Is knowledge brokering the missing link between science and changing behaviours for sustainable development and climate action? Patrick van Weerelt of UNSSC

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A solution to bridge the gap between science, policies, programmes, and practice is to use knowledge brokers, who are neutral intermediaries that function as an interface between the creators and users of knowledge. But what is knowledge brokering? Let's listen to Patrick van Weerelt of the UNSSC.


Breaking the silos
Leave no one behind
SDG17: Partnerships for the goals
2030 Agenda and SDGs
knowledge brokering
life-long learning
sustainable development

Transferring science and research into policy and practice is a complex process, but failing to do so results in inequities and wasted resources. Finding appropriate mechanisms for the transfer of science and research into policies, programmes, and practice has become a major driver in finding approaches and solutions to achieving sustainable development. There has been a major push in the uptake of research and evidence-based technologies and funding also began mandating the use of activities that link research-generated evidence to policy and practice.

A solution to bridge the gap between science, policies, programmes, and practice is to use knowledge brokers, who are neutral intermediaries that function as an interface between the creators and users of knowledge. They are the human force behind knowledge transfer, finding, assessing, interpreting evidence, facilitating interaction, developing accessible formats, and identifying opportunities for collaboration and exchange between the producers and users of knowledge and spur enablers for behaviour change. Is knowledge brokering the missing link between science and changing behaviours for sustainable development and climate action?

In this episode, we listen to Patrick van Weerelt, Head of the United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC) Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development on the importance of knowledge brokering in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the role of the Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development in brokering knowledge between different actors and stakeholders who do not usually engage with each other. He shared lessons he learned in his years of experience in the areas of learning, training, and knowledge management for sustainable development and his insights into the gap between acquiring knowledge and changing behaviours.

Want to learn more about sustainable development and learning? Subscribe to SDG Learncast. Visit UN SDG:Learn website at to get the latest learning offers on the 2030 Agenda and SDGs. The transcript of the podcast is available at 

The opinions expressed in the SDG Learncast podcasts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UN SDG:Learn, its Joint Secretariat, and partners.

[Transcript of the podcast]

Paulyn Duman: Welcome to the SDG Learncast with me, Paulyn Duman. In every episode, I bring you insightful conversations around the subject of sustainable development and learning, helping us all to achieve a sustainable future. Our guest for today is Mr. Patrick van Weerelt, the Head of Office of the United Nations System Staff College, Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development in Bonn. Welcome to the show, Patrick!

Patrick, can you introduce yourself and your work at the United Nations System Staff College Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development?

Patrick van Weerelt: Sure. First of all, thank you for inviting me. It's a great pleasure to be with you in this podcast or learncast. My name is Patrick Van Weerelt and I have the privilege to lead the work of the UNSSC Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development. The Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development is an integral part of the UN System Staff College. Our particular role as knowledge center located in Bonn, Germany is to respond to the comprehensive learning, training and knowledge needs of UN staff and partners, when it comes to the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and the Paris agreement on climate change. It's concretely means we design and deliver offerings ranging from face-to-face courses to online learning paths, and from leadership peer learning to learning academy. At the core of all of our efforts is a systems approach to get people to both think and act through the lens of sustainable development, largely, and more practically speaking, we demystify, synthesize essential information and serve as brokers between science and academia and practitioners, staff, civil servants, states, or other stakeholders in the non-governmental and our private sectors.

Paulyn Duman: So you mentioned about brokering and synthesizing, a lot of facts, information and knowledge out there. And I think a lot of the work of the United Nations System Staff College Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development is really around this concept of knowledge brokering. Can you tell us a bit more about knowledge brokering and unpack this for our listeners? What is knowledge brokering and what is its role in the context of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development?

Patrick van Weerelt: Thank you for the question. It's a good one. And it's something that is truly at the forefront of many discussions in our house as well. And I believe I already hinted at it. When we're considering knowledge brokers, we're essentially thinking about people or institutions that connect different groups that have separate sets of knowledge but need to collaborate. In our case, we could be talking about scientists and policymakers, or about the knowledge-based shared among scientists, policymakers in the UN, and even about the UN internally.

