Innovation: Civil society for sustainability

Last update: 29.06.2013
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social aspects, sustainable development
Civil society and its organisations (CSO) play a vital role in the implementation of sustainable development (SD). Civil society actors exhibit special features, they are to a large degree driven by visions or ideals, place a focus on common action, participate in and initiate discourses about SD in society, enhance social capital, and share a non-economical (non-efficiency driven) world view.

Given these characteristics, CSOs show some specific shortcomings: a non-economical worldview leads to less efficient pursuit of SD goals and to a weak representation in political and economical decision-processes; initiating discourses often excludes evidence-based thinking, giving away chances for increased self-reflexivity and learning; and a lack of institutionalisation within existing institutional frameworks of governance provide not sufficient leverage to influence policy making. Apart from these more general shortcomings, there are numerous specific and context-related issues that would need to be researched in order to increase efficiency of CSOs.

To foster sustainability from an analytical perspective, there are two aspects underlying (or overarching) all these context-dependent problems:
- Degree of institutionalisation of sustainable development efforts within a local/regional context (socio-economical-political-cultural). Also therein, the degree of institutionalisation of sustainability-driven CSO in political/institutional decision structures (participative governance).
- Sustainability knowledge and sustainability learning: getting sustainability across to people (the long way from head to hand).

These aspects are closely related to each other and will provide the general research framework (GRF) of the proposed project, providing the bracket to keep context-related research with CSO partners focused on a more general analytic framework which will be individually adapted to each participating CSO's needs.


This project is under the FP 7 scheme “Research for the benefit of specific groups” (here Civil Society Organisations -- CSOs). The main objectives of project CSS are to link civil society with research activities on sustainable development on a European scale. The project should foster networks between civil society and research organisations, while developing a civil society oriented research agenda for sustainable development. Important issues within CSS are:

1. Political empowerment and effectiveness of sustainability-driven CSOs.
Institutionalisation through planned development of human, organisational, social and financial resources of CSOs, as well as connecting to other social networks and stakeholders from politics and the economy; acquiring key actors as new members and supporters.

2. Stakeholder motivation and communication.
Another issue is that of how to prevent stakeholder interest in sustainable development from decreasing. In Germany e.g. Local Agenda 21 initiatives are gradually falling “asleep”. How to keep the momentum in sustainable development?

3. Quality of CSO services.
Sustainable development as a product must be defined better in order to “market” it better (being a “non-marketable” good in the classic sense). Also, the development of human resources and their capacities within CSOs is of interest.

4. Develop and assist in the implementation of pilot projects with all partners taking advantage of available theoretical background.
Using managerial tools to improve organisational structures and CSO management and attract new members by effective sustainability campaigns.

5. Creating a CSO guidebook for sustainability.
Developing a coherent discourse field for addressed CSO problems, as well as a coherent theory field for improving both CSO performance and networking with research on sustainable development.

6. Increase long-term self-reflexivity of sustainability-driven CSO.
Enabling CSOs to contribute to public debate and action for sustainable development through long-term partnerships with sustainability research.

What do we understand by sustainable development and sustainability?
Despite its critics, the triple-bottom line of economic, ecological and social dimensions of sustainability is a feasible starting point for understanding sustainable development. Due to its widespread application, communication about sustainable development is easier. However, instead of focusing on three separate dimensions, CSS employs a model of embedded spheres, with the economy in the context of society in the context of nature. This model of embedded spheres also solves the problem of which sphere depends on which, for which there can be neither societal nor economic sustainability without the long-term sustainability of eco-systems.
The integrative “research bracket” for the project is transdisciplinarity. Central to any kind of transdisciplinary approach is the focus on problems. Transdisciplinarity, constituting what some call mode-2-research (Gibbons et al. 1994) or post-normal science (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993), then has to take into account the nature of the problem situation, its different elements and thus different object sciences (like sociology, organisation theory, ecology etc.) dealing with them. The problem in focus is organizing and, in a way, choosing the object sciences and their findings, but not necessarily their methods.

The following research design acts as a “navigator” for focusing on CSS main research goals: research on science-civil society cooperation, CSO guidebook, specific pilot projects.
There is a continuum between the projects internal and external environment. External is the EU and the Commission as well as civil society as a whole and non-members of the CSO partners. Internal are the consortium partners themselves and their members, especially the CSOs and their local/regional contexts. On another continuum we have research as process, focusing on how to do transdisciplinary research and establish close networks between science and civil society, as well as the content of research: the pilot projects within the research tandems and the CSO guidebook. All quadrants need to be addressed in all research phases of the project.

The first phase of the project will involve CSO experts in developing a CSO specific research gap list and prioritize them, as well as helping expert researchers to contextualise theoretical findings into local contexts. Expert researchers from RTD performers will conduct both empirical social research as well as constructive research. The tandem structure as the core element of the entire project will ensure short feedbacks and close interconnections between CSOs and RTD performers, providing for CSO leadership of this early project phase. Output of this phase will be CSO specific instruments like social marketing and group decision tools as well as pilot projects for Phase II.

The second phase of the project will have participatory action research as its main focus. Specific sub-projects, as specified in the outcome of Phase 1 will be carried out, with CSO and expert researchers having different emphases. The CSOs are responsible for the main part of implementation (“field work”), especially the implementation of the instruments developed earlier . The expert researchers will assist the CSOs in doing so, with metaresearch on the efficacy and efficiency of implementation efforts, as well as laying the ground for a theoretical framework on which the later to be developed CSO guidebook will rest. The feedback between CSO and research expert will also lead to a permanent support of the CSO activists using the tools and instruments developed in Phase I. Adaption and improvement of methods and instruments will be part of the feedback loops.

