Why politics matters for transformations for sustainability

Round icon with colours representing the Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals are the focus of global efforts towards better quality of life for all around the world. The 17 goals recognise the need to approach many aspects of development together. Not just change is needed, but transformation.

This transformation goes beyond the need to find technical solutions. Changes in policies will come up against complex livelihoods and environments, where many choices are possible, the ways forward are not obvious, and negotiation is required. To be transformative, the SDGs will need to provide a space for these political questions and for power to be challenged. This is no easy task in a world where people are increasingly turning to authoritarian leaders and simple solutions.

Away from global negotiations, the problems of sustainability vary from place to place. Transformation also involves tackling local dilemmas over water, food, energy and other resources, and joining up promising local ideas with networks and alliances elsewhere.

In a Sussex Development Lecture on 28 March, STEPS co-director Ian Scoones explored these political aspects of transformation, exploring how people in very different contexts can learn from each other to provoke deep and lasting change.

Watch: The SDGs – A new politics of transformation

In this lecture on 28 March 2019, Ian Scoones explores the political aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs potentially offer an inclusive, integrated approach to development, centred on social justice, for all of humanity. But how are they being implemented in practice? Too often a piece-meal, sectoral approach is adopted, rooted in modernist assumptions of linear transition and control.

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Related resources

Realising the SDGs: why a sustainable livelihoods approach can help

In this blog post, Ian Scoones argues that livelihoods thinking could help governments and other agencies get beyond bureaucratic, sectoral approaches to the SDGs.

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Why do livelihoods matter?

In this episode of the IDS books podcast ‘Between the Lines’, Ian Scoones talks to Marina Apgar about his book, Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development.

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Three approaches for transformations to sustainability

This working paper from the STEPS Centre, shows the key roles of structural, systemic and enabling approaches in achieving transformative change under the Sustainable Development Goals.

Working paper coverTransformations to Sustainability

by Ian Scoones, Andy Stirling, Dinesh Abrol, Joanes Atela, Lakshmi Charli-Joseph, Hallie Eakin, Adrian Ely, Per Olsson, Laura Pereira, Ritu Priya, Patrick van Zwanenberg and Lichao Yang

STEPS Working Paper 104
September 2018

Download the paper (PDF)

T-Labs: a practical guide

Beginning in 2016, the Pathways Network convened a series of T-Labs (Transformation Labs) to respond to social-ecological problems in six countries. T-Labs: A Practical Guide draws from the experiences and lessons from the network to inspire those who are considering similar approaches.

Download the guide

T-Labs: A Practical Guide
Using Transformation Labs (T-Labs) for innovation in social-ecological systems

Pathways Network
September 2018

Download (PDF)

Care or control? Four challenges for transformations to sustainability

A blog series exploring the differences between emancipatory (caring) and repressive (controlling) approaches to sustainability.

Read the series

Authoritarian populism and the rural world

Authoritarian populism and the rural world

Authoritarian populism is on the rise, boosted by support from rural areas.

A series of videos and articles produced in partnership with openDemocracy examines how authoritarian populism has taken hold in different countries around the world, and explores the alternatives. The series was produced around a conference by the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI).

Explore the series

The politics of sustainability and development

Review article by Ian Scoones with an overview of the relationships between politics, sustainability, and development, and their practical implications for transformations and alliance building.

Read online


Video, articles and blog posts by STEPS Centre members from our 2018 theme on Transformations, the first in a four-year series.

Browse the resources

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