extracts from:

European Commission

Ecosystems Research Report No 26



Towards a New Paradigm for Ecosystem Research

Edited by Mario Catizzone

Directorate-General Science, Research and Development

1999 EUR 18847 EN



Chapter I: The challenge and the International/European context
by M.Catizzone

Chapter II: The TERI approach: evolution and limits

by J.H. Lawton, J.M. Moreno and M. Sutton

Chapter III: The EWGRB experience of an integrated activity in a framework of sustainability

by A.Y. Troumbis and T.B. Larsson


Chapter IV: Sustainability - a new paradigm for research?
by Ruggero Schleicher-Tappeser and Filippo Strati

Chapter V: A flexible tool for valuating and evaluating the Sustainable Development

by Filippo Strati and Ruggero Schleicher-Tappeser

Chapter VI: Challenges in the utilisation of Science for Sustainability

by S. Funtowicz, M. O’Connor and J. Ravetz

Chapter VII: Conclusions and ideas for a transparent debate

by M.Catizzone




Chapter IV
Sustainability - a new paradigm for research?

by Ruggero Schleicher-Tappeser and Filippo Strati


The Challenges of Sustainable Development

"The real challenge of sustainability is to reframe the challenge" says Norgaard (1994). Indeed, sustainable development seems to be a concept that calls for profound paradigmatic changes in our way of looking at the world around us. Many disciplines are contributing to this change in views. Since the late sixties the enormous success and the destructive consequences of the western industry-oriented development approach has given rise to increasing doubts about the durability of this kind of development. Mainly in the industrialised countries environmental activists and movements highlighted the need for a greater respect for the environment. Calls for drastic changes in behaviour and a stop to economic growth for the sake of future generations raised conflicts not only with the established decision-makers but also with the less advantaged who hoped that growth would bring them better opportunities, and often even with advocates of traditional cultures. Soon it became clear that the real challenge lay in the need to reconcile different aspects of development that had been looked at separately for a long time. The first most visible attempt to reconcile these different interests on an international level was achieved by the UN Commission on "Environment and Development" with the publication of the "Brundtland Report" in 1987 (WCED 1987). With this report the term Sustainable Development became an integral part of the international scientific and political vocabulary. Although "Sustainable Development" has become an important objective in many basic policy documents at all levels, it is still a very general concept far from being fully understood which gives raise to controversial discussions. However, historically this concept stands for two basic challenges:

  • it tries to integrate development dimensions that have been treated separately in the development of our societies over the last three centuries.
  • it tries to introduce a long-term perspective in order to ensure openness towards the future.

Sustainable Development and Conventional Science

Not by chance, these two basic aspects of the concept of Sustainable Development (SD) are difficult to handle with conventional scientific approaches. The way in which modern science has handled problems over the last two centuries has deeply shaped our societies and is intimately linked with the problems that gave rise to the discussion about sustainable development.

"Modern" science, which gave raise to the industrial revolution, has strongly based its approach on dividing problems into subproblems and looking at them separately. This approach was highly successful in detail. It corresponds to the tayloristic division of labour and to a differentiation of subsystems in society whose inability to coordinate has led to increasing problems. With increasing differentiation and specialisation, sectoral efficiency has dramatically increased, but overall, negative synergies threaten the success of individual improvements. An integrated view to prevent this has become more and more difficult. SD would need to link natural, economic and social sciences in some common framework in order to develop new tools for integration.

Modern science has largely been founded on a mechanistic world view. By identifying cause-effect relationships and combining them into simplifying models, enormous successes have been achieved in predicting single events, in constructing machines and in influencing certain aspects of nature. With the increasing pace of events, especially in the last half of our century, human impact on natural systems has become multifold, pervasive and has reached more fundamental layers of the conditions of life. While detailed understanding of nature has dramatically increased, overall predictions have not become easier and long-term perspectives as an orientation for guiding decisions involving unprecedented impacts are lacking. The attempt to control the development of complex systems over longer periods of time with the help of traditional deterministic models based on cause-effect assumptions is facing at least the following serious problems:

  • The complexity of many systems is such that the amount of precise knowledge that would be required for such an approach cannot be provided in reasonable times. (E.g. the number of new synthetic chemicals that are released into the ecosphere each year is many times higher than the number of chemicals for which a reasonable environmental impact assessment is feasible in the same period.)
  • Where human actions and decisions come into play, social sciences provide little uncontested assumptions on cause-effect relationships. As will be explained later, this has profound reasons. Attempts to predict the behaviour of systems that include humans have therefore been of very limited success.

Conventional scientific approaches therefore are not sufficient for meeting the fundamental challenges of Sustainable Development.

New Paradigms

In many disciplines new paradigms or new approaches have been developed that try to overcome similar difficulties.

Already in the 1920s, fundamental discoveries in physics showed the limited range of basic assumptions of "modern" science. Determinism and the idea of the independence of subject and object have been deeply challenged.

Probabilistic approaches from statistical mechanics to very pragmatic applications in pharmaceutical research have replaced the endeavour to always find precise causal explanations. Chaos theory and the analysis of turbulent processes have shown the limits to the predictability of natural processes.

Systemic approaches have been developed in a wide variety of fields, including psychology, computer sciences, biology, or political sciences. The interpretations vary from very deterministic modelling (cybernetics) to self-organisation and autopoiesis processes and those assuming some driving forces towards a coherent Gestalt.

Management approaches in organisational and social sciences have tried to optimise decision-making in uncertain environments using different kinds of scenario methods, game theory or creative processes.

A list of new approaches that have emerged in ecology, economy, sociology, organisational sciences, psychology, ethics and other disciplines in recent decades amounts to an impressive panorama of an emerging new paradigm, more and more associated with the term of sustainability, multifold but somehow consistent, and up to now only discernible in its broad outlines. As Thomas S. Kuhn ({Kuhn 1967 ID: 6375}) pointed out, paradigmatic changes are never smooth, old and new concepts co-exist for a long time. The idea of controlling nature is still dominant in scientific research. The western culture of maxima as opposed to a culture of moderation that has been predominating through most of history ({Khan 1995 ID: 5947}), still mainly drives the search for a less destructive development pattern.

Not all these ideas are new. Basic elements of the concept of sustainability can be found in many civilisations, philosophies, religions, faiths and cultures of the world, both new and old (Sumerian, Mayan, Mediterranean, North American Indian, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Gandhism, etc.). They have been looking for wisdom in managing the relationship between humanity and nature. Today – having experienced the opportunities and the difficulties of the industrial era – sustainability can be understood as the central concept in the search for a new reconciliation between humanity and nature, a new meaning of balance and solidarity between the components of ecosystems.

Ecosystem Research

Ecosystem research includes a variety of approaches, driven by a variety of motivations. However, the dominating paradigm is coming from natural sciences, trying to establish cause-effect relationships for building complex systemic models. An essential element of most research in this field is a clear separation of the subject and the object, of the observer and the system.

