Visions of knowledge systems for life on Earth and how to get there

By Niko Schäpke and Ioan Fazey

1. Niko Schäpke (biography)
2. Ioan Fazey (biography)

How should formalized knowledge systems, including universities, research institutes and education, transform to keep pace with wider and inevitable societal transformations associated with accelerating global change? What kinds of changes are needed in these knowledge systems and how can they be encouraged?

These questions were explored by participants of the Transformations 2017 conference and in subsequent research (Fazey et al., 2020). This included highlighting current challenges, envisioning future systems and the policy and actions required for the transition. These are summarized in the figure below.

Challenges of current knowledge systems

Current systems are limited by frequently being disconnected from action, being elitist, fragmented and compartmentalized. Narrow interpretations of what counts as knowledge prevail, excluding integration with ethics and aesthetics. Knowledge production is also based on a worldview of a disconnect between humans and nature. There is limited questioning of how knowledge creation is influenced by, and reproduces, the unsustainable societies in which knowledge creators are embedded.

What we envision for future knowledge systems

To be a genuinely creative force for change, knowledge systems will need to be much more collaborative, open, diverse, egalitarian, reflexive, responsible and able to work with values and systemic issues. They need to be able to work with interconnected issues; be much more action-oriented locally and globally; be inclusive of diverse forms of knowledge; and be supported by processes promoting trust, collaboration, and high levels of creativity. Overall, future knowledge systems need to support a science for all that goes beyond producing knowledge about our world to also generating wisdom about how to act within it.

What policies and actions are required to support transformation from current to future knowledge systems?

A range of interconnected policy and action domains were identified that would help the transition to future, envisioned knowledge systems:

  • Connect champions and innovative examples of transformative knowledge production to increase momentum.
  • Initiate broad societal engagement in knowledge production through creative, critical mass participation involving diverse audiences to challenge accepted knowledge.
  • Embody creativity and agency in knowledge production to inform action for transformation and support learners to become agents of change.
  • Actively foster and democratize a global knowledge commons to integrate diverse knowledge sources and make knowledge accessible in a transparent and equitable way.
  • Create and nurture safe spaces to experiment, learn from and develop capacities for new forms of collaborative knowledge production, supported by boundary spanning organizations and collaborative partnerships.
  • Restructure funding and incentives in line with community priorities such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and support transdisciplinary and action-oriented types of research consistent with these needs.
  • Create a new social contract for co-production of knowledge in which agendas, decisions and actions are informed by democratic collaboration between citizens, trans-disciplinary scientific networks and policy makers.
  • Develop free, intercultural and holistic education systems and practices for life-long learning which promote, for example: critical reflexivity; diverse knowledge perspectives; mind-body-emotion, place, nature, science-art connections; and experiential learning.
  • Build complex systems literacy at all ages allowing learners to gain capacities for systems thinking and understanding the implications of complex system dynamics for practice.
  • Encourage ways of learning from action that include agency and wisdom, making use of iterative learning cycles combining action and reflection.
  • Create socio-economic conditions to empower participation of billions of currently excluded people in knowledge systems. Global reforms are required to abolish exploitative structures and provide fair access to income, employment and education.
Three Horizons map of how system transitions from current (1st Horizon) patterns to envisioned more viable (3rd Horizon) patterns might be stimulated, with the key domains of policy and action (2nd Horizon) needed to get there (source Fazey et al., 2020).


Current knowledge systems are not well aligned to the new world in which we find ourselves and are not sufficiently oriented towards working with issues like climate change which pose existential threats to people and many other species on our planet. The level of change needed in knowledge systems to effectively support wider societal transformations should not be underestimated. To overcome deeply entrenched assumptions and patterns, this change probably needs to be at the scales seen during the Age of Enlightenment (1715-1789) and the scientific and technological revolution accompanying the Second World War (1939-1945).

While this may be daunting, much is already known about what needs to be achieved and how it could be encouraged. At this critical climate juncture and sixth planetary species extinction, we urgently need to shift towards the generation of wisdom to ensure longevity of human life and other species on our planet.

What do you think? Are there key challenges we have missed? Would you add additional elements to future knowledge systems? Are there other policy and action steps to be taken to speed up the transformation?

