socio-ecological systems natural resource management
sustainability research developmental impact studies

sustainability research

Sustainable development is an evolutionary process – and not a fixed ideal – of attempting to improve the management of systems, through improved understanding and integrative knowledge. The process is non-deterministic and the end point is not known in advance. It is a development that supports a balanced integration of ecological, social, economical, institutional and cultural objectives. Sustainable systems do not only have the capacity to reproduce themselves; they also have the capacity to go through structural change (system renewal and transitions) without destroying the adaptive capacity of co-evolving systems. It is a dynamic process that requires continuous learning processes and a high level of adaptivity to deal with change in order to preserve the capacity of ecological systems to support socio-economical systems.

Sustainable development reveals the paradox between creative change and conservation, between innovative experiments and maintaining the integrity and stability of functions. It is the paradox that stabilised, non-changing systems become brittle and changing systems become unstable. Hence, governance for sustainable development must reflect a balanced and multi-dimensional process in which socio-economical systems can experiment and invent, benefiting from creating innovations and future opportunities while remaining safe from those emerging properties which destabilise the systems and that create high risks for a stable development. In short, sustainable development is therefore inevitably double sided; it is both creative and conserving, which expresses the importance on crucial notions such as stability, resilience and innovations.

Despite numerous attempts to ”kidnap“ the idea of sustainability between issues such as the ”ideology of economic efficiency“ or technological improvement of the status quo, sustainable development addresses system inherent failures and limitations and consequently calls for new visions, new development trajectories and transitions of unsustainable systems. Thus, regarding the global dominance of economic objectives, special attention must be devoted to economical processes, and in particular to the shortcomings of traditional theories of neoclassical economics, which appear to be sealed off from the complexity and dynamics of real-life phenomena and are consequently insufficient to understand the interdisciplinary and integrative context of sustainable development. Subsequently, research must focus on alternative economical approaches, which contain a stronger potential to cope with the multi-dimensional aspects such as ecological economics.

selected areas of the research agenda

  • The paradox of sustainable development
  • Transition management and governance
  • Innovation theory
  • Ecological economics




Institute for Anthropology

Last modified 8 October, 2004 -