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Our approaches to research


In order to respond to the constantly evolving issues surrounding sustainability, ISF has developed a number of research approaches, to be utilised within the course of creating change. 

Some of these research approaches are of particular interest to our postgraduate students. These approaches are detailed below.

If you are a postgraduate researcher who is interested in conducting research that utilises one or more of these approaches, or who is interested in conducting sustainability research that utilises an approach not detailed on this page, we would be interested in hearing from you. Learn how to apply to conduct Masters or PhD research at ISF here.

Sustainability tools and frameworks

We bring a flexible approach to policy development for government and non-government clients at all levels, in each case underpinned by rigorous analysis and sustainability principles. Our policy work covers a range of sectors from urban water, sanitation and energy, to transport, waste and resource cycling, the built environment and city development strategies - applied both nationally and internationally.

Our policy team have comprehensive work experience in government, industry and academia, and includes economists, architects, engineers and social scientists. Today's policy environment is increasingly complex, arising through the inter-connectedness of regulation, technology, infrastructure, price, externalities, behaviour, social and environmental impacts. The diversity of background of our researchers is a unique strength to developing innovative outcomes, which progress sustainability in this environment.  

Big picture questions

- How does the overall concept of sustainability translate to a specific industry situation, policy area or community issue?

- Can existing frameworks appropriately capture all relevant issues?

- What language should be adopted to formulate and pose sustainability choices?

- Which tools are best suited to evaluate sustainability impacts and explore options to achieve a sustainable future?

- What is the optimal mix of qualitative and quantitative approaches?

- Is there an ultimate 'common metric' for sustainability?

Possible PhD topics

Decision-making frameworks

For further information about this topic area, or further information regarding the use of this approach in postgraduate research, contact Dr Roel Plant.

Economic assessment and analysis

The Institute works with clients to identify and assess the social, environmental and economic costs and benefits for a range of policies and programmes. Responding to the client's objectives, we apply cost-effectiveness or cost-benefit principles to our projects. Estimating and including the costs of environmental externalities is at the core of our practice.

By taking an integrated approach, we are uniquely positioned to link our economic research and analytical tools with community consultation as well as technical/ biophysical modeling. This enables us to rigorously assess impacts of projects, programmes and policies on industry, government and community sectors - and to communicate analysis is to key stakeholders.

We have experience and expertise in economic assessment across sustainability issues including:

  • Portfolio analysis based on least-cost planning (Integrated Resource Planning) for the urban water, transport and energy sectors
  • Valuation of catchments and rivers, using willingness-to-pay techniques, deliberative forums and bullterrier approaches
  • Best-practice costing of assets, projects and programs in the water industry
  • Evaluation of waste management policies
  • Review and analysis of the effectiveness of urban demand management policies and programmes across Australia
  • Evaluation of the costs and benefits of sustainability initiatives within urban developments
  • Valuation of the public good contribution of community facilities and services
  • Evaluation of climate change impacts of various programmes
  • Environmental cost/ benefit accounting and reporting
  • Trade liberalisation and tariffs

Policy analysis and development

Big picture questions

- How could we optimise and encourage the policy and regulations to achieve water and energy conservation in existing and future infrastructure?

- What approaches are most useful for integrating urban planning across disciplines to ensure sustainable outcomes?

- What models of decision making under uncertainty offer, community input, flexibility and transparency?

For further information about this topic area, or further information regarding the use of this approach in postgraduate research, contact Associate Professor Juliet Willetts.

Monitoring and evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is an integral part of much of our work. We use it to assess progress towards sustainability, to measure project or program efficiency and effectiveness, and to provide opportunities to learn and to better practice. Our extensive skills in a breadth of research methods means we can custom design approaches to suit the need. Some examples of our monitoring and evaluation skills include:

Sustainability indicators and evaluation: we can assess the economic, environmental and social sustainability of technologies, programs, strategies and responses to inform policy and action. We use a variety of tools and frameworks to guide evaluation, including integrated resource planning and sustainability indicators.

Evaluation of resource efficiency programs: we provide services for robust evaluation of the effectiveness of demand management or similar programs through the use of detailed statistical analysis, customer database analysis and detailed modeling.

Monitoring and Evaluation in the international development sector: we directly conduct external evaluations and work with clients to contribute to improving their M&E practice through systems thinking approaches, designing for organisational learning outcomes, innovative M&E methodologies and capacity building in M&E.  

Enabling learning through monitoring and evaluation: we help provide clients with the tools to critically reflect at an individual and organisational level.

Futures Studies

We will not achieve the transition to a sustainable and desirable future using conventional thinking alone. If we are to successfully tackle the complex and far-reaching economic, environmental and social challenges of the 21 st Century, we need to develop and apply innovative ways of thinking and working.

At the Institute for Sustainable Futures, we are involved in the ongoing development and application of innovative frameworks for understanding sustainability. We can help your organisation to understand and apply these frameworks to deliver new insights. Some examples of these frameworks include:

Integral theory: we are one of the few sites around the world that has actively applied Ken Wilber's Integral theory to explore sustainable futures. Integral theory is a way of ensuring that all relevant perspectives are included in defining and addressing a problem. These perspectives include behavioural, systemic, psychological, cultural and developmental perspectives. Dr Chris Riedy used Integral theory to examine Australia's climate change response, and we continue to apply this framework in our research and consulting.

The long view: sustainability requires us to take the long view, well beyond budgetary or electoral cycles. We have extensive experience in long-term futures thinking and use various foresight techniques to assist our clients to think about the future. We have also undertaken specific research into the causes of, and solutions to, short-termism, particularly in relation to institutional investment.

Transdisciplinary research

Research on sustainable futures must of necessity cross traditional academic disciplines. One of our strengths is our ability to work across a number of different disciplines within a given project. Transdisciplinary research not only draws on multiple disciplines to provide the knowledge base to address problems of sustainability - it actively involves researchers from multiple disciplines in a shared process of defining and resolving these problems.

We have a particular focus on transdisciplinary research in our postgraduate program. The Director of ISF's postgraduate program, Professor Cynthia Mitchell, received a prestigious Associate Fellowship from the Carrick Institute (now called the Australian Learning and Teaching Council) to investigate the issues associated with assessing the quality of transdisciplinary research. The outcomes of her research include the following two papers, and two workshop resources: