Crafting Usable Knowledge for Sustainable Development

Belfer Center, Kennedy School, Harvard Univ. / by William Clark

This paper distills core lessons about how researchers (scientists, engineers, planners, etc.) interested in promoting sustainable development can increase the likelihood of producing usable knowledge. We draw the lessons from both practical experience in diverse contexts around the world, and from scholarly advances in understanding the relationships between science and society. Many of these lessons will be familiar to those with experience in crafting knowledge to support action for sustainable development. But few are included in the formal training of researchers. As a result, when scientists and engineers first venture out of the lab or library with the goal of linking their knowledge to action, the outcome has often been ineffectiveness and disillusionment. We therefore articulate here a core set of lessons that we believe should become part of the basic training for researchers interested in crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. These lessons entail at least four things researchers should know, and four things they should do. The “knowing” lessons involve understanding the coproduction relationships through which knowledge making and decision making shape one another in social-environmental systems. We highlight the lessons that emerge from examining those coproduction relationships through the ‘ICAP’ lens, viewing them from the perspectives of Innovation systems, Complex systems, Adaptive systems, and Political systems. The “doing” lessons involve improving the capacity of the research community to put its understanding of such systems into practice. We highlight steps though which researchers can help build capacities for stakeholder collaboration, social learning, knowledge governance, and researcher training.


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