Knowledge characteristics

For knowledge related to Earth system tipping to be useful in governance processes, it has to be solutions-focused (O’Brien, 2013), actionable, relevant to the actor in question, and legitimate (Cash et al., 2003). While these criteria apply to knowledge production for sustainability more generally, anticipatory and transformative capacities should be added and emphasised in the context of ESTPs.

Solutions-oriented and actionable: Solutions-oriented knowledge involves a shift from investigating the nature of ESTPs (their causal dynamics and likely impacts) to actively seeking practical solutions such as prevention and adaptation strategies, with the aim to foster agency and help actors identify and evaluate action options (Tengö and Andersson, 2022; Andersson, 2022; Lang and Wiek, 2022). Actionable knowledge emphasises the application of scientific insights to develop strategies, technologies and policies that address specific challenges related to tipping points (e.g. uncertainty regarding their timing) and improves societal outcomes (Mach et al., 2020).

Context-specific and actor-relevant: This kind of knowledge is situated within particular circumstances and takes into account unique contextual factors and place-specific cultural norms. For example, in the case of ESTPs, there is an immediate need to develop information and tools that allow actors in different countries and at different scales to identify which tipping points are relevant for them, because they might be impacted by them or because of their own capacity to reduce tipping risks. By acknowledging and taking into account relevant practitioners’ and researchers’ diverse perspectives and linking abstract knowledge about tipping processes with case-specific insights, context-sensitive knowledge can be generated that is relevant and meaningful to the actors applying it. 

Anticipatory: Future-oriented and anticipatory knowledge involves harnessing both individual and collective imagination to envision a wide range of potential scenarios and future developments. This approach goes beyond extrapolating from current circumstances and uses creative thinking to collectively anticipate diverse future possibilities (Wiek and Iwaniec, 2014; Dufva, Könnölä, and Koivisto, 2015; Iwaniec et al., 2020; Pereira et al., 2021). By combining this with existing knowledge, researchers and stakeholders can better prepare for emerging challenges and opportunities. This forward-looking perspective can enable the development of strategies and solutions that are robust, adaptable and proactive in addressing future needs and uncertainties (Pereira et al., 2021).

Transformative: Transformative knowledge is oriented to address the ultimate systemic causes of unsustainability: the social structural drivers of climate change, such as persistent inequalities in resource consumption and access, or the distribution of rights and responsibilities. This often involves developing systems thinking and questioning deep assumptions about individual or organisational practices and their social and environmental effects. Promoting second-order learning is central in transformative learning: not just doing the same faster and better, but exploring how things could be done differently under a different paradigm or worldview. Correspondingly, there is a focus on solutions in the domain of worldviews, practices and institutional structures, and on capacity building that supports transformational change across scales (Fazey et al., 2020)

Knowledge with these characteristics would empower governance actors to develop and implement scale- and context-specific governance solutions for ESTPs. Corresponding knowledge production – within and beyond science – should foster these characteristics. 

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