To find out more:
Ioan Fazey, Niko Schäpke, Guido Caniglia, Anthony Hodgson, Ian Kendrick, Christopher Lyon, Glenn Page, James Patterson, Chris Riedy, Tim Strasser, Stephan Verveen, David Adams, Bruce Goldstein, Matthias Klaes, Graham Leicester, Alison Linyard, Adrienne McCurdy, Paul Ryan, Bill Sharpe, Giorgia Silvestri, Ali Yansyah Abdurrahim, David Abson, Olufemi Samson Adetunji, Paulina Aldunce, Carlos Alvarez-Pereira, Jennifer Marie Amparo, Helene Amundsen, Lakin Anderson, Lotta Andersson, Michael Asquith, Karoline Augenstein, Jack Barrie, David Bent, Julia Bentz, Arvid Bergsten, Carol Berzonsky, Olivia Bina, Kirsty Blackstock, Joanna Boehnert, Hilary Bradbury, Christine Brand, Jessica Böhme (born Sangmeister), Marianne Mille Bøjer, Esther Carmen, Lakshmi Charli-Joseph, Sarah Choudhury, Supot Chunhachoti-ananta, Jessica Cockburn, John Colvin, Irena L.C. Connon, Rosalind Cornforth, Robin S. Cox, Nicholas Cradock-Henry, Laura Cramer, Almendra Cremaschi, Halvor Dannevig, Catherine T. Day, Cathel de Lima Hutchison, Anke de Vrieze, Vikas Desai, Jonathan Dolley, Dominic Duckett, Rachael Amy Durrant, Markus Egermann, Emily Elsner (Adams), Chris Fremantle, Jessica Fullwood-Thomas, Diego Galafassi, Jen Gobby, Ami Golland, Shiara Kirana González-Padrón, Irmelin Gram-Hanssen, Jakob Grandin, Sara Grenni, Jade Lauren Gunnell, Felipe Gusmao, Maike Hamann, Brian Harding, Gavin Harper, Mia Hesselgren, Dina Hestad, Cheryl Anne Heykoop, Johan Holmén, Kirsty Holstead, Claire Hoolohan, Andra-Ioana Horcea-Milcu, Lummina Geertruida Horlings, Stuart Mark Howden, Rachel Angharad Howell, Sarah Insia Huque, Mirna Liz Inturias Canedo, Chidinma Yvonne Iro, Christopher D. Ives, Beatrice John, Rajiv Joshi, Sadhbh Juarez-Bourke, Dauglas Wafula Juma, Bea Cecilie Karlsen, Lea Kliem, Andreas Kläy, Petra Kuenkel, Iris Kunze, David Patrick Michael Lam, Daniel J. Lang, Alice Larkin, Ann Light, Christopher Luederitz, Tobias Luthe, Cathy Maguire, Ana-Maria Mahecha-Groot, Jackie Malcolm, Fiona Marshall, Yiheyis Maru, Carly McLachlan, Peter Mmbando, Subhakanta Mohapatra, Michele-Lee Moore, Angela Moriggi, Mark Morley-Fletcher, Susanne Moser, Konstanze Marion Mueller, Mutizwa Mukute, Susan Mühlemeier, Lars Otto Naess, Marta Nieto-Romero, Paula Novo, Karen O’Brien, Deborah Anne O’Connell, Kathleen O’Donnell, Per Olsson, Kelli Rose Pearson, Laura Pereira, Panos Petridis, Daniela Peukert, Nicky Phear, Siri Renée Pisters, Matt Polsky, Diana Pound, Rika Preiser, Md. Sajidur Rahman, Mark S. Reed, Philip Revell, Iokiñe Rodriguez, Briony Cathryn Rogers, Jascha Rohr, Milda Nordbø Rosenberg, Helen Ross, Shona Russell, Melanie Ryan, Probal Saha, Katharina Schleicher, Flurina Schneider, Morgan Scoville-Simonds, Beverley Searle, Samuel Petros Sebhatu, Elena Sesana, Howard Silverman, Chandni Singh, Eleanor Sterling, Sarah-Jane Stewart, J. David Tàbara, Douglas Taylor, Philip Thornton, Theresa Margarete Tribaldos, Petra Tschakert, Natalia Uribe-Calvo, Steve Waddell, Sandra Waddock, Liza van der Merwe, Barbara van Mierlo, Patrick van Zwanenberg, Sandra Judith Velarde, Carla-Leanne Washbourne, Kerry Waylen, Annika Weiser, Ian Wight, Stephen Williams, Mel Woods, Ruth Wolstenholme, Ness Wright, Stefanie Wunder, Alastair Wyllie, and Hannah R. Young. (2020). Transforming knowledge systems for life on Earth: Visions of future systems and how to get there. Energy Research and Social Science, 70, 101724. (Online – open access) (DOI):

Biography: Niko Schäpke PhD is an assistant professor at the University of Freiburg, Germany. He is an interdisciplinary social scientist interested in the governance of sustainability transformations. His research focus is on settings and methods of transdisciplinary and action-oriented sustainability science as well as dynamics of human agency and spaces for societal learning and change. He is passionate about advancing the capacity of sustainability sciences to contribute to transformations.

Biography: Ioan Fazey PhD is Professor of the Social Dimensions of Environment at the University of York, UK. His research and teaching focuses on resilience, transformations and sustainability. He actively supports and facilitates a growing field of research and action associated with understanding how to achieve significant change in relation to social and environmental sustainability.

