Prof. Dr. Karoline Augenstein / Political Science
Photo: Private

"The task is actually to create structural conditions that make it easier for people to behave in a more sustainable way"

A Transfer Interview with Prof. Dr. Karoline Augenstein, Assistant Professor for "Policy Field Analysis, especially Transformation Research and Sustainability"

What is sustainability? The portal of the "Education for Sustainable Development" office of the German Commission for UNESCO e.V. calls it the most important rule to ensure that all people in the world can live well today and in the future. And if this rule is observed today, future generations will benefit from it. Every single person can make a contribution, one would think, but it is not as simple as that. Prof. Dr. Karoline Augenstein from the Center for Transformation Research and Sustainability (TransZent), the joint research center of the University of Wuppertal and the Wuppertal Institute, knows this very well. "With me, as with many others, it is likely that you often fail because of your demands. I make an effort. I commute to work by train, walk a lot, pay attention to my consumer behavior and all these things that many people do," she says, but sees the solution elsewhere. "I think it is important not to put this off on the individual, to say neither economically, that people are primarily consumers, they decide by their buying behavior, nor that politicians say that each individual must make his or her contribution. The task is actually to create structural conditions that make it easier for people to behave in a more sustainable way. Augenstein sees helping to create these conditions as her most important task. "That is where I actually see my contribution most likely to be in my profession. I can make all these topics related to sustainability and transformation more present in research and develop good projects to this end. In teaching, too, I can anchor the topic in the university, convey it to students and create awareness!

Urban Sharing Society

In Wuppertal, the junior professor heads the junior research group "UrbanUp - Upscaling Strategies for an Urban Sharing Society". This five-year inter- and transdisciplinary research project aims to analyze sharing practices within different user groups and to develop sustainability-oriented business models and governance approaches for "Sharing Cities". But what actually is an Urban Sharing Society? "That is what we are looking for in this research project," she explains laughing, "it is the guiding concept that integrates different questions and disciplines. At the beginning it is still a question of questioning whether the idea of sharing can even be a guiding principle for sustainable urban development, she explains, "Sharing in the sense of sharing resources and using them more efficiently. So how can we actually help the city to bring about a kind of change in values? Who do the resources belong to and how can they be shared in a sensible and sustainable way? How can sustainable urban development be shaped as a joint process?" In the next step, the urban players will be brought together. "What is the interplay between urban politics and administration, local businesses, civil society organizations, citizens, who of course also contribute in many different ways," asks the researcher. In her team, concepts for possible forms of cooperation are worked out and the question is asked again and again: What actually makes a good life in a city? The experienced researcher cannot and does not want to give any clear guidelines and is certain to say: "It is always difficult to formulate clear guiding principles in the field of sustainability, because every city has to find its own way. And this is also clear from the research, there cannot be one blueprint for what a sustainable city looks like. Instead, strategies are sought, negotiation processes analyzed and the role of individual actors is examined in order to arrive at a form of sustainable development.

Promotion in Wuppertal

Through political sciences, the Heidelberg-born researcher got to know about the topic of sustainability. "I have studied European environmental policy and the EU's sustainability strategy," she says. "How can we actually integrate the issue of sustainability into different policy areas? And that is where the interest in this topic has also grown interdisciplinary. What does sustainability mean in the political, economic and social spheres? She is enrolled in the Master's program "Sustainability Economics and Management" at the University of Oldenburg, which is a pioneer in the field of sustainable management. She received her doctorate in 2010 at the Schumpeter School of Business and Economics in Wuppertal on the subject of e-mobility.

Can Wuppertal become a sustainable city?

Her research focuses today on sustainability and transformation research. Augenstein can certainly imagine Wuppertal as a sustainable city of the future, because "Wuppertal is a super-interesting place," she says spontaneously, "already solely through the research landscape and especially the TransZent!" Many different research areas come together here, because what sustainability and transformation research in particular needs are interdisciplinary perspectives. "And we have solved this in an exemplary way at TransZent, where representatives from various disciplines of the university sit together. Of course, there is also the Wuppertal Institute, "an institution in its own right," as Augenstein says, with which she also cooperates. "Then we also work together with the Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP), which is also based in Wuppertal. They deal with sustainable consumption and production." And she does not forget to mention the many civil society initiatives, whether "Utopiastadt", "Aufbruch am Arrenberg" or the "BOB Campus", with which there is a lively exchange, all contribute decisively to the sustainability of a city, as do local companies that contribute with their wealth of ideas. "The conditions here are very favorable because there are many good networks and cooperations between science and practice," she adds. The cooperation with civil society urban developers is very fruitful. It is never competition, but always productive cooperation, Augenstein emphasizes.

The optimal urban development in the 21st century?

How would a scientist describe optimal, sustainable urban development in the 21st century? "Even if I could do it the way I wanted to, that remains a somewhat difficult question," she says, because, as the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), for example, also formulates in its Compass for Sustainable Urban Development, every city must find its own way. The question is always "how can local companies, local politics and civil society work together to shape this? How can a city succeed in ensuring that there is a good life for everyone? It is not always just about gross domestic product or even greater economic growth, she explains, but about holistic solutions, open spaces and meeting places that enable good social interaction and the question: "How can we actually shape the good life in the city without destroying the ecological foundations?"

A virus demands alternative solutions

Cooperation with local practice partners has become difficult due to the ongoing corona crisis. Digital solutions offer an alternative. In cooperation with the Wuppertal City Library, Augenstein is planning, for example, digital rooms of exchange. And existing initiatives are expanding their networks, organizing neighborhood help or distributing protective masks.

"While this makes our work more difficult with what we had planned," she sums up, "it also shows that we are on the verge of a very relevant topic; namely, supporting new forms of cooperation in crises.


"One should never doubt that a small group of smart, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it is the only way that has ever succeeded."

Margaret Mead (1901 - 1978 American ethnologist)

Uwe Blass (Interview on 30.04.2020)

Karoline Augenstein studied Political Science and Eeconomics in Maastricht and Oldenburg. In 2015 she received her doctorate from the Schumpeter School of Business and Economics at the University of Wuppertal. Since 2017 the junior professor for policy analysis, in particular transformation research and sustainability, has been teaching at the Institute of Political Science ibid.

More information about #UniWuppertal: