Knowledge and Sustainability: The Global State of The Art

Recently I had the honor — and the amazingly complex challenge — of preparing a report for the new United Nations Office for Sustainable Development (UNOSD), based in Incheon, Korea. The title of the report signals its state-of-the-art global breadth:  “Knowledge, Capacity Building, and Networks for Sustainable Development: A Review.”

This report has been published on the web by the UNOSD, and you can download it from their website, free, in PDF format, from this link:

Download the report (1 MB)

This consulting assignment was one of the most challenging I have taken on, because the subject was so huge and so, well, meta. “Meta” meaning one level up from the usual focus on content:  it wasn’t just about all the things we need to know regarding the implementation of sustainability. It was also about “what we know about knowing.”

It wasn’t just about how to build capacity for doing sustainable development. It was about building the capacity to build capacity. Learning how to learn. And also about the networks where people learn about sustainable development, and share that learning with each other.

But of course, the report also reviewed what we need to learn — and just cataloging the list of relevant knowledge domains, using UN global agreements as the source, took up a full page, in three columns, small type.

One-third of this report consists of recommendations specific to the new UNOSD (for an upcoming expert meeting on knowledge for sustainability transition); but the other two-thirds should be of interest to any sustainability practitioner.

Here are the main conclusions. Note that this is a very brief, top-headline summary: the full report is 35 pages, full of analysis; and it included an additional spreadsheet, not published here, with a review of 200-300 global sources, programs, organizations etc. that are relevant to SD knowledge, capacity building, and networks.

“The main conclusions of this report can be summarized in four general statements:

    • The *nature of knowledge* is changing, and with it the nature of sustainable development knowledge, driven by the accelerated production of knowledge and by rapid advances in the technologies to access it.

    • This change in the nature of sustainable development knowledge has profound implications for the practice of sustainable development, and for the process of building capacity to implement it. Among other effects, the change forces a shift in emphasis from individual experts to multi-disciplinary groups, and from vertical hierarchies to horizontal networks.

    • The new knowledge and capacity-building environment, combined with the emergence of *networked governance* and the increasing importance of *boundary work*, requires that governments (in an SD context) increasingly adopt the role of *facilitator*. (The *italicized* terms are defined below [in the main report].)

    • All of these developments strongly underscore the need for the UNOSD [in its role as a hub for knowledge and capacity building especially to national governments] and provide suggestive guidance to the development of its knowledge sharing, capacity building, and networking activities. These recommendations are noted throughout the report and are summarized in the Executive Summary.

We now consider the basis for each of these statements in some depth. [… End of Excerpt …]

The public release of this report now gives you the opportunity to have input. If you read the report, and have thoughts or comments to share, please feel invited to leave a comment here (or write to me through the Contact link). I’ll carry that feedback, as best I can, into the global meeting process.

I simply could not have completed this report (or even dared to do it) without the help of many people, including my research assistant at the time, Dana Kapitulcinova, and many friends around the world who contributed content and insights (they are named in the report). I hope others find this report as interesting and useful to read as it was for me, and my colleagues, to produce it. My public thanks to the UNOSD for giving me such a challenging, and wonderful, assignment!

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