Ecological systems are mainly understood as natural systems, on which human activities have impacts. Human behaviour and its complex psychological, sociological, economic and political conditions are usually not being regarded as part of the system. Changes in human behaviour are treated as externalities. The investigated cause-effect relationships usually only concern natural sciences where established methods allow stepwise scientific progress towards a consensus on single relationships of this kind. Especially with the support of computer technology impressive progress has been made in understanding complex systems by this approach.

Increasingly, ecosystem research is motivated by the need to understand pressing problems or risks caused by human activities in natural systems. Policy-makers ask researchers to forecast developments, to assess impacts and risks and to give concrete advice on how to handle arising problems. As human influence on European ecosystems has become overwhelming and pervasive, answers that can be given to these requests are limited as long as human activities are treated as externalities.

Attempts to include human societies in the systems considered have encountered a series of fundamental difficulties. The dominating natural sciences approach of identifying invariant cause-effect relationships and of assuming an independence of the observer and the system does not function anymore. It turns out that human behaviour and the perception of problems are culturally shaped and in continuous evolution. Research results influence human behaviour, problem perception and political priorities change over time and space. Value judgements, perception and human behaviour cannot be considered as being independent and research itself turns out to be a part of the system.

What in science once seemed a specific problem of quantum theory and nuclear physics has ended up by challenging all kinds of macroscopic science. Suddenly, the conventional approach seems hopelessly static in an increasingly dynamic environment. Despite huge efforts, research finds itself no longer at the leading edge of "progress", but lagging behind the pressing questions of how to deal with the enormous dynamic triggered by science itself.

Ecosystem research, the most advanced approach in integrating different aspects and disciplines from natural sciences, seems to need a new paradigm for dealing with this dynamic. New bridges between natural and social sciences seem to be essential in this context.

Lessons from Research on Sustainable Regional Development

The research area "Human dimensions of environmental change" of the European ENVIRONMENT and CLIMATE programme specifically tries to approach the interaction between human activities and the environment. Within the broad spectrum of environmental research, it has some unique characteristics inasmuch as it brings together different disciplines and different cultures at the same time. Since social sciences are much more culturally shaped, real intercultural dialogue and cooperation between researchers in these disciplines is much more difficult and rare than in natural sciences.

A recent review of projects concerning Sustainable Regional Development in this programme (Schleicher-Tappeser 1998) has shown a growing convergence in views over the last few years. It seems that the intercultural character of the projects was essential in this respect. All of them not only brought together research partners from different European countries but also included regional case studies in different cultures. The resulting confrontation of different perspectives seems to have led to new insights and to increasing scepticism about straightforward conventional approaches..

The main conclusions can be summarised as follows:

  • The concept of Sustainable Development stands for a profound paradigm shift which challenges century-old traditions in industrial and economic development as well as in science. Hopes for easily applicable operationalisations of the general idea of sustainable development have faded. The transition period until a general consensus about the meaning and the acceptance of this new concept will be reached may last many years.
  • The emerging concept of sustainability requires new approaches for dealing with complex interrelations between different dimensions of development. Terms such as Horizontal Integration, Cooperation, Networking or Partnership are used for describing such approaches in different fields.
  • Attempts to find standardised problem solutions for European wide application encounter difficulties. The meaning of Sustainability depends on the specific context. A common language is required for describing these differences and for exchanging experiences.
  • The idea of sustainability deeply challenges our way of dealing with different scales. "multi-level governance" or "shared responsibility" are new terms in the European political discussion which stand for a new interpretation of the principle of subsidiarity. In this sense the originally limited discussion about Regional Sustainable Development made a fundamental contribution to the general idea of sustainability.
  • Changes in the perception of problems and changes in the interrelationship of actors lead to changes in human behaviour. There are no established models for forecasting such changes.

The projects reviewed have shown that there is no easy way to model and to forecast the interaction of human societies and natural systems. European policies aiming at sustainable development cannot be based on unambiguous models. They need to be flexible in two directions. Flexibility is needed over space, since problem perception, values and interaction patterns are strongly shaped by culture and vary across Europe. Flexibility is also needed over time since precise forecasting is basically impossible.

The consequences of this basic need for flexibility are:

  • sustainability is a general idea that must be interpreted concretely in specific contexts
  • sustainability cannot be achieved by a command and control approach since we have no adequate causal models
  • sustainability can only be approached through a practical management process which includes permanent learning.

These consequences fundamentally challenge the still dominant idea, that more research and a better understanding of causal relationships in ecosystems including man will enable researchers and political decision-makers to forecast system behaviour, to identify unambiguous rules for sustainable development and to formulate command and control policies that guarantee sustainability.

Environmental policies have for a long time been based on these assumptions and have produced impressive results, especially where such an approach – including command and control policies – is culturally accepted. However, for some years this policy approach has been encountering increasing difficulties. So, both from a theoretical and from a very pragmatic point of view new approaches are needed.

The INSURED components of sustainability

A framework that tries to allow for such flexibility has been developed by the INSURED project ("Instruments for Sustainable Regional Development", see Schleicher-Tappeser et al. 1998) – one of the reviewed projects mentioned above.

Perception and values – sustainability as a "regulative idea"

It emerges that the concept of sustainability has two strands:

  • sustainability stands for a new way of perceiving the world in which we are living,
  • sustainability also stands for a shift or a new set of values and priorities in decision-making.

As perception is always conditioned by concepts and values, description and valuation cannot be completely independent. For several decades a more systemic view of our living conditions has gained in importance. In many disciplines and policy fields the way of describing and explaining phenomena has increasingly taken into account complex interrelationships between economic, ecological and socio-cultural aspects. In many instances this has resulted in an abandonment of sectoral and mechanistic approaches. This in turn has led to a different appreciation of phenomena and seems to converge to the concept of sustainability which at the same time is old and new.

Early hopes that it might be easy to find easy and generally valid rules for implementing the idea of sustainability have been disappointed. Much more than a concrete prescription, sustainability seems to be a "regulative idea" in the sense of Kant, an idea that can give a general orientation such as prosperity or freedom, which has to be interpreted in a specific manner in every concrete situation (Homann 1996, Brand 1997). For concrete orientations, it seems that we can only develop procedures in which a series of aspects have to be considered and weighted systematically. The difficulty in reaching authorative statements can be gauged if we think of the length of time that was needed to develop law systems which allow valid interpretations of what "freedom" or "justice" mean in a concrete situation. Different cultures have developed different interpretations of general values like freedom and different procedures to assess them.

The concept of sustainability can be discussed on very different levels. We can conceive of the realm of values and norms as a complex multi-level system which ranges from very general regulative ideas such as "freedom" or "respect for life" down to specified norms such as the maximum allowed NOX emissions for cars. In between we find a multitude of intermediate norms which increase in number as the degree of concretion augments towards the lower levels. Lower level norms cannot be easily deduced from the higher ones: conflicting aspects have to be weighted, causal relationships have to be taken into account according to the present state of knowledge. Changing attitudes (such as increasing acceptance of divorce), new circumstances (such as the increase in population or in number of cars) and new insights (such as the discovery of the threat to the global climate by the greenhouse effect) continually lead to a debate and renegotiation of norms in our societies. This multi-level system of norms corresponds somehow to our view of causal relationships and to the systems (often hierarchies) of institutions which are involved in the negotiation and interpretation of these norms. At each level, at each node of this network, there is scope for interpretation and valuation.

