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At ISF we believe that applied research can change the world. Our work on transformative change for sustainable futures spans individual, social, organisational and cultural dimensions of change. ISF is also known for its work in the areas of social justice and equity, social research, innovative community engagement practices and applied foresight. In our Social Change research stream we seek to apply innovative change methods and research approaches across all our other areas of sustainability research at the Institute. We engage people in creative ways, work collaboratively with our participants and commit to transparent processes that are clear about the degree of influence that participants will have.

The key components of our social change work are:

Pressing sustainability challenges, like climate change, biodiversity loss and interference in global nutrient cycles, require transformative change. Human technological, economic, political, social and cultural systems all need to change as part of the transition to a sustainable human civilisation. The Institute applies diverse theoretical perspectives and practical experience to facilitate transformative change processes, at individual, organisational, sectoral and societal scales.

At ISF we believe we are all stakeholders in working towards a more sustainable future. Creating that future requires the involvement of a wide range of people – individual citizens, interest and advocacy groups, and organisations. The Institute designs, implements and evaluates participatory processes in partnership with industry, as an input to policy development on energy, water, transport, international development, resource futures, natural resource management, climate change, adaptation, and social policy.

Social research lies at the heart of much of our work. A deeper understanding of the social or ‘people’ dimensions of an issue can significantly improve options analysis, policy planning, implementation and evaluation. It can also help guide decision-making and inform more effective communication and engagement strategies. We offer expertise in diverse social research methods, including interviewing, focus groups, surveys, literature reviews, document analysis, and various kinds of participatory and deliberative processes.

Since commencement in 1996 the Institute has engaged in research of social justice and equity issues as related to processes and struggles associated with age, ability, gender, sexuality, racism, the environment, class and other patterns of inequality. Our social justice and equity research is interdisciplinary, links processes operating at and across a range of geographical scales, from the local to the global. A key focus of our research is to equip policy makers as well as a wider public with the tools that are need to enable social change towards equity and justice, as well as providing insights into the benefits and consequences of these approaches.

Thinking about the future helps us to identify threats to sustainability, take advantage of emerging opportunities, develop shared visions of a desirable future and build plans and strategies to achieve that future. ISF is internationally recognised for its futures work. We currently host the Australian node of the futures-focused Millennium Project (http://www.millennium-project.org/), an international think tank that aims to improve global thinking about the future. We use diverse futures tools and methods to explore and map probable, possible and preferable futures for our clients, including visioning, scenario planning, environmental scanning, the futures triangle, backcasting, scenario art, causal layered analysis and integrative futures methods.

Behaviour change is a complicated process. It is well known that just providing information does not lead to a sustained change in behaviour. ‘Learning for sustainability’ and ‘environmental education’ are two types of processes that successfully foster long-term behaviour change. ‘Learning for sustainability’ (LfS) encourages participants to think deeply about their values and their vision in order to harness deeper motivations for behaviour change. Environmental education (EE) encourages conceptual and experiential exploration of nature that ultimately ends in considerations of what it means to be an ‘engaged citizen’ actively participating in change towards a sustainable future.  Our staff are experienced educators, working with industry, sustainability leaders, and community members to facilitate learning for change, on many aspects of sustainability. We encourage learners to explore the broader system of the problem and how they can best contribute to change within the system, and we do this using creative and engaging methods, including the arts and online spaces. These pedagogies can also be used in workshops to help develop sustainability leaders within communities and organisations. ISF integrates the principles of learning for sustainability and environmental education into many projects: principles such as systemic thinking, values-clarification, creative thinking, futures thinking and critical thinking. We also have much experience in designing, delivering and reviewing LfS and EE programs.

Postgraduate topics

Sustainability is commonly recognised as having three dimensions: economic, ecological and social. However, the social dimension often receives less attention than the other two dimensions. We are interested in research that explores questions of human behaviour, values, practices, worldviews, ethics and social justice that are relevant to sustainability.

Big picture questions

  • What motivates unsustainable practices? How can we motivate sustainable practices?
  • What sort of ethics should govern a sustainable society?
  • What does sustainable consumption mean and how can we get there?
  • How can we understand and facilitate transformation to a sustainable society?
  • How can applied foresight methods help us to achieve sustainability?
  • What theoretical frameworks provide insights into social change for sustainability?
  • How do our values need to change if we are to achieve a sustainable and desirable future?
  • How can we achieve sustainable development for the majority, not just a minority?
  • Do actions taken to address environmental concerns, such as raising the price of environmental goods, have an adverse impact on social equity?
  • How can we balance environmental protection and social justice?
  • How can democratic innovations facilitate sustainable futures?
  • How can we build the capacity for transformative sustainability work in individuals, teams and societies?


Contact person

Chris Riedy