The final phase three of the project will not see a piece of abstract theory as desired output, but a practical guidebook for sustainability-driven civil society organisations, providing for professional managerial instruments, tailored for sustainability driven CSOs with case studies and guidelines for application.
The overall view on the CSS project
The first step for a common foreground of the overall CSS project concept was defining the common
research framework (see figure I) as a bracket for the activities within CSS. Defining this field of
topics and questions was an essential milestone in order to structure the project for the participants as
the definition of tasks and goals of CSS was quite open in the beginning of the project. For the
participants this was a necessary result from the starting phase because it provided common fields of
research and paths which could be used in order to fulfil the overall goals of CSS and being able to
concentrate on the specific problems and questions of the different CSOs.
This framework was the “navigator” for specifying and relating the research questions for the CSO
partners and their wider networks and stakeholders. It was an attempt to arrive at a common set of
questions from which each partner could choose the appropriate ones for its context, but also to
define a set of questions all partners had to use in order to ensure comparability of results. It was also
thought as a “mnemonic tool” helping the participants to remember CSS main research goals –
research on science-civil society cooperation, CSO guidebook, specific pilot projects – and keep
them also in focus while following the specific research and action agenda within the tandems. As
this research bracket was defined as wide as possible it is also transferable to similar cases of
science- CSO collaborations and can be used as an universal tool to structure complex research
approaches in different societal context situations. It is the basis for a multidimensional reflection of
CSOs’ activities towards sustainable development on different levels.
• Process or structure orientation - regarding and analysing the CSO network or the networking
• Internal or external orientation – regarding the (aspired) changes within the CSO or in the wider
CSO network and society
For the latter we developed an additional roadmap to make the different paths within the project
visible and which levels of research would be applied.
The "onion model" related the questions to different spheres: active and passive members as (legal)
part of the CSO partner (formal membership) on the one hand, CSO networks/partners and (yet)
non-involved stakeholders on the other hand. A-level stakeholders are formal and active members of
the CSO partner, directly involved in both strategic and operational activities (e.g. board members).
Driving questions here are targeting their (intrinsic and extrinsic) motivation to be active as well as
their individual (in comparison with the organisational) value system. B-level stakeholders are
formal but passive members, the so-called "silent membership" that might have been active before,
but refrained from further participating, yet still feel a sense of belonging and sympathy for the
CSOs goals, or members that could never be activated in the past. Of interest here is why active
membership is not an issue and what has/might change/d that (issues of motivation and membership).
C-level stakeholders are formally outside of the CSOs legal boundary but inside its activity network
of cooperation partners (e.g. politics, companies, other CSOs). The other-reference of these partners
of the CSO itself (its values, activities, successes and failures) is in focus here. Also what kind of
future cooperation might be of interest to the close environment of the CSO (possible alliances).
D-level stakeholders are (yet) non-involved in the activities of the CSO and its network, some loose
connection might exist but are not of significance. These stakeholder might be of interest for further
cooperation (C-level), financial assistance with their membership (B-level) or active inclusion in
activities (A-level). This simplified network model was developed due to the wish of the CSO to get
easily manageable tools for strategic decisions regarding the own fields of activity and the
stakeholders addressed with these activities.
Project No.: 212269
Period number: 1st
Ref: 212269_Final_Report11_20120302_134527_CET.pdf
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Each tandem had to sort out where to set focal points in this field without masking the other fields.
The experiences within this process provided a learning process for all participants how to handle
such a process of orientation and decision making. An additional learning effect (as a result) was the
process of collaboration between science and the CSOs. All participating tandems went through
similar phases of approximation to the tandem partner on the way to the agreement about what is to
do within CSS. This might give an orientation for such collaborations also in other fields. Detailed
descriptions of these processes from different perspectives will be given in the CSO guidebook,
which will be published in March 2012. (Civil Society for Sustainability – A Guidebook for
Connecting Science and Society, Europäischer Hochschulverlag, Bremen, ISBN:
In the phase of idea generation and defining the research field it was an important aim to find a
common ground for the different approaches and languages of scientists and activists. One lesson
learned and a recommendation for similar projects is to engage a moderator at least for the starting
phase of such a project because this will help to avoid frictions in discussions between scientists and
activists. In CSS it was a long way with several iterative loops to develop a common sense for
mutual understanding, respect and language which lead to a loss of time for other duties regarding
the research itself.
One of the most feasible instruments developed within the project was the CSO Strategy Map. It is
an easy comprehensible instrument to make strategic decisions towards sustainable development and
provides the room for reflection of the activities of a CSO on different levels. With this tool a CSO
can classify its own recent or planned activities regarding to the context situation. One can ,follow
the discussion line of the Strategy Map, starting with the self perception of the role of the CSO, the
related target groups, specific fields or topics of activity and can evaluate the potential impact of a
project regarding the categories of success: Sustainability Impact, context improvement, Competence
improvement (internal and external), motivation and membership and the contribution of a project to
the finances of a CSO. The CSOs used this tool within CSS and it was a helpful instrument in order
to take decisions for specific projects or activities.
For details and more documents please visit the project homepage.

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This innovation is the result of the project

Title: Civil Society For Sustainability


01.01.2009 to 31.12.2011

completed project

Organisations and people involved in this eco-innovation.

Please click on an entry to view all contact details.



Role in project: Project Coordination

Contact person: Ms. LAMPKE Agnes


Phone: +49-71168587210




Contact person: Ms. CSIKAI Maria


Phone: +36-209997966




Contact person: Prof. VÁRI Anna


Phone: +36-1-2246743




Contact person: Mr. HERIARD DUBREUIL Gilles


Phone: +33-148018877




Contact person: Ms. MAREGA Milena


Phone: +386-14256860




Contact person: Mr. BAUER Joa

Phone: +49-174-8631641