After all, we still see many discussions inside our own organization where different UN programs and funds are using similar words and concepts, but actually mean different things. And what is critical is that one is up to date, the latest trends, policies, and news. Now one has the ability to translate knowledge into something that everyone understands and has a great capacity for storytelling. As a knowledge broker, you really need to be a decision-making and be able to do due diligence to ensure you deliver meaningful content. And in a sense, we are advancing research to the next level by explaining it in understandable language and learning formats. One example in our case, for instance, is the work we have been able to do around the key elements of the Paris agreement on climate change and build a course around and link it to the five P's of sustainable development. One key element there to notice this as well is that knowledge brokering goes beyond the translation of knowledge alone, knowledge brokering means that we are actively involved in the debate, and that is important to stress. And I would say, in fact, that is what we believe sets us apart from many others. We not only have experience and expertise in instructional design and learning, but we also have genuine in our sustainable development and UN programming expertise, which allows us to engage as much as the program policy intersection, as it does at the science policy intersection and ability to bring all these elements together in understandable formats is truly, I believe, something that will help all of us further the need for transformative change.

Paulyn Duman: Can you expand a bit more on the role of the Knowledge Center in this knowledge brokering? What groups and individuals that you conduct knowledge brokering for? You have already alluded to the example of the climate change course. Perhaps you can also provide other examples?

Patrick van Weerelt: That's a really broad question that you're asking me there, and the answer could be equally broad, of course, but looking at current practice, we are particularly active in knowledge brokering for civil servants, whether working with schools of public administration or ministries of health, but also with UN staff. And this one is on the intersection of what I highlighted earlier on the intersection of UN programming processes and transformative change for sustainable development. And as today, I have to say I'm particularly proud of our UNCT leadership program in which we have literally taken senior UN leaders into brown coal mine in Germany, and let them interact with government officials, civil society, and the mining company to reflect on possible sustainable solutions for the future. It brings together knowledge, applications and reality in a format that is truly inspiring. And I believe our participants have really been able to feel and touch the need for that transformative change that we're all talking about. And I've actually been truly inspired to take that forward in their own settings as well. I would also say in that regard, it's one thing to highlight that on this Learncast, but for the listeners who would like to learn more about this specific example, I would like to invite them to contact us as we have also designed to very nice VR learning product around it. And I'm sure it can serve as a very interesting learning tool for many people.

Paulyn Duman: Thank you so much for that, Patrick. I think a lot of our listeners would be so interested in that immersive learning experience that you mentioned, and really having this experience of going to a mine and being there present, seeing real faces and people who are really affected by some of the changes that are happening in their community. You have been working in the area of sustainable development for more than 20 years. And in your years of experience, what were the challenges that you saw in the exchange of knowledge? What I mean by that is why do you think knowledge and learning is important in achieving sustainable development? And how were you able to overcome those challenges, if you can share some examples.

Patrick van Weerelt: Sure. I think what would be helpful probably is to go back even to the establishment of the Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development. Because we really used one central question to build the center around it and the question was, do people know what they need to know? And if so, do they demonstrate the corresponding behavior as a result? It seems a very obvious question and it certainly is. And the answer to it wasn't really hard to establish either, but it became a great starting point for discovery. And what we noted were a number of recurring key issues when it came to sustainable development learning. Let me try to capture them in five points.

First, I think that will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone, we noted and still known today that the narrative of sustainable development isn't consistent when talking to different stakeholders.

Second, even if there is a lot of technical knowledge on a particular SDG, relatively little effort is put into, genuinely, bringing different streams together. On this side and in this regard, one of the things that we did as a result is we produced the sustainable development Rubik's cube aligned with the five P’s of the 2030 agenda to explain the interconnections between the SDGs and within the larger context of sustainable development as a whole. Another very nice learning tool to explain the complexities of sustainable development to many different audiences. We saw in that regard that the current whole of system offered that we always talk about really needs to be strengthened and be more cohesive and integrated. And that is still a long way to go.

