Socio-metabolic research and public policy: workshop findings

How can industrial ecology become more policy-relevant? About 30 industrial ecologists explored this question in a workshop at the ISIE-SEM 2022 conference in Vienna. During the workshop, which was organized by Stijn van Ewijk, Philip Nuss, and Alessio Miatto, the participants discussed how socio-metabolic research has been serving policymakers, what tools and evidence could make it more relevant, how it can be further integrated into the policy cycle, and what practical steps we should be taking next.


Participants of the 2022 ISIE-SEM conference explored how socio-metabolic research can influence policy.

Many attendees suggested industrial ecology already plays a major role in policy but also felt it can achieve much more. Examples of policy success include material flow accounting by governments including the European Union, the political attention for safeguarding critical raw materials, and policymakers’ use of carbon footprints. The attendees made many suggestions for greater policy influence, from broad approaches to practical steps, which are summarized below as 11 strategies for policy influence.

1. Bridging disciplinary gaps

Policymaking is an interdisciplinary challenge dominated by the social sciences and economics in particular. Whereas economics estimates both financial and non-financial costs and benefits of decisions in monetary terms, industrial ecology tends to focus on the environment and provide evidence only in physical units. By working with other disciplines, such as political science and economics, industrial ecology can cover more dimensions of policy problems.              

2. Formulating policy recommendations

Evidence does not speak for itself but needs to be translated into policy recommendations. Industrial ecologists could more often answer the “so what” question in their studies and translate the findings from research projects and conferences into tailored messages for decision-makers. Such messages would benefit from clear visualizations and appropriate formats (e.g., explainer videos, policy briefs).

3. Directly engaging policymakers

Industrial ecologists see many opportunities for direct engagement with policymakers. For example, inviting policymakers to join our conferences, whether as invited speakers or as participants in policy-focused sessions. At the same time, researchers may provide direct input into the policy process (e.g., consultations, expert committees) or spend time at policy institutions or governments as visiting researchers.

4. Social media and online strategies

A less involved strategy than direct engagement is using social media, such as posting on platforms like LinkedIn, a dedicated section on the ISIE website for policymakers, blogs and videos that communicate research findings, and a dedicated newsletter or mailing list for policymakers. The social media outreach of individual industrial ecologists may be coordinated for greater effectiveness. For example, we could use shared hashtags.

5. Visualizing and storytelling

Attractive visuals and storytelling can help communicate socio-metabolic research findings. By presenting our results in narrative form, akin to how science news is told in popular media outlets, they become more engaging and easier to understand and will reach a larger audience. Industrial ecology already generates appealing visuals, such as colourful Sankey diagrams, which can be further developed to communicate the main findings to lay audiences. 

6. Connecting through intermediaries

Industrial ecology is a field of study and the vast majority of our community consists of academic researchers with limited ties to the public and private sector. By partnering with intermediaries, such as non-governmental organizations that operate on the science-policy interface, we can connect with policymakers. Partnerships with influential organizations, such as think tanks, can significantly expand the reach of industrial ecology beyond the academic community.       

7. Making tools and evidence accessible

Not all tools and evidence in industrial ecology are easily accessible or useable. The Journal of Industrial Ecology is a pioneer in promoting transparency and accessibility, which can be built on further. Not all our research is published open access, and few tools are freely accessible or easy to use. Whilst we need to translate our research into easy-to-understand recommendations (strategy #2), the underlying science and tools should be accessible to policymakers wanting to dig deeper.

8. Providing tailored evidence

Whilst many industrial ecology studies provide very useful generalizable conclusions, policymakers often require evidence tailored to their local context. Moreover, for monitoring purposes, they need more recent data than what is customarily used in scientific studies. Industrial ecology research can expand its focus to evaluating context-specific policy problems and solutions, further integrate political goals and targets in its assessments, and generate more data or data generation tools for monitoring purposes.

9. Policy research and learning

Many participants’ suggestions for enhancing our policy influence boiled down to advancing the understanding of policymaking among industrial ecologists. For example, our community may benefit from a greater familiarity with the policy cycle, the policy influence of concepts like circular economy, and the latest laws and regulations. We can learn through research projects on policy developments, exchange programs with policy institutions, and direct engagement with policymakers (see also strategy #3).    

10. Leveraging wider society

Public policy is made by policymakers but influenced by a host of stakeholders and, potentially, any citizen within the policymakers’ jurisdiction. Industrial ecologists can influence policy indirectly by engaging with any of these parties. Examples include university teaching and popular outreach, media appearances, professional development courses, collaborations with industry that focus on regulatory reform, and providing tools and evidence for citizens.              

11. Scanning & acting on opportunities

Finally, to influence policy most effectively, industrial ecology must be ready to respond when a window of opportunity opens. By keeping track of political developments, industrial ecology can provide the right evidence at the right time. It must shape its research questions and methods to respond to the most pressing issues. Since few developments can be foreseen well in advance, the field must be prepared to respond quickly when an urgent need for evidence arises.


Altogether, the workshop provided valuable insights into how industrial ecology can become even more policy relevant. The workshop also enabled networking between industrial ecologists with a shared interest in public policy. If you are interested in helping develop public policy as a priority for impacts or as a research theme within the ISIE, feel free to reach out to the workshop organizers, and stay tuned for announcements regarding follow-up activity.