Knowledge for sustainable development

Jonas R Bylund

Ever since the wider breakthrough of sustainable development some twenty years ago, it has been reiterated that a sustainable development is irreducible to a few territorial or administrative domains. The knowledge needed, it is said, has to be somewhat blind to sectoral demarcations – since none of the identified problems care very much for our conceptual boundary making.

Any particular issue always draws on and connect to quite heterogeneous entities and flows. What has been generally thought of as different sectors or areas of competence (in the West, at least) is now more and more understood as interrelated in surprising and many times quite risky ways – to the point that it is now impossible to conceive of e.g. purely ‘economical,’ ‘social,’ or ‘ecological issues.’ In these efforts practitioners constantly make use, ignore, or reconfigure knowledges on what might or could be sustainable developments in particular areas. But because of the complexities involved there is an inherent uncertainty in how to propose and remedy unsustainabilities.

Knowledge for sustainability cannot be conceived in the traditional sense of a commodity ready to be applied onto some unsustainable state of things. Hence, knowledge for sustainable development is a practice to be studied. Hitherto inquiries into knowledge practices has shown that the instant applicability – knowledge understood as pieces in a jigsaw-puzzle – is a rare occasion. The stability or fixity needed for such a ‘plug-in’ action are highly special cases, changes and shifts in quite complex entanglements is the normal case.

Moreover, and seemingly paradoxically, there is a constant call for more, better, or new knowledges – and not confined to knowledge produced in the classic academic localities of formal knowledge – as the operationalisation of the ‘old’ knowledge proceeds. Added to that, there seems to be a lot of proposed solutions around, which knowledge practitioners are puzzled by the question on why it hasn’t been implemented yet.

All this points to the pertinence of studying practices involved in generating and handling knowledge for sustainable development. How does knowledge practitioners or knowledge practices actually deal with these problems of criss-crossing the sectoral or other kinds of boundaries? How do we think around this, conceive conceptual systems, deal with caution and uncertainties? The relevancy of the theme Knowledge for sustainability lies in its aim to get a better understanding of how the practices around ‘intentional’, usable products are generated, managed, and transformed in their various stages.

Around the Baltic Sea there are many collective undertakings (e.g. transnational and interorganisational networks) on generating knowledge on or for sustainable development. This project could be of use to them in at least two ways: 1) by generating an understanding on ‘knowledge for sustainability’ generally; 2) by focusing the empirical gathering on existing efforts in this region, it might help out in assessing and protocoling.