International Journal of Technology Management and Sustainable Development

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The last decade has witnessed the emergence of an array of increasingly vibrant movements to harness science and technology (S&T) in the quest for a transition toward sustainability. These movements take as their point of departure a widely shared view that the challenge of sustainable development is the reconciliation of society's development goals with the planet's environmental limits over the long term. In seeking to help meet this sustainability challenge, the multiple movements to harness science and technology for sustainability focus on the dynamic interactions between nature and society, with equal attention to how social change shapes the environment and how environmental change shapes society. These movements seek to address the essential complexity of those interactions, recognizing that understanding the individual components of nature society systems provides insufficient understanding about the behaviour of the systems themselves. They are problem driven, with the goal of creating and applying knowledge in support of decision making for sustainable development. Finally, they are grounded in the belief that for such knowledge to be truly useful it generally needs to be “coproduced” through close collaboration between scholars and practitioners. The research and applications program that has begun to emerge from these movements has been called sustainability science by the National Research Council. This Special Feature high-lights this emerging program and some of the new results it is beginning to produce.

The need for sustainable development initiatives to mobilize appropriate science and technology has long been recognized. Early research on sustainable yield management of renewable resources provided the foundation for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's seminal World Conservation Strategy, published in 1980. The case for making appropriate research and development (R&D) an integral component of sustainable development strategies was broadened by a number of international scientific organizations during the mid-1980s, promoted by the Brundtland Commission's report Our Common Future in 1987, and enshrined in the Agenda 21 action plan that emerged from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Over the succeeding decade, the discussion of how S&T could contribute more effectively to sustainability intensified, involving numerous researchers, practitioners, scientific academies, and development organizations from around the world. By the time of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002, a broadly based consensus had begun to take shape on the most important ways in which S&T has already contributed to sustainability, on what new R&D is most important, and on what stands in the way of getting it done.

Many of the most valuable contributions of S&T to sustainable development predate the term itself. These range from the “mundane technologies” that have improved delivery of basic needs for sanitation and cooking, through the yield enhancing, land saving accomplishments of the international agricultural research system, to the fundamental scholarship of geographers and anthropologists on nature society interactions. In more recent times, a host of R&D efforts explicitly aimed at promoting sustainability have been launched. These extend from a rich tradition of work on energy systems and ecosystem resilience to new initiatives in industrial ecology and earth system complexity. A feel for the breadth and scope of relevant R&D now underway around the world is suggested by the rapidly growing list of entries on the virtual “Forum on Science and Technology for Sustainability”.

However, much remains to be done. Perhaps the strongest message to emerge from dialogues induced by the Johannesburg Summit was that the research community needs to complement its historic role in identifying problems of sustainability with a greater...
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