Sustainability Science: a New Paradigm for Planning?

August 20, 2012, 4pm PDT | Edward J. Jepson Jr.
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Planners often struggle to define, communicate, and integrate sustainability goals into their plans and everyday practices. Edward Jepson contemplates Chrisna du Plessis’s assertion that the emerging academic field of Sustainability Science --  which offers a pathway for grounding planning practices in analytical, verifiable, and iterative processes -- provides a new paradigm for the profession and a way to make our cities more resilient to change. 

Chrisna du Plessis is an associate professor of architecture living in South Africa who has a keen interest in developing sustainable human settlements.  Having written extensively on the topic, she is a popular guest lecturer and keynote speaker at national and international conferences and workshops.  In an intriguing recent contribution [PDF] featured in Smart Building in a Changing Climate, du Plessis suggests a high level of relationship between "urban sustainability science" and planning, going so far as to suggest that it may constitute a "new paradigm" for the profession (du Plessis 2009).   

What is Sustainability Science?

Introduced in 2000 at the "Friiberg Workshop," sustainability science is concerned with preserving and improving the sustainability of the global (scientific), social (institutional) and human systems through a clarification of inter-relationships.  It arose out of, "a desire to give the generalities and broad-based approach of 'sustainability' a stronger analytic and scientific underpinning." [Wikipedia] The field is organized around the concept of integrating scientific inquiry and social learning to maximize the capacity of human systems to self-organize and respond to change.  Its methodology is a heuristic approach that solves problems through the collaborative engagement of natural and social scientists, stakeholders, and practitioners (Komiyama & Takeuchi, 2006).  Today, attention to the field has been most prominently staked out in the U.S. academy by the Harvard Kennedy School's Sustainability Science program (Harvard University, 2012).

In her paper, du Plessis begins with the recognition of the inherently "wicked" nature of planning problems as first noted by Rittel and Webber (1973) and explains how cities are social-ecological systems (SES).  She identifies sustainability science as a basis on which to approach planning problems due to its recognition of the crucial relationship between biogeochemical (what she calls "exterior") processes and the whole range of human thoughts and interactions (what she calls an "interior noosphere").  Drawing on system resilience and complexity theories, du Plessis identifies the overriding planning challenge as ensuring "the persistence of conditions that maintain the "preferred stability regimes" – i.e., a set of goods and services that support quality of life – by preventing them from "crossing critical thresholds" and a possible descent into a dysfunctional form.  She suggests that this can be accomplished, not by identifying and applying "correct" technologies or social or economic ideologies, but rather by seeking to understand the "interactions, relationships, flows" on which the city is dependent and by searching for "leverage points" that integrate both "the physical aspects of the city as biosphere (and) the aspects of the city that sit in the noosphere."  This can be achieved through planning and decision making processes that emphasize "learning, adaptation and thus reflection" and the "use of multiple participants (e.g. scientists, stakeholders, practitioners) and epistemologies to co-produce knowledge."   

Is This a Potential "New Paradigm"?

Does such a conceptual framework constitute a "new paradigm" for planning?  How is it different from planning for sustainable development as it is presently practiced?  After all, both are primarily concerned with addressing the impact of humans on our environment.  

Sustainability science seeks to integrate the biosphere and the "noosphere." Photo by Vanja Gavrić

One key difference between sustainability science and sustainability planning as it is presently practiced is that the former requires an understanding of how social-ecological systems behave in general, whereas the latter attempts to improve the functionality of a particular type of system, namely the city.  Du Plessis' paper is largely derived from resilience theory, which defines cities as systems that are constantly changing.  Their central aim should be, not to achieve some optimal state (such as a condition of sustainability), but to improve their ability to adapt.  

This ability to adapt is related to another key difference between sustainability science and sustainability planning as it is presently practiced.  Unlike sustainability planning, the overriding aim of sustainability science is not necessarily to solve a problem but rather to build a knowledge base through studied interventions.  In essence, the community becomes a laboratory, where experiments are designed and conducted under the guidance of, not just stakeholders, but also knowledge-holders, whose role is to help comprehend the complexity of a given issue and bring the scientific method to its resolution.  The results of each experiment inform an urban sustainability science epistemology that is specifically concerned with the human/nature interface.  

There are also implications for the practice of planning in a general sense.  As they are typically implemented, planning processes do not single out social and natural scientists for their inclusion or provide mechanisms for their contribution as representatives of the scientific community.  And the integration of the theoretical with the political and the practical suggests a whole new challenge in facilitation.  

