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LDE Sustainability Fundamentals


Admission requirements

This course is part of the Bachelor Honours Programme Sustainability (Leiden-Delft-Erasmus) and is therefore only open to students that are enrolled in this programme. Students take both courses of the programme (Fundamentals and Challenge) in the same academic year.


Sustainability, systems thinking, environmental change, transitions, design of sustainable interventions


Sustainability, environmental science, economics, policy science, urban studies, sociology, governance


  1. Analysing
  2. Oral communication
  3. Written communication
  4. Presenting
  5. Societal awareness
  6. Reflecting
  7. Independent learning

Number of students

Minimum of 24 and maximum 30.


This seminar series introduces you to key topics in sustainability research and thereby provides you with insights that will prepare you for working on the LDE Sustainability Challenge. There will be three main sections: 1) foundations of sustainability and systems thinking, 2) system transitions and environmental change, and 3) practical options for addressing sustainability issues and challenges.

In interactive seminars, experts from the three universities, as well as invited guest speakers, will provide you with the necessary insights to start working on the LDE Sustainability Challenge.

Assessments will be based on developing the understanding of environmental and social systems, examining how systems undergo transitions, and what options we have for interventions to make systems more sustainable.

Course objectives

Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Apply systems thinking to analyze sustainability challenges

  • Understand how systems transition in complex environment/social interactions.

  • Understand key considerations in the design of interventions aimed to support sustainable system transitions.

  • Identify potential tools that can be used in the design of interventions aimed to support sustainable systems transitions.

Programme and timetable

Classes will begin at 19:00 and run for 2 hours on Tuesdays. They will cover a variety of content and include active engagement through various activities.

General Introduction

  • November 15th

Module “Foundations of sustainability and systems thinking”

  • November 22th – Sustainability Science
    Dr. Paul Behrens (LU): We will introduce sustainability as a scientific field. We will describe how sustainability is defined and discuss major global challenges with existential consequences.

  • November 29th – Systems thinking theory
    Dr. Daan Schraven (TUD): We will discuss systems thinking and show several examples. We will show how systems can surprise us and why we can become ‘locked-in’ to bad environmental and social situations.

  • December 6th – System response to sustainability challenges
    Dr. Wouter Spekkink (EUR): We will explore how actors can influence systems in both delaying and accelerating global sustainability transitions. We will give several examples through history and the literature.

Module “System transitions and environmental change”

  • December 13th – System transitions
    Dr. Daan Schraven (& Dr. Sonja van Dam): We will review sustainability transitions literature and discuss how it can help us identify leverage points that can be used to transform systems. We will cover several examples in political agreements, urban environment, and international trade.

  • January 10th – Social Change
    Dr. Wouter Spekkink: We will discuss the literature and theory on how social change can be achieved. We will cover examples of social innovations and interventions in different domains.

  • January 24th – Environmental Change
    Dr. Paul Behrens: We will learn about the possible impacts social and technological changes can have on sustainability transitions and why many of the most important and seemingly easy transitions we can make (plant-based diets, insulation, renewable energy) require large-scale changes across many sectors of society. For these cases we will survey im-portant leverage points for systems change.

Module “Practical options for addressing sustainability issues and challenges"

  • February 7th – Design methods for sustainable transitions
    Dr. Sonja van Dam: We will discuss a range of design methods on how to approach the sustainability challenges and engage stakeholders. We will show how to translate theory to practise and accelerate change by provid-ing examples on how design methods have been applied in the past.

  • February 21st – Designing for social change
    Dr. Wouter Spekkink: Building on the previous lecture, we will zoom in on recent developments in the thinking on designing for social change. We will discuss examples of design methods and what makes them distinct.

  • March 7th – Monitoring system change
    Dr. Paul Behrens: We will describe some options for measuring and ana-lysing change in a system. For example, how can you assess progress in the energy and food system towards climate change, and how might this progress fit in with changes across other issues such as biodiversity loss and social inequality?

Reading list

The reading list for the three parts will include (but is not limited to):

1. Understanding our sustainability problems from a systems perspective

  • Behrens, P., The Best of Times The Worst of Times: Futures from the Frontiers of Climate Science, The Indigo Press, 2022 (new edition)

  • Meadows D.H., Thinking in Systems, Chelsea Green, 2008

  • G. C. Unruh, Understanding carbon lock-in. Energy Policy. 28, 817–830 (2000).

2. Transitions: what are the ways in which systems can change?

  • G. C. Unruh, Escaping carbon lock-in. Energy Policy. 30, 317–325 (2002)

  • S. Bernstein, M. Hoffmann, Climate politics, metaphors and the fractal carbon trap. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 919–925 (2019).

  • F. W. Geels, B. K. Sovacool, T. Schwanen, S. Sorrell, The Socio-Technical Dynamics of Low-Carbon Transitions. Joule, 1–17 (2017).

  • Shove, E., Watson, M., & Spurling, N. (2015). Conceptualizing connections: Energy demand, infrastructures and social practices. European Journal of Social Theory, 18(3), 274–287.

3. How can we make interventions in sustainability challenges and what are the main things to consider in designing these?

  • Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’ s climate by 2050. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. (2020), doi:10.1073/pnas.1900577117.

  • Ceschin, F., & Gaziulusoy, I. (2016). Evolution of design for sustainability: From product design to design for system innovations and transitions. Design Studies, 47, 118–163.

  • Hoolahan, C., & Browne, A. L. (2020). Design thinking for practice-based intervention: Co-producing the change points toolkit to unlock (un)sustainable practices. Design Studies, 67, 102–132.

  • Schraven, D., Arghandeh Jouneghani, P., Jonkers H.M., Hertogh, M.J.C.M., (2021). Design to market thinking: exploring the merits of strategic niche management in design thinking, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management,

Further literature will be announced in class or via Brightspace.

Course load and teaching method

This course is worth 5 ECTS, which means the total course load equals 140 hours:

  • Seminars: 10 seminars of 2 hours (participation is mandatory)

  • Preparation for seminars: approx. 6 hours per seminar (60 hours).

  • Assignments: approximately 60 hours

Assessment methods

The assessment will be based on several components that address specific case studies to be selected in class.

  • Participation assessed continually through participation in seminars

  • Assignment 1: 15% Mapping systems (1000 words – deadline end of first module – December 13th)

  • Assignment 2: 20% Assessing interventions for sustainability transitions (1500 words – deadline January 31th)

  • Assignment 3: 35% Performing literature reviews for sustainability challenges (2000 words – deadline February 7th)

  • Assignment 4: 30% Using design thinking to develop sustainability interventions (1500 words – deadline March 14th)

Students could only pass this course after successful completion of all partial exams.

The assessment methods will be further explained in the first session of the class.


The Brightspace environment of Leiden University will be used in this course. Students will be enrolled to the Brightspace module by the organisation of the course.

Registration process

Enrolling in this course is possible from 1 September 2022 up to noon 19 October 2022 (12:00hr), through the Honours Academy of Leiden University. The registration link will be posted on the student website of the Honours Academy of Leiden University.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for this course. Your registration will be done centrally.

Please note for Delft students: Interested TU Delft students should first have been selected as Honours Programme Bachelor (HPB) students by their respective faculty. Only HPB students are eligible to register for this programme.


Programme coordinator: Esther van der Ent,