Photo: M. Edström/Azote

Our research focus and working methods

Our approach to collaboration is time-consuming, difficult, and demanding, but it is also rewarding and it has successfully delivered: advancing new scientific insights and influencing societies at all scales

Through Mistra’s vision, Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) was tasked to “make a difference for sustainable development by building a world-leading research centre that would take the interdisciplinary research on linked ecological and social systems significant steps forward” and provide “insights and means for the development of management and governance practices in order to secure ecosystem services”. We took on this task with great excitement, asking new questions, collaborating across disciplinary borders, and generating new findings and insights of relevance for sustainability.

How do we do it?

We regularly and flexibly adjust and restructure our research to stay at the frontier. Since the beginning this was essential because the science is moving rapidly. In our first ten years, research has accumulated on what it means to live in the Anthropocene – the age of humanity. Industrialised societies are shaping the Earth system at the planetary scale. Humanity has moved from being part of the biosphere – that thin sphere around the planet which supports all life on Earth – to the prime driver of change in the biosphere. Humanity is truly intertwined in biosphere processes from local to global scales. It is becoming clear that a resilient biosphere serves as the basis for just and sustainable development, for human health and well-being, and transformations towards global sustainability are necessary, definitely possible, and highly desirable.

Our ambition is not only to advance transdisciplinary science, but also to shape it.

Our research framework: centre researchers are using a diversity of theories, approaches, methods and perspectives. Capturing the interplay between periods of slow and rapid change and how to persist and adapt and even transform into new development pathways in the face of dynamic change colours not only our research but also our interactions with policy, practice and the arts. The same goes for development issues.

Trust, collaboration and fun

Visitors to the SRC often remark on the culture of collaboration here. It is based on a culture of trust and it is inspiring to see how this method of working is becoming increasingly popular. We have pioneered a collaborative approach that is time-consuming, difficult, demanding yet very rewarding. It is an approach that builds on openly sharing ideas, and discussing them in teams with very diverse knowledge, skills, and disciplinary backgrounds. From this come new scientific insights.

Our ambition is not only to advance transdisciplinary science, but also to shape it. Indeed, Mistra specified that the SRC should “establish a research institution at the frontier of inter-disciplinary science for global sustainability”. This is complicated and takes time, which explains why Mistra agreed to provide long-term (12 years) funding.

Our work draws on the field of ecological economics and systems ecology, and close collaboration with the Resilience Alliance.

Many of SRC’s researchers have been deeply involved in a variety of case-studies, ranging from studying coral transects in the Philippines, the dynamics of ecosystem services in Stockholm, seabird ecology in the Baltic Sea, to developing agricultural practices in the Sahel. SRC has increased the capacity to bring this diverse knowledge about individual systems together, exploring the substantial similarities existing between cases.

We started to understand the similarities and common denominators in how coral reefs, pelagic food webs, sea-grass beds, and other systems worked. We could empirically look at complexity, change, and feedbacks in the real world and advance novel theory at the same time. This is one of the strengths of the centre, the dance between inductive and deductive science, to inspire scientists to explore their data in a new conceptual framing, while building new concepts and theories in collaboration with scientists from different fields.

Most scientists are hesitant of sharing their best ideas, because of the fear someone will take them as their own. But in our experience, if three separate individuals share their best ideas, this will result in a fourth and fifth idea, each greater than the individual first three. The three individuals can collaborate around only one of these shared ideas, and get more out of that then they could, had they worked alone. A very simple game, although it requires time and patience to interact with all those other people, and to carefully develop that great idea. The downside is, of course, the transaction time, and the risk that you engage in many collaborations that lead you nowhere, or are merely distracting. However, with the benefits of long-term funding, careful selection of researchers and collaborating partners, and excellent training, this is now something everyone does naturally.

The proof is in the pudding, of course, but the large number of multi-authored, highly-cited publications generated from the centre illustrates that the method works.

Partnerships and change processes

A variety of institutions around the world now talk about resilience and social-ecological systems. This was not the case when we started. The first international Resilience conference in 2008 illustrated that the SRC is a global leader in this field. Ten years on, our Stockholm Resilience Conference in 2017, the largest international resilience conference to date, further emphasised this leadership. Not only with regards to scientific substance, and disciplinary diversity, but also with regards to the collaborative method of working and engaging. It is no longer just individuals or smaller organisations that reach out to us for guidance and collaboration.