Most changes in attitudes and interpretations of reality may have minor effects on this system of values and norms. The emergence of the regulative idea of sustainability, however, is so fundamental that it can be considered as an earthquake that calls for a reconsideration and renegotiation of all relationships between values and norms on all levels. It may lead to considerable changes in the specification of norms at the lower levels. Given the enormous complexity of our system of values and norms and the fact that innumerable institutions and individuals are involved in these negotiation processes, this will necessarily take a long time. Considering the different institutions involved in this process of negotiating norms, we discover that applying the principle of subsidiarity (which we think is an essential component of sustainability, see below), will inevitably lead to different interpretations in different regions and different realms.

Components of sustainability

Looking at the literature we can identify not only many roots but also a large number of different interpretations of the concept of sustainability. Looking for a common systematic framework which is useful in a European context, three requirements seem to be essential:

  • to develop a common language
  • to develop a conceptual framework which allows the identification and the comparison of different positions
  • to identify existing consensus

The widest and most accepted interpretation of sustainability has been formulated in the Rio declaration 1992. The argument presented here is based on the understanding of sustainability expressed in this document. The attempt to categorise the 27 principles of the Rio declaration shows that they concern very different dimensions. In the literature we can distinguish three basic approaches to defining sustainability. However, none of them on its own covers the complexity of the Rio approach. In essence we can characterise them by the following three questions:

  • WHAT?: What do we want to sustain?
  • WHY?: Why do we bother about these issues? Which conflicts of interest are the motives?
  • HOW?: How can we ensure sustainable development? Which basic approaches can help us?

The INSURED project has used them as the basis for the development of a systemic framework.

WHAT?: Development dimensions

Concerning the question "What do we want to sustain?" there is a growing consensus that besides environmental aspects, economic and socio-cultural aspects have also to be considered. In one interpretation these three aspects can be associated with the conservation and further development of natural capital, man-made capital and human/ social capital.

WHY?: Equity dimensions

Equity issues are at the origin of the concept of sustainability. Perceived inequities have led to political movements that called for another kind of development. In the last century, equity between social classes and between women and men, i.e. equity between individuals, was the main motive for the rise of the labour movement. It led to sophisticated social security systems based on solidarity between individuals. Only after World War II did equity between regions become a major political issue. Transfer systems between countries and regions were established. So the European Structural Funds are an expression of a (still?) growing solidarity between regions in Europe. And only since the early seventies, since living conditions on earth seem seriously endangered by resource depletion and environmental hazards, has the concern for equity between generations become a political issue leading to a broad debate about sustainable development.

HOW?: Systemic principles

The emerging, more systemic way of looking at our world has not only sharpened our view of the problems which the dominant development model has created over the last two hundred years. It has also given indications of how to avoid mistakes and cul-de-sacs in situations of uncertainty and limited knowledge. The main shift in the perspective concerns the way of looking at interrelationships and organisational patterns. New concepts have emerged concerning systemic principles which are seen to be essential for vital systems and relationships. Different from the development aspects mentioned above, these principles do not describe specific aspects of our life or specific development problems, rather they constitute general approaches to reality, tools for describing, understanding and structuring. In this sense they constitute important tools of perception and stand at the same time for new values.

Different systematisations of systemic principles have been discussed by various authors. The INSURED project has eventually chosen the following four:

Diversity is a concept originating from biological ecology. The diversity of subsystems and organisms is essential for ecosystems in order to be able to adapt to changing conditions and to develop new dominant patterns. The evolution of life on earth strongly accelerated when sexual reproduction allowed for greater diversity. Biodiversity is regarded as a most important indicator of the stability of ecosystems. At the Rio Conference a special convention was dedicated to biodiversity. The concept of sustainability maintains that diversity is not only a value in the realm of biology, but also in human societies. Also, in cultural and in economic development diversity is an essential prerequisite of vitality. The more technical term of redundancy can be understood as a special kind of diversity. However, according to the systemic view, diversity cannot be understood as an absolute value. As every system can be understood as a subsystem of a larger one, there is always a trade-off between autonomy and integration (Varela 1979). In this sense the concept of diversity is strongly linked to the next principle: subsidiarity, which stresses more explicitly the dialectic tension between autonomy and integration addressing the interrelationship between a series of system levels or dimensions. Whereas the concept of diversity originates from natural sciences, the concept of subsidiarity stems from the social sciences (especially catholic social doctrine). In general terms it calls for a high degree of autonomy and self-governance in the smallest possible units. This applies for policy making, social systems of solidarity and welfare, technical systems or flows of goods and resources. However, no level has to dominate all the others, neither the national nor the regional one. Finding a new balance in this sense seems to be one of the most challenging aspects of sustainability.

The emerging more systemic, holistic view which emphasises co-evolution, complementarity and interdependence instead of fierce competition, exclusiveness, hierarchy and domination, stresses the importance of networks and partnership in human, institutional and also other relations. Networking is not only a social but also a technical and an ecological concept. Partnership has to do with trustful cooperation in a common framework and with mutual respect. Giddens has shown how much the development of modern society relies on trust. The concept emphasises the common responsibility of all parties involved. Partnership includes the striving for fair and peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Participation, finally, concerns the relationship between individuals and institutions. It means that the individuals concerned should be involved in decision-making about their future. Participation, therefore, concerns more the vertical dimension of societal relationships, the legitimacy of hierarchies. In this sense it is linked to the concept of networking and partnership which generally is perceived as concerning more than horizontal relationships.

The challenge: integration and learning

The groups of basic components of sustainability developed above represent different perspectives. They are intrinsically interrelated, but none of them is completely included in the others. An analysis of the components shows that none can be omitted without losing important aspects. In checking the 27 principles of the Rio Declaration against the ten sustainability components developed here, it was found that only the first principle, which states that sustainability is an anthropocentric approach, is not fully covered explicitly by one of the ten components alone.

The main challenge of the concept of sustainability does not lie in elaborating measures which enable us to consider every single one of the components developed above. The first five of them are not new. Special policies and institutions have been established for them for a relatively long time. The main challenge seems to lie in the way to deal with these components, a new way which is mainly expressed by the four systemic principles. In a simple formula the challenges could be summarised as follows:


  • consider simultaneously different dimensions of development
  • look for win-win solutions


  • conserve potentials and resources
  • improve the ability to learn, encourage innovation

These challenges are obviously present in many other fields and activities. However, trying to meet them in connection with the set of components developed above is not an easy task.

The INSURED framework

The above components of sustainability can be used as a general orientation for sustainable development. This set has proved to be very valuable for structuring interdisciplinary and intercultural discussions in a series of different projects (e.g. ARPE 1997) and for concretely assessing situations, policies and actions. With the help of a series of case studies within the INSURED project it has been further developed into a larger management framework which, in addition to these components which serve as ORIENTATION, also includes elements which make it possible to assess the POTENTIAL and to identify the DYNAMICS (see below).

