Issue: June 2018, Knowledge and science – Facts about alternatives, not alternative facts

In Focus

Knowledge and science

Information for a sustainable society

Knowledge is the basis of our work at the Oeko-Institut. Our researchers share their expertise, work on an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary basis and thus develop knowledge across the traditional divides between research fields. Ensuring that the knowledge gained is of practical relevance to everyday life is also important. The methodological bases and associated challenges have undoubtedly changed and evolved over the decades. However, there has been one constant ever since the Oeko-Institut was founded: its goal to pool transparent knowledge for sustainable development for the future and make it accessible to society.

“Transitions towards sustainability are taking place at many levels of society,” says Dr Bettina Brohmann from the Oeko-Institut. “For example, we need policies that steer us towards compliance with climate targets, we need technical innovations in the power grid infrastructure, and we also need a shift in social goals and values in response to excessive and often unsustainable consumption.” Scientific knowledge can also support behavioural changes in practical ways and guide people towards more sustainable choices. In partnership with research institute ISOE and energy companies ENTEGA and Badenova, the Oeko-Institut has therefore been looking at what motivates people to save energy. The Energy Efficiency Classes for Households project – which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) – works with interested consumers to field-test some of the key energy saving options for domestic users. And using other tools developed by the Oeko-Institut, private and commercial consumers can check how to ease the strain on their finances and the environment by buying an electric car or find out whether it is worth installing a battery storage system as well as solar panels, to name just a few examples. All these tools support the transition towards sustainability.


“As we see it, the role of science, in the classic sense, has radically changed in recent decades,” says Bettina Brohmann, Research Coordinator for Transdisciplinary Studies at the Oeko-Institut. “Of course, we still need theoretical bases and methodologies, but it is no longer simply about solving scientific questions in isolation: it is about responding to relevant signals from society.” This must be based on dialogue with stakeholders, interest groups or decision-makers at various practical levels. Concurrently, research institutes such as the Oeko-Institut often act as initiators and idea-makers in their own right. “We want to work together with stakeholders to identify solutions, not only by integrating their knowledge but also by making the findings more relevant to society and building a sense of ownership.” For example, in order to support sustainable development in a company or region, the Oeko-Institut makes use of local expertise and works with stakeholders to identify appropriate and sustainable solutions.

Cooperation with policy-makers and public authorities is also an important element of a transdisciplinary approach to initiating and managing change. In the Oeko-Institut’s Working Paper Sustainable Consumption – Strategies for Social Transformation, for example, researchers from various divisions of the Oeko-Institut identify six strategic pillars to underpin this process. “It includes setting clear priorities and focusing more strongly on sufficiency – in other words, on transforming consumption patterns, developing a systemic approach to sustainable consumption policy, and thinking about and integrating social justice,” says Bettina Brohmann. “But promoting social and institutional innovations and involving all the key stakeholders are also important for a successful transition.” The Working Paper thus offers a basis for action at various levels, including local planning and regional funding schemes to support education for sustainable development.

How can the energy transition – Germany’s Energiewende – be managed effectively as a transition process for the whole of society that involves stakeholders from business, politics, civil society and research? This question is currently being investigated as part of System Integration and Interconnection of Energy Supply (ENavi), a Copernicus project supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The project is based around a research consortium with more than 80 partners, including the Oeko-Institut, led by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), and focuses on supporting the energy transition as a social transformation process. “We look at technical solutions and new business models and aim to reveal complex connections between the various measures,” Bettina Brohmann explains. “The goal is to develop a navigation tool which examines how political, economic, legal, technical and social factors of relevance to the energy transition interact in a systemic context.”


For the Oeko-Institut, building knowledge for a sustainable society always involves networking and cooperation, whether in a team, across the Oeko-Institut’s divisions or with partners from research, business, politics and civil society. One example is the Systemic Innovation for Sustainable Development – Transfer as a Learning Process at the Regional Level project, whose topic is future-focused urban and regional development. “This project involves collaboration across an extremely diverse set of stakeholders, with regional and urban institutions working alongside policy-makers, civil society and business,” Dr Brohmann explains. Funded by Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences as part of the Innovative University initiative, the project aims to cluster the potential for innovation, creativity and policy-making for sustainable development in the Darmstadt region and establish learning systems. “The Oeko-Institut is assisting with process design and providing thematic support. For example, we are working with an automotive supplier on ways of sustainably improving its management of chemicals in leather upholstery production,” she explains.

In another project, entitled Transformative Strategies for Integrated Neighbourhood Development (TRASIQ), again funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Oeko-Institut adopts a cross-disciplinary approach and draws on practical experience. In cooperation with the Research Institute for Regional and Urban Development (ILS, Dortmund), the German Institute of Urban Affairs (difu) and Darmstadt – City of Science and with support from team ewen and the Schader Foundation, the researchers are developing strategies and policies for neighbourhoods in Darmstadt and Griesheim across the three dimensions of sustainability – economic, social and environmental. “We are engaged in dialogue not only with planners but also with future residents,” says Bettina Brohmann. “The project identifies and supports practical action that can be taken in two development areas and produces recommendations for policy-makers.”

Dr Brohmann sees collaboration on projects such as these as a fluid process in which continuous dialogue is essential. “We have been working with some of our partners for a very long time, but even these collaborations are changing,” she says. “Today, it is important to think more in terms of process design.” This need to focus more on process, she believes, stems from the complex challenges associated with the transition to sustainability. “After all, it’s about changing lifestyles and entire systems. Everyone has to adapt – consumers just as much as business and politics. And that can only happen through continuous dialogue, review and adjustment.”


But the Oeko-Institut researchers are not only working on solutions for the present. In many instances, they look several decades into the future. Dr Brohmann again: “What kind of knowledge will we need in future? And how can we make that future more sustainable? One way of answering these questions is by developing scenarios to test various possible pathways towards an identified outcome. We can prepare the development of these jointly identified outcomes by working in what we call a real-world laboratory – and we can fine-tune the various ideas and measures to meet the practical needs of the future.” According to Dr Brohmann, there are specific criteria that must be met by real-world laboratories. “Initiating real-world laboratories has become something of a trend – but many people are using this label even if they have only ever held one consultation with stakeholder groups,” she says. “There has to be a measure of quality assurance and compliance with defined standards. And that means working with people to describe problems, prioritising goals, supporting the delivery of solutions and checking again and again that the approach is the right one.” This is the only way to ensure that everyone has the kind of information that they genuinely need: sound knowledge for a sustainable future.



Social scientist and regional studies expert Dr Bettina Brohmann has worked for the Oeko-Institut since 1984, becoming Research Coordinator for Transdisciplinary Studies in 2012. In this role, she is engaged in inter-divisional working, focusing on topics such as social aspects of energy and climate policy, consumer and motivation research, and facilitation of decision-making processes.


Further information about the article
Contact at the Oeko-Institut
Dr. Bettina Brohmann
Nuclear Engineering & Facility Safety
Office Darmstadt
Phone: +49 6151 8191-135
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