How can we transition towards sustainability?

© Alain Herzog / EPFL

© Alain Herzog / EPFL

Driving the transition towards sustainability goes beyond reducing CO2 emissions, which is only one of the three pillars of sustainability: ecological, social and economic. As seen in the Sustainable Development Goals there are many more aspects contributing to sustainability, which makes its comprehension and implementation so challenging. Each nation and city has different characteristics and problems and therefore, needs to set different priorities to achieve sustainability. The process to achieving sustainability thus depends on the state of the environment and the economy, the political will, as well as human behaviors. This is the field of research that Prof. Binder explores with passion. 

At the very heart of the burning issue of sustainability transition lays a two-way dialogue: the Human-Environment Relation. Indeed, not the development of newest technologies, or humankind alone are at the center, but everything pivots around the interaction between humans and their environment. This is a research area Prof. Claudia Binder, Head of the Laboratory for Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems (HERUS) at the Institute for Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering at EPFL focuses on, especially using urban systems for demonstration. In an inspiring conversation with her, we investigated what competencies our future changemakers need to develop to engage in this pivotal interaction, and what roles communities and education play.

The importance of systemic thinking and disciplinary expertise

In the new ‘Plan d’études cadre de la maturité gymnasiale’ sustainability becomes a primordial domain that reflects Prof. Binder’s vision and will be integrated across the high school curriculum to learn how to tackle the topic from the standpoint of each discipline, whilst each expertise contributes to an interdisciplinary approach to the transition process.

It is important to keep strengthening the disciplinary expertise, whilst at the same time teaching the young people how to integrate this knowledge into systemic thinking.

Prof. Binder

For Prof. Binder, who herself is a biochemist, the integration of natural and social sciences is extremely important when talking about transitions towards sustainability: The natural sciences tackle mainly the “what” of the sustainability problem (e.g., CO2 emissions, pollution). In addition to contributing to the “what” of the problem (e.g., social inequality), the social sciences together with engineering can also answer the “who” and “how”.

Why is ‘the city’ an ideal environment for sustainability research?

To better understand what it means to what it means to make urban systems more sustainable in an everyday context, we can focus on ‘the city’ as the study object. According to Prof. Binder, cities are way more innovative than we think, and it is exactly there where we need to act for change. They host more than 50% of the population, but only cover 2% of the area worldwide. 75% of the resources are consumed in cities and 75% of the worldwide CO2 emissions come from cities ( At the same time, they are the place of social and technical innovations, as a high concentration of a wide diversity of people encourages the exchange and emergence of new ideas. That is why in cities more patents are filed than in rural regions. This makes cities provide at the same time challenges and opportunities. So – a perfect ground for research and solution development.

How do we create a tipping point for a transition towards sustainability?

Enabling change requires creating (i) enabling conditions, (ii) momentum and (iii) dynamics leading towards a tipping point, which, according to Prof. Binder, are intertwined and might need to be initiated and coordinated for moving towards sustainability. What is a tipping point and how do we potentially reach the tipping point?

Prof. Binder states that according to Milkoreit, a tipping point is: “Point at which small changes in the system trigger a change process that inevitably leads to a qualitatively different state of the system, which is often irreversible”.

© Lenton et al. 2022

To transition towards a more sustainable state requires system-, target- and transformation knowledge. Experts such as scientists and engineers from for instance the fields of environmental sciences, geography, physics, chemistry or mathematics analyze urban data (e.g., infrastructure, resource use, sensor data) to create realistic models and develop technological solutions. Of equal importance is understanding how the transition takes place, what social norms and policies enable or inhibit change, what are influencing factors for adoption of these technologies and what is the role of human behavior (e.g., sufficiency) in this process.

We need a future generation, that is able to think systematically, analyze critically and at the same time be creative, from the fields of natural as well as social sciences and to take action on that knowledge.

Claudia Binder

And what does that look like in our daily lives?

Prof. Binder sets the scene, by deconstructing the analysis according to the three key elements:

1. System knowledge

System knowledge focuses on understanding the interaction between stocks and flows, the actors influencing them as well as the policies in place. In a city, stocks consist of everything that remains in the city for more than one year, such as infrastructure, buildings or equipment. Flows enter and leave the system within one year, for example, water, energy, food. Actors are consumers, energy providers or policymakers.

In other words: “We need to understand how the infrastructure affects the use of resources and how the consumer demand affects the stocks and flows.”

2. Target knowledge

Understanding what the desired future is and understanding what sustainability means for each interest group defines target knowledge. What is the desired future? What indicators do we need to measure sustainability and are those universally applicable?

most frequent indicators used
Most frequent (net) indicators ranked by the number of indicator sets in which they appear. Brackets enclose exemplified measurement units for each indicator based on the most frequent unit used in the indicator sets. Source: Merino -Saum et al., 2020)

In her research1 Prof. Binder found comparing 67 indicator sets for urban sustainability that only two indicators were found in more than half of the sets (employment/unemployment rate and Green areas) and only 11 indicators were in more than a third of the sets, thus demonstrating the ambiguity surrounding the concept of urban sustainability. Indeed, the indicator sets vary according to the challenges the cities were confronted with, which means that the context plays a large role in selecting an defining the indicators for measuring sustainability, and thus needs to be taken into account.

