Interdisciplinary blog

ESPA Deltas at UNESCO international workshop on Sustainability Science

April 29, 2013
by Craig Hutton

 Reflections by Dr Craig Hutton, GeoData Institute, University of Southampton-     Research Coordinator for ESPA Deltas project

Workshop Reference: UNESCO International Workshop on Sustainability Science: A Science Based Approach to Realize the Future We Want for All. 4th – 5th April 2013, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Website:


The ESPA Deltas project- Assessing Health, Livelihoods, Ecosystem Services And Poverty Alleviation In Populous Deltas – was invited to a UNESCO international workshop on the applications of Sustainability Science to their Asian Pacific activities. The GeoData Institute, University of Southampton has, under the auspices of the Sustainability Science Southampton (SSS), been engaged with UNESCO and the MEXT of Japan (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology) in developing a document that will highlight the role and application of the science underpinning sustainable development.

The ESPA Deltas project was invited to present as a case study in Sustainability Science with specific reference to the three critical components of the project: 1) environment/ecology; 2) socio-economics/economics; and 3) government/governance; and more specifically the integration of these three. The meeting was of particular interest to the ESPA Deltas project as we have been developing ideas on how we promote tools etc. that could be transferable to other socio-ecological systems. This includes systems dynamics approaches and work in such areas as scenario development.

The workshop programme included presentations from experts in the field of Sustainability Science as well as a series of high profile talks about UNESCO’s Sustainability Initiative, including high level UNESCO representation from Paris. There was some debate regarding the definition of Sustainability Science and the fact that this hinges on the definition of sustainability itself. The problem here is that there is no clear single definition of sustainability.

What I would suggest is that we accept the nebulous nature of sustainability, at least for now, and not allow that potentially intractable debate to stop the development of what is a very necessary tool set.  We need to develop practical tools in the field of sustainability, and we need to do so in parallel with the vying definitions of sustainability. So what is a pragmatic approach here? Well Sustainability Science should be a method. As such I would suggest that we focus on methodologies we know to be effective and focus on the benefits of participation, stakeholder involvement and a focus on effective decision making supported by a strong evidence base. Indeed we can extend the participatory paradigm by truly incorporating experts and communities not only in the development of option and awareness raising but more centrally in the capture of key issues, development of scenarios, the weighting of statistical models (capturing expertise which can be practiced at a community level as well as in formal government) and the design of visualisation and information outputs. In effect, placing the stakeholder profile at the centre of the work and not simply as a validator or advisory role.  Finally we need to recognise the body of emerging work on systems based approaches. These approaches allow for the true integration of socio-environmental issues and have a substantive potential to enhance the decision making process and the formulation and testing of policy.

However we need to be clear that as an applied method, Sustainability Science does not in itself provide a policy direction or make the choice in a situation of trade-off, it simply attempts to answers questions posed by stakeholders, and it is the question we ask that is the real decision making process.  If I ask which of a suite of policies will raise GDP I may receive one answer, however, if I ask which policy will alleviate poverty I may find a completely different solution. Both valid answers supported by an evidence base, but the strategic decision was already made in the question being asked of the science.

There is a large body of work to be conducted to understand what are the questions being asked before we apply Sustainability Science and what sort of world we want to live in. It is not enough to say a “sustainable world”. We need to characterise what exactly it is that we want to be sustained. Of course we may espouse the desire to have equity and social justice but more often decision makers find themselves in positions of making difficult decisions regarding trade-offs where there will inevitably be winners and losers. At this juncture, Sustainability Science can offer two clear services:

1) to allow policy makers to test various policies against desired outcomes set by the governance framework (scenario development and systems based models that integrate over themes); and

2) to provide transparency in that process linking the process of making policy decisions to an evidence base.

In ESPA Deltas we are seeing an example of the need for decision makers to define what their possible visions of the future are in the management of the delta front of Bangladesh.  In its simplest form the delta front is experiencing degradation through climatic and direct anthropogenic impacts which are degrading agricultural land through salination. This in turn has the effect of lowering land prices and, combined with the potential to find work in urban centres, driving people out of the rural environments. Such a process results in increased urban population which drives up demand for diverse food types (e.g. meat and shrimp) and export income. This pressure results in agro-business taking up the rural land through various means and the development of intensive agricultural practices – often trading short term financial gain for the richer elements of society prepared to invest with further degradation of agricultural land (e.g. shrimp fisheries) driving the process forward again. The question is what is the vision of the future here? Is it:

1)      What the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) refers to as a “techno garden” where the rural areas are efficiently farmed by commercial interests with substantial work on relieving urban poverty and dramatically improving welfare (very much an approach that has occurred in the West)?; or

2)      The aim to develop a sustainable future for the rural population in-situ that balances rural stewardship of the land, sustainable development with production needs?

Both can be argued to be the way forward, or the most practical approach. However there is a need for decision makers to define the vision or at least explore options before formulating key questions for Sustainability Science to answer. Sustainability Science will work best within a framework of testing strategic ideas. Without exploring carefully with users what they are considering we may find ourselves answering questions that are not being asked or missing the opportunity to identify why their current thinking may not be the solution that was hoped for.

The ESPA Deltas presentation, which can be downloaded along with the other presentations (see here), suggested that there are four key areas of activity within a project or intervention that might define it as utilising “Sustainability Science”. These are:

1)        Integration, which links the socio-environmental context of the project together by viewing the Bangladesh delta front as a single “system” as opposed to a series of parallel systems that are integrated by the final user (e.g. a systems dynamics approach);

2)      Stakeholder driven, which highlights the need to gather, perceptions, data and information from a wide profile of stakeholders with particular reference to the community base. This should include the inclusion of stakeholders in modelling processes such as the development of weighting, identification of indicator sets and development of scenarios;

3)      Equity/Poverty centred, highlighting the need to ensure that the project aims to address issues of poverty and/or equity;

4)      Support decision makers, emphasising that the design of outputs should be guided early on in the project by the specified needs of those who will be making decisions, from a community level up. Examples of this approach include the development of decision support systems, community support information & policy testing facilities and scenario development.

The GeoData Institute along with ESSC (Philippines) have now been asked by UNESCO/MEXT to write a joint proposal developing tools and approaches for the application of systems dynamics conceptual approaches (drawing flow diagrams of relationships and quantifications between socio-environmental components) to be applied at a community level in Bangladesh, Philippines and Indonesia.


Further details:

Follow Craig Hutton on Twitter- @CraigHutton4

GeoData Institute website:

ESPA Deltas Project: 

Twitter- @ESPADeltas


Sustainability Science at Southampton:

Twitter- @SustainScience


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