Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)


“Sustainable development needs local knowledge and global learning”

There is lots of scientific evidence on what is going wrong in the world – from climate change and biodiversity loss to growing inequality. But there is not enough research on how to fix it. Now, an international network of scientists has developed an approach aimed at supporting decision-making for sustainable development: the archetype approach. One of the specialists in the field is Christoph Oberlack, a researcher at CDE and the Institute of Geography at the University of Bern. He describes new ways in which sustainability research can support policy and practice.

"Archetypes provide a systematic way of transferring knowledge between regions": Christoph Oberlack.

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

The inventory is done: Science has, by and large, described the problems of the world. What can it now do to ensure its findings are translated into action more quickly?

One promising path is transdisciplinary research, i.e. the joint production of knowledge by science, decision-makers, and stakeholders from civil society and industry. This is taking place in certain social and geographical contexts, such as in the use of water in canton Valais or of land in Myanmar.


“Case studies are very important, but the insights cannot simply be transferred”


So what is the problem?

The insights gained are very valuable in each study area, as they are adapted to a specific social and ecological context and present concrete approaches to sustainable development. But they cannot simply be transferred to other areas. 

Why not?

They are case studies. As such, they don’t assess empirically whether findings apply beyond the study area or not. On the other hand, there are many conventional methods that seek to identify general models – to describe phenomena across individual cases – but they usually remain abstract and fail to account for the nuances of specific contexts. Meanwhile, decision-making for sustainable development requires both context-specific, local knowledge and global learning.


“Our aim is to create innovations and suitable options for action”


That is why we work with archetypes. They enable us to assess detailed experiences from individual case studies and make them available elsewhere. Our aim is to create innovations and suitable options for action.

What is archetype research about?

Archetypes are processes and dynamics that occur repeatedly in different concrete situations. For example, there are many individual case studies of land or water use worldwide, including in Switzerland, Bolivia, and Kenya. At first glance, they appear very specific. But they also have some common features. To find these, we break down the individual cases into typical processes – into building blocks, so to speak. Using the archetype approach, we look for patterns in these building blocks. Once they have been identified, we can make statements about processes and dynamics that are detailed and yet generalizable. This can allow knowledge from different contexts and regions to be transferred to others.

Can you illustrate this?

Take the mosaic that was on display in Speyer Cathedral, Germany, about ten years ago. Children did drawings on individual tiles, which together form a large picture. Each tile is unique. But we can still see certain patterns, for example in the colouring or in the repetition of subjects such as butterflies, faces, sunflowers, etc. These patterns can be seen as archetypes.

Giant Mosaic, Speyer Cathedral, October 2010

Do you also have a concrete example from research?

In our network, colleagues have conducted research on adaptation to climate change in California. There, communities are challenged to protect people and the environment from the risks posed by global warming. Funding such measures is hard for many communities – but others may have already found solutions for certain issues. Using the archetype approach, scientists were able to identify typical problems and solutions that arise when adapting to climate change, and then systematically match individual problems and solutions. Communities that lacked ways of coping with certain problems were given the tools to innovate.


“Comparing experiences from different contexts can be very valuable”


Staying with this example: One community says they can’t fund such measures, as climate change is a global problem. Another argues that it faces more urgent challenges. What pattern does this reveal – besides an apparent lack of money?

A funding gap may be due to unclear responsibilities between local, regional, and national decision-makers. But it could also stem from inability to assess the consequences of inaction, or from yet other causes. Comparing such barriers across dozens or hundreds of cases allows the causes of a problem to be more clearly identified – and then addressed accordingly.

So you are looking for best practices, which you then propose to other municipalities or regions as a solution?

Yes – keeping in mind that solutions vary depending on the cause. There is also the question of why certain best practices work in one situation and not in another. Comparing experiences from different contexts can be very valuable in this respect – and this is exactly what archetype research offers.


“We must link insights from the past more closely with knowledge for the future”


Is archetype research a kind of miracle cure for sustainable development?

I wouldn’t go that far. Archetypes provide a systematic way of transferring knowledge between regions. A next step is to develop the methods further. We also face the question of how the insights we gain from the past and present can be more closely linked to the knowledge we need for the future. This would enable us to use them more effectively to develop scenarios and provide bases for action on behalf of sustainable development.

Special Issue on archetypes

A Special Issue entitled “Archetype Analysis in Sustainability Research” has just been published in the scientific journal Ecology and Society. The articles in this special issue consolidate, for the first time, the meanings, methods, and quality criteria of the archetype approach, and present innovative insights into pressing problems of sustainable development.