Sustainability strategies in municipalities are increasingly important in the work to meet the societal challenges of today. Research at LiU makes it easier to effectively implement the UN global climate objectives of Agenda 2030 at local level.


Sweden’s municipalities are important players in the work of sustainable development, from economic, ecological and social perspectives. As time has passed the practical content of the concept of “sustainable development” has changed. Agenda 21 was popular in municipalities during the 1990s, and an environmental perspective dominated local work with sustainability. Economic and social aspects received little or no attention. As the years passed, increasing awareness of the importance of including these perspectives in the work with sustainability led to increasing numbers of municipal, regional and governmental bodies becoming involved. The focus now is on how the UN’s 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be used as a framework for progress, and improving the work with sustainability carried out by government agencies. The 17 goals include good health and well-being, sustainable cities and communities, and climate action.

The work with the 2030 Agenda and the global goals, however, requires that municipalities collaborate efficiently with other actors, and work together with them to increase their ability to deal with societal challenges. Broad collaboration between and within municipalities, regions, the civil society, the business world, the government, and the academic world is required, in order to deal with the complex issues that sustainable development involves.

Portrait of a blonde woman in cerise blouse in front of a window Photo credit Anna Valentinsson

Sara Gustafsson is associate professor in environmental technology and management with a specialisation in environmental management at Linköping University, LiU. Her research concerns the role of municipalities in sustainable development, and focusses on strategy, governance and collaboration with other actors such as government agencies, the business world and civil society. The questions she works on, in collaboration with other LiU researchers, concern, for example, strategic work with sustainability, how municipalities design their strategies, which internal and external actors are involved, and how the strategies are received by those who are to carry out the measures that ensure that work with sustainability moves forward.

The significance of the research for society

The SDGs heralded a new era for local and global work with sustainability. Sara Gustafsson was one of the first to start research into how this may influence Swedish work with sustainability in municipalities and regions.

One ongoing research project is LETS: Levelling the local sustainability management performance through integration of the SDGs (2017-2020). It summarises, analyses and disseminates knowledge about how experiences of activities are linked to the global goals. The studies have contributed new knowledge and inspiration to regions and municipalities that are faced with integrating the SDGs. The results from the first part of the project have been collected in a report aimed at the general public: Lokal implementering av Agenda 2030 och Globala målen – en kort översikt av regioners och kommuners erfarenheter, möjligheter och utmaningar (in English: Local Implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs – a brief summary of the experiences, opportunities and challenges facing regions and municipalities). The report has been widely disseminated in municipalities, regions and government agencies.

“I have worked in close collaboration with municipalities and regions since my time as a doctoral student 20 years ago, and I receive many requests from municipalities to hold lectures and seminars into how they should approach their strategic work with sustainability. Many municipalities still find implementation of the 2030 Agenda to be a challenge”, says Sara Gustafsson.

Her long research career in the governance of work with sustainability has also given her a prominent role in work of the SIS (Swedish Institute for Standards) with its guidance standard Management system for sustainability in communities – Guideline. The work to draw up the standard was conducted between 2008 and 2014 in a collaboration that involved around 40 parties, including municipalities, regions and government agencies. The standard provides support for an organisation to improve its existing operations through political management, and shows how the organisation can contribute to local, regional and global sustainable development. The standard is now being updated to be compatible with the 2030 Agenda, and Sara Gustafsson and her research are central to this process. Planned publishing date for the new standard is December 2020.
Jonas Frykman is a consultant within issues relating to societal development, and chairman of the SIS technical committee Sustainable Cities and Communities. This committee is working with the new guidelines.

“There’s not much other research about how organisations can bring the 2030 Agenda to reality in day-to-day work. Many municipalities and regions feel highly motivated, but don’t know the best ways to act. This is where Sara Gustafsson’s research comes in, and shows clearly how important it is to work within the existing governance system of the organisation, in order to have any effect. If the work is conducted as a side issue, as short-term projects, the prospects of success are low. Her research supports a conceptual model in our work with standards, which is characterised by her analysis and results”, says Jonas Frykman.

Students taking Master’s programmes in engineering and those taking the Bachelor Programme in Urban and Regional Planning meet relevant research in their courses in sustainable development, and many are interested in project work linked in some way to the 2030 Agenda and the governance of sustainable development. In this way the research results of the university are taken by graduates from the university into their professional life, both in Sweden and abroad.

Research results that have contributed to the significance

Research into the work of municipalities with sustainability has been gradually built up during the past 20 years, and this has taken place in close collaboration with the municipalities. There has been an intense focus on governance and strategic management systems, in which aspects such as the significance of internal and external consensus, solutions tailored to operations, and continuity have been emphasised.

Other aspects that have received attention in the studies are the importance of collaboration with organisations, stakeholders and citizens in questions of sustainable development. The research also brings out the significance that work with sustainable development is integrated with operational governance and that there is a clear link to the budgets of the municipalities and regions.

In recent years, Sara Gustafsson’s research has been concentrated on the increasing work of municipalities with the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. A great deal of activity here is under way in municipalities and regions, and there is thus increasing experience in the implementation of the goals. Sara Gustafsson collects and summarises the experience, followed by analysis and dissemination to relevant bodies. In this way, she contributes inspiration and new knowledge to regions and municipalities that are faced with implementing the global goals.

Methods and circumstances that have been decisive for the significance of the research


A well-developed collaboration with municipalities over many years has resulted in the research having relevance for municipalities. It also helps to develop their work. Collaboration has also taken place with, among organisations, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR), SIS and the United Nations Association of Sweden.

Academic collaboration takes place within Sweden and abroad, with Stockholm University, Aalborg University in Denmark, the international research centre Nordregio, and the interdisciplinary research institute CIRODD in Canada.

Networks and other outreach

Considerable work has been invested in participating in networks, principally networks that link municipalities. The networks, together with other meetings, workshops, lectures, etc. have been opportunities to disseminate research results, and have provided ideas for further research in the form of updates to questions with which municipalities work.

Reports in Swedish

Sara Gustafsson has adopted a deliberate strategy that involves writing reports, based on research results, in Swedish aimed at the general public. Such popular scientific reports are intended to reach a broader readership. One example is the above-mentioned report Lokal implementering av Agenda 2030 och Globala målen – en kort översikt av regioners och kommuners erfarenheter, möjligheter och utmaningar (in English: Local Implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs – a brief summary of the experiences, opportunities and challenges facing regions and municipalities). This has reached many employees in municipalities, and has spread knowledge about the local implementation of the 2030 Agenda. In this way, research results have been spread to people who work with these questions at various municipal levels.

“The popular scientific reports are a large part of the reason that so many people who work in municipalities are familiar with my research. My results have stimulated people’s thought processes, and I am often invited to hold lectures and workshops. The municipalities can thus receive acknowledgement for the work they do, and guidance about whether they are working in the best way”, says Sara Gustafsson.

Jannica Schelin is process manager and coordinator in Norrköping Municipality. She has been in contact with Sara Gustafsson for many years when working with sustainability.
“Most recently she helped us to give concrete meaning to the SDGs and their implementation. What should we do, how can we be innovative, and what should we do more of? We adopt her research results in practical use”, says Jannica Schelin.

Collaboration at Linköping university