Third, knowledge might be available, but it doesn't mean that when people know something, they have the conviction in their hearts to actually act, how do we make people part of the discourse, discovery, and solution. How to develop common purpose after all, we all know that success will only happen when all stakeholders have an incentive to make it succeed. This element is critical to reflect upon and to build into your learning processes as well.

And fourth, coming back to learning specifically, we had to acknowledge that learning is much more than courses alone. Learning is about the process of acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behavior, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences. And for this to happen, learning formats need to be updated all the time. And a much bigger use of artificial intelligence will be needed to accommodate this. If everyone is offered the same, it might give room to people to believe they already know the course. This in turn influences motivation. And that's why it's critical to step up on what we say so fancy, to step up on agile and adaptive micro-learning.

Finally, and related to my third point, life rarely bakes like a cake and too often sustainable development and sustainable development learning is approached as if we're baking a cake. We have a goal or a recipe and ingredient. But for transformative change to happen, we need to be much more flexible and creative and acknowledge that such processes are both technical and political. Sustainable development is inevitably dependent on the making of choices through the political process. And I believe it was Duncan Green in his book on ‘How change happens’, I think that's the title who stressed that we really need to learn to dance with the system. And I strongly feel it's that part, that learning to dance with the system, the political economy of sustainable development is often left out or not sufficiently emphasized in sustainable development learning.

Paulyn Duman: I really liked the analogy that you used with baking and dancing. So I think that's a really good way to put together all of these concepts. And one thing that I take away from that is that sustainable development is not a technical exercise. It's not like I'm looking at the recipe, but it's more complex than just following and ticking boxes in that sense.

Patrick, we have so many young people listening to this podcast who I'm sure are thinking of becoming researchers, policy makers, leaders, or maybe even knowledge brokers, what you have just mentioned, which is a potential career path for them? Something that they can also engage in and do in the future. What message do you have for young people? On their role in the building sharing and using knowledge and what can they do about knowledge brokering in their own communities and groups?

Patrick van Weerelt: Thanks, Paulyn. That is really an interesting discussion. And I know that many young people are deeply involved in these processes and are thinking about them. Also, considering some of the things we have not yet been able to do ourselves and should do more of, let me return to my original training as a human rights lawyer. One of the elements as a human rights lawyer, when we're discussing education, is a human rights-based approach to education. We're talking about absolute requirements to have education available, accessible, adaptable, and of quality. I'll leave the quality element outside for now, as that is a given that should be focused on. But when you begin to focus and reflect on learning, especially learning on sustainable development, you're essentially discussing a public good. If it's a public good, it is incredibly important to ensure that we make our formats and learning available, accessible, and adaptable. I would strongly invite everyone, young people and others, to start focusing on this, as it's often a challenge. This is also strongly linked to the whole process of open educational resources. What is needed is a significant boost, a massive ability to spread the word, and being comfortable with sharing. Through the sharing of experiences and learning, we can reach many more people who still need to be reached. So, when engaging in research and brokering, always keep in mind availability, accessibility, adaptability, and of course, the quality of what we're trying to present. And if possible, make it available to as many people as possible. This is easier said than done. It might sound extremely logical that this is how we should be doing it, but we have experienced that it's not always as straightforward for various reasons. However, we really need to receive a boost. We need to have a much more energetic community out there, one that also engages with people who are not like themselves. That is still a challenge that we're observing. If you are in one area, such as economics, start conversing with environmentalists. If you're an environmentalist, initiate conversations with economists, and so on. It's that sharing, building, and knowledge brokering that is required. I believe young people are much more open to these interactions and are more adept at making them happen. This is what we're seeing, of course, and I think it's strongly recommended from where I'm sitting.

Paulyn Duman: I read it like the three things that you mentioned about addressing it as a public good or treating it as a public good. And making it open and talking to other people. And this is so relevant also in the situation that we have now with the COVID crisis, with the COVID pandemic. And of course, with the vaccination, the research on vaccination and a lot of knowledge around the science behind it. I think this is also very applicable to this in this context making it public. Making sure that it is open and shared with everyone. Everyone has access to quality of knowledge that is good, and that can be adapted to the specific context of the different people. And talking to them different stakeholders, actors, friends, communities that are not usually the people that they talk to. I think this is really a powerful message for young people.