9 thoughts on “Visions of knowledge systems for life on Earth and how to get there”

  1. Learning from the sustainability paradigm of Indigenous knowledge and their cognitive process

    I am from Kerala, India who has been studying indigenous cognition in a most unusual way. I studied design and realized that even my aesthetic sense has been colonized and mechanized in the process and this led me to live with nonliterate communities from 1990. Around 1993 I stopped reading for a couple of years and this was primarily due to the fact that whichever book I read has been written by the western thinkers or within the paradigm of modernity and I am being framed to see the world the way West wants me to see. After I left reading I began to observe how artisan communities create products and how the children learn the craft.

    This was a fantastic experience as without my knowledge my cognitive system underwent a change. That is from language-based cognition I reclaimed the natural cognition in which knowing happens and my job was only to pay attention. Reasoning mind stopped working and understanding began to happen because one was present to the world around.

    One thing that became clear is that literates are learning the WORD whereas the illiterates are learning the WORLD and due to this they are being shaped by the characteristics and qualities embedded in their respective cognitive sources. I realized that linearity, fragmentation, and compartmentalization, reasoning, etc are all being developed because the literates are engaging with the written word right from childhood.

    I also began to study children very attentively and found that modernity has misunderstood children totally as modernity considers children to be wanting assistance to know the world. Two things are impacting children’s development. One is that cognitive autonomy is being denied due to teaching, instructing, and helping and children are being misled from the real world to its description, distorted, simplified, and miniaturized! Naturally, children learn what is being provided because learning is biologically rooted and it is choiceless. But in the process, they damage their cognitive process as they are engaging with language directly without an experiential basis. Naturally, the body and the mind get fragmented as both are involved in two types of cognition. The body is imbibing the context whereas the mind is accepting the information as ‘knowledge’ unquestioningly.

    I consider this research on how children learn is the most important work that could help to look afresh the present research on children, learning, and cognition as well as the educational paradigm totally in favor of children and for humanity. My study on why what, how, when, and where children play is unique as I have consistently observed and documented through videos and images. This can pave the way for respecting the creativity and the autonomous urge in children/ life to learn and re-organize the spaces required for children.

    Why we are not able to see this fact is because we have created certain words and categories through which we view children and the world. Modern man’s first problem is that he sees the world as wanting his intervention, his help for its improvement or betterment and he extends this to everything around him including children and other cultures, especially the non-literates. He is conditioned to view himself as superior and hence is hell-bent on changing the other. The category called learning different from playing and working makes him organize children’s lives according to his value system. In reality, children are just being playful which is quality. Everything they do is playfully and learning is the by-product of these activities. Art is another category he has made which again takes out the child’s natural sense of beauty.

    I have studied the so-called play, ‘making’ of the so-called toys and also the drawings children do on their own. It is very clear that children are learning the WORLD they experience through all these activities and there is a clear logic to their ‘play’. Through play children re-experience the world, re-explore the way the world looks, functions and its possibilities and toy is nothing but a means to explore these.

    As biological being our only activity is to know the world and be the world and this is what children are trying to do naturally and autonomously till we mislead them with our toys, books, and schools. So, everything the children are doing is to make sense of their context, and even drawing is a cognitive activity, not an artistic one! So, what I have understood from my observations is that children are learning the world by engaging with it and the following are the structure of their exploration. Children are learning the FORM- both static and dynamic (what they see, hear), are exploring the FUNCTION, PROCESS, and also the invisible aspects of the materials around- PROPERTY- by feeling and exploring it. This they do with the material world as well as the social world.

    And through drawing children are exploring the three-dimensional world in terms of two-dimensional space. In a way, drawing is the ‘play’ that children do on the two-dimensional surface. And as we (children) get entrenched in the linguistic world from age 3, 4, 5 the real world of senses and experience recedes from our being, and in fact, language and concepts begin to dictate our ‘imaginary’ experience. To regain the primacy of experience drawing needs to be promoted as only the senses can help us to ground ourselves into the beingness of nature. But as I mentioned earlier drawing needs to be understood as a functional tool to help in observation and hence it may need to be disassociated from the so-called art, self-expression, etc. (playing and making toys are preferable but schools may not allow this spontaneous and autonomous playing and toying)
    So, I think there is a need to situate modern knowledge within the framework of the indigenous knowledge system and not the other way round as it is happening now. This is only distorting the indigenous knowledge system and getting reduced to another department of modern knowledge.

    This seems to be the only way…


  2. Great article. However you may like to view the entire subject differently. Today education, by and large, comprises a bag full of tricks, but is rarely transformational. You may know some severe calculations or facts but you may not be a nice or ethical person; you may have topped your class in a B-school but be a lousy manager or strategist. That is because education you have received has not been able to alter you as a person. This is particularly true for applied disciplines where there is hardly any correlation between academic and operational performance.

