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Navigating towards sustainable development.pdf

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Navigatingtowardssustainabledevelopment
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Navigating towards sustainable development: A system dynamics approachPeder Hjortha,1, Ali Bagheria,b,*aDepartment of Water Resources Engineering, LTH, Lund University, P.O. Box 118, S-221 00 Lund, SwedenbCivil Engineering Department, Sharif University of Technology, P.O. Box 11365-9313, Tehran, IranAvailable online 10 August 2005AbstractTraditional fragmented and mechanistic science is unable to cope with issues about sustainability, as these are often related to complex, self-organizing systems. In the paper, sustainable developmentis seen as an unending process defined neither by fixed goals nor by specific means of achieving them. It is argued that, in order to understand the sources of and the solutions to modern problems, linear and mechanistic thinking must give way to non-linear and organic thinking, more commonly referred to as systems thinking. System Dynamics, which operates in a whole-system fashion, is put forward as a powerful methodology to deal with issues of sustainability. Examples of successful applications are given. Any system in which humans are involved is characterized by the following essential system properties: Bounded rationality, limited certainty, limited predictability, indeterminate causality, and evolutionary change. We need to resort to an adaptive approach, where we go through a learning process and modify our decision rules and our mental models of the real world as we go along. This will enable us to improve system performance by setting dynamic improvement goals (moving targets) for it.Finally, it is demonstrated how causal loop diagrams can be used to find the leverage points of a system. q 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.Futures 38 (2006) 74–92 www.elsevier.com/locate/futures0016-3287/$ - see front matter q 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.futures.2005.04.005*Corresponding author. Address: Department of Water Resources Engineering, LTH, Lund University, P.O. Box 118, S-221 00 Lund, Sweden. Tel.: C46 46 2228134; fax: C46 46 2224435. E-mail addresses: [email protected] (P. Hjorth), [email protected] (A. Bagheri). 1Tel.: C46 46 2224871; fax: C46 46 2224435.1. IntroductionWe have long believed that science and technology can provide effective solutions to most, if not all, environmental problems facing modern society. However, the validity ofthis optimistic assumption has become increasingly questioned. The scientific system,thus, faces a crisis of confidence, of legitimacy, and ultimately of power, as there is a growing feeling from many quarters that science is not responding adequately to the challenges of our times, and particularly, those posed by the quest for sustainable development. Issues about sustainability are often related to complex, self-organizingsystems, and although there has been a gradual fleshing-out of the meaning of sustainabledevelopment, most researchers still find it difficult to grasp the essence of the concept. Forinstance, most scientists still find it hard to accept that sustainability should not be perceived as a ‘project’ that has an end point, but as an ongoing process that needs to be regarded as part and parcel of everyday work. Modern science is characterized by ever-increasing specialization. As a result, it has delivered lots of knowledge but very little understanding. Basically, classical science, be it chemistry, biology, psychology, or the social sciences has focused on isolation of elements of the observed universe. The common belief has been that if we know everything about the parts, we will understand the whole. However, to create understanding, it is not enough to just study parts or processes in isolation. All this knowledge is, thus, in dire need of synthesis through some kind of multilevel and multi-dimensional graph of interconnec- tions. There is a need to accept Leibniz’s idea that within an entity of interacting parts, no part can be changed without triggering changes all over the whole. This means that we need to solve the decisive problem of how the order and organization unifying the parts affects the behavior of the whole system. Likewise, the engineering profession has to learn that arithmetic is a complement to, not a substitute for thought. As several scholars have pointed out, the very power of the computer to simulate complex systems by very high-speed arithmetic has preventedsearchfor those unifying and simplified formulations that are the essence of progressive understanding. The uncertainties related to complexproblems will not be resolvedby mere growth in our data bases or computing power. Nonetheless, there is a need to try to bridge the gap between what is known and what is done. To this end, it is essential that research move beyond classical mono-disciplinary and even inter-disciplinary lines to one trans-disciplinary