Back to School
Oct 25, 2010
6 minutes read


I have recently signed up for a course at the Geneva University on Sustainable Development. It consists of 9 modules of 2.5 days/per month lasting until June 2011. The program headed by Prof. Roderick Lawrence is in its 8th year and is delivered in conjunction with the EPFL, IEF, IDHEAP, HEG and IUCN. I am looking forward to validating my knowledge in this area to validate and go beyond what I could gather through self-study. Module 1 addressed Sustainable Development concepts and Agenda 21. I’ll take the opportunity the course is still fresh in my head to over the origins of sustainability and my understanding of this concept.

Mind the Limits

Sustainable Development (SD) was defined in the 1987 Brundtland Commission (formally World Commission on Environment and Development or WCED) report entitled Our Common Future which was produced for the United Nations and provided a definition of SD still cited today as the development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This report was written over 3 years in the context of Reagan’s US presidency marked by solid economic growth. Yet, the report called for a policy change without precedent and it has taken over two decades until its message reached the public opinion. The WCED definition makes a reference to development as understood since after the Bretton Woods Conference and the establishment of the International Bank for Recovery and Development whose mission went from post-WW2 reconstruction to fighting poverty through state financing. While development has traditionally had an economic focus and is best measured in national accounting terms by the Gross Domestic Product, it was reframed by the United Nations with the Brundtland report as a progress along three distinct axes: economic, social and environmental. The report re-iterated the idea that there are limits to our development which stem from somewhere else than the materials and money economy i.e. the environment, echoing the concerns raised by Meadows et al. in The Limits to Growth (TLG) published in 1972. Furthermore, it binds intra-generational with inter-generational needs although it doesn’t elaborate on the term needs which remains open to interpretation.

The Agenda from Rio

We spent some time during the course of Module 1 to place the publication of Our Common Future in a wider historical context on a timeline. One important successor to the WCED report came in 1992 with a conference known as the Earth Summit. Over 170 of 200 Sovereign Nations came together in Rio to ratify 5 deliverables: the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Principles for Sustainable Forest Use and the Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Agenda 21 was an initial attempt at outlining a Global shared vision for the sustainable development of nations. It consists of 40 chapters divided into 4 sections addressing social and economic dimensions, conservation and management of resources for development, the role of major stakeholder groups, and means of implementation. Each chapter includes its cost estimates based on 1993-2000 data. Chapter 28 covered aspects known as Local Agenda 21. The upcoming Rio+20 conference will attempt to secure renewed political commitment to sustainable development, assess progress towards internationally agreed goals on sustainable development and address new and emerging challenges. The Summit will also focus on two specific themes: a green economy and an institutional framework for sustainable development.

Short after the Earth Summit, Agenda 21 initiatives rapidly spawned around the World driven by countries mandating concrete steps derived from a subset of the 120 programs suggested in the document for local implementations at the region, city and neighborhood levels. Almost two decades later, there have been multiple initiatives inspired from the Agenda 21 which include Aarlborg Charter Sustainable Cities, WHO Healthy Cities or more recently Transition Towns. These initiatives reflect a narrower set of priorities over time down to climate change and energy descent for the most recent ones. Are we throwing the baby out with the bath water? Rio+20 might provide a more accurate update where we stand with Agenda 21 and its descendants.

Governance and Participation

Considering the various system scales at which SD is applied (e.g. Nation, Region, City, District, Multinational Enterprise) and the fact that the word development is somewhat restricted to large-scale non-profit systems such as Nations, it is convenient to substitute SD with the term sustainability.

Addressing new/changing types of limits to our socio-economical systems (as contained in our Biosphere) is very challenging endeavour requiring holistic thinking and transdisciplinary approaches. Module 1 showed us that the traditional Venn diagram of sustainable development (3 intersecting circles) can now be better represented by the following diagram which introduces two new dimensions: participation and governance.

Source: Prof. Roderick Lawrence

Source: Prof. Roderick Lawrence

In the past, I have had to step into enterprise architecture roles which involve heavy amounts of governance and participation principles to ensure systems and strategy are aligned. Regardless of whether we work for profit or not, we are not starting from a clean slate. Our institutions and enterprises are designed around top-down hierarchies revealing many haphazard feedback loops. Production systems often still consist of linear flows disregarding where raw materials originate and where waste goes. Our very reasoning mechanisms are still dominated by reductionism, a form of thinking popularized by Descartes which worked well in a limitless world – not one that is hot, flat and crowded. Silos rule and the shift towards natural resource limits will be difficult. Governance and participation have emerged as essential mechanisms to facilitate change by involving multiple disciplines/departments to resolve the wicked problems related to shifting limits in natural resources. A sustainability practice pulling various disciplines to address these new limits while ensuring the overall system preserves its purpose could provide the following benefits:

  • Ensure sustainability is part of the management agenda
  • Provide continuous revisions to sustainability principles which impact the organization’s strategic limits
  • Facilitate regular meetings between the business and sustainability experts
  • Obtain sponsorship of sustainability initiatives by executives
  • Be visible across the organization and accessible by anyone
  • Offer immediate access to up-to-date sustainability tools
  • Contribute to the project portfolio prioritization scheme with sustainability criteria
  • Ensure the involvement of a sustainability expert in most projects undertaken
  • Completion of a project is acknowledged only after a sustainability assessment has been performed
  • Non-compliance to sustainability principles results in having to justify the choices made
  • Learn about strategic initiatives from operations about what works and what doesn’t with regards to sustainability
  • Contribute with sustainability principles and tools to the engagement model for project delivery

I’ll be curious to see how these benefits tie into the upcoming modules of my course…

Creative Commons License This material is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Back to posts