Navigating Sustainability Transformations: Backcasting, transdisciplinarity and social learning
Doctoral thesis, 2020

Complex and persistent sustainability challenges necessitate transformations into futures that are fundamentally different to what was before. Such change processes cannot be planned in traditional ways; they require reflexive modes of governing where we collectively learn how to navigate uncharted terrain while exploring it.

The aim of this thesis is to contribute knowledge on how sustainability transformations can be navigated in practice. Such efforts are essentially transdisciplinary where actors across sectors, perspectives and disciplines are brought together around a complex issue, question or challenge of concern in context. By drawing from knowledge and experience on how systems develop and the possibility to influence how they should develop, such processes seek to both understand and address complex challenges by means of resolving problematic situations and transforming established systems, structures and practices. Efforts to navigate sustainability transformations in practice are far from straightforward; they require adequate conditions including methodological support to become meaningful as well as impactful.

This thesis builds upon a backcasting from principles methodology to support engagement with complex sustainability challenges and transformations. It recognises the transdisciplinary condition of reflexive governance and the contextual contingency of such practices. It is underlaboured with critical realism and a systems-based approach and approaches deliberate and purposeful attempts to navigate transformations as processes of transformative social learning. Further, the thesis puts key attention to issues of Education for Sustainable Development.

The thesis adheres to an ethnographic research tradition with qualitative/intensive research designs, guided by three interrelated methodological moves: (1) initial engagement with cases focusing on gathering experiences from participating actors and societal effects from backcasting processes in their wider governance and learning setting, educational as well as informal; (2) conceptual development to enhance backcasting processes in transdisciplinary settings, with focus on how guiding principles for sustainability can be collectively negotiated, and; (3) analytical deepening to better understand and explain how and why experiences and effects are generated in backcasting processes with attention to their surrounding contexts. These three methodological moves resulted in five research papers, for which I dedicate this thesis to position and further discuss.

The main contributions of this thesis are: (1) a positioning of a principles-based purposeful, systemic, transformative and reflexive praxis with an associated and further developed backcasting from principles methodology. This methodology consists of a series of suggested steps, actions, guiding questions, qualities and features that seek to enhance the way complex sustainability challenges can be addressed to make efforts of navigating sustainability transformations in practice meaningful and impactful; (2) studies into a concrete curriculum model with transformational sustainability ambitions, Challenge Lab, whose curriculum design has been further conceptualised and mechanisms of learning empirically investigated. The curriculum design and associated mechanisms of learning may support the design, development, evaluation and comparison of educational initiatives that seek to create space for students to engage with complex sustainability challenges in their authentic societal context in open-ended processes together with societal actors, and; (3) an exploration of the necessity and potential value of comparing processes, effects and impacts from transformative, transdisciplinary and reflexive governance initiatives across contexts to better establish what works, for whom and why. Such knowledge moves beyond cumulation of knowledge on the particular methods and tools deployed in cases, into underlying features and mechanisms on which knowledge may be cumulated, generalised and transferred across cases and contexts.

Finally, navigating sustainability transformations in practice is as much dependent on our collective capability of stepping back to reflect by asking questions of why, as stepping forward to act by asking questions of how. This thesis introduces a further interest in exploring whether, how and to what extent backcasting as methodological frame may guide the concrete design of transdisciplinary sustainability-oriented initiatives and condition processes of transformative social learning.



systems change

social learning

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)



reflexive governance


Opponent: Prof. Dr. Matthias Barth


Johan Holmén

Chalmers, Space, Earth and Environment, Physical Resource Theory

Holmén, J., & Holmberg, J. (2020). Beyonding, broadening and togethering: exploring capacities of guiding principles in navigating sustainability transformations

Student-led sustainability transformations: employing realist evaluation to open the black box of learning in a Challenge Lab curriculum

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education,; Vol. 22(2021)p. 1-24

Journal article

Holmén, J., Williams, S., & Holmberg., J. (2020). Same, same but different: Comparing sustainability transition labs across process, effects and impacts in practice.

United Nations’ Agenda 2030 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals has positioned sustainability as a key concern for our world. Sustainability is for humanity and the planet a bit like what health is for each one of us: While we have many ideas about what it means to live a ‘healthy life’, it is typically very difficult to describe what it means and feels to be in a state of good ‘health’ (without referring to it as the absence of illness. Try it yourself!). And even if we manage to describe and explain what it is that causes a certain disease or illness, we do not automatically have the cure. The same goes for sustainability!

Many systems providing essential functions and services in society that we use—including energy, transportation, food, and water—are today considered ‘unsustainable’. This means they for example may be dependent on finite resource bases, contribute to climate change or produce social inequalities.

This thesis has further developed and evaluated ‘backcasting’ methods that can be used in societal planning processes and strategic work to address sustainability problems and guide systems change. In contrast to forecasting, seeking to predict the future based on trends from the past (for instance in weather forecasting), backcasting asks ‘what should happen’ based on what future we would like to have, and then seeks to figure out what it would take to get us there.

One key contribution of this thesis is the creation of a ‘sustainability lighthouse’. This is a tool consisting of a set of questions one may ask to better understand the social, economic, ecological, and human well-being dimensions of sustainability, that may also inspire and support in formulating a motivating purpose to lead sustainability transitions. This thesis also looks into the special role of education in contributing to a sustainable future. Today’s students are in a unique position to contribute to sustainable development, not only after but also during their education.

Challenge Lab

The Chalmers University Foundation, 2016-01-01 -- 2019-12-31.

Subject Categories

Educational Sciences

Social Sciences Interdisciplinary

Other Engineering and Technologies not elsewhere specified

Other Natural Sciences

Driving Forces

Sustainable development

Innovation and entrepreneurship

Areas of Advance


Building Futures (2010-2018)


Learning and teaching

Pedagogical work



Doktorsavhandlingar vid Chalmers tekniska högskola. Ny serie: 4883





Opponent: Prof. Dr. Matthias Barth

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