Table 1: The INSURED Components of Sustainability
The development dimensions
O1 The environmental component The environmental component of sustainability on the one hand demands conservation of the richness and the potentiality of our environment. On the other hand, it calls on us to respect the environmental and ecological principles, to respect and to sustain the functioning of ecological systems of which man is a part. Man has strongly shaped the environment, and therefore the term environment also encompasses the man-made environment.
O2 The economic component The economic component of sustainability on the one hand means the satisfaction of human needs, the conservation and improvement of (mainly material) well-being. On the other hand it also means respect for economic principles: efficient use of all kinds of resources is an essential aspect of sustainability.
O3 The socio-cultural component The conservation and development of human and social potentials is one side of this component. These potentials comprise all aspects of skills, knowledge, habits, beliefs, culture, institutions of human societies and also their individual members. The cultivation of these potentials on the other hand requires respect for the principles which are considered to be essential for the good functioning of our societies, such as the guarantee of human rights, democracy etc.
The equity dimensions
O4 Inter-personal equity Equity between individuals, which encompasses equity between all humans regardless of their social situation, their gender or their ethnic or cultural background has been an essential demand since the French revolution and has been a core issue in the development of western societies since the middle of the last century. It remains a central issue in the concept of sustainable development. Equity is not equality (the original quest of the French revolution), the aim is not to abolish all differences, but opportunities should be equitably distributed. Solidarity is essential for improving equity.
O5 Spatial equity Equity between different regions and countries is a more recent concept. In a world in which interrelationships between different countries are continuously intensifying, the importance of this concept is growing. Equity for all humans becomes indivisible.
O6 Intertemporal equity The concern about future generations has been at the origin of the concept of sustainability. Equity between present and future generations, the principle of maintaining and increasing overall opportunities and options, is an aspect to be considered in all actions. However, there is no simple rule how changes in opportunities may be valued. The other SD components are needed for assessing developments in this sense.
The systemic principles
O7 Diversity Diversity is an essential precondition for further development in all kinds of evolving systems. Biodiversity, economic diversity, and diversity of cultures all stand for the ability of a system to maintain dynamic stability. Innovation and adaptation to new conditions is possible where different approaches and solutions can be combined to form new ones. Diversification is therefore often a strategy to increase long-term stability.
O8 Subsidiarity The principle of subsidiarity basically demands that all kinds of functions be fulfilled at the lowest possible level and within small dimensions. Help or ruling from outside shall only intervene if this really helps to improve the fulfilment of the function and if this does not diminish the autonomy of the subsystem in a dangerous way. The principle of subsidiarity originated in the catholic social teaching concerning the issue of social responsibility and social security, but it can be applied to all kinds of systems, such as politics, administration, business, technical systems, material flows in the economy etc.

The principle does not give clear indications, it describes the tension between autonomy and integration into larger systems. In a world of rapidly-growing complexity it is increasingly important to be able to understand and manage shared and negotiated responsibilities between several levels and dimensions. Old concepts of (national) sovereignty will have to be replaced by concepts of multi-level governance.

Subsidiarity implies empowerment of individuals and communities to actively manage and control their own life. Subsidiarity nourishes democracy, by means of governance styles which allow citizens to determine every dimension of their common life and to improve their abilities to manage equitable social interactions

O9 Networking and Partnership The concept of networking stresses the importance of horizontal non-hierarchical relationships. A network is based on mutually agreed objectives and rules and is basically open: members can enter and leave. Networks ensure the exchange of experiences and information, organise mutual support, stabilise systems and evolve. Networks are subject to competition: members may change to other, more attractive networks. Flexibility and orientation towards the needs of the members is therefore essential for networks to survive.

The concept of networking is not only relevant in social systems but also in biological and technical ones. The enormous success of the use of the networking concept in Information Technology parallel to its growing acceptance in all kinds of organisations is leading to a deep transformation of our societies.

10 Participation All stakeholders concerned by an issue should have the opportunity to be involved in the relevant process of decision-making. In the early stages of the formulation of a problem and the identification of alternative solutions such an involvement is particularly important. Participation corresponds to basic ideas of democracy, favours a diversity of approaches and may contribute to avoidance of conflicts. Participation strengthens the sense of responsibility, motivates people to make a contribution and increases compliance with decisions taken. Participation on the other hand requires time and motivation among the participants, openness of the institutions involved and often more time and funding than exclusive hierarchical decision-making. Depending on the adopted procedures it also risks decisions being taken which contradict experts’ views.

Participation concerns the way of decision-making in all kinds of social systems including business. It requires respect for different kinds of interests and points of view. Therefore it also favours an approach which integrates the different dimensions of Sustainable Development.


In outlining the challenge of sustainability ecosystem research we have seen that the role of science seems to have considerably changed in recent decades. As a major result of the review of EU projects on Sustainable Regional Development it has emerged that sustainability can only be approached through a practical management process which includes permanent systematic learning. This would imply an abandonment of the conventional scientific approach of modelling, forecasting and control, but should not be confused with simply muddling through. Systematic tools for such an approach are needed – the INSURED framework outlined above might point in a useful direction.

For a better understanding of this change of the role of science and of the management tools needed, the concept of self-reflexivity seems to be very helpful. Giddens has described how the increased capability of our societies to communicate and to reflect the consequences of our own actions has led to an enormous acceleration of learning processes.

The success of the scientific approach has undermined its own preconditions. Conventional research has progressed by identifying reproducible phenomena neglecting minor interrelationships and by making forecasts under ceteris-paribus assumptions. Difficulties have appeared in applying this approach to complex ecosystems and have led to evolutionary and systems theories which seemed to provide reasonable tools for dealing with natural complexity. However, the dominant conventional approach, which concentrates on the most obvious interrelationships, has allowed for very effective interventions in natural systems – at least in the short term. With the growing extent of these interventions the natural systems have been considerably changed and intrinsically linked to social systems.

A first consequence is that new links over space and time have been established or strengthened:

  • trade, travelling and research have enormously increased exchanges of all kinds between different ecosystems around the globe
  • new links between different evolutionary periods have been established, e.g. by burning fossil fuels which had been deposited "safely" before the appearance of man on earth
  • the standardisation of land use and the increased use of pesticides is reducing biodiversity many times quicker than it has built up in the course of evolution
  • gene technology transfers genetic code between species which have evolved separately since hundred thousands of years

A second consequence is that many of these new links are subject to the control of man. Increasingly this means that they are being established and removed, strengthened or weakened not on the basis of physical, chemical or biological feedback systems, but on the basis of human perceptions, expectations and values. Whereas traditional agricultural methods evolved very slowly over centuries on the basis of unsystematic trial and error, macroscopic results, regional natural inputs and muscular forces, modern scientific methods of nature exploitation rely on models, forecasts, calculations, powerful synthetic inputs and fossil-fuel-powered machines. Changes in scientific models and forecasts, in consumer preferences, EU subsidies or stock market development may change ecosystems within a few years. Many feedback times have become shorter.

