Sustainability Science Program

Knowledge Systems

Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development

A capacity for mobilizing and utilizing science and technology (S&T) is increasingly recognized to be an essential component of strategies for promoting sustainable development. Efforts to enhance such capacity over the past quarter century range from developing more efficient cook-stoves for burning biomass, to nurturing an international system for agricultural research, to applying S&T to the challenges of stratospheric ozone depletion. In this pursuit, there have been some successes and many failures. Such a mixed experience contains lessons in how to improve the effectiveness of arrangements for linking knowledge with action in pursuit of sustainability. Generally lacking, however, has been the systematic scholarship needed to extract, theorize and generalize those lessons. As a result, society lacks a critical understanding regarding which kinds of programs, institutional arrangements and, more generally, "knowledge systems" can most effectively harness S&T for sustainability.

The Knowledge Systems Initiative focuses on understanding how the choice of institutions and procedures for linking practitioners and experts influences knowledge production and its application in support of sustainable development. We view "knowledge systems" (KS) as consisting of a network of linked actors and organizations that perform a number of functions (including research, innovation, development, demonstration, deployment, and adoption) that link knowledge and know-how with action. Included in this concept are the incentives, financial resources, institutions and human capital that give such systems capacity to do their work, and the intention to focus such work in some arenas rather than others. The "kinds" of knowledge include "formal" knowledge produced by the natural and social sciences, "clinical" knowledge found in engineering, medicine and other professions, and the "tacit" knowledge of practitioners. There is no presumption that "knowledge systems" are the result of some master design. But we do assume that such systems, however they came into being, can be at least partially understood and manipulated in ways that improve their performance for purposes of advancing sustainable development.

The Knowledge Systems Initiative includes projects focused on efforts to link knowledge with action in multiple contexts:

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