In an article published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, researchers call for a radical shift in climate change research. It is time to focus more on action and transformative change than problem descriptions, they argue. Photo: EU2016NL/Flickr

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A little less conversation, a little more action, please

Ten essentials for guiding action-oriented research on energy transformation and climate change

Story highlights

• For wider sustainability transformations to occur, transformations in how research is done and applied is needed

• Acknowledging the normative nature of science and actively including politics, values and ethics are important ingredients of such research

• The ten essentials requires skills not often supported in current research training

Avoiding large scale climate change is still possible, but it will require extensive and rapid social and technological transformations. This calls for new ways of doing scientific research that focuses more on action and transformative change than problem descriptions, claims an international group of scientists in an article published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science.

Per Olsson, who is leading the SRC research stream Resilience Science for Transformations, is one of the authors together with colleagues from Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Chile, Finland, UK, USA, Portugal, Australia, Austria, Norway, Colombia, and Switzerland.

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While science has so far excelled at understanding the climate problem and identifying technocentric solutions, it has largely failed to seriously engage with the critical question of how to make transformational change happen

Per Olsson, co-author

Ten essentials for action-oriented research

Based on a series of workshops taking place in Sweden, Scotland and Germany over a two-year period the authors came up with a list of ten essentials for action oriented research on energy transformation and climate change. These are:

1: Focus on transformations to low-carbon, resilient living

2: Focus on solution processes

3: Focus on ‘how to’ practical knowledge

4: Approach research as occurring from within the system being intervened

5: Work with normative aspects

6: Seek to transcend current thinking

7: Take a multi-faceted approach to understand and shape change

8: Acknowledge the value of alternative roles of researchers

9: Encourage “second-order experimentation” (e.g. allowing researchers to intervene rather than being independent to what is observed)

10: Be reflexive

The tenth and last essential is about the need to reflect on how goals, methods and experiences of the researchers themselves may impact their work. This can help researchers examine how they are part of the system in which change is desired and enlarge their possibilities to make this change happen.

Applying these ten essentials would considerably shift the way research is conducted towards generating “more significant impacts” and incorporate a greater diversity of knowledge, perspectives, values, imaginations and approaches, all needed to facilitate transformations to a low-carbon, resilient world, the researchers argue.

Second-order science

The article is the result of a “collective frustration” among the authors about the limited acceptance of so called second-order science which rejects the assumption that an observer can or should be independent to what is observed. This way of doing research highlights the normative nature of science and advocates for greater acceptance of multiple ways of doing transdisciplinary research.

"Doing research in this way is about including processes and dynamics connected to politics, values and ethical considerations in our research," the authors argue.

In essence, the authors call for nothing less than a radical shift in climate change research. Keeping the world well below a 2 °C rise in temperature relative to pre-industrial levels will require much more widespread and faster social and technological transformations than we see at present. In this situation, the most critical question for climate research is no longer about the problem, but about how to facilitate the transformative changes necessary to avoid catastrophic climate-induced change.

“This ‘how to’ question is now arguably the most important question for climate research,” the authors argue.

Pioneers needed

For wider sustainability transformations to occur, transformations in how research is done and applied is also needed. And even though the authors acknowledge that transformation research itself has many challenges and “is not a panacea,” the benefits outweigh the drawbacks if science really wants to help bring about transformative change of society towards sustainability.

Ultimately, the authors believe extensive and concerted efforts will be needed to challenge current systems and structures of the way in which knowledge is produced and used.

“We need pioneers in action-oriented research to step forward and we need strategic action by politicians and funders to provide greater support for this change,” they conclude.


The ten essentials presented in the new study emerged over a two year period from individual and collective reflection of the authors during three consecutive workshops. The first took place at SRC’s Transformation conference in Sweden in 2015, the second was a two-day professionally facilitated intensive International Futures Forum workshop in 2016 in Scotland, and the third included further conversations at the International Sustainability Transitions conference in Germany in 2016. This was followed by many iterations and different discussions among the authors.

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Published: 2018-03-12


Fazey, I,, Schäpke, N., Caniglia, G., Patterson, J. et. al. 2018. Ten essentials for action-oriented and second order energy transitions, transformations and climate change research. Energy Research & Social Science Volume 40, June 2018, Pages 54-70. doi: 10.1016/j.erss.2017.11.026

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Per Olsson is leading the SRC research stream Resilience Science for Transformations, working with agency and system entrepreneurship, social-ecological innovations, and transformations to sustainability