The idea that sustainable development has a central geographical dimension was brought to the fore by the popular slogan "Think globally, act locally." The "global" in global understanding does not mean "universal" or "all-encompassing" understanding, but being able to place one's life and the decisions one makes in everyday life in a global context. The notion describes the capacity to become aware of (and acknowledge) global crisis phenomena, to link them to one's actions, and to understand the social challenges associated with sustainable development. Understanding one's life in a global context is a fundamental prerequisite for sustainable development.
In our projects and research collaborations, we explore ways to promote an understanding of the links between the local and the global in everyday practice. For instance, we investigate which concepts, narratives or visual metaphors help establish an awareness of the global consequences of individual decisions, and how to establish institutions that take the unavoidable entanglement of the local and the global into account.
"Global understanding" also means placing everyday practices and lay knowledge at the center of sustainability science. Understanding phenomena such as the global ecological crisis not only requires an understanding of physical or 'natural' interactions and interdependencies, but also involves an understanding of the everyday actions that ultimately cause global crisis phenomena and comprehending their cultural and social embeddedness.
Practice-centered sustainability science should therefore not focus on ecosystems or habitats, but on everyday performances and their problematic consequences in fields such as nutrition, housing, communication, mobility, consumption/recycling, entertainment/recreation, etc.
Steering the focus away from symptoms ('environmental' problems) towards causes (everyday practices) also emphasizes our agency in socio-ecological transformation processes. Shaping or initiating change, however, presupposes an understanding of the cultural embeddedness of everyday practices, or grasping the role of social institutions and structures. Sustainability science thus needs to take everyday practices and everyday lay knowledge seriously if its aim is to support long-lasting change in human behavior patterns.
The UNESCO-Chair advocates the establishment of practice-centered perspectives in sustainability science, campaigns for practice-centered approaches in the field of science policy, and offers consulting services on questions of sustainability and sustainable development. Amongst other things, we address questions such as: What are the key domains of socio-ecological change and innovation? Where do we find current laboratories of social change and how can they be created? How can blockages to innovation be overcome?
Sustainability research based on the idea of global understanding is closely linked to transdisciplinary approaches. Transdisciplinarity refers to two translatory practices: the mediation between scientific disciplines and their different forms of knowledge on the one hand and the translation between the scientific realm as a whole and everyday life on the other. Both practices can be traced back to addressing complex problems that do not follow a disciplinary logic such as those that arise in social-ecological transformation processes.
On the one hand, transdisciplinarity describes the (exclusively academic) cooperation of different disciplines on a shared issue. In order to be more than an additive by nature and to generate truly new insights, transdisciplinary research must be designed particularly reflexively. Transdisciplinarity does not mean giving up specialization and scientific differentiation, nor does it result from parallel research into the (seemingly) same subject. Instead, it requires specific approaches to knowledge integration and communication that are well-adapted to the concrete scientific cultures and agents involved.
On the other hand, transdisciplinarity signifies addressing questions and problems external to science ("real world" problems, as they are often called). This involves the commitment to not only describe and understand socially relevant phenomena, but to also engage in their solution. Truly transdisciplinary science is therefore not only dependent on the translation of everyday lay knowledge and scientific knowledge, but also encourages non-academic agents to participate in research and acknowledges their wisdom and competence.
Transdisciplinarity is an answer to ever more complex problems in the present age; problems that can hardly be dealt with using conventional disciplinary approaches. The UNESCO-Chair supports transdisciplinary sustainability science and the search for solutions to socially relevant problems by, for example, developing new boundary-crossing cooperation formats, reflecting on academic role models and scientific communication strategies, and by promoting innovative teaching materials for sustainability education.