Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Systems practice: Managing sustainability

2.1 Creative use of SS-method for ‘managing’ sustainable development in multiple stakeholder situations

Many nations are grappling with how to implement sustainable development strategies as part of international agreements they have entered into in the wake of the Earth Summits. Implementing sustainable development is no longer merely a vision for the future. Increasingly jobs are appearing for individuals with the skills to ‘manage’ sustainable development (Figure 9).

As explained earlier, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – to give the Earth Summit its full title – was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Out of this conference came Agenda 21, the comprehensive action plan for the pursuit of sustainable development in the 21st century. In common with many other countries, and in line with agreements made at Rio, the UK developed a strategy and local government in particular picked up on this quite strongly. Since the original Earth Summit in 1992 the many recommendations in Agenda 21 have been taken up in varying degrees. There is a series of issues around implementation ranging from finance to participation. However, many people worldwide have been, or are becoming, involved in the overall process of Agenda 21, from before the Rio conference to the present time, and it has been a major focus in many different countries for a great deal of activity on environment and development. Local Agenda 21 (LA21) programmes have been developed in several countries.

A 1997 review of LA21 activity in the UK by the Local Government Management Board (LGMB) (1997) based on returns by 170 local authorities, reported concerns with, and activities relating to, transport (especially motor car congestion and air pollution), energy efficiency, recycling and waste minimisation, noise, land use, protection of habitats and open spaces, water conservation and management and environmental education in schools. The report says LA21 ‘is really starting to make a difference … in the integration of environmental concerns with social and economic considerations. This linkage of the environment with issues around housing employment, crime, health, poverty, equality, under the banner of sustainable development is making the community look at things differently; making issues which previously seemed a luxury become pertinent’ (LGMB, 1997, p. 4) This report also noted that LA21 is starting to trigger a debate about enhancing local democracy and ensuring community involvement in local decision-making processes. For example a number of local authorities are using LA21 as a basis for developing strategies new to them that involve trying out community participation techniques and rethinking past ‘givens’ about how the authority interfaces and interacts with local people.

I wonder if your experience of LA21 accords with what is claimed by the LGMB report? From the perspective of being an English resident I certainly perceive a number of these issues (e.g. congestion) as affecting the quality of my daily life; they have not gone away as issues despite the increase in LA21 activity. As you might imagine things have moved on in terms of sustainable development policy. The European Union now has pursuit of sustainable development as one of its aims (this was a later development than the implementation of LA21 in the UK but is, of course, applicable to all EU member states).

Figure 9 Some of the posts that are appearing for people with the ability to ‘manage’ sustainable development

Box 5 Towards sustainable development – European Policy

The Treaty establishing the European Community, as amended by the Single European Act, explicitly provides for the development and implementation of a Community policy on the environment. The Maastricht Treaty sets the European Union the objective of promoting sustainable growth while respecting the environment. A further step was taken with the Treaty of Amsterdam, which incorporates the principle of sustainable development as one of the European Community’s aims.

The fifth programme of policy and action

The objective of the fifth programme of action in relation to the environment is to transform patterns of growth in the Community in such a way as to promote sustainable development.

The fifth programme sets out a new approach to Community environment policy based on the following principles:

  1. the adoption of a global, proactive approach aimed at the different actors and activities which affect natural resources or pollute the environment
  2. the will to change current trends and practices which harm the environment for current and future generations
  3. encouraging changes in social behaviour by engaging all the actors concerned (public authorities, citizens, consumers, enterprises, etc.)
  4. establishing the concept of shared responsibility
  5. using new environmental instruments.

In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, the Community is limiting its action to the following priority areas:

  1. long-term management of natural resources: soil, water, countryside and coasts
  2. an integrated approach to combating pollution, and acting to prevent waste
  3. reducing the consumption of energy from non-renewable sources
  4. improving the management of mobility by developing efficient and clean modes of transport
  5. drawing up a coherent package of measures to improve the quality of the urban environment
  6. improving health and safety, in particular in relation to the management of industrial hazards, nuclear safety and radiation protection.

Within the UK LA21 has now largely merged into local community planning. For example in Scotland an Act of the Scottish Parliament passed in 2003 (see [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ) is being implemented by a Community Planning Task Force whose role is to:

champion the community planning process, spread ownership, develop guidance, share good practice, encourage and develop citizenship, and act as a forum for advising on issues which arise as communities take forward their community plans.

SAQ 6 European policy – sustainable development

List the five principles on which the European Community environment policy is based.


The European Community environmental policy is based on the following principles:

  1. the adoption of a global, proactive approach aimed at the different actors and activities which affect natural resources or pollute the environment
  2. the will to change current trends and practices which harm the environment for current and future generations
  3. encouraging changes in social behaviour by engaging all the actors concerned (public authorities, citizens, consumers, enterprises, etc.)
  4. establishing the concept of shared responsibility
  5. using new environmental instruments.

Earlier I referred to the new community participation techniques that are being tried out by some local authorities under the aegis of LA21. These skills are also in demand for community planning approaches.

Community planning in my view, is an area where creative systems practice has much to offer. For example, based on my experience of using SS-method, and particularly the underlying thinking, I believe it has the potential to be used in a wider range of settings than has been the case historically. To date it has been used mainly in organisational settings and in dealing with messes in information system development. The application of SS-method, as a particular approach within systems practice is growing all the time, but in terms of all the management and consultancy activity that is undertaken, its use (in my experience) is still quite limited. You could choose to see this as an opportunity or a problem. From my perspective I see it as an opportunity. So, I want to invite you to build on your experience of using SS-method thus far in the course and to explore how SS-method in its latest guise might be used to design a process for enabling multiple stakeholders to participate in formulating and implementing a sustainable development strategy. My aim here is to provide experiences for you to further develop your skills of managing your systems practice in the ‘deciding with’ and ‘enabling deciding by’ modes. Moving from ‘deciding for’ to one of the other power relationships means that there is a need to focus on the C-ball. When engaging with stakeholders who have multiple experiences and skills the aware practitioner is faced with the need to be clear about their role, and the process issues for involving stakeholders. So managing the C-ball is more sophisticated that just choosing one or more methods. In my experience the very skilled practitioner relies on the thinking that underpins the various methods that are available. This is why I used the word ‘designing’ in the title of this part. For me ‘designing’ is a special form of ‘contextualising’ – of managing the C-ball.

Design is a particular form of purposeful human activity. Coyne and Snodgrass (1991) have characterised it as an involvement in a project that is pursued individually or collectively and that translates human culture, technology and aspiration into form. Design in this sense is something we all do – when we design a trip or holiday, call a meeting or carry out an investigation. Churchman (1971) observes that ‘a successful design is one that enables someone to transfer thought into action or into another design’ (p. 6). Notice that I am not referring to examples of design that might normally be associated with an architect, engineer or planner who develops a set of plans or specifications or a blueprint. This type of design I will call systematic design, because there is a clear objective to be optimised. In contrast I am interested in systemic design; design which creates the possibility of emergence and which is carried out with awareness of the thinking used to guide the design.

The emergent property I am most concerned with in this part is ‘learning which triggers purposeful action’. The next section examines this in more detail.

Skip Your course resources

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371