1a. Theoretical Approaches

Track Chairs

  • Walter J.V. Vermeulen, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands.
  • Erik Grönlund, Ecotechnology and Sustainable Building Engineering, Mid Sweden University, Östersund, Sweden.

Goals and Objectives of the Track

In this call for papers we sketch a horizon of relevant concepts and invite ISDRS Conference participants for discussion on theoretical roots of the field. We invite scholar contributions shall focus on descriptive, normative or prescriptive approaches and theory development bringing different sciences together to address sustainability challenges. New methods and tools as well as lateral thinking are also invited.

Sustainability science stresses the interrelations and interdisciplinary of sustainability challenges. It connects research and practice, local and global angles, and disciplines across all branches, like social sciences, natural science, life science, and applied sciences. What are new or inspiring contributions of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary insights or solutions towards sustainability?

Sustainable development has been described as the twin SD-agenda of integral ecological and societal fairness into that of planet and of people and prosperity, where the ‘people’ element addresses (in the context of productive activities) the individuals and their communities directly related to value chain activities, and the ‘prosperity’ element relates to the macro-economic institutions that are essential for creating fair and equitable development. We invite contributions to better embed the ‘prosperity’ element in the theories of sustainability sciences and their assessment methods (see Vermeulen 2018).

Resilience is a crucial capability and characteristics of dynamic systems. However, in permanent changing environments and anthropogenically caused and accelerated developments in time, preconditions and structures might change. So, how is resilience formed and can be retained in different contexts light of sustainability?

Planetary boundaries can be viewed as the un-sustainable ‘ditches’ we don’t want to end up in on our journey of development into the future. A challenge is to connect in theoretical approaches the boundaries on the planetary level (we only have one biosphere!) with the smaller scale of countries, companies, organizations, and individuals, where the sustainability ‘actions’ takes place, including also the institutions of economic and legal character, as well as the informal tools.

Systems ecology has witnessed a revival the last decades, and some sustainability claims has come out of this, but not found a theoretical formulation in sustainability terms yet. New concepts like emergy, eco-exergy, and ascendency capture important aspects with relevance for sustainable systems (see for example Fiscus and Fath 2019; Jorgensen 2006; Jorgensen et al. 2015; Grönlund 2019). The new concepts were developed within systems ecology, but seems useful also in a transdisciplinary context.

Transformations highlight fundamental and groundbreaking or innovative long-term challenges and changes in society, environment, economy, and technology. The main question is how stepwise or radical, and targeted or unintended pathways can enhance and foster sustainability in manifold perspectives around the globe.

Post-normal science and transdisciplinarity emphasizes the uncertainties and conditions of decisions that real-world problems are based on. Black swans and black elephants have to be recognized and integrated in analysis and problem-solving strategies. What kind of new concepts and pitfalls are of importance in the light of sustainability (Keitsch and Vermeulen 2021)?

Assessment methods (see also track 1c) in the sustainability field stands on partly different theoretical foundations (see e.g. Doherty and Rydberg 2002; Grönlund 2019). To develop theory that includes more of these methods than today, is an interesting challenge (if possible at all), which can lead to further fusion of the methods. The more established methods as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) are challenged in theory by e.g. Ecological footprints (EF), Emergy analysis and Eco-exergy analysis (Jorgensen 2006). The method clusters covering all three sustainability pillars, e.g. LCA/LCC/SLCA is challenged e.g. by the extended EF indicator called Happy Planet Index, and Emergy analysis, which includes monetary flows in its evaluation, together with the energy and material flows and stocks.


Doherthy and Rydberg, eds., (2002), ‘Ecosystem properties and principles of living systems as foundation for sustainable agriculture – Critical review of environmental assessment tools, key findings and questions from a course process’, Ekologiskt lantbruk 32, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden.

Grönlund, S.E. 2019. Indicators and methods to assess sustainability of wastewater sludge management in the perspective of two systems ecology models. Ecological Indicators 100:45-54

Jorgensen, S.E. (2006) ‘Eco-Exergy as Sustainability’, WIT Press, Southampton, UK.

Keitsch, M. M. and Vermeulen, W. J. V. (2021) Transdisciplinarity for sustainability: aligning divers practices. 1st edn, Transdisciplinarity For Sustainability. 1st edn. Edited by M. M. Keitsch and W. J. V. Vermeulen. Oxon: Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9780429199127-6.

Vermeulen, W. J. V. (2018) ‘Substantiating the rough consensus on concept of sustainable development as point of departure for indicator development’, in Bell, S. and Morse, S. (eds) Routledge Handbook of Sustainability Indicators. Routledge, pp. 59–90.

Length and content of the proposed abstract to the track

Each proposed abstract (in connection to an area pointed out above) of between 300 and 500 words (including all aspects),

  1. shall be best organized (without headlines) along usual structures (e.g. intro/method/findings or results/ discussion/conclusions)
  2. does not need to, but can include references
  3. shall provide in a final section
    a. to which SDG(s) and SDG-target(s) their proposed abstract especially relate to (e.g. “SDG+Target: 14.1.”).
    b. a brief indication how the proposed contribution relates to the topic of the Conference (“ACCELERATING PROGRESS TOWARDS SDG’s IN TIMES OF CRISIS”).

Abstracts which do not outline points 3.a.) AND 3.b.) might not be given special consideration in the selection for potential publications and might be considered less relevant in the Review.

Potential publication channels

With regard to potential publications, depending on the number and quality of contributions, diverse publication opportunities will be envisaged.


Please submit your abstract by visiting the abstract submission system (you will be required to setup an account first) at


Extended deadline for abstracts: 15 February 2021

PLEASE ALSO CONSIDER A PARTICIPATION IN OUR PHD-WORKSHOP! https://2021.isdrsconferences.org/phd-workshop/