Patrick, lastly, I know that UNSSC Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development has a lot of courses and materials on sustainable development, learning on the UN SDG:Learn. Could you give our listeners some guidance on the materials and resources that UNSSC has on sustainable development?

Patrick van Weerelt: Sure. Obviously, we have numerous courses featured on UN SDG:Learn both fee-based as well as free of charge courses. But I would like to particularly point out our free-of-charge offerings. In my mind, these courses are certainly, of course, the basis of the reviews that we have had. They are certainly worth choosing, as they provide a seamless experience with continuously updated content, peer-to-peer learning included, and notwithstanding sometimes cohorts of more than 500 people, still facilitated processes. So, the way these courses are set up is quite special.

And programs in this category also cover topics that are likely of interest to many listeners. One is the Paris Agreement on climate change as a development agenda, which I already referred to. It's a course developed in collaboration with the UN climate change secretariat. Another course is on Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development, which we developed with the OECD. The third course is on Anti-corruption in the context of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development developed together with the United Nations Development Programme. A very popular course that we also have is on Circular economy and a 2030 agenda together with developed in collaboration with UNEP. And then we have a fifth one on Unleashing the power of the private sector in implementing the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, which has a slightly different take on how we approach it.

And towards the last quarter of 2021, we will be launching two more courses. One is on Social Protection, which we are designing and developing, I believe, in collaboration with the ILO. The last one is centered around communications for the 2030 agenda and the SDGs, which we are developing in partnership with the UN Office for Global Communications.

And all these offerings are free of charge and interesting to engage in. Above that you can, of course also find SDG Primer course. We developed that at the request of partners and last but not least or better not, we, you, Paulyn, are doing quite an amazing job with this particular SDG Learncast. And that's another contribution to UN SDG:Learn, but also to sustainable development burning at large, because it comes back to the very fundamental element that we have that we are reiterating that time and again, that learning is much more than courses alone. So, in that sense, this is also a good way of getting back to the very start and to actually say to you, thank you for having these questions around sustainable development, around the Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development and what we're doing.

And I can just say to all listeners that we do a lot of on demand services as well. So I would say don't be shy, reach out to us. We are always willing to explore how we can bring the message to as many different people as possible. And the more creative you are, the more creative we get. So again, just get in touch and look forward to hearing from all of you.

Paulyn Duman: Thank you so much, Patrick. It's such a pleasure to have you at SDG Learncast.

Patrick van Weerelt: You're very welcome! 


Paulyn Duman: First we learned that when we talk about knowledge brokers, we refer to people or institutions who connect different groups that have separate sets of knowledge but need to work together. An important characteristic of a knowledge broker is the ability to translate knowledge into something that everyone understands and has a great capacity for storytelling. But we also learned that that knowledge brokering goes beyond the translation of knowledge alone but also involves being actively involved in the debates and discussions. Moreover, knowledge brokers have experience and expertise in designing learning experiences and substantive topics.

In the case of the Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development, Patrick highlighted that its role as a Knowledge Broker in the context of the 2030 Agenda means that staff both have the expertise on sustainable development topics but also on designing and developing learning, which is more than courses. The ability to translate knowledge into understandable language and formats is crucial in bringing the science, programme, and policy expertise together and draw engagement from the different experts.

Lastly, we learned that even when knowledge is available and shared, it does not mean that behaviour change will follow and this where the role of the knowledge brokers becomes very important in the learning process among the different actors and stakeholders. They can ensure that learning is achieved through a process of acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behavior, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences which will require a constant updating of the approaches, formats, and ways of knowledge brokering.

You can find more of the SDG LearnCast on the UN SDG:Learn website. For now, I’m Paulyn Duman. Thanks for listening.


Paulyn Duman is the Knowledge Management, Communications, and Reporting Officer at the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development and is a coordinator for the Joint Secretariat of UN SDG:Learn, together with UNITAR.  

The opinions expressed in the SDG Learncast podcasts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UN SDG:Learn, its Joint Secretariat, and partners.