Sustainable Development Research Lab (SDR Lab)

Sustainable Development Research (SDR) Lab
Sustainable Development, Innovation and Societal Transitions research theme at UNU-MERIT
Coordinator: Prof. Dr. René Kemp

Research in this area is concerned with sustainability aspects of long-term transitions in both high and middle/low income countries. Focal areas are WASH transitions (waste management, sanitation and hygiene behaviour), circular economy, eco-innovation and energy and mobility transitions.

The overarching research questions that guide our work are: What are the different viable pathways to a more sustainable future? What sources of inertia are keeping those pathways back? And how can support be elicited from the different systemic stakeholders for them?

The drivers of change and elements of inertia are studied at all levels of aggregation, starting with the micro (e.g. interaction between a set of agents in a market or non-market setting), and then the meso (e.g. sector and/or region), to finally the macro level (e.g. structural changes within a country). Two principal lines of inquiry are:

  • Firstly, the mobilization of Knowledge, Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship to address sustainability challenges. Both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the European Grand Societal Challenges embody a challenge-based policy design response to bring together resources, capabilities and knowledge across different actor-groups, sectors, fields, technologies and disciplines to address concrete societal problems. The starting premise is that innovation and entrepreneurship must be considered in a large sense going beyond conventional technological innovations and business entrepreneurship, to encompass all forms and processes of introduction of novelty in the economic system. With this perspective, our interest lies in examining the nature and magnitude of individual and collective efforts from systemic actor-groups, being injected and/or required for transitioning to sustainability. The trade-offs between different solution designs and the conflicts and controversy they may trigger between societal actors and different sustainability goals, are not excluded from study.

  • Secondly, the participation of societal stakeholders in situated processes of change. Around the world, governments realize that they cannot mobilize the necessary resources and capabilities for the attainment of the SDGs alone and are soliciting partnerships from private actors. This is leading to a new phenomenon whereby different kinds of non-governmental economic actors ranging from civil society, social enterprises, start-ups, firms and multinationals are aligning their strategies to generate transformative social innovations. The success of these consortium initiatives is likely to depend on how they meld with, alter or even replace existing innovations. Here, both as researcher observers, and as actor participants in natural experiments, our objective is to study how societal stakeholders can be empowered (or disempowered) to contribute to transitioning to sustainability.

A variety of research methodologies are mobilized. Most studies seek to combine qualitative and quantitative research methods to study the transition process and the way in which it can be managed by policymakers and stakeholders. Research also involves the construction of economic models of the transition process, using optimal control techniques, set-theoretic models and game theory. The latter helps highlight the strategic foundations of systemic outcomes, and if and how changes in the rules of the game could be helpful. Researchers of this theme are also involved in offering guidance on the measurement of eco-innovation and the development of protocols for building communities.


Further Info:

Founder and moderator of SDR Lab / UNU-MERIT:

Dr. Serdar Turkeli


Inter-organisational links:

International links: