In the fourth research focus – "Ecological and Societal Transformation" – the focus is on how society deals with local and global change processes. Which interdependencies are to be observed in particular in connection with sustainability? How are the processes controlled and influenced? To get answers to these and similar questions, this research focus examines specific economic, legal and ethical implications and technological developments. In order to implement inter- and transdisciplinary work usefully, models and methods of knowledge integration and management approaches are developed for corresponding projects.
Act locally – think globally. This slogan puts it in a nutshell that every local and regional action is complex and can bring a global impact with it – and therefore, an international viewpoint is necessary. At the conceptual level therefore, methods for the identification and evaluation of interactions between various transformation processes and relevant socio-environmental contexts are developed and applied. Other methods are comparative research and intercultural reflection. If biofuels are introduced, for example, in Central Europe, then the above mentioned approach would not only conceptualize a regional or national life cycle assessment but would take the global consequences under closer investigation: Does the increased demand for energy-rich plant materials lead to an appropriate cultivation in other regions of the world? Which influences would this have on the food supply in these countries? And which environmental impacts would be associated with it?
The implementation of sustainability strategies can lead to conflicts. Therefore, economic and business research takes the actors involved, the arenas – meaning the locations of the implementation – and the implementation processes as a whole into consideration. How can possible conflicts between sustainability and organizational individual logic or specific goals be avoided or resolved? How can the goals of sustainable development be pursued in the long term if they are not initially supported by the involved actors due to lack of knowledge, possible risks and the uncertainty of their consequences?
Economic analyses are often limited to working with scarce resources to find the most efficient and fastest way. An "Economy of Sustainability" cannot stop there but must contribute to inter- and intra-generational distribution issues. A look at the history of sustainability can help: The term was founded in 1713 in forestry and at that time aimed to manage the forest in such a manner that it can ensure the supply of the population with wood as a raw material in the long run – i.e. sustainably. However, since trees are harvestable only decades, partly even centuries after planting, sustainable management here always means planning over several generations. Transferred to the modern concept of sustainability, this means taking the overall economic growth, the creation of sustainability standards, the choice of appropriate strategies for resource use and the configuration of institutions into consideration.
How can political conflicts over the allocation, the protection and use of natural resources be dealt with and resolved? Which role can participation and deliberation play? How do political instruments in environmental policy work, how did they originate, how are they used and how do they work? How important is the expertise in the sustainable development policy, in particular the tension between effective policy advice and democratic inclusiveness? And last but not least: How does our society deal with risks and uncertainty?
The research topic "Policy and Sustainability" deals with such questions of policy frameworks and standards in the implementation of sustainability strategies.
From a legal perspective, the overall architecture of the energy system, the degree of decentralization and centralization as well as the normative, precise allocation of responsibilities are issues yet to be fundamentally clarified. The legal framework for future supply structures has been created only rudimentarily and requires a legally informed jurisprudential analysis, which will be developed in this research focus by an interdisciplinary research group.
How can socio-technical systems, i.e. systems involving people and technology, be transformed sustainably? An example of such as system is the energy industry, which has, both in management and in technology, focused on large power plants for the central energy supply for a long time. If the energy industry now switches to regenerative and decentralized production, then it does not suffice to replace the technology or relevant actors. The industry has to change in its system – socio-technically. In this research area, approaches from innovation and transition research are linked with approaches from political science, geography, institutional economics, socio-economics and social science technology research. Through this, a sociotheoretically better funded understanding of socio-technical transitions shall be developed in order to arrive at concrete starting points for a proactive approach.
Sustainability research combines economic, ecological, scientific and humanistic methods. Consequently, it presupposes a combination and integration of different theoretical framing, methodological approaches and empirical knowledge. How can processes be developed that generate systematic transformation of knowledge? Which methods and transdisciplinary knowledge integration are suitable for sustainability research? And which participatory processes involving key players and management approaches are useful for inter- and transdisciplinary projects? Such basic methodological questions are necessary in order to establish sustainability as a research area.