The SRC is, or has been, an active partner in multiple change processes, including in urban environments and the construction of the new Stockholm University campus Albano; in the design and development of the UN Sustainable Development Goals; and in exploring and building resilience in the Horn of Africa, with multiple actors outside of academia. We develop science with real world application. And the application itself is part of the science. Co-design and co-production of knowledge is a hallmark of our work, regardless if it is informal dialogues with small communities in the Andes or Himalayas, or with senior executives of large international companies. These discussions shape our research focus and help us become better sustainability scientists. We understand more of the world and can ask more informed questions. We get access to better data and can develop novel concepts and approaches that shape our investigations.

After ten years of existence we are now ready to take the next steps in our understanding of systems. We are integrating an in-depth understanding of complex social-ecological systems across scales, answering questions like “how do farming practices in Sahel interact with global patterns of precipitation, and non-linear change in multiple systems associated to water flows?” We are also increasingly engaged in cross-case study comparisons and social-ecological systems modeling.

We are developing new concepts, tools and approaches to find out what a resilient, equitable and healthy diet for both planet and people looks like. Building and expanding on the legacy of resilience thinking, we now are able to integrate an understanding of ecosystem dynamics with human behaviour, global financial markets, gender, equity and power, and much more.

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Critical factors for success

A few factors have been important for our development. Many of them are consistent with findings from successful research organisations elsewhere. The main factor that has enabled a long-term commitment is, of course, long-term flexible funding. The bold move by Mistra to invest in us for the long term has proven critical for our staff’s productivity, creativity, and ability to take scientific risk and thereby break new ground.

Mistra’s funding has also provided us with the opportunity to focus on science and cooperation, rather than stressing about next year. It has provided us with substantial freedom to focus on the issues that seemed most productive, rather than delivering on specific and narrow goals or products. We have consistently had a focus on high-quality, peer-reviewed science in leading journals. It has been critical to be able to illustrate that we are not only breaking new ground in methods of operation and framing global challenges, we are also producing academically high-impact research, recognised internationally.

We have maintained and actively developed a creative working environment.

Art has been an integrated part of the centre from the beginning and plays an important role in the inter- and trans-disciplinary research and learning process. Art becomes a mechanism for us to dare explore the unknowns. Another prerequisite for our success is to have all colleagues under one roof, and informally collaborate and meet on a regular basis. Our Master’s and PhD students are integrated in our daily work and we spend a substantial amount of time interacting with each other through staff meetings, retreats, and other forms for internal communication and relation building.

Finally, there has of course also been a bit of luck in all of this. Our first decade has coincided with a dramatic increase in attention to the issues we are working with. The concept of resilience, in particular, has risen up the political, business, and scientific agendas in the last decade as the world comes to terms with constant turbulence. To have the word “resilience” in our name has of course been a direct way to associate us with such issues. Sustainability issues in general have become mainstream in public debate and in international policy during this decade. We hope that we may have contributed, at least a little, to this development.

Where will the future take us?

The role of resilience in development is a rapidly expanding arena. New knowledge, evidence and methods are evolving. Stockholm Resilience Centre has been identified as a knowledge hub for making worlds of resilience thinking and development practice meet. We have been asked to host GRAID (Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for Development) and the secretariat of the Global Resilience Partnership. Both represent significant investments from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency
and their focus on using resilience as a lens for future development work. It is time for a shift in perception –from people and nature seen as separate parts to interdependent
social - ecological systems. Over the course of these ten years our interdisciplinary research has contributed to new scientific insights and spurred new thinking on the sustainability challenge within policy, practice, and the business community.

We are continuing to develop our collaborative, trust-based, and problem-solving approach.

We are currently identifying the seeds of a set of new research themes that will serve as attractors for future research. The suggested programmes all entail a considerable increase in terms of ambition and are being developed in collaboration with colleagues, leading international research partners, as well as change agents (such as influential people in civil society, brave policy-makers and passionate entrepreneurs, investors, and businesses with a vision for sustainable development). These new research themes all build on SRC’s strategic advantage where we can consolidate and leverage ongoing work, and already have established international collaborations.

We also plan to consolidate and ramp up our efforts in working with international leaders in sustainability and resilience thinking, especially in terms of training and education programmes where influential change-makers meet world-class sustainability scholars in a learning process to deepen understanding of priorities, build capacity for concrete action, and develop transformative leadership for a prosperous planet. This effort aims to meet the increasing societal demand for our science, while channelling our efforts where they have the greatest positive impact in society.

Our vision where economies and societies are fundamentally integrated within the biosphere has been presented in the sculpture “Nature/Society/Economy” by the Norwegian artist Tone Björdam. Photo: T. Björdam

Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stockholm University, Kräftriket 2B
Phone: +46 8 674 70 70

Organisation number: 202100-3062
VAT No: SE202100306201