in: People and Nature, 5 (1), 21-33
Due to the strong interconnectedness between the ocean and our societies worldwide, improved ocean governance is essential for sustainable development in the context of the UN Ocean Decade. However, a multitude of different perspectives—ecological, societal, political, economic—and relations between these have to be understood and taken into consideration to foster transformative pathways towards marine sustainability. A core challenge that we are facing is that the ‘right’ response to complex societal issues cannot be known beforehand as abilities to predict complex systems are limited. Consequently, societal transformation is necessarily a journey towards the unknown and therefore requires experimental approaches that must enable the involvement of everyone with stakes in the future of our marine environment and its resources. A promising transdisciplinary research method that fulfils both criteria—being participatory and experimental—are real-world laboratories. Here, we discuss how real-world labs can serve as an operational framework in the context of the Ocean Decade by facilitating and guiding successful knowledge exchange at the interface of science and society. The core element of real-world labs is transdisciplinary experimentation to jointly develop potential strategies leading to targeted real-world interventions, essential for achieving the proposed ‘Decade Outcomes’. The authors specifically illustrate how deploying the concept of real-world labs can be advantageous when having to deal with multiple, overlapping challenges in the context of ocean governance and the blue economy. Altogether, we offer a first major contribution to synthesizing knowledge on the potentials of marine real-world labs, considering how they act as a way of exploring options for sustainable ocean futures. Indeed, in the marine context, real-world labs are still under-explored but are a tangible way for addressing the societal challenges of working towards sustainability transformations over the coming UN Ocean Decade and beyond.