The once so successful conventional scientific approaches which started from the assumption of being able to independently observe the effects of discrete and limited interventions is no longer applicable under these circumstances. Feedback loops which are conditioned through human societies and their scientific approach to control nature must be taken into account. So, science finds itself being trapped in a feedback loop having a strong impact on its object. This results in an acceleration of change which continuously shortens the range of scientific results. In genetic engineering some strategies already take into account this phenomenon: pest-resistant crop plants are designed to be useful for only a few years until massive resistance has developed against their venom overdose which has been adapted from more flexible defence mechanisms of other organisms.

There are two consequences that can be drawn from this dilemma:

  • The first is to develop management tools which give a flexible guidance without hoping to establish complete cause -effect models. This implies acknowledging that the temporal range of forecasts is diminishing and that therefore also human interventions must become more prudent.
  • The second is to try to structure society-nature relationships in such a way that some structural control prevents excessive acceleration of the development of subsystems with subsequent breakdown.

Worried by similar questions, Luhmann has developed the concept of self-referential systems and has extensively described corresponding phenomena in the most varied fields, where communication in self-referential systems leads to the impossibility of communication between subsystems of society and the impossibility of integrating different dimensions of development. He ended up within a rather pessimistic world view. Another strand in the discussion concerning autopoietic systems which can be originally associated with Varela, Maturana or Jantsch stresses the importance of looking at many different system layers and their interlinkages and of always balancing autonomy and integration. This is the challenge of subsidiarity. Today one might say that subsidiarity should not only be seen as applicable to the social realm but that it also extends to the underlying biological and chemical systems.

In fact, the idea of subsidiarity might be essential for preventing high-level systems from closed self-referential dynamics, from dissociating from their underlying foundations and from eventually destroying part of their nourishing environment. We have just witnessed such a destructive process in the Asian financial crisis. In the same sense as uncontrolled financial flows may damage the underlying economies, one might argue that uncontrolled markets for agricultural goods may damage ecosystems.

In a similar way diversity, partnership and participation can be understood as basic evolutionary guidance principles in order to avoid too much destruction in this historical period of growing self-reflexivity.

The irritation which started with quantum physics was only the start. The observer is part of the system. Simple deterministic models become impossible. This does not only change the role of science but also the role of politics. Once the relationship of science and politics seemed so simple. The independent scientific observer analyses the system, he uses generally established norms and targets for making judgements about the situation, he proposes measures for changing the situation based on his model. Then politics, conceived as a ruler which is outside the system, sets more concrete targets and tries to implement measures. If society is no longer an unconscious object of the manipulations of experts and politicians, the whole game is going to change.

Static models become useless. Ways must be found to manage permanent change in relationships and values. Science must realise its own relative role in this process. Eco-system management may therefore be an adequate term for what needs to be developed.

Ecosystem management

Detailed plans and command and control policies under these circumstances are an illusion. However, muddling through is no alternative. Flexible management using regularly revised objectives becomes the only option. Considerable efforts will be necessary for developing orientations with the necessary degree of flexibility. New approaches and more sophisticated tools are necessary for linking in a flexible way values and objectives from some general European or even global consensus down to very concrete local development objectives for a specific context. And similarly, for linking long-term orientations with medium-term objectives and short-term targets. It seems that the concept of subsidiarity may play an increasingly important role. New skills are needed: developing common visions, negotiating, evaluating, ensuring transparency becomes essential.

Safe grounds are becoming rare. As has happened with most research in the course of this century: ecosystem research cannot escape self-reflexivity. It has permanently to reconsider its own context of use. Ecosystem research becomes a part of ecosystem management. It must continue to gather hard facts where they can be found, but it will need to develop a much more dynamic framework for the use of its established knowledge. The question "what makes the change change" becomes most interesting, mathematically speaking: the second derivative. Parabolic or hyperbolic curves cannot be understood with linear algebra.

Sustainability is not a matter of indicators or criteria which can be easily measured and checked. Also objectives alone are not sufficient. A useful management framework should provide:

  • general orientation,
  • help for interpreting a specific context and assessing own forces
  • a choice of general strategies
  • adequate instruments for navigating in turbulent circumstances.

The following chapter proposes elements of a tool developed in this spirit.

Ecosystem research and sustainability

When Ecosystem research is part of the system, research programmes themselves should comply with the concept of sustainability. In the INSURED framework presented above, the systemic principles seem to be particularly interesting in evaluating research programmes.

A consequent approach for evaluating ecosystem research programmes in terms of sustainability could include many perspectives. The usual evaluation steps are: assessment of the present situation, assessment of alternative strategies, ex-ante, intermediate and ex-post evaluation of programmes considering their different internal levels. In all the evaluation steps a series of programme aspects could be evaluated in terms of the ten components of sustainability: genesis, functioning and scientific approach of the programmes, their impact on the scientific landscape, on politics, and finally on ecosystems, including human societies.

Ecosystem research is working at a focal point of the general challenges highlighted in this article. An evaluation of past and current programmes could probably give systematic insights concerning new approaches which might not only be of interest for the ecosystem research community but far beyond.



Chapter V
A flexible tool for valuating and evaluating the Sustainable Development

by Filippo Strati and Ruggero Schleicher-Tappeser


Quality Management

Quality is a philosophical concept related to how persons, things, facts, activities, conditions and so on are. Quality is not absolute since it depends on values, both individual and shared among groups, communities and societies. Quality is relative since it depends on culture, ethics and civilisation, being linked to time, space and quantity dimensions.

Definition of culture, civilisation, value and ethics

As a general meaning, culture manifests itself as cohesion, a complex pattern of ideas, values, beliefs, norms and ways of acting shared by the members of organisational systems and communities. Therefore (Morin E., 1994), culture relates to all that is singular, original, local and expresses the sense and the rationale (ethos) of a community, an ethnic group, a nation, etc. (cultural identity). In this sense, culture includes the distinctive characteristics of a particular society or sub-group within that society. This means that culture is relative (being strongly determined by and in societal contexts and societies) and, even though different cultures may be described and compared, it is worthless to rank them. Culture is the basic ingredient of social interaction as a process, which includes the relationships between actors, actions, generations, time, space and place. Culture has a pervasive influence over the behaviour of actors, their actions, traditions, morals, attitudes (thinking, feeling, behaving), rites, rituals, patterns of communication, organisation, perceptions, art, law, customs, policies, etc.

To civilisation is attributed a meaning which is more universal than that of culture. For instance values coming from a community or country can become universal. The values of ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ originated as cultural expression of a specific society during a specific historical period, but they have acquired universal meaning as civilisation.

Values are the patterns of moral principles and thoughts (philosophy of life). Values refer to the autonomous responsibility of the individual and his morality. Values (and morality) are and remain irrational; they concern the individual sphere, which combines autonomy and responsibility. It is this moral capacity of human beings that make it possible to form society as a social structure composed of "systems of social relations and system meanings" (Hays S., 1994). Thus, morality becomes a practice "negotiated between learning agents capable of growth on the one hand and a culture capable of change on the other" (Wolfe A., 1989).