Another implication for practice relates to how communities conduct their process of visioning.  Under a standard approach, the question posed is "Where do we want to be?" and the process is driven by an open-ended discussion that is usually informed by some sort of SWOT analysis.  This differs from visioning under sustainability science, where the question posed is "What are the key drivers of change and how can we best deal with them?" and the process is driven by scenarios that quantify the impact of those key drivers.   

Are these differences enough to make urban sustainability science a new planning paradigm?  I think the answer is "Yes."  Together, they constitute a fundamentally different way to view cities and how to make decisions about public policy.  When cities are recognized as social-ecological systems, their future prospects can be understood to be determined by the ability to successfully adapt to change.  This becomes the goal, and all other activities emanate from it.  Visions are long-term, but planning is short-term, informed by science, and infused with experimentation.   

Challenges to Adoption

Regardless of the inclinations of the profession, there are two key impediments to urban sustainability science becoming the new planning paradigm.  One is the absence of credence among governments and their agencies.  This is a crucial characteristic of social science paradigms (such as planning), as such absence prevents their application.  Clearly, few local governments are equipped or predisposed to accept or incorporate a dominant role for scientists in an experimental design approach to policy making.  The other impediment is the scientific community itself, which is largely unable to make the kind of contribution called for under sustainability science.  It continues to be fragmented among disciplines and locked into a "basic" and "applied" research dichotomy, both of which are fundamentally at odds with the transdisciplinary and "use-inspired research" approach that is necessary (Yoshikawa, 2011).  

How Can We Begin to Integrate Sustainability Science?

In the meantime, there are things that might be done now by those – professionals as well as citizens – interested in integrating systems theory into how our communities are planned.  The book Resilience Thinking by Brian Walker and David Salt (2006) is a well-written explanation of systems theory and its application in decision making and planning.  Another book, Sustainability Science – A Multidisciplinary Approach by Komiyama et al. (2011), is more technical but still useful in its account of the present state of the discipline, its theoretical underpinnings, and recent research.  Professional planners in particular may find its chapters on consensus building, problem structuring, communication, and collaboration of interest.  For a deeper and wider level of understanding, articles on the full range of social-ecological systems topics can be accessed online through journals such as Ecology and Society and Global Environmental Change.  

Sustainability science has the potential to either become a new planning paradigm or at least significantly influence our existing one.  While its wholesale integration into practice is not presently possible or even desirable, professional and citizen planners can be alert to and supportive of opportunities to help their communities become more adaptable and more scientifically-informed.  The planning profession can begin incorporating some of the concepts and principles of system theory into their documents of governance and practice and researchers can increase their explorations of systems theory and its application in planning.  In academics, courses about sustainability science and its core elements – resilience and social-ecological systems – could be added, and expanded treatment of such topics as research design, scenario building, adaptive management and complex problem structuring might be considered.

Actions such as these may ultimately pave the way to its adoption as a new planning paradigm.  Short of that, they will help bring an important new dimension to the theory and practice of planning, one that recognizes our communities and our cities for what they truly are.  

Edward J. Jepson, Jr. is an adjunct planning professor and consultant living in Knoxville, TN.


Du Plessis. M.  2009.  Urban sustainability science as a new paradigm for planning.  In Smart
building in a changing climate
, A. van den Dobbelsteen, M. van Dorst, & A. van Timmeren, eds. Amsterdam: Techne Press (also available at http://www.sasbe2009.com/proceedings/documents/SASBE2009_paper_URBAN_SUSTAINABILITY_SCIENCE_AS_A_NEW_PARADIGM_FOR_PLANNING.pdf)

Friibergh Workshop.  2000.  Statement of the Friibergh Workshop on Sustainability Science.  Available at http://ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/BCSIA/sust.nsf/pubs/pub3 (retrieved March 3, 2012).

Harvard University.  2012.  Available at http://www.hks.harvard.edu/centers/mrcbg/programs/sustsci (retrieved April 5, 2012)

Komiyama, H., K. Takeuchi, H. Shiroyama, & T. Mino, eds.  2011.  Sustainability science: A multidisciplinary approach.  New York: United Nations University Press.

Rittel, H.W.J. & M.W. Webber.  1973.  Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.  Policy Sciences 4: pp. 155-169.

Walker, B. and D. Salt.  2006.  Resilience thinking: Sustaining ecosystems and people in a changing world.  Washington, DC: Island Press.

Yoshikawa, H.  2011.  Science and technology for society.  In Sustainability science: A multidisciplinary approach, H. Komiyama, K. Takeuchi, H. Shiroyama & T. Mino, eds.  New York: United Nations University Press.

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