The general objective of Kudelma-network is to develop comprehensive approaches and to promote their use in analysing questions of sustainability science.

In this way, we take part in the effort of mitigating, solving or even preventing sustainability challenges. It is also important to enhance understanding of the relationship between comprehensive thinking and differentiative thinking. The need for more comprehensive sustainability thinking is widely recognized e.g. in research, education, politics, governance and economy. Life cycle assessment (LCA) of products, environmental impact assessment (EIA) for large scale construction projects and environmental management systems (EMS) for organisations are examples of present day sustainability procedures emphasizing comprehensivity.

The background of Kudelma is in the environmental sciences in the University of Helsinki since the 70’s. The name of the discipline hosting the development has seen many changes over the years: Environmental protection → The Science of Environmental protection → Environmental Science and -Policy (all of them Finnish majors). Now the home disciplines are Bachelor’s Programme in Environmental Science (a Finnish programme) and Master's programme in Environmental Change and Global Sustainability. Since 1.1.2018 our administrative home has been the Ecosystems and Environment research programme. Nevertheless, Kudelma welcomes everyone regardless of their discipline/s, as we see interdisciplinarity as a significant element in comprehensive sustainability thinking.

Kudelma’s activity is focused on two main themes: research on comprehensive approach and providing and developing opportunities for co-learning the comprehensive approach.

Comprehensive and differentiative approach

Comprehensive approach and its synonyms comprehensivity and comprehensive thinking are broad umbrella terms by which we indicate e.g. trans- and interdisciplinarity, large-scale perspectives, combining different factors, understanding complexity and chaos, dialectic analysis of polarities and appreciating the multi-layered structure of any abstract or real-world system. These kind of approaches are increasingly needed in examining complex and often chaotic sustainability challenges.

As an antonym we use the terms differentiative thinking and differentiative approach. This indicates e.g. procedures that emphasize restricting the work within the realm of one discipline or scientific tradition at a time, strictly defined research questions, analytical and reductionist thinking, cutting bigger issues in to parts and analysing each part one at a time.

Comprehensive and differentiative approaches are equally important dimensions of thinking, but the latter has dominated Western science for the last several centuries, and it is consequently more widely understood and applied. To balance this domination of differentiative thinking, more emphasis on comprehensive thinking is needed. It is important to find a fruitful balance between comprehensive and differentiative approaches. 

Overstating comprehensivity may lead to blurred and too broad perspectives, where it is impossible to state anything explicit about the object of the analysis. On the other hand, differentiative approach at its worst results in losing the big picture and perceiving the world as black-or-white. With differentiative approaches complex questions can get oversimplified and contradictions addressed in an exclusive manner.

Comprehensive Sustainability

Sustainable man-made structures, ways of thinking, lifestyles and procedures enhance the possibilities for future generations, whether human or non-human, to live a good life in this planet. Several dimensions are associated with sustainability: in addition to the most often referred aspects ecological, cultural, social and economic sustainability, also chemical, geological, political, psychological, aesthetical and other dimensions can be discussed as well. The latter ones can also be thought to be included in the first four aspects.

Sustainability challenges are attached to the human ways of living and being, which is why it is necessary to consider sustainability in all human actions. At Kudelma, we emphasize the ecological sustainability above all the other aspects of sustainability. By ecological sustainability we mean the sufficient stability of ecosystems’ fundamental structures and the continuity of the ecological functions. We consider ecological sustainability to be the most crucial form of sustainability from which all the other aspects of sustainable development are dependent on. For that reason, we put environmental issues at the center of our work.

Sustainability science is a research field characterized by systemic and interdisciplinary research approaches that aim at promoting sustainable transformations and their research. It seeks to study and solve complex problems comprehensively and aims at recognizing value-boundedness and uncertainty.

Another important concept to us as a parallel concept to sustainability science is sustainability education and the related sustainability training in educational institutions or in vocational training.

Recommended reference: Willamo, R. (2018): "Comprehensive Sustainability." Kudelma –  a network for comprehensive and sustainable systemic change. University of Helsinki. www.helsinki.fi/kudelma

The Complexity of Sustainability Issues

The principles that most crucially steer our action in Kudelma can be summarized as follows:

  1. We consider complexity the most important feature of environmental issues and sustainability challenges. Here, complexity means that these issues can be associated with many different perspectives, components and dimensions and that the relationships between the perspectives, components and dimensions form a web that is hard to describe and to manage. Often, sustainability problems are so-called wicked problems.
  2. In our opinion, interdisciplinary, large-scale, systemic or otherwise comprehensive emphasis on the approach suits for examining complex phenomena much better than differentiative approaches. Application of comprehensive approach helps maintaining the perspective on the complexity of the phenomenon throughout the research and learning process. When the differentiative approach is strongly emphasised, there is a risk that connections are broken and that the possibility to understand the complexity will decrease.

The high level of complexity in environmental and sustainability issues stems partly from the fact that they are inseparably merged with elements that require

  • On one hand, scientific-technological approach (for example to understand changes happening in our natural environment or retracing the emissions from industry)
  • On the other hand, humanities and social science approaches (for example for searching the root causes and solutions to environmental and sustainability problems)
  • In addition, environmental and sustainability challenges are not only matters of science. They affect our “being in the world” and the choices we make in our day to day life. It is important to understand that the way we perceive sustainability issues is always affected by our personal experience and perspective.