Ethics is the moral code as a set of mutually coherent precepts that ought to be obeyed by any moral person. Ethics, as a framework of rules of conduct, is based on negotiated and shared values within and by societal structures (the individual as well as larger entities) and influence individual and collective behaviours. In this sense, "Ethics is a cultural phenomenon; culture is relative; therefore ethics is relative" (Edel A., 1995). The conclusion is that the social management of ethics is complex. In fact, ethics is a combination of partness and wholeness; it is reciprocal and cyclical; it is cause and effect at the same time. A paradox emerges which implies socio-cultural risks. If ethics is utilised as a way to foster rationality and universalisation of social order, it creates only the destruction of societies and cultures. There are historical examples (the Holocaust and other types of genocide) which show how ethics can substitute morality, to the extent that a code substitutes the moral self, and heteronomy substitutes autonomy.

Values and ethics are visible in social action, underline the key role of the actors and of the relationships between them. Paraphrasing Edel, only men create and grow values, use their knowledge to broaden, refine, and achieve their human aims and to distinguish increasingly the spurious from the genuine; they see themselves at every point as active creators out of the past and into the future.

Therefore, quality is something difficult to grasp. It should improve, but for every situation to which it is related (persons, products, social communities, etc.) different aspects appear with several combinations.

Today there are many approaches to quality and important good practices arise within the mainstream of Total Quality Management (TQM). TQM:

  • is a comprehensive approach which involves an organisation to continuously improve its performance over the long term, being customer–focused and meeting the needs of all stakeholders;
  • concerns the system as a an undivided "whole", an organisational complex based on interdependent components (e.g. suppliers, inputs, processes, resources, people, outputs, customers, etc.);
  • develops a climate of trust and co-operation among the stakeholders;
  • considers the effects of changes on the entire system, not just the individual elements.

For instance, it is known that the "Baldrige model" (George S., Weimerskirch A, 1994) "focuses on the customer; aligns internal processes with customer satisfaction; puts everybody in the company to work on a shared vision and goals; facilitates a long-term approach to continuous improvement; demands management by fact; promotes prevention rather than reaction; seeks ways to be faster and more flexible throughout the organisation; looks outside the company for opportunities to form partnerships with customers, suppliers, and other companies, to benchmark, and to fulfil the company's responsibilities as a corporate citizen; values results."

Strategic thinking and innovation of corporate culture

A meaningful change has happened in corporate strategy. Nowadays it is fully recognised that planning requires strategic thinking, as the way of "knowing what needs to happen" (Senge et al., 1994), "accepting the intellectual challenge of creating the future" (Smith N. I., 1994). This way of thinking and acting represents an evident shift from linear thinking to systems thinking: things are no longer seen as structures but as processes.

Strategic change is at the basis of corporate planning by means of the combination of vision and missions.

According to this innovative approach (Senge et al., 1994; Smith N. I., 1994; Hammer M., Champy J., 1994; Gouillart F. J., Kelly J. N., 1995; Elkington J., 1997), a clear image (vision) of what the future should look like (‘where we want to go’, ‘what we will be like when we get there’) drives strategic planning:

  • providing clarity of purpose to the organisation’s missions (‘why it exists?, ‘what it is meant to be involved in and with’, ‘how we operate, on a day-by-day basis, to pursue our vision’)
  • giving a sense of commitment to all its members (‘what are we here to do together’);
  • empowering people to be flexible in setting goals and expected results in order to take the organisation closer and to revise instantaneously plans in such a way as to tightly meet the missions;
  • being the way to communicate a sense of the kind of organisation the company needs to become, how it is going to operate, what results it must achieve.

A clear demonstration of the meaning of this approach comes from the Japanese school of entrepreneurial and management culture: "A company is not a machine but a living organism, and, much like an individual, it can have a collective sense of identity and fundamental purpose. This is the organisational equivalent of self-knowledge - a shared understanding of what the company stands for, where it’s going, what kind of world it wants to live in, and, most importantly, how it intends to make that world a reality" (Nonaka I., 1991).

Collective sense of identity, self-knowledge, shared understanding and so on, all these properties come together when a company is more and more seen as a learning organisation; a concept nowadays fully recognised in organisation theories and world-famous (Garrat B., 1994).

TQM itself, as a container of concepts aimed at pursuing quality, changes in relation to corporate and community culture. Three basic Japanese terms clearly represent the above assumption:

  • Kaizen as a process of continuous, slow, day-by-day change;
  • Kairyo as fast, unpredictable modifications and improvement;
  • Kyosei, as an emphasis on social and environmental responsibilities for the present and future generations, as well as equity within world-wide and between local economies.

More recently the concept of total quality environmental management (TQEM) appeared. TQEM "is a system of dealing with quality at every stage of the production process, both internally and externally … The TQM system requires that every single part of the organisation is integrated and must be able to work together. This is exactly the ethos which is needed for an environmental system to be successful … For firms with a total quality management system in place or considering one, the next steps towards an integrated and effective environmental management system are not hard to make" (Welford R., 1995). TQEM pursues a holistic approach to understand the links between an organisation and its natural environment and to foster, especially by adopting life-cycle analysis, ecological performance and clean manufacturing processes which eliminate pollution at the source rather than end-of-pipe.

ISO 9000 was created for TQM and ISO 14001 for TQEM, as well as EMAS. Their ways to improve quality underline how corporate strategic visions are necessary in order to promote the principles of sustainable development as a set of core values guiding the firm’s decision-making processes at all levels (Welford R., 1995; Elkington J., 1997; Clarke T. & Clegg S., 1998) and fields of activity (e.g. marketing, training, auditing, life cycle of products and processes, etc.).

The quality management approach therefore starts on a meta-level and does not prescribe fixed standards. It deals with the methods and procedures with which quality targets that have been set can be attained or exceeded. The commitment is to ensure optimal and transparent management in the fulfilment of very complex objectives.

Sustainable Quality Management

In a similar sense, Sustainable Quality Management (SQM) can be understood as a management framework for improving the quality of local and regional development in the direction of sustainability. With this aim, SRS and EURES elaborated a software specifically called SQM, following the results of INSURED (Instruments for sustainable regional development), a research project funded by the EU Commission and carried out by EURES (co-ordination - DE), ÖAR (AT), SIASR (CH), SICA (IRL), SRS (IT).

The headings of the SQM three columns show the purpose on which a good management of sustainable local and regional development should be based and a database collects descriptions of good practices which can increasingly be enhanced by the analysis of case studies all over Europe and abroad.

Orientation / 10 Components of Sustainability

Sustainability is a very huge concept and, like many other concepts, it is both new and old, representing the historical development of thinking within different cultures and along the stages of civilisation of the human world.

During the INSURED project, a very intensive debate was carried out on those topics. Through the theoretical reconstruction of the concepts involved in the meaning of (and the debate on) sustainability, their interrelationships were analysed and 10 components distilled. They are "value-orientated" and designated as an integrated focal point of observation and action (Schleicher Tappeser R. et al., 1997). They outline an approach to sustainable development that can be described from three aspects:

  1. Development dimensions: a) the respect for the environment both natural and man-made (environment); b) satisfaction of human needs through efficient use of resources (economy); c) maintenance and development of human capital (socio-culture);
  2. Equity dimensions between: a) individuals (inter-personal equity); b) localities, regions, States (spatial equity); c) generations (intertemporal equity);
  3. Systemic principles: a) diversity, as a prerequisite of environmental, economic and cultural vitality and survival; b) subsidiarity, as a way to empower individuals and communities; c) networking and partnership, which emphasise trust and mutual respect between individuals, communities and institutions; d) participation, so that individuals and communities are involved to the maximum extent at all stages of diagnosis, planning and implementation.