in nature, and fully integrates this approach in its problem solving efforts. There is an emerging understanding that the quality of the decision-making process is absolutely critical for the achievement of aneffective product in the decision. This new understanding applies to the scientific aspect of decision-making as much as to any other. As Meadows et al. [23] point out, the world society is still trying to comprehend the concept of sustainability, a term that remains ambiguous and widely abused even more than one and a half decade after the Brundtland Commission coined it. Therefore, the aim of the present paper is to show how sustainable development can be dealt with by using the system dynamics approach—a feature of systems thinking that considers dynamic relations in a system holistically. Section 2 discusses the concept of sustainable development and some of the efforts made to make the concept operational. Then it goesP. Hjorth, A. Bagheri / Futures 38 (2006) 74–9275on to argue that linear cause–effect mechanisms are unable to explain the complexity, which is inherent in issues of sustainability. Section 3 discusses systems thinking and, especially, one of its trans-disciplinary tools i.e. the system dynamics approach. In Section 4, it is stressed that fragmentation in the different branches of science should give way to holism where resources are viewed together, interacting with people and capital as well as interacting with each other. What is important isto understand changes, and to that end, we need to acknowledge the following essential system properties: Bounded rationality, limited certainty, limited predictability, indeterminate causality, and evolutionary change. In Section 5, it is stated that we need to adopt a learning approach to become able to cope with the self-organizing mechanisms active in complex systems. Then, Section 6 shows how system dynamics can be applied to issues of sustainable development. Hereby, it is shown how a system dynamics approach and its causal loop diagrams (CLD) can be used to identify different dynamic structures governing real world ecosystems. By recognizing the dynamic structures, we propose the idea of viability loops and describe sustainable development as a matter of keeping those viability loops functional. The paper ends with Section 7.2. Sustainable developmentIt was the Brundtland Commission [40] that gave momentum to the concept of ‘Sustainable Development’. This momentum was further added to by the Rio summit through its ‘Agenda 21’ in 1992. Joining together the three dimensions of environment, economy and society, sustainable development introduces a process to save basic natural resources from being ruined and emphasizes the forgotten key role of the environmental services in the improvement of livelihoods and incomes. It refers to a process in which the economy, environment and ecosystem of a region change in harmony, and in a way that will improve over time [3]. It calls for an integrated set of policies that maximize human welfare within an inter-temporal framework. The challenge lies in avoiding to do things that, in full accounting of social and natural costs, actually cost more than they are worth [23]. Thus, meeting sustainability objectives will certainly require an increased understanding of the interactions between nature and society. Issues about sustainability are not merely complicated; they involve subsystems at a variety of scale levels, and there is no single privileged point of view for their measurement and analysis. Such problems can neither be captured nor solved by sciences that assume that the relevant systems are simple. If something really is complex, it cannot be described by means of a simple theory, and a major problem seems to be that our technologies have become more powerful than our theories. ‘Sustainability’ is increasingly cited as ideals or goals of development efforts. Theseideals should be perceived as desired ends that one, it is hoped, approaches indefinitely even if one can never achieve them completely [25]. This concept makes sustainability a moving target which is continuously getting enhanced as our understanding of the system improves.Sustainable development must, then, be seen as an unending process defined neither byfixed goals nor the specific means of achieving them, but by an approach to create changeP. Hjorth, A. Bagheri / Futures 38 (2006) 74–9276[26]. The necessity for change can be diagnosed by tracing trends and going through a learning process regarding the system under study and its environment.Many attempts have been made to define sustainable development as a practicalconcept. Solow defines sustainability as a matter of preserving the production capacity for a long future [35]. Pearce et al. consider development as a vector of desired social goals, which the society tries to maximize by working on its components. The components of the vector are: increase in real per capita income, improvement in hygiene and nutrition, educational successes, access to resources, equitable distribution