- Journal Article
Abstract: The field of sustainability science has grown significantly over the past two decades in terms of both conceptual development and empirical research. Systems-focused analysis is critical to building generalizable knowledge in the field, yet much relevant research does not take a systems view. Systems-oriented analytical frameworks can help researchers conceptualize and analyze sustainability-relevant systems, but existing frameworks may lack access or utility outside a particular research tradition.
In this article, we outline the human–technical–environmental (HTE) framework, which provides analysts from different disciplinary backgrounds and fields of study a common way to advance systems-focused research on sustainability issues. We detail a step-by-step guide for the application of the HTE framework through a matrix-based approach for identifying system components, studying interactions among system components, and examining interventions targeting components and/or their interactions for the purpose of advancing sustainability. We demonstrate the applicability of the HTE framework and the matrix-based approach through an analysis of an empirical case of coal-fired power plants and mercury pollution, which is relevant to large-scale sustainability transitions.
Based on this analysis, we identify specific insights related to the applicability of upstream and downstream leverage points, connections between energy markets and the use of pollution control technologies, and the importance of institutions fitting both biophysical dynamics and socioeconomic and political dynamics. Further application of the HTE framework and the identification of insights can help develop systems-oriented analysis, and inform societal efforts to advance sustainability, as well as contribute to the formulation of empirically grounded middle-range theories related to sustainability systems and sustainability transitions. We conclude with a discussion of areas for further development and application of the HTE framework.