Work Packages

Figure 2_v4

Figure 1. Schematic overview of the work packages and timeline of Leverage Points. The project included a conceptual scale (WP 1; WP 2.1, 3.1, 4.1), a regional, empirical scale (WP 2.2, 3.2, 4.2), and a local, transdisciplinary case study scale (WP 5). Additional work packages were devoted to integration (WP 6), formative accompanying research (WP 7), and project management (WP 8).

wp1WP 1: Conceptual framework

Work Package leads: Abson and Leventon; Contributing PIs: All.

This work package clarified overarching concepts and developed flexible, shared conceptual framework for the study of leverage points and levers in the context of food and energy. These conceptual frameworks served as points of departure for all other work packages, and helped to integrate findings across levels of analysis, case studies, themes and leverage points.


Work Package leads: Newig and Schomerus; Contributing PIs: Leventon.
This work package studied processes of institutional change in order to understand how structures can be leveraged for sustainability transformations. Social structures embodied in formal institutions (rules, regulations and policies) enable, constrain and guide human action, and thus shape sustainability transformations. Existing literature mostly lacks a systems-oriented view to institutional change, and pays only scarce attention to processes of institutional failure and decline, and even less to potentially productive functions of such phenomena. Leverage Points filled these gaps by first, firmly embedding institutional analysis into an overall complex-systems oriented framework, and second, by considering the extent to which these productive functions of institutional failure and decline are found in reality, and can serve as levers for sustainability. Alongside institutional failure and success, the productive functions of institutional failure and decline that were explored included:

(i) Crises as triggers to institutional adaptations towards sustainability. Building on social systems theory, economics, and social-ecological systems theory, social systems respond to shocks through reorganisation, learning and adaptation without compromising key systems functions.

(ii) Unlocking path-dependent ‘lock-ins’ via purposeful destabilisation of unsustainable (or otherwise undesirable) institutions may create windows of opportunity for institutional change towards sustainability.

(iii) Systematic learning from failure and break-down. Avoiding the common preoccupation with ‘success’ and ‘best practice’, the systematic analysis of institutional failure may generate otherwise inaccessible insights into the functioning of institutions, and how to improve functioning in the future.

(iv) Active and reflexive management of decline. As new institutions are put in place, old ones almost invariably decline. The unregulated decline of existing structures can be problematic, because it risks the loss of important institutional building blocks. A potential alternative was to take a transparent and reflective approach to de-institutionalisation.


Work Package leads: Fischer and von Wehrden, contributing PIs: Leventon, Abson.

This work package aimed to conceptualise and quantify human-nature ‘connection’, and how changes in such connections relate to sustainability outcomes. An increasing number of sustainability researchers consider that reconnecting people and ecosystems should be a key priority. For example, Folke et al. (2011) argued that reconnecting to the biosphere is a central challenge of the Anthropocene. It has been suggested that useful approaches would include conceptualising places as social-ecological systems and considering how people benefitted from nature via ‘ecosystem services’. A growing disconnection of social systems from ecosystems has been suggested as one of the driving forces of biodiversity decline in farming landscapes. For traditional farming landscapes, they argued that finding new ways to genuinely reconnect people and ecosystems was vital to guide strategies for sustainable development. Other authors have taken a different, but complementary position on the disconnection of people and ecosystems. Especially in the case of children, there have been major concerns that their disconnection from nature would have negative consequences, not only for sustainability, but also more specifically for children’s health and their development of social skills. Finally, there are also psychological reasons to believe that the types of connections that people experience to ecosystems could change their actions.


Work Package leads: Lang and Vilsmaier, contributing PIs: Newig, von Wehrden.

This work package created consolidated conceptual foundations relating to new forms of knowledge production and use, and applied them to the case studies in order to create empirical insights into how such rethinking can contribute to leveraging improved sustainability outcomes. The way knowledge is created, shared and used in society crucially influences transformation processes in social-ecological systems (Berkes, 2009). The science-society interface therefore plays a major role in creating improved sustainability outcomes. Since the early 1990s, there has been increasing discussion about the need for new forms of knowledge production and use, especially in the context of fundamental societal sustainability. Most recently, the call for new forms of knowledge production has been highlighted in the UN Global Change Research framework FutureEarth (launched June 2012), which places major emphasis on the co-design of research projects, and the co-production of knowledge. There are, among others, three key requirements of new forms of knowledge production and use: (i) a problem and solution-oriented research approach (ii) mutual learning processes between science and society, and thus a rethinking of the role of science in society; and (iii) the explicit inclusion of values, norms and context characteristics into the research process to produce “socially robust” knowledge.