of wealth,and increase in liberty. Sustainable development is a condition in which the vector of development doesnot decrease [29]. Fuwa [11] defines biophysical sustainability as preserving or improving the integrity of the life supporting systems on the earth. Klauer considers the common ideaof different definitions of sustainability to be preserving a condition. For instance inSolow’s definition it is about preserving the production capacity, in Pearce’s et al.definition preserving the characteristics of a social system, and in Fuwa’s definitionpreserving the life supporting system on earth. In Brundtland’s definition, sustainability isdefined as preserving the ability of humans to meet their needs [15]. Odum providedanother way to define sustainability. According to his definition“the real worldis observed to pulse and oscillate. There are oscillating steady states.If the oscillating pattern is the normal one, then sustainability concerns managing, and adapting to the frequencies of oscillation of natural capital that perform best. Sustainability may not be the level steady- state of the classical sigmoid curve but the process of adapting to oscillation” [28]. Formore definitions of sustainable development the reader may look at: Brown et al. [6]; Turner [38]; Lowrance [19]; Shearman [34]; Daly [7]; Svedin [37]; Heinen [12]; Pelt et al. [30]; Munasinghe and Shearer [27]; Bossel [4,5]; and Mebratu [24].Although those definitions are difficult to put into operational practice, it can be induced that a primary consequence of sustainable development is that the single or multi- purpose approach to projects needs to be changed to a holistic and integrated approach regarding inter-disciplinary and regional problems. So the concept of sustainable development cannot be applied in a single-project scale. In other words, it is not possible to sustain a single part of a system such as a dam; however, caring for a whole system to develop in a sustainable manner is achievable.3. A shift in thinking paradigms3.1. Event oriented thinkingHuman conventional thinking model is based on a mechanical image of the world and a linear causality to explain the phenomena. This linear causal thinking, which is the basis ofour knowledge of nature and our understanding of major scientific laws, assumes that certain causes are acting together linearly to result in an event. The outcome of an event is assumed not to affect input (Fig. 1). For instance, if one wishes to control the event D, one has to manipulate the causing events A and B. This linear causal thinking paradigm leads to an event-oriented view of the world (Fig. 2), where decisions are based on a perceived gap between desired goals and the actual situation of system.P. Hjorth, A. Bagheri / Futures 38 (2006) 74–9277The way the linear causal thinking—or as Holling and Meffe [13] called it command and control—solves problems is either through control of the processes that lead to the problem (e.g. good hygiene to prevent diseases) or through amelioration of the problem after it occurs. This paradigm implicitly assumes that the problem is well bounded, clearlydefined, relatively simple and linear with respect to cause and effect. Dealing with natural resources, the linear causal thinking makes us perceive the varying and highly complex natural systems as engineered structures susceptible to manipulations with predictable and well controlled results. However, the real world is much too complicated to be predicted and controlled as we wish. It is good to listen to Ackoff as he says: “In an environment in which complexity was also growing at an increasing rate, the ability to forecast and predict deteriorated in an alarming way. As a result, the one thing that is certain about almost any prediction beyond the immediate future is that it will turn out to be wrong. Thus, any method of planning that was critically dependent on the accuracy of forecasting was doomed to failure. Furthermore, there were contexts within which we had found very good alternatives to forecasting. .Planning should be about controlling, creating a desired future, not preparing for one that has been predicted. This led to the realization that one could deal with the future through assumptions rather than predictions. .Assumptions are about possibilities; predictions and forecasts are about probabilities. With multiple assumptions, we can do contingency planning. We can control much of the future and prepare for what we can’t control” [1].Managing the future is a ‘wicked’ problem, meaning that it has no definitive formulation and no conclusively ‘best’ solutions and, furthermore, that the problem is constantly shifting. Obviously, however, one cannot even begin to purposefully shape the future without social goals. As we know from “Alice in Wonderland”: If you dont know where you are going, it does not matter what road you choose. The past is the only guide we have for constructing believable stories about the future. Although the past will never repe
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