    In this case, I feel, it is not inclusion of more subject matter that is going to make difference but the approach and attitude imbibed. Data and information can be collected whenever there is a need. Attempting to pass on more information in a general purpose course is often ineffective because of a lack of appreciation of the context. So in that respect, as well, our current education system is not particularly effective.

    • Prashun – thanks for your comment. We couldnt agree more. Our challenge was bounding the issue – e.g. whether to focus on science, education, wider knowledge systems and how to find an appropriate entry point. We kept this rather open to allow for many of the participants involved to define the space inductively. What I think we have then produced is a set of overarching value shifts or elements that need to be included in future, idealised and envisioned knowledge systems (e.g. see Table 3). While we couldn’t get into too much detail, the sorts of things you are highlighting are implicit in there. Ultimately, and in relation to what you are eluding to, my sense is that what emerged was a recognition that eventually we will need a very different kind of educational/knowledge system and that this will not emerge without a complete re-evaluation of purpose of things like Universities. As some have already highlighted this re-purposing needs to be from knowledge/education about the world to learning the wisdom of how to act within it. So it’s great to get comments like yours as this was exactly the kind of thing we hoped to draw out in order to widen discussion about potential transformations we will need.

  3. Hi Nico and Ioan. This is a great article! We agree with everything you say. We believe it is inequality which undermines the establishment of the sort of sustainable knowledge ecosystems we need to solve today’s existential challenges. You can find out more about what we mean by that here: , and why it is even more important in a crisis like the current pandemic here: , and some emerging lessons about how to do it from a couple of projects in Africa here: . It’s great to discover so many people with similar ideas. Together we can make a big difference. Best wishes. John

    • John – thanks for your kind words about our work. We did this in part because we wanted to provide others with a sense that big changes are possible and that we can find ways to make all of our work (more) meaningful. Your point about equitable knowledge – not just open knowledge – is really improtant. As many authors have highlighted (and more are doing) we are at the cusp of a shift that involves finding new ways of combining ‘knowledge’ and ‘ethics’. At the heart of this is the need for greater clarity and consideration of what and for whom knowledge is supposed to be for. A useful recent paper I found helpful on this – which argues for a new ‘grammar of responsbility’ in science was by Markus Vogt and Christoph Weber It helpfully has a number of translated quotes in English from German philosophers that I wouldnt otherwise have been able to access. But I think it starts to get us more towards a sort of vision of what this complex ‘thing’ might need to look like. Thanks again.

  4. Thank you Niko and Ioan for your excellent article.

    Current knowledge systems are characterized as being disconnected from action, being elitist and fragmented, and, for sure they are! There are no real global flows of knowledge. Promotion of universal approaches of knowledge sharing and mutual understanding don’t come with desired impact because of the huge regional and national boundaries based on politics, policies, skills, capacities, education, experiences, culture, etc. I see the current knowledge systems as knowledge silos actually; however, I see the paper’s concept as transforming life systems on earth not only transforming knowledge systems!

    But how can such a huge transformation be done? When? From where to start? By whom? ……. Some open-ended questions will remain for some time, and if we generated and developed the current knowledge systems with all their universities, institutes, centers, funds, support etc… with limitations, how we guarantee the success of future knowledge systems?

    Thank you very much again for sharing, it is really lovely piece of art!

    • Rashad. Thanksd for your comments. Yes – the point about the ‘how’ is very much in our minds too. Ironically, to learn more about how such change might be stewarded in knowledge systems also requires changes in the kinds of approaches to knowledge we have to address some of the limits to working on the ‘how’ and transformations more generally. I guess where me and Niko are in terms of the kinds of questions in our heads is then how can we enhance learning about the ‘how’; transformations more generally; and then how can we apply both to stewarding change in knowledge systems. A couple of useful arenas for this is a new special issue in development on re-purposing universities that will be worth tracking Also, if you want some ideas about how to start thinking about the ‘how’ details of some of the methods we used in the paper – which are being applied to diverse contexts – can be found here:

  5. Very thought provoking piece Niko & Ioan. I particularly like the clouds diagram. These clouds contain much of what I think is needed for the eventual state of the system. The transition processes are well shaped but they signal significant structural, policy & procedure and infrastructure changes required to allow the transition processes to occur. For example “Create safe spaces” requires metaprocesses including policy & procedure, infrastructure, funding and cultural changes that underpin and support these to be delivered. Institutional leaders need to envision what these metaprocesses look like. Your transitional processes will not happen if these metaprocesses are not in place. Having said that, your pieces is a significant contribution to our thinking. Thank you.

    • Iain Gordon, many thanks for your feedback. I agree on the importance of “meta-processes”. Yet, I wondered if you could give concrete examples how this could look like?! Do you have examples in mind where you see meta-processes working successfully? Would love to hear more. Thanks!


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