About Transdisciplinarity and Human-Environment Systems

A Human Environment Systems (HES) perspective

Many of the past and contemporary environmental problems are related to human activities. Paul Crutzen stressed that phenomena such as climate change, the ozone hole and acid rain show that we are living in an age he calls the anthropocene, an age in which humans have become a geological factor with respect to their impact on the functioning of the Earth System1. Given that human and environmental dimensions of the earth's systems have become inextricably intertwined, sustainable science research need to examine the entire system. it is no longer enough to study nature's biophysical systems alone, nor is it enough to study the system's components, such as the soil, crop, livestock and farm household of an agroecosystem. The interactions between these components, and the dynamic changes over time and space, are keys to understanding how our world can function more sustainable. We assume that human systems on different levels (e.g., individuals, group, organization, society, supranational organizations) are complementary to and strongly interact with environmental systems (i.e., technical and natural systems).

Every node of the P supply chain can be investigated using this human-environment system (HES) perspective. The result is a study of interactions between human and environmental systems, such as unwanted feedback loops on longer time scales. Researchers at ETH-NSSI can support applying the HES framework to better study and understand the complexity of coupled human-environment systems by drawing on and integrating knowledge from relevant scientific disciplines2.

1 Crutzen, P. (2002). Geology of mankind. Nature, 415(6867), 23.
2 Scholz, R. W. (2011). Environmental Literacy in Science and Society: From Knowledge to Decisions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Transdisciplinarity strives to bridge the growing gulf between many areas of research and the public. Practice and science have different reference systems. Transdisciplinary methodology initiates from a situation where decision-makers and science community participants realize that they have a joint interest in a complex, relevant phenomenon that can be better understood and dealt with if knowledge from practice and from science is integrated. Steps in the transdisciplinary process are:

  • Defining a guiding question.
  • Faceting (or splitting into sub-systems) the case.
  • System analysis, through diverse methods, from desk studies to interviews.
  • System representation, including its dynamics.
  • Creating scenarios for the system.
  • Multi-criteria assessment of the scenarios.
  • Development of robust options.

The multiple-stakeholder/multiple-reference system operating mode transforms the process and results in diverse outcomes:

  • Capacity-building for coping with ill-defined socially relevant problems.
  • Consensus-building and mediation among stakeholders with conflicting interests.
  • Legitimization of decisions, due to science-practice cooperation.