The integrated utilisation of the 10 components gives development an orientation towards sustainability in order to conceive and implement regional policies and local initiatives. Each of them has a meaning of a value that should be conserved or striven for. At the same time each component represents a more methodological dimension, a way of looking at things.

Social potential / 16 key local factors

The study of "social systems" underlines "the structured interaction of individuals. This structuring takes the form of a concrete number of alternatives ordering the way the individual may relate to his social environment" (Gintis, quoted in Anderson R. E. & Carter I., 1984) and to the natural environment, given that "nature is society and society is also nature" (Beck U., 1992).

Structured interaction of individuals means "social interaction" as a process of learning and negotiation of meaning that goes between actors, through their reciprocal actions, patterns of behaviour, of thought, perception, values and beliefs which are culturally determined.

In analysing social systems, it is not useful to think of linear cause-effect relationships between factors. They are closely linked to human behaviour and action, which cannot be explained through the use of an over-simplistic casual chain. These social factors interact in complex loops. In fact, there is a continuous interdependent sequence (sociologically called process) of individual and collective factors, which underline how the individual and the community carry out their ways of life to deal with problems in order to solve them by creating change.

During the INSURED project, information was obtained from the analysis of regional and local case studies (as a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches).

Combining the relevant features of (regional and local) contexts and the "good practices" stemming from the case studies, about 60 key local factors were identified and 16 selected, because of their capacity to represent all the others.

These factors are not "neutral". Nothing is neutral. They are "objective" to extent that they are validated by the learning process and negotiation of meaning between actors, their actions, culture (values and ethics), contexts, observers and phenomena observed.

They are "real" and interacting factors which, at a certain period of time and within different spatial dimensions, seem to favour sustainable regional development and a common understanding of the process.

They are simultaneously common, diverse and original. Common, because they are relevant in each local context examined; diverse, because they act in different ways depending on the specific context; original, because the local actors combine them in different ways.

P1. Perception of a variety of development approaches
P2. Creativity and innovation in an entrepreneurial culture which emphasises responsibility towards the community
P3. Capacity to cope with complexity and ambiguity and to anticipate change
P4. Openness to enrich one’s own culture and enhance multicultural cohesion
P5. Discovery and re-encoding of territorial specificities and local knowledge
P6. Ability of each to reach their optimum level of attainment and fulfilment
P7. Fractal distribution of competence using the counterflow principle
P8. Autonomy of strategic decision-making within a facilitating infrastructure
P9. Primary reliance on one’s own resources without compromising those of others
P10. Shared value system taking into account environmental, socio-cultural and economic interdependencies
P11. Social cohesion
P12. Opportunities and room for equitable interaction
P13. Capacity for creating shared visions
P14. Integration of social and technical skills into the innovation process
P15. Access to information and to the arena of dialogue and debate
P16. Multiplicity of interactions, enhanced by local animators

The utilisation of the 16 key local (regional) factors makes it possible to perceive and enhance capabilities and potentials of social communities in favour of sustainable development.

They should be considered to conceive and implement regional policies and local initiatives. The role of the 16 key factors is, to some extent, similar to that of qualitative variables adopted in a market analysis. Focusing on the 16 key factors, context analysis appears to be more comprehensive and dynamic than traditional market analysis.

Dynamics / 6 Transformation levers

Dynamics is change, determined by the interaction of conservation, revolution, resistance (Morin E., 1994). They are not dichotomies but interactive components (parts) of human life (as a whole).

Conservation is not conservatism even though it can feed the latter. Conservatism is the practice of opposing change in established institutions, methods, traditions, behaviours, habits, rules, roles, etc. On the other hand, conservation is the act of preserving, protecting, maintaining resources, values, ethics, lifestyles, etc. All these actions imply innovation, creativity, intuition and imagination.

Without protection there is not improvement and vice versa. Maintenance implies also substitution and replacement. Improvement, substitution, replacement etc. are based on change.

Change is innovation, creativity, intuition and fantasy. Changes occur continuously. They can be slow, gradual, almost imperceptible or fast, shocking, upending and unpredictable, unrelenting and ubiquitous.

They can be very broad in range and intensity. They include short-term and long-term, large-scale and small-scale effects, operating at local and global levels. Change may be positive and/or negative, regressive and/or progressive, constructive and/or destructive.

Change is always revolutionary. Every transformation is simultaneously dis-organising and re-organising. It is deviance and rupture of traditional rules and roles. But, at the same time, it is reconstruction of new rules and roles to maintain a fabric, which can nurture further innovation.

Conflicts are not merely accidental and unfortunate. They are inherent, legitimate, and often unavoidable through the combination of conservation and revolution. Conflicts can arise from conservation and from revolution. There can be resistance to revolution and resistance to conservation. Resistance can originate revolution and conservation. There are a concrete number of options, and the struggle, the negotiations and the agreements between values and ethics (as they are perceived and expressed by human beings in a certain situation of time and space) determine alternatives.

In this period of transition from the modern (and industrial) to the post-modern (and post-industrial) age, sustainable development represents the most important process of innovation and learning, based on the above-mentioned dynamics, determined by interaction between conservation, revolution and resistance.

During the case studies, examined by INSURED, it emerged that it was not only necessary to look at static "preconditions" for successful sustainable regional development, but also to consider the dynamics of transformation which often occurred in several phases. Good strategies should be focused on a few driving forces and key aspects of transformation:

D1. Enhancing problem understanding
D2. Open collective learning
D3. Negotiation and co-decision
D4. Creation of a shared vision
D5. Client orientation
D6. Result orientation

The role of the 6 transformation levers is, to some extent, similar to that of the marketing-mix levers. Focusing on the 6 levers, sustainable development strategies appear to be more comprehensive and dynamic than the traditional market strategy.

In fact a good strategy is determined by: i) discovering what principal transformation levers have been utilised in a local context; ii) and deciding what mix of levers to utilise in order to orientate the social potential (key factors) towards sustainable development.

Who can utilise SQM and how?

SQM can be utilised by very different actors in different situations and for different tasks, e.g.:

  • public officers (at the EU, national, regional or local levels) who are designing programmes for supporting SMEs;
  • consultants and development agents who are evaluating the best way to orientate innovation in specific fields (agriculture, tourism, transport, industry, etc.) and how to utilise financial support instruments for environmentally friendly products and processes;
  • entrepreneurs who want to diversify their activities, looking for new market segments where the demand for new products and services could increase by means of a very distinctive and innovative quality improvement.