How do we achieve that? By including the various interest groups, going beyond the classical indicators and include other indicators that include social issues (quality of life, consumer behavior etc.) and sensitizing people to consider other viewpoints to strengthen a systemic thinking approach.

Prof. Binder

3. Transformational knowledge

Once we know what the sustainable future could look like through 1) defining stocks and flows, 2) finding a common understanding of the desired future states and the relevant indicators to assess it, then we can 3) translate that to actionable measures which will initiate a tipping dynamics allowing us ideally to move from old “habits” (e.g., technologies, institutions, consumption habits) to new ones.

Are we on the same page? Lausanne vs Rio de Janeiro

Prof. Binder explains: would we only use CO2 emission per capita as an indicator, Lausanne compared to the Favelas in Rio de Janeiro would be less sustainable as it has higher CO2 emissions per capita. But with a systemic perspective, looking at additional indicators for sustainability, we see that the Favelas might be less sustainable than Lausanne, due to lack of access to services, water sanitation systems etc. Suddenly the results are inverted – and just by taking into account the entire system.

The importance of communities and grassroots movements

A successful transition, according to Prof. Binder cannot only be imposed from top down, for instance in form of legislation. Instead, the optimal solution could be a mix between legislation, and local initiatives, innovations and a strong social network to take those innovative tools forward. As an example, she cites the dynamics of adoption of solar panels in neighborhoods: Once a few houses in a neighborhood have adopted solar panels, a spatial expansion within the neighborhood can be observed, and time after time a large part of the area has adapted this new technology. In this case the social and spatial proximity play a large role for the propagation of the technology2. Lastly, not to be underestimated are strike and grassroots movements, which often in Prof. Binder’s opinion are essential in initiating a transition. Here for example Fridays for Future3, and moreover community events such as solar parties and local initiatives championing the transition process are key.

The role of education

I think it is very important to be aware of the interfaces between disciplines.

Prof. Binder

The schools have a challenging but more than necessary task ahead, because the next generation will need to be innovative, critical thinkers, understand interrelations, use AI and be creative. We need to train the new generation how to zoom in and out on an issue, thus strengthen systemic thinking approaches. By integrating sustainability across the high school curriculum the first cobble of this path is laid. However, the future generation won’t be able to walk the path without the precious accompaniment of their teachers, opening up their view to the unknown.

Only by answering what needs to be done, how will it be done and who will do it, thus by applying systemic thinking and integrating scientific disciplines, we can successfully transition towards sustainability.

Prof. Binder

A case study for your classroom: transforming energy systems towards sustainability

Based on the example of transitioning energy systems, all three above mentioned concepts apply:

System knowledge: What are the current stock and flows of the current energy system? Where do we get the energy from; is it fuel-based or green energy? What are our consumption habits? What elements are constant in the stock of the city (Photovoltaics, energy grid)? Who are the key actors? What are their preferences? Which policies, regulations and practices are in place? How do the existing norms and policies affect choice of technologies and consumption behaviour?

Target knowledge: How does the desirable or sustainable future system look like? What are the indicators that would depict the future state? For instance, percentage of renewables in the grid; the flow of cars entering the city, type of appliances in the household etc.

Transformational knowledge: Once we know what the current system looks like and what we see as the desired future, taking a variety of indicators into account, we move towards a more sustainable urban system by identifying technologies, norms and regulations that could accelerate or inhibit the transition and we act upon them, by for instance creating policies, grassroots movements or laws.

Thus, we can start the shift to doing things in a new way. Reorganizing the society and creating innovations thus go hand in hand thriving towards a more sustainable state.


1 A. Merino-Saum, P. Halla, V. Superti, A. Boesch, C.R. Binder. Indicators for urban sustainability: Key lessons from a systematic analysis of 67 measurement initiatives. Ecological Indicators, Volume 119, 2020, 106879

2: Serra-Coch, G., Wyss, R., & Binder, C. R. (2023). Geographic network effects to engage people in the energy transition: The case of PV in Switzerland. Heliyon, 9(7).

3 Fritz, L., Hansmann, R., Dalimier, B., & Binder, C. R. (2023). Perceived impacts of the Fridays for Future climate movement on environmental concern and behaviour in Switzerland. Sustainability Science, 18(5), 2219–2244.

4: Milkoreit, M., Hodbod, J., Baggio, J., Benessaiah, K., Calderón-Contreras, R., Donges, J. F., Mathias, J. D., Rocha, J. C., Schoon, M., & Werners, S. E. (2018). Defining tipping points for social-ecological systems scholarship - An interdisciplinary literature review. Environmental Research Letters, 13(3).

5. Lenton, T. M., Benson, S., Smith, T., Ewer, T., Lanel, V., Petykowski, E., Powell, T. W. R., Abrams, J. F., Blomsma, F., & Sharpe, S. (2022). Operationalising positive tipping points towards global sustainability. Global Sustainability, 5.