Dynamic systems and the challenge of sustainability

Working Paper

Dynamism, uncertainty and complexity dominate today’s world. Yet many policy interventions ignore this, and so often fail. What is missing is a rigorous and systematic approach to addressing dynamics, one that encompasses an understanding of complex system dynamics and provides a useable guide to action. This paper is a first attempt by the STEPS Centre to address this challenge.

To open, the paper reviews a range of different approaches to understanding dynamics, including complexity science, dynamic ecology, industrial socio-technical systems and policy and organisational responses, exploring opportunities, complementarities and gaps. Next, the paper examines how such approaches to understanding dynamic systems can illuminate and extend approaches to sustainable development, concluding that a new science for sustainability requires an integration of now well-elaborated non-equilibrium perspectives from the natural sciences with constructivist social science perspectives. Drawing on these diverse literatures and debates, the final section presents a heuristic framework for addressing dynamic contexts in debates about sustainable development. In conclusion, the paper highlights three things: the need to address diverse framings of both system structure and function, the need to assess trade-offs between system properties that underlie attempts to achieve sustainability and the need to be continuously reflexive about the diverse options implied.