SQM: to prevent errors

A very clever minister of the environment wants to promote the reclamation of a local ecosystem in a maritime area. With the collaboration of scientists and experts, she/he elaborates the guidelines for creating a sea park. But what about the economic fabric of the area concerned which may be based on intensive sea activities (tourism, industry, fishing, etc.)? What about a socio-cultural system, which may be based on employment, related to the above activities, and may have a very low awareness and knowledge of environmental problems and opportunities? Looking at the 10 orientation components, she/he can identify ways:

  • to help the start-up of new economic activities;
  • to improve and disseminate know-how and skills;
  • to favour social equity (stressing the role of a sea park as new source of employment and revenue), spatial equity (focusing the role of co-ordinated planning between the communities of the area), inter-temporal equity (highlighting the expected results in the medium and long term for the sake of the youngest and the future generations);
  • to focus attention on the opportunity determined by biological, social and economic diversity within the area concerned;
  • to develop a strategy which respects the role of the local authorities, involves local communities, adopts effective ways to improve public participation and promotes networking and partnerships among the economic and social actors (both public and private).

In order to define the factual aspects of the above strategy, she/he needs to analyse the social potential of the community concerned, as well as the dynamics, which characterises its current way of life. But, what is ot important to look at? SQM can help her/him to orientate the analysis providing the basic foci (the 16 key local factors and the 6 transformation levers). Creating a round table (forum) which involves her/his collaborators and the local actors, the minister can prepare the ultimate strategy orientated at the 10 sustainable development components and present it in an understandable manner underlining:

  • the levers – mix adopted; e.g. co-decision + result orientation;
  • the social potentials which will be exploited e.g. multiplicity of interactions, enhanced by local actors + entrepreneurial creativity and innovation + autonomy of strategic decision-making + social cohesion + integration of social and technical skills.

They should all consider a general orientation towards sustainability, they will have to take into account the local communities, which are concerned by their actions, and they will have to respect essential aspects of transformation and learning processes. They could all make use of SQM which helps them to investigate these aspects in more detail and which gives some hints about which options for action or support which have worked well in similar situations.

SQM: to assess situations and measures

An EU officer in the Directorate-General for Regional Policies has to check the draft of the Operational Programme for the Regional Fund in a specific region before approving it. He could use SQM in the following way. He would require that preparatory assessment studies have analysed the present situation in this region in terms of the 10 sustainable development components and would check what the main findings are. Similarly he would have a look at the regional social potential (16 key factors) and would compare the results with other regions with which he has been dealing recently. He would then have a close look at the proposed development strategy and check whether all six levers of transformation have been seriously considered. Finally, he would look at the measures proposed and assess their adequacy to the problems identified before and check whether they will fit into the social potential encountered. Having identified the main strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis) according to the assessment grid, the "good practices database" structured along these items could help him to make quick comparisons.

SQM makes it possible: to formulate different interpretations; to know different situations; to look at an issue from different points of view; to prevent errors which often cause resistance and conflicts against a very innovative strategy in respect of the prevalent local culture.

SQM offers the opportunity to understand the different roles and positions of different actors in one situation – an essential condition for good negotiations and "sustainable" solutions.

The examples can be many and the different actors in their specific situations need to develop more specific questions out of the different components and factors. Hundreds of such specific questions are conceivable and cannot be listed in advance. The assessment grid gives a systematic starting point. The "good practices database" supports each actor providing specific experiences and approaches and examples. All users could themselves contribute to this database, collecting and entering new examples of good practices, as well as ideas and projects.

In conclusion, SQM helps different kinds and levels of actors:

  • to assess situations
  • to develop strategies
  • to assess programmes, measures and actions ex ante
  • to monitor and to support programs and actions
  • to evaluate programmes and actions ex post
  • to transfer experiences from one context to another

SQM: to conceive strategies and initiatives

The head of a local professional training institution wants to set up a special initiative for unemployed young people using public funding. She has some initial ideas for core activities and checks them using the list of sustainable development components, each time asking herself what the local community really could need in this respect. She then analyses the political and social context of her initiative using the key local factors: Where will resistance come from? Who needs to be convinced? Which elements will be most important? How can the local community support her? Then she will try to identify the most important dynamics, which she will have to address in order to get the project off the ground. Raising awareness about the youth unemployment problem? Initiating a negotiation with local companies?

Creating a common vision about youth employment in her area? At the same time she will sort out her basic options for action, look for support and funding and try to learn from the experiences of others. Here the best practices database will be useful.

SQM is a methodological tool to improve a holistic innovative learning process

New theories on social system analysis, complexity, chaos etc. introduced new factors which modify the traditional way of thinking, interpreting, codifying and expressing societies through the identification of social "laws" and the elaboration of models.

Models constitute a formally theoretical perspective; an intellectual order of an empirical reality based on its analysis and verifications. Models are useful to maintain a circular integration between theory and research.

Definition of ideal type

An ideal type is not an average type of the most commonly found features of the observed phenomenon, nor is an ideal type a simple description of the phenomenon itself. An ideal type is worked out according to the conceptualisation made to interpret a social phenomenon. An ideal type is utilised to learn from the real world. The ideal type represents only a kind of hypothetical model to be tested analysing real "social facts". More recently (Gasparini A., Strassoldo R., 1996), ideal types were defined as systems of interpretation and re-organisation of reality (actual phenomena). Ideal typology can be considered as a methodological instrument of models based on integrated (or correlated) concepts in order to comprehend and explain reality through the identification of (simple) relationships between concepts and social facts. The ideal types:

  • belong to the ambit of theory and always have a cultural connotation since they are the result of cultural and normative aspects (they correspond, to some extent, to some human-logically conceived social law);
  • are based on contingent and historical elements;
  • are a mix of deductive and inductive approaches, a mix of conceptualised relationships (abstract) and data (information) which are contingent;
  • are based on a comparison between concepts, refusing a "totality" interpretation (the whole as an absolute meaning) and referring to what is observed;
  • try to identify a diverse gradation within a continuity and an ongoing relationship between the theoretically defined concepts;
  • are not exhaustive since they are the result of a theoretical (conceptual) choice and construction.

According to the "ideal type" approach, a model can be considered as a symbolic representation of a real (empirical) process observed according to a theoretical elaboration of concepts. Therefore a model can be conceived as a lens. It is useful to identify convergence and distance between the conceptualisation and the actual reality, to improve the theoretical elaboration and to proceed with confrontation and comparison between different circumstances (e.g. local socio-cultural contexts).

The above considerations help to understand the meaning and the role of SQM:

  • it is not a tool of modelling in the traditional sense of giving standardised certainty to uncertain and complex phenomena;
  • it is a methodology to understand the phenomena, in a holistic way, discovering their basic interrelations;
  • it is an integrated tool to continuously learn from the dynamics of the phenomena in order to construct a grounded theory which can help to change the current scientific paradigms;
  • it is a methodology which opens the doors and windows of the human brain to discover that what is considered as chaotic in a certain time and dimension can be understood as an expression of the limits of previously formulated concepts;
  • it is a way of thinking which strategically assumes the hypothesis that actually a natural order could exist which embeds what seems to be an expression of chaos, opening new paths in order to understand and manage complexity;
  • it is a methodology to discover that complexity is based on the tri-dimensional flows of mutual relationships; the first between different actