USER organizes its' research and other activities through five programs. These programs are implemented through combining separately funded projects and building and supporting collaboration through networks and partnerships.
M-POWER - The Mekong Program On Water, Environment and Resilience aims to improve livelihood security , human and ecosystem health in the Mekong Region through democratising water governance. USER staff conduct research and other activities in support of the program. During 2005-2010 USER helped coordinate the international collaborative network (visit: http://www.mpowernetwork.org/)
U-TURN - Urban Transformation and Urbanization Research Network focusses on innovative ways of decoupling adverse environmental changes from progressive social change through regional development strategies, policies and participatory processes that influence how urbanization unfolds. USER staff contribute primary research and help coordinate a collaborative network.
SPACES - Sustainable Production And Consumption Systems program focusses on the challenges and opportunities that arise from treating commodity chains as integrated systems. USER staff contribute primary research to this program and the director co-chairs an international working group is exploring ways of better linking knowledge and action (visit: www.sea-user.org/uweb.php?pg=47)
WALKS - Wellbeing, Alternative Livelihoods and Knowledge Systems program focusses on improving well-being and livelihood sustainability of disadvantaged groups through participatory action research, partnerships and capacity building activities aimed at grass-root actors. USER staff contribute to this program through research and flexible issue- or place-based partnerships.
ERA - Exploring Regional Alternatives program focusses on integrated analysis and participatory assessment and deliberation of alternative objectives, strategies and investments in regional development. USER staff contribute to this program through research and networks at several geographical scales.
USER Research aims to support efforts of pursuing sustainable and just societies. It is a pursuit because sustainability is a dynamic tension between environmental changes and social development at multiple scales that continually re-distributes benefits and involuntary risks. It is also a learning situation where we discover the limitations of what we know, and what we can decide, through research or practice alone. Our research is guided by three over-arching or cross-cutting themes: knowledge, governance and resilience.
Knowledge - When it comes to sustainability there is frequently a disjunct between what societies know and do. Science which can be very good at identifying problems and risks has not always been as helpful at generating solutions - what we do know is often not very practical. Practical and local knowledge may go un-validated and as result not be as transferrable as people might hope. At USER we have been helping develop a better conceptual foundation for the study of mixed knowledge systems. A knowledge system is a collection of knowledge creating, acquiring, storing, decision-making and sharing processes that arise through interaction of people and organizations. Ultimately we would like to know: How can diverse systems of knowledge be more effectively harnessed for sustainability?
Governance - Governance is not the sole purview of the state through government, but rather emerges from interactions of many actors including the private sector and not-for-profit organisations. Governance is the structures and processes by which societies share power, and thus shape individual and collective action. It includes laws, regulations, discursive debates, negotiation, mediation, conflict resolution, elections, public consultations, protests and other decision-making processes. Issues of accountability, legitimacy, public trust and representation cut across different power sharing arrangements. At USER we have being exploring the multi-level and -centre and -network characteristics of environmental and natural resource management politics. Ultimately we would like to be to be able to tell others: How can governance be transformed in ways that improve well-being and social justice for marginalized groups?
Resilience - The idea that we can “manage" and "control" environments and societies to eliminate disturances and uncertainties has again and again proven misplaced. This logic has also impacted how we think about sustainability. At USER we have been contributing to the development of ideas about development and the notion of sustainability as a pursuit in which there is no optimal best crop, land management practice or strategy and where uncertainties and non-linearities are pervasive. The alternative to trying to maintain, or transform to, a particularly narrowly defined system configuration is to manage resilience. Resilience is a measure of the amount of change a system can undergo and still retain the same controls on structure and function (or remain in the same domain of attraction. Our guiding questions is: How can the capacity to manage resilience of the human-environment systems be enhanced?