Sustainable development calls for environmental sustainability, together with social and economic sustainability. Sustainability requires that all three elements jointly move from an unsustainable to a sustainable development path. In other words: it’s not development if it’s not sustainable. (See: speech of UNDP regional deputy director Jens Wandel – well worth the read.)
However, insisting on social, environmental, and economic sustainability simultaneously brings complexity, and we are faced with substantial unknowns, including:
- Assessing where we are,
- Defining where we want to be,
- Defining the path from where we are to where we want to be, and
- Defining how UNDP can support our partners.
This requires a departure from the linear type of thinking that used to characterize our understanding of development. For instance, we note that sometimes our actions or those by others appear to have no measurable influence on development and all of a sudden they lead to marked change: the “tipping points.”
Or, we see similar actions in a similar development context in one country leading to positive change, while in other countries these actions do not contribute to anything – indicating sensitivity to initial conditions and the so-called path dependence. Combine the unknowns above with phenomena like these, and we enter into the world of complexity.
Like it or not, we do have to chew on some theory about complexity, before we can start relating it directly to our development work (See: Humans or bust: Will Rio + 20 be about people?).
Some claims have been made that our way of working will soon be history and that with the help of complexity theory a new generation of development practice will be shaped. But is this true? How far has complexity thinking actually gone to help explain our development context? And how far has it gone to help shape our action perspective?
We wrote a small paper (pdf) to outline how we can come to terms with the complexity inherent in sustainable development, by asking some basic questions:
- What is this three-dimensional sustainability concept actually about, and what is a sustainable development path?
- What is complexity about and how would it influence the way we think about sustainable development?
- How would complexity influence the way UNDP can support our partner countries to move along a sustainable development path?
At this stage, we sought to write enticingly about complexity, but without pretending to know more than we do and without providing answers.
We are planning to organize a virtual event in early 2012, involving some of the more experienced theorists and experts in sustainable development and complexity, to discuss how the complexity theory can help us shape the next generation of development work.
You are invited to comment on the paper (pdf), (and any of the questions we’ve raised here), and we hope that the debate will help shape that event.