Rethink: How can indigenous and local knowledge help us to transform for sustainability?

By David Lam

Albert Einstein said that “problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them”. If I look at current sustainability challenges that society is facing (e.g. poverty, overconsumption), most of them are shaped by specific hegemonic ways of thinking which I argue are unsustainable (e.g. the economic growth paradigm).

In my PhD research, I want to understand how indigenous and local knowledge systems can contribute to the transformation process and how these differ to our perspectives in sustainability transformations research.
Loorbach et al. outline three prominent perceptions in transformations research: social-ecological, socio-technical, and socio-institutional, each with different theoretical foci and starting points. This diversity of perspectives to conceptualize sustainability transformations enables fruitful discussions, but we need even more diverse perspectives and approaches.
Recent papers highlight the contributions that indigenous and local knowledge systems could make to our scientific perspectives on sustainability transformations.
Díaz et al. talk about indigenous and local knowledge systems as

 “[a] cumulative body of knowledge, practice and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment”.

Why do I think that this is relevant? I think that Albert Einstein is right in his point that we need to use different mindsets to solve problems than those that have created them. Sustainability challenges are wicked problems. Changing our mindsets to tackle them seems promising to me and also aligns with the concept of deep leverage points as described by Donella Meadows in Abson et al., such as “[t]he mindset or paradigm out of which the system—its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters—arises” and “[t]he power to transcend paradigms”.

Indigenous and local knowledge systems can differ markedly to our scientific paradigms. In my first year of PhD research, I have been at several sustainability transformations research-related conferences, where I had the pleasure to talk to many inspiring researchers who are involved in research on indigenous and local knowledge systems. During these talks, I encountered interesting examples that made me to start rethinking the way in which sustainability transformations are currently conceptualized in research.

Here are five tentative examples I am exploring to as a starting point to stimulate the way research conceptualizes sustainability transformations: understanding of time, problems, teaching, truth, and resilience.

  1. Understanding of time: linear or circular
    In sustainability transformations research, we think of time as linear, with the past behind and the future in front of us. For the Tsimané people from Bolivá, the past is in the front of them, because they can see it, and the future is behind them, because they cannot see it. They also have a circular understanding of time that is strongly connected to place. They think that whatever they do to their land, they will encounter it in the future as well as their next generation.
  2. Understanding of problems: individual or collective
    In Western society, when someone is sick, they go to the doctor alone for a diagnosis and treatment. In some indigenous and local communities, sick persons are examined differently. If one person in the family is sick, the whole family goes to see the doctor, because the doctor can only understand and treat the sickness by examining with the whole family.
  3. Understanding of teaching: theory or practice
    One friend of mine from an indigenous community from Brazil told me the story of one of her friends who started to study architecture at a university. In one of her first lectures one of her teachers asked her: “How long do the houses that you build in your community last?” “Up to four years.” she answered. The teacher said proudly “Here you will learn how to build houses that last more than 100 years”. Building houses that last longer than four years definitely has benefits. However, a good thing with the other approach is that in this way the next generation learns and practices how to build houses with the local materials every four years.
  4. Understanding of truth: sensemaking through seeing or believing
    There are different ways of sensemaking. Some indigenous and local communities believe in many truths and only in things that they have seen with their own eyes. For example, if there is now no more fish in a lake, someone with this way of sensemaking can see it and believe it now. However, how does such a person believe that there will not be any fish anymore in the future if certain unsustainable fishing practices are kept?
  5. Understanding of resilience: theoretical or practical
    During a workshop on biocultural diversity in Ixtlán, México, several representatives of indigenous and local communities where asked to bring something from their homes that represent resilience to them. Here is a photo of the things that represent resilience to indigenous and local people (e.g. corn, water, honey, coffee, seeds, and fabrics).

Fig. 1

My research on indigenous and local knowledge in sustainability transformations is focused around these four questions:

  1. How do indigenous and local knowledge systems understand sustainability transformations?
  2. How do indigenous and local knowledge systems understand scaling to foster sustainability transformations?
  3. How do indigenous and local knowledge systems contribute to scaling to foster sustainability transformations?
  4. How can contributions from indigenous and local knowledge systems be scaled to foster sustainability transformations?

Rethinking starts with questioning the way we think by changing your own mindset. Maybe indigenous and local knowledge systems will help us to better understand and foster sustainability transformations.


David P. M. Lam is a PhD student in the research project Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformations at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany. His research focuses on two questions: (1) How to increase the impact of local sustainability initiatives through scaling processes in transformations? and (2) How can indigenous and local understandings of change and transformation complement our scientific conceptualization of sustainability transformations?



Abson, David J, Joern Fischer, Julia Leventon, Jens Newig, Thomas Schomerus, Ulli Vilsmaier, Henrik von Wehrden, et al. 2017. “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation.” Ambio 46 (1): 30–39. doi:10.1007/s13280-016-0800-y.

Berkes, Fikret. 2008. Sacred Ecology. Second.

Díaz, Sandra, Sebsebe Demissew, Julia Carabias, Carlos Joly, Mark Lonsdale, Neville Ash, Anne Larigauderie, et al. 2015. “The IPBES Conceptual Framework – Connecting Nature and People.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14: 1–16. doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2014.11.002.

Jerneck, Anne, Lennart Olsson, Barry Ness, Stefan Anderberg, Matthias Baier, Eric Clark, Thomas Hickler, et al. 2011. “Structuring Sustainability Science.” Sustainability Science. doi:10.1007/s11625-010-0117-x.

Loorbach, Derk, Niki Frantzeskaki, and Flor Avelino. 2017. “Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 42. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-102014-021340.

Meadows, D. 1999. “Places to Intervene in a System.” Whole Earth Winter: 78–84. doi:10.1080/02604020600912897.

Olsson, Per, Victor Galaz, and Wiebren J. Boonstra. 2014. “Sustainability Transformations: A Resilience Perspective.” Ecology and Society 19 (4). doi:10.5751/ES-06799-190401.

Tengö, Maria, Eduardo S. Brondizio, Thomas Elmqvist, Pernilla Malmer, and Marja Spierenburg. 2014. “Connecting Diverse Knowledge Systems for Enhanced Ecosystem Governance: The Multiple Evidence Base Approach.” Ambio 43 (5): 579–91. doi:10.1007/s13280-014-0501-3.

Tengö, Maria, R Hill, P Malmer, CM Raymond, and et al. 2017. “Weaving Knowledge Systems in IPBES, CBD and beyond – Lessons Learned for Sustainability.” Current Opinions in Environmental Sustainability, 17–25. doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2016.12.005.

2 thoughts on “Rethink: How can indigenous and local knowledge help us to transform for sustainability?

  1. When I edited the UK’s Institution of Civil Engineers journal “Engineering Sustainability”, we published a very interesting paper on indigenous knowledge for sustainability assessment – which was about developments in New Zealand: Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers
    Engineering Sustainability 159 December 2006 Issue ES4 Pages 169–177 – Paper 14765: Decision-support tools and the indigenous paradigm” by K Morgan.
    Excellent paper demonstrating how sustainability is culture and language related


    • Dear Richard,
      Thank you very much for mentioning this paper. The paper discusses a very intersting points in relation to decision-support tools, including a cultural dimension to include indigenous people, and in the context of New Zealand.

      Best, David


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