Challenges of Sustainability Planning:
Living Dangerously in Worlds of Theory and Practice
Tony Dorcey
First Posted 14.2.02
Last Revised 30.8.10

Sustainability is all about living in dignity, fighting for social justice, saving the planet, enjoying the good life and working together. To be a practitioner of "sustainability planning" is to always consider the interdependency of ecological, economic, social and governance systems, the absolute and contingent values associated with them, from the local to the global and in the short and long term. For me, it is to be committed to progressive practice in facilitating democratized processes of governance that sustain diverse, vigorous and equitable social and economic systems while maintaining the stability and resiliency of ecological systems. Simple in concept and potentially powerful in application, it is a distinctive approach to planning, one that has received increasing attention around the world in the last two decades and one that I am committed to explore, advance and practice in the years ahead. It does, however, present many and daunting challenges that necessitate being willing to live dangerously in the worlds of theory and practice, in ways and degrees that are unprecedented. In making the latest revisions to this personal statement I am driven by an increasing sense of the urgent need to accelerate the transition worldwide from weak to strong sustainability.

Challenge 1: Definitions

Some people reject the term "sustainability planning" as just the latest buzz-word, often pointing to examples of its contradictory usage. While this is undoubtedly a problem, I don't see it as any more problematic than the lack of shared understanding of almost every term we employ. For example, just reflect on the routinely encountered difficulties with the term "planning", sometimes resulting from innocent misunderstanding, other times the consequence of mischievous, even malicious intent. Experience tells us we should never assume a common understanding of any terminology, that we should routinely check for differences and use them as a point of departure for fostering fresh insight. The planner should hone a comparative advantage in understanding and communicating differing perspectives on sustainability.

Challenge 2: Comprehensiveness

In sustainability's comprehensive and holistic perspective on human and natural systems and its focus on the interdependency and interactions of component physical, chemical, biological, technological, social, cultural, economic, political and governance subsystems, it recognizes the breadth of understanding to which planning and planners need aspire. It stimulates our thinking about how to conceptualize component subsystems (including the creation of explanatory metaphors that can reach beyond the limits of the "three-legged stool"). It galvanizes our interest in pushing back on the bounds of any single rationality and exploring the insights from multiple perspectives.

Challenge 3: Values

This multidimensional conceptualization of "sustainability" forces us to re-appreciate the value-laden nature of planning and the diversity of values to be considered. For many this is profoundly troubling in its stark revelation of competing worldviews, ideologies, epistemologies, goals, objectives, preferences and priorities that have to be recognized and somehow taken into account. For the planner this creates daunting demands on not only her substantive knowledges, interrogatory literacies and process skills but also her ethical principles and being faithful to them in varied contexts of practice around the globe.

Challenge 4: Democratization

Believing that democratization is ultimately the only path to sustainability is a heroic act of faith, yet I see no preferable alternative. While elitist approaches might produce progress towards weak sustainability, the risks inherent in such strategies make strong sustainability unlikely if not impossible. Empowering individuals to make informed choices among the competing arguments for action on economic, social and ecological priorities is the mission of the progressive sustainability planner. Some might choose to do this from within dominant organizations of the state, business and civil society and others from without; both are needed, and from the local to global level. Which models to employ can only be determined by much more experimental learning given the yawning gap between theoretical ideals of democratic governance and experience in practice that generally falls far short of claimed efficiency, equity and effectiveness attributes.

Challenge 5: Conflict and consensus

Conflict is inevitable given the multiple and competing goals of sustainability. In fact, it is desirable if it stimulates fresh thinking about potential changes in perceptions, attitudes and preferences and action in peaceful and ultimately constructive ways. At the same time, searching for and shaping consensus is the essential complement to conflict if sustainability goals are to be achieved. Activism, advocacy, negotiation, diplomacy, facilitation and mediation skills are thus core competencies of the full-service sustainability planner committed to progressive practice.

Challenge 6: Transdisciplinarity

The substantive and procedural demands of sustainability planning necessitate practitioners developing unique competencies in transdisciplinarity. Planning focused on sustainability goals distinguishes itself as a discipline and profession that draws on and contributes to the breadth and diversity of the arts, humanities and social, applied and natural sciences. The sustainability planner must therefore continuously hone a comparative advantage in facilitating the generation of information for citizen and stakeholder decision making that capitalizes on the diversity of ways of knowing and is appropriate to the particularities of the context. The complexity and uncertainty of sustainability science and values demands the planner's continuing development of extraordinary competencies. Sustainability planning thus requires transdisciplinarity in that it questions the fundamental assumptions underlying multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity to develop new understanding.

Challenge 7: Decisions

Sustainability planners help individuals and communities to shape and take exceedingly difficult decisions. The multiplicity of values and uncertain knowledge that suffuse sustainability decisions demand that planners have unique capabilities in facilitating multistakeholder processes that exploit the potentials of design, analysis and synthesis techniques and opportunities for building resilient systems, learning-by-doing and adaptive management. Forever working in a context of shifting advantages and disadvantages, the progressive planner has to be continually reflective about her ethical commitment to herself and to those whom she serves and is accountable.

Challenge 8: Governance

Re-design of governance systems is critical to accelerate the transition from weaker to stronger sustainability. Re-constituting governments and expanding the roles of business and civil society organizations, better fitting the forms and functions of each of these three major sub-systems of governance such that their contributions reflect their comparative advantages and each reinforces the other, is essential. Governments need to be re-constitutued through electoral reforms, enshrinement of sustainability rights and responsibilities, and the implementation of subsidiarity principles. New forms of tri-partite, multistakeholder and collaboratory decision-making structures and processes need to be crafted and refined through explicitly adaptive approaches. Associated with this there needs to be experimentation with new forms and combinations of fiscal, regulatory and expenditure policies, designed and assessed by triple bottom-line accounting of their life-cycle impacts. The progressive planner lives dangerously as the advocate for these reforms, changes that can empower and transform the context and processes of planning practice.


Challenge 9: Stronger Sustainability

Progress has been made in implementing sustainability but it falls far short of what is needed to meet the mounting challenges from the local to the global level, including population growth, globalization, poverty, migration, consumerism, urbanization, peak oil, climate change, food and water security and eco-toxicity. For the most part innovations have not reached beyond what is needed for weak sustainability assuming that the critical natural capital to be sustained is a relatively small proportion of global endowments or that human ingenuity and substitution can compensate for what is lost. Unfolding events and emerging understanding reveal that such assumptions are not well founded and that precautionary principles re-enforce the necessity of pursuing stronger sustainability goals. The progressive planner needs the informed understanding and political courage to challenge those who have to be persuaded different.


Challenge 10: Leadership

Planners are uniquely placed to encourage, facilitate and provide the leadership that is critical to accelerate progress towards stronger sustainability. They therefore need to develop the collaborative leadership skills and strategies that are more likely to be seen as legitimately exercised by planners and that have the potential of mobilizing the diversity of interests and expertises essential to greater progress. As individual practitioners and members of a profession they must provide leadership by taking responsibility for sustainability.

I believe "sustainability planning" is a potentially powerful new paradigm for planners everywhere. The controversies surrounding it display all the distinctive fireworks of a paradigmatic revolution in the making. I believe SCARP can play a leadership role in fermenting this revolution because of the diversity and talent among its faculty and the staff and students attracted to work with them. I encourage us to live dangerously as teachers, researchers and professionals, not to succumb to the seductive ease of a narrower vision, and to continually recommit to our focus on sustainability planning in the interest of accelerating the transition to strong social, economic and ecological sustainability.