unintended negative impacts. In order to make the research
process as valid as possible from an ethical standpoint, eth-
ical guidelines would be beneficial to ensure documentation
and transparency of the research.
Prominent examples for the need of ethical consider-
ations are the currently emerging real-world labs [
]. In
these ‘living labs’ complex dynamics are investigated and
manipulated, however, little documented consideration is
given to the ethical implications of such approaches nor
does consensus exist over the guidelines for such reflec-
tions. One could consider the well-known concept of ‘in-
formed consent’ as suitable for such approaches where
the goal and procedure is clearly communicated to partic-
ipants, who are asked to agree to the research process
prior to participation. The concept of informed consent is
however potentially controversial in sustainability science,
since identification of participants and affected stakeholders
is variable if not difficult [
], particularly given the multi-
ple spatial and temporal scales that many sustainability
problems span across over. Another concept well known
in medical research is “double blind studies”, where both
participants and scientists do not know receives a treatment
and who a placebo. However, such procedures can hardly
be introduced to sustainability science, the crafting of action-
able knowledge relies on co-production [
]. This makes
a strict planning and reviewing of research approaches
necessary in sustainability science.
Another example in relation to living labs is the ques-
tion of different levels of system manipulation [
]. While,
for instance, some neighborhoods in a city are trans-
formed [
], others might remain unchanged to allow
for a comparison. While this certainly has merits from
a statistical perspective, it may be a reason for serious
concern from an ethical perspective, i.e. considering the
rights of the people involved in the research. One way of
overcoming this issue could be to offer to facilitate trans-
formation after the conclusion of the research, following
the three-step procedural guidance outlined above. In this
way, those participants who were initially part of a control
group receive the treatment once the research component
is complete. On the other hand, resources are unlikely
abundant enough to solve each and every single problem
in sustainability science, and most definitely not every
local case. Such an approach how intervention in one
local system may influence a larger-scale system over a
longer time period. Therefore, in order to allow for a more
formalized evaluation of research processes, we call for
increased attention on the ethical considerations involved
in the approximation of solutions to wicked problems. Re-
cently founded institutions such as the Intergovernmental
Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem
Services (IPBES), attempt to acknowledge this concern
]. The IPBES is the intergovernmental body which
assesses the state of biodiversity and of the ecosystem
services it provides to society, in response to requests
from decision makers ( The IPBES
builds strongly on a transparent and coherent communica-
tion and a constant revision of their agenda. We propose
that accompanying research approaches should be in-
creasingly used by researchers and institutions, thereby
allowing for an evaluation of research based on compara-
ble ethical standards.
Rigor in the application of methods in sustainability sci-
ence is challenging, since the diversity of methods is rooted
in many different knowledge domains, schools of thinking,
and disciplines. Sustainability science is therefore in the
unique position to integrate ethical rigor based on diverse
experience. While this is surely beneficial, it is vital to focus
on solutions, which can be integrated with scientific rigor.
In this sense, not only should our research be focused on
sustainability, but it also needs to be made under sustain-
ability standards. It is beyond the scope of this paper to
discuss these standards, yet we can state that resource
availability has to be balanced against the given solution
approximation. While we agree that novel methods can be
beneficial [
], we would also underline that a diversity of
methods is already at hand, yet most methods are restricted
to their given epistemological and disciplinary background
and reasoning. Opening up these barriers would surely be
beneficial, since diverse sampling and analysis approaches
are vital, as this would theoretically increase the possibility
of approximating a viable solution.
5. Long-Term Research in Times of Wicked Problems
Due to the continuous nature of wicked problems, solu-
tions may be approximated and can only be identified in
retrospect, which is why research methodologies need to
allow for longitudinal research and data analyses. While
we acknowledge that due to their continuous nature wicked
problems may not necessarily be solved and may only be
dampened, we also suggest that the implementation of
solutions might cause adverse effects that were not ini-
tially considered. In addition, many wicked problems are
characterized by dynamics that only become visible though
decade-long observation, such as rangeland management
]. Researchers need to embrace reflexivity in order to
alter and adapt the research process. This is especially
challenging when it comes to mixed method approaches,
as the different grain between approaches (i.e. quantitative
and qualitative) is difficult to match.
Among the most advanced approaches in sustainabil-
ity science is certainly systems thinking, which taps into a
wide and diverse set of data and methods [
]. While to
date a large array of research has already applied systems
thinking, we propose that this does not often contain mixed
method approaches and often focuses too narrowly on gain-
ing increased understanding of wicked problems thereby
neglecting normative and transformational knowledge. In
addition, these approaches rarely employ methods that ac-
tually allow for reflexivity. It is evident that implementing a
continuous evaluation of the research process and outputs
to identify the effectiveness of interventions is vital when
considering wicked problems [
]. Numerous disciplinary
methods are specifically designed to implement longitudinal
analyses (e.g. clinical trials in medicine or greenhouse ex-
periments in biology), while long-term approaches are also
common in social sciences and urban research [
]. Match-
ing both quantitative and qualitative methods in a mixed
method framework is time consuming, and applying a wider
canon of methods demands typically more resources. Yet
most research projects have a much shorter funding period
than what is needed to respond to sustainability problems.
Projects with a backcasting approach would for instance
be able to implement the approximation towards solutions
of wicked problems into a sustainability science agenda.
This would allow for a clear visioning process, and then
enable researcher to approximate solutions, ideally based
on mixed method approaches.
6. Outlook
Wicked problems are at the heart of sustainability, as many
of them prominently defy justice, since the negative impact
is highest in regions that contribute less to the creation of
the problem. Yet while the notion of wicked problems has
existed for a long time, the rise of sustainability science in
the last two decades has triggered a stronger engagement
in research approaching the concept of wicked problems.
We propose that by embedding the framework of wicked
problems more thoroughly into sustainable science, we can
create a stronger argumentation to:
engage a diverse set of methods, including mixed meth-
ods to guide research on wicked problems and demand
procedural rigor for orienting and designing sustainabil-
ity research as well as testing solution options;
a clear documentation of research is needed to facilitate
the vital ethical considerations and to increase research
transparency and legitimacy that in turn allows for retro-
spective analysis of wicked problems; and finally,
a long-term research approach is vital to enable this
retrospect perspective and to make it possible to en-
gage in the whole timeline of a wicked problem.
Sustainability science is only just starting to develop an
agenda on how these three challenges can be integrated
and finally solved. There is already a huge portfolio of
methods available, yet many of these are not sufficiently
used outside of their given knowledge domain. Also, sus-
tainability research needs to stronger shift towards solution
orientation producing normative knowledge and especially
transformative knowledge. With research integration and
application becoming more complex, ethical procedures
need to be developed, tested and applied. Only by doing
this will we be able to generate transferable knowledge and
facilitate long-term research, societal changes and shifts
typically span across longer time scales. Initial accounts
of diverse and integrated articles [
] and textbooks be-
come increasingly available [
], paving the road for the
next generation of researchers [30].
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