John Lennon famously quipped that life was what happened when you were busy making other plans.

A new book Dynamic Sustainabilities: Technology, Environment, Social Justice from the fantastic STEPS centre at the University of Sussex focuses on how much the same contradiction plays out in the global movements toward development, environmental sustainability and social justice.

To quote Melissa Leach, one of the book’s authors and the Director of the STEPS centre:

On the one hand, there is wide recognition of growing complexity and dynamism, but on the other hand, there appears to be an ever-more urgent search for big, technically-driven managerial solutions. When these solutions falter in the face of local dynamics and uncertainties, the response is often to implement them with greater force, or to blame locals or critics – rather than to question the underlying assumptions.

The book sets out some key approaches for more effective sustainable development that those with an interest in complex adaptive systems will instantly recognise. They include:

  1. The importance of dynamics: “…take dynamics seriously. This means moving beyond conventional approaches rooted in standard equilibrium thinking. Rather than attempting to control variability, it may often be more appropriate to develop strategies that respond to it, building resilience and robustness.”
  2. Understanding uncertainty: “…governments and institutions are increasingly preoccupied with the insecurities that threats seem to pose. However, dominant approaches involve a narrow focus on a particular (highly incomplete) notion of risk. This assumes complex challenges can be calculated and managed – excluding other situations where understanding possible future outcomes is more problematic. It is essential to have a wider appreciation of the dimensions of uncertainty if we are to avoid the dangers of creating deceptive, control-based approaches to complex and dynamic realities.”
  3. Different viewpoints: “…wider assumptions about the goals of development or sustainability… often assume that there is only one view of the problem and possible solutions. Yet different people and groups understand – or ‘frame’ – environment and development issues in very different ways; they have varying knowledge and experience, and value different goals and outcomes. Paying serious attention to multiple framings brings vital opportunities to advance debates about sustainability and connect them more firmly with social justice.”

The book focuses on a number of ‘wicked’ problems, including water scarcity in India, seeds and drought in Africa, epidemics and energy. It employs the memorable metaphor of “motorways” through which  powerful actors and institutions channel fast-moving policies and interventions, which “often [run] over valuable footpaths that respond better to poorer people’s own goals, knowledge and values, and to more dynamic contexts.” (For more on this metaphor, see a previous Aid on the Edge post comparing development management to traffic management.)

What to do in the face of such issues? Leach is clear, if challenging:

a key task for the present and the future is… opening up to practices that involve flexibility, diversity, adaptation, learning and reflexivity. It means recognising the alternative framings around which more effective, justice-oriented pathways may emerge. And it means new forms of political engagement to promote such pathways amidst deeply entrenched power and interests…

All of this chimes with another Lennon line: Dealing with reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”

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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Climate change, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Public Policy, Reports and Studies, Resilience, Strategy