We made use of several key opportunities for co-designing research and co-producing knowledge. Such opportunities included: (i) resident researchers/citizen science, whereby a range of different actors contributed to the research and transformation processes; (ii) real-world laboratories, where communities, landscapes or other social-ecological systems were conceptualised as places for doing research; and (iii) leapfrogging, whereby we learned from ‘mistakes’ made in the pursuit of sustainability in one place so that they could be avoided elsewhere.

wp5WP 5: Transdisciplinary cases studies

Work Package leads: Lang, Fischer and Schomerus, contributing PIs: all.

The preceded work packages approached deep leverage points from scientifically pre-defined research questions. In contrast, this work package started from concrete local problem constellations in order to carry out two ‘ideal typical’ local transdisciplinary research projects within the study regions. There was a focus on co-design of the research object and co-production of transferable knowledge, as well as on the integration and validation of the insights gained in WP 1-4. By working in a problem-oriented setting, this work package contributed to both the scientific and societal practice of sustainability. The case studies were closely connected to both the conceptual and the empirical tasks related to the three leverage points (described above). The major goals of the transdisciplinary case studies were: (i) to better understand how to identify and use interconnected levers for sustainability transformations in different real-world contexts; and (ii) to contribute to concrete sustainability transformations in the case study areas and beyond.

The case studies acted as real world laboratories for applying, testing and validating research findings generated in the previous work packages. Drawing on findings from WP 4, and in conjunction with local stakeholders, we co-designed the research process, based on the expressed sustainability problems relating to food and energy in the two study regions. Insights from previous tasks (WP 1-4) fed into the transdisciplinary case studies and were validated and further developed under concrete ‘real-world’ context conditions. Similarly, the evidence gained in the case studies also fed back into the empirical and conceptual tasks of the other work packages.

wp6WP 6: Integration and synthesis

Work Package leads: Abson and Leventon, contributing PIs: All.

Integration has been identified to be the single most important challenge of inter- and transdisciplinary research. This work package ran throughout the project in order to integrate and facilitate learning between work packages. Leverage Points became an ambitious endeavour, tackling multiple places (Lower Saxony and Transylvania), themes (food and energy) and levels of analysis (conceptual, empirical and transdisciplinary case studies). While work packages 1-5 provided important stand-alone insights into the ‘grand challenges’ of sustainability, the integration of these individual insights was crucial to generate a systematic understanding of the role of deep leverage points as means of fostering sustainability. This work package therefore collected no new data, but rather drew on the findings from the other work packages and facilitated the transdisciplinary approach of the project as a whole.

Wwp7P 7: Formative accompanying research

Work Package lead: Vilsmaier.

The purpose of this WP was to critically reflect on the processes of knowledge production in inter- and transdisciplinary research projects. The WP provided ongoing and iterative guidance for ‘effective’ knowledge production within the project itself, as well as generated a more general understanding of knowledge production processes within the fields of sustainability science and systems thinking. Whereas WP 4 focused on the role of knowledge flows as leverage points for sustainability, WP 7 focused explicitly on the internal process of scientific knowledge production and team dynamics within inter- and transdisciplinary research projects.
Studying deep leverage points for sustainability transformations addressed scientific knowledge production itself. Therefore, throughout Leverage Points we aimed to include analysis of the team research and the researchers’ ‘epistemic living spaces’ . Such analysis: (i) provided a better understanding of how the inter- and transdisciplinary consortium approaches and integrates research on sustainability transformations; (ii) assessed how assumptions and understandings of researchers regarding sustainability and sustainability science influenced their research; and (iii) induced a learning process among the researchers by linking an ‘external’ analytical view with continuous discursive analysis of the results. The outcomes from this work package contributed to understandings of team science by analysing the integration process.