The Baltic Sea coast – Photo by Andrea Franke

By Andrea Franke, Kimberley Peters, Jochen Hinkel, Anna-Katharina Hornidge, Achim Schlüter, Oliver Zielinksi, Karen Wiltshire, Ute Jacob, Gesche Krause, and Helmut Hillebrand.

This Plain Language Summary is published ahead of the article discussed; check back soon for a link to the full paper.

The oceans and our societies worldwide are inextricably linked with each other. The marine environment provides food and energy, facilitates trading and transport of goods, generates jobs and is thus essential in securing human health, well-being and prosperity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), fisheries and aquaculture form the basis of livelihood provision for more than 10% of the world’s population and in many countries fish and seafood are an essential source of protein. The oceans cover 70% of the Earth´s surface which equals almost 362 million km2. It is an area of intangible scale which has long been perceived as an endless reservoir of living and non-living resources. Hence, harmful marine practices such as overfishing and oil production were assumed to be negligible. However, our seas and coasts have been adversely affected through human pressures such as climate change, pollution and habitat destruction for a long time. Moreover, the so-called Blue Economy, including sectors such as fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, underwater mining and shipping, is largely set up in an unsustainable manner. All these cumulative pressures endanger the health of marine ecosystems. Consequently, we are facing an unprecedented loss of marine life in various marine ecosystems, affecting not only the ocean but also public health and well-being. Therefore, sustainable marine and coastal governance are increasingly demanded. Governance refers to the activities of a wide range of individual people, communities organizations, businesses and governments who manage a given resource, such as the ocean.

The United Nations have dedicated the period of 2021-2030 to the ocean. The ‘United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development’ is a global effort to enact change through producing ‘the science we need for the ocean we want’. The objectives are to generate knowledge and build capacity to overcome the ‘Decade Challenges’, for example, to ‘understand and beat marine pollution’, ‘protect and restore ecosystems and biodiversity’, ‘sustainably feed the global population’ and ‘change humanities relationship with the ocean’. It is an ambitious concept where ‘Decade Actions’ in the form of different programs, projects and activities are carried out to overcome these challenges. Altogether, the Ocean Decade highlights the importance the ocean has for people worldwide and provides opportunities to address blind spots in marine knowledge.

However, a multitude of different perspectives – ecological, societal, political, economic – and relations between these have to be understood and taken into consideration to foster sustainable marine research and development. Hence, societal change towards sustainability is arguably a complex endeavor and the core challenge is that the ‘right’ solutions cannot be easily found because our abilities to predict complex systems are limited. What is ‘right’ for one set of actors using the marine environment, might be different to another. This means that societal transformation is necessarily a journey towards the unknown and therefore requires research approaches that must enable the involvement of everyone with stakes in the future of our marine environment and its resources.

In this regard, a promising participatory research method are real-world laboratories (RwLs). In our article, we discuss how real-world labs could facilitate and guide successful knowledge exchange at the interface of science and society. One core element of real-world labs is participation of all relevant stakeholders, but on-site, where the marine issues at stake, take place. Within the scope of ‘Decade Actions’, real-world labs can act as a way of exploring and testing potential strategies and options through joint experimentation leading to interventions towards much-needed change. In our article, we specifically illustrate how deploying the method of real-world labs could be advantageous when having to deal with multiple, overlapping challenges in the context of ocean governance and the Blue Economy. Taken together, marine real-world labs may represent a valuable tool for the Ocean Decade mission of working towards ‘transformative ocean science solutions for sustainable development, connecting people and our ocean’.