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How do we generate knowledge about sustainable development?

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On 4 May, the first joint research conference on sustainable development was held at Lund University. During the event, over 70 research contributions were presented to researchers, students and international participants. The conference highlighted the University’s extensive range of sustainability-related research, while discussions addressed the potential for more collaboration and the challenges of knowledge about sustainable development.

Per Mickwitz, pro vice-chancellor at Lund University, introduced the event by questioning whether research needs to change for the world to become sustainable. It is 34 years since the Brundtland report defined sustainable development (development that satisfies current needs without jeopardising the possibility for future generations to satisfy their needs).

A lot has happened since then, but not enough. It is easy to blame others for doing too little – that politicians don’t listen to existing research, that big companies don’t care about their environmental impact or that consumers don’t make the most sustainable choices in shops. But the research community must also look at itself in the mirror and ponder what it could do better, according to Per Mickwitz. Where can Lund University best contribute to the work on the UN global goals? All the faculties already produce a lot of relevant research, but there is potential for even more if we collaborate. That is why the central theme of the research conference was knowledge for sustainable development.

In an introductory round-table discussion, Per Mickwitz discussed with three researchers how we produce and communicate knowledge about sustainability and what is required to enable this knowledge to affect societal development. Miia Halme-Tuomisaari, senior lecturer in human rights, raised the importance of collaborating while challenging the systems and relationships that make it difficult to collaborate. It is easy to talk about collaboration, but it is affected by existing incentives, such as the state of funding and academic rankings.

Mikael Klintman, professor of sociology, emphasised the importance of models, good examples, storytelling and research-based anecdotes. We must understand that social positioning is important for people. Klintman thinks there is a presumption that the more research and the higher the profile of the researchers who contribute to IPCC, the more trust in IPCC will grow and the more will be done on climate issues. But that is not how people work, social trust is more important. Markku Rummukainen, professor of climatology, thinks that we at Lund University should challenge each other more and disseminate knowledge about each other’s research methods and theories so that we can really discuss together and conduct truly interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinarity is not simple, but there are ways of working to facilitate it.

The event included presentations of research that demonstrated the University’s breadth in sustainable development, with discussions on sustainable policy, circular and sharing economies, health, climate adaptation, urbanisation and mobility, water, gender equality and gender issues, digitisation, modelling, the food chain and much more.

The conference Knowledge for Sustainable Development was organised by the research board and the Sustainability Forum. Please contact Cerina Wittbom for more information on the programme or if you have ideas for a follow-up of the conference.