Inspiring sustainable futures

Photo: shutterstock.com/Sanit Fuangnakhon


The profusion of crises has rendered many of us numb to further doomsday reports on the Anthropocene. Even the youth – many of our students included – often seem paralyzed at the mere thought of the challenges we now face, and they struggle to imagine ways of making this world a more hopeful place.

Scientists have provided unprecedented amounts of robust, high-quality data and knowledge to describe the nature and extent of our current crises, to illuminate causal connections, and to forecast scenarios under varying conditions. They have modelled critical thresholds, engaged in policy dialogue, and worked as advisors for setting new global targets.

Less prominent, so far, has been the science that aims to inspire urgently needed transformation – to put us on track not only to avoid the worst, but also to ensure that everyone can thrive. Guided by the findings and proposed approach of the UN Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR 2019), CDE strives to generate knowledge that concretely contributes to transformative actions towards sustainable development, in cooperation with its partners in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe – as well as at the international level.

Photo: Future Earth


In implementing our new strategy, we seek to help overcome three general challenges that confront those working to realize the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development:

Speed and agility

We pledge to become faster and more agile in inspiring concrete measures for sustainable development. As scientists, we must focus on synthesizing and assessing existing knowledge, and, importantly, strive to integrate knowledge and expertise from non-academic sources into our syntheses and assessments.

Integration and coherence

Sustainability transformations aim to spur progress simultaneously in socio-economic and ecological domains. We will strive to account for interactions between different – often competing – target dimensions in order to strengthen co-benefits and minimize trade-offs. We aim to lead the way towards urgently needed collaborative inter- and transdisciplinary approaches.

Solidarity and partnerships

The scientific community has the opportunity to spearhead transnational partnerships for transformations towards sustainable development. CDE will continue to promote individual and institutional capacity development – including in the global South – via progressive research and education partnerships, striving to make them a part of mainstream policy worldwide.

With its 2021–2024 strategy, CDE seeks to expand and concretize its commitment to transformative science. At the heart of our strategy lies a full-fledged theory of change. Combining our activities and targeted levers of change in specific impact areas, it outlines our envisaged pathways to transformation and the benchmarks we want to be measured by.

As concerned scientists and citizens – who have the privilege of working on solutions to current crises – we will use our new strategy to contribute all we can to the transformations needed to ensure sustainable futures for all.

Our approach to transformations


For the international community, our current decade will be decisive in terms of engaging in a broad initiative of environmental and social justice to curb unsustainable development and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

CDE’s commitment to the 2030 Agenda and its highly interdependent goals are systematically outlined in our theory of change (Figure). By connecting our key activities (“what we do”) to targeted levers of change (“what we promote”), we forge distinct pathways to deliver on transformations for sustainable futures in four critical impact areas (“what we aim for”). The four cross-sectoral areas we wish to influence in 2021–2024 are as follows: Sustainable land and ecosystems, just economies and human well-being, sustainability governance, and transformative education and science (see Section 3 for details on our impact areas and objectives). Our unique approach to stimulate transformations rests on explicit hypotheses, illustrated via four generic pathways to impact.

CDE's Theory of Change


Our activities in brief:

  1. Scientifically sound knowledge generation within the broad field of sustainability science.
  2. Educational programmes spanning graduate to post-graduate levels, including advanced studies programmes.
  3. Long-term commitment to international partner networks.
  4. Tailored exchange and conducive learning formats for the co-creation of academic and non-academic knowledge (transdisciplinarity).
Photo: shutterstock.com/AlexLMX
Photo: shutterstock.com/AlexLMX


Achieving the objectives in our four impact areas sustainable land and ecosystems, just economies and human well-being, sustainability governance, and transformative education and science depends on many context-specific dynamics, external factors, and the interests and power of different actor groups. We strive for impact by promoting six levers of change:

Knowledge-informed decisions

Where CDE’s activities create scientifically valid and socially robust knowledge that informs actions and decisions.

Social and technological innovations

Where CDE’s engagement contributes to innovating social practices and greater consistency between technological development and human needs.

Change agents

Where CDE acts and/or empowers other persons or organizations to facilitate decision-making, innovation, issue resolution, negotiation, mediation and consensus building through knowledge brokering, empathy and servant leadership, among other mechanisms.

Transformative literacy

Where CDE’s work enhances the abilities of individuals and societies as a whole to access, interpret, and utilize information about societal transformation, as well as participate constructively in these processes.

Communities of practice

Where CDE’s engagement inspires groups of people who self-organize to pursue a common cause through shared practices and collective action.

Public deliberation

Where CDE’s work facilitates democratic, inclusive decision-making based on the best evidence-informed arguments exchanged among equally entitled contributors to substantive debates.

CDE’s activities trigger and support these mechanisms. Taken together, our activities and mechanisms unfold, as our unique approach, in four distinct pathways to impacts.


CDE aims to spearhead, inspire, and support transformations in four impact areas: just economies and human well-being, sustainable land and ecosystems, sustainability governance, and transformative education and science. Notably, sustainability governance and transformative education and science represent both impact areas as well as levers that can be used to enable progress towards sustainable land and ecosystems and just economies and human well-being.

Four objectives in each impact area will guide CDE’s activities in 2021–2024 in support of our overarching goal of transformations for sustainable futures.

Just economies and human well-being

Just economies are those that serve as a means (rather than as an end in itself) to improve human well-being and provide a path to social citizenship entitlements for all. We face the great challenge of carving out distinct development pathways in the global North and in the global South – pathways that harmonize achievement of well-being, on the one hand, with respect for ecological limits, on the other. CDE contributes to these pathways by stimulating new understandings of prosperity, wealth, and well-being, and by evaluating, fostering, and supporting initiatives towards resource-light economies.

Photo: Albrecht Ehrensperger


Sustainable land and ecosystems

Land is critical to the sustainability outcomes of competing development priorities. Thus, the way we use land resources and ecosystems will significantly impact our ability to solve the challenges taken up by the 2030 Agenda. CDE promotes transitions towards sustainable land use and land management that provide a healthy resource base for secure livelihoods within multifunctional landscapes. In our research and outreach activities, we address the complexity of land claims at different scales – local to global – and across distant land systems.

Photo: Hanspeter Liniger


Sustainability governance

Transformations towards just economies, sustainable land and ecosystems, and integrated knowledge systems hinge on enabling governance and inclusive institutions. Governance encompasses the processes by which actors form, apply, interpret, and reform the rules, norms, and strategies that guide decision-making. Dealing with power asymmetries and knowledge in governance is critical. Orienting governance towards the attainment of sustainable development – sustainability governance – is both a goal in itself and a lever for systemic transformations.

Photo: Julie Zähringer


Transformative education and science

To support transformation for sustainable development, science and higher education must be embedded in real-world contexts, and collaborate with societal stakeholders. Together with its regional partners and members of the University of Bern, CDE aims to achieve major progress in fostering transformative learning processes and developing spaces for transformation, as well as supporting institutional and policy change in higher education and science. Our learning-oriented activities will take into account the UNESCO “Framework for the implementation of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) beyond 2019”, and will aim to improve the ability of actors and institutions to deliver on behalf of the SDGs.

Photo: Bishal Bhandari