Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

1 Systems practice for ‘managing’ sustainable development

Systems approaches have a long and chequered association with the domain of sustainable development and its antecedents. In this unit I will follow some of the history of the application of systems thinking to this domain. My aim in doing so is to illustrate how the methods, tools and models employed in systems studies have evolved.

It is not surprising that systems practitioners have had a long engagement with the domain of sustainable development. As you have already seen the issues involved are characteristically large-scale messes. In any situation involving sustainable development there are many people and organisations involved, each with their own different perspective. There will not be any widespread agreement about the nature of the problem, its timescale or what any solution or resolution would look like. It is also usual for an issue to involve many different areas of expertise. By their very nature the issues in sustainable development require a holistic approach – so if ever there was a domain in which systems methods should be of use this is it. In practice systems studies have not always yielded the results or influence that its proponents would have hoped for.

Historically, the concept of sustainable development emerged from the period at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s when the post-war assumptions were powerfully challenged in many different ways. The first challenge was that industrial development could not continue to ignore its impact on the environment. As this challenge evolved it crystallised into a belief that there were significant limits to the scale of human activity on Planet Earth.

The second challenge was related but with a different focus. It was concerned with whether the economic assumptions, on which the western economies were based, were an appropriate basis for planning and policy making. This challenge came to be focussed and discussed in terms of a paper concerned with the management of ‘common land’.

The third challenge was to the assumption that science and technology were universally benign and could and would solve all development problems. Underlying this criticism was a profound challenge to the positivist and rationalist world-views, which then prevailed amongst scientists and other practitioners. We will use an example to illustrate the subtlety with which world-views can affect development and approaches to sustainable development.

What emerges from all these examples is a need to review not just the tools and theories used to think about and analyse development and sustainability issues but also the modes of engagement with the problems and opportunities and other participants.

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