Issue: June 2014, Together for change – The contribution made by transdisciplinary sustainability research

In Focus

Successful paths to change

Comment by guest contributor Dr. Kora Kristof

Resource conservation, zero net environmental loading, equity – these are the key objectives of the major changes facing us if we take seriously the limits to the carrying capacity of the Earth System, the welfare of all humanity and the idea of global, intergenerational justice.*

Many interesting niche sustainability solutions are already appearing, but they will only become mainstream, firstly, when the right conditions are put in place at the key points in the whole system. Secondly, people have to be convinced of the importance of sustainability – only then will it become part of everyday life: when shopping, at work or when managing or investing money.

For this to happen, it’s not enough to address the question “What should change?” by itself. It is precisely in times of radical change that the question “What are the main factors for succeeding with social changes?” is increasingly asked as well.

It is only when we understand social changes better that we can also shape them more successfully. To do this we can learn from both scientific enquiry and empirical experience. Societal upheavals are often so complex that simple assumptions about the relationships between cause and effect are useless. Too many players are involved, it’s difficult to survey the processes of change and it is not clear when events will happen. That is why attempts at change often fall short and decision-makers in politics, companies and other social movements don’t achieve the outcomes they hoped for.

Nevertheless, in order to be able to make sense of a confusing world and act within it, people want to understand how processes of change function and which influences operate. That is why the sciences develop explicit models, and ordinary people develop implicit ones as well. They help us to filter out the constantly recurring patterns from the tide of information on diverse processes of change and to align our own behaviour to them. Models provide orientation in a complex world.

Models differ not only within and between the individual scientific disciplines but also from person to person and between different cultures. The environment in which they are used affects the models as well, as do the underlying concepts of how society, organisations and individuals “function”.

Despite these differences, there are still common findings running through the scientific and empirical models, and key factors for success can be deduced from them. If these are given serious consideration they can smooth the paths to change (explored in detail in Kristof 2010a & 2010b).

* e.g. Rockström 2009, Jackson 2009, WBGU 2011, Daschkeit/Kristof/Lorenz/Veenhoff 2013

Further information about the article

Dr. Kora Kristof
Leiterin der Grundsatzabteilung
Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau
Tel.: +49 340 2103 


The graduate economist Dr. Kora Kristof wrote her post-doctoral thesis on the question of how to successfully implement social change. From 1994 to 2011 she worked at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, first as head of the Energy Department, then as head of the topic area Material and Resource Efficiency and as programme coordinator of the Sustainable Production and Consumption research group. Since 2011 Dr. Kristof has been Head of Department I1 (Sustainability Strategies, Sustainable Resource Use, Instruments) at the Federal Environment Agency. Her main fields of work include instruments of sustainable development, sustainable production and consumption, resource policy, energy and climate policies, and models of change.

Further reading

Jackson, T. (2009): Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy

Rockström, J. et al (2009): A safe operating space for humanity; in: Nature 461, 472-475

WBGU (2011): World in Transition – A Social Contract for Sustainability

In German only

Daschkeit, A. / Kristof, K. / Lorenz, U. / Veenhoff, S. (2013): Deutschland bis zum Jahr 2050 - Bausteine für eine nachhaltige Zukunft; in: Jahrbuch Ökologie 2014

Kristof, K. (2010a): Models of Change: Einführung und Verbreitung sozialer Innovationen und gesellschaftlicher Veränderungen in transdisziplinärer Perspektive

Kristof, K. (2010b): Wege zum Wandel: Wie wir gesellschaftliche Veränderungen erfolgreicher gestalten können

Other articles from this rubric

New knowledge

Transdisciplinary sustainability research

Extreme weather events are increasing. The end of fossil fuels is in sight. Our society is ageing. Climate change, resource… more

New knowledge

The sustainability trainer

Global Value – a tool for multinational companies

Becoming even better – not just in terms of products and services, but overall: for many companies that seems to go without… more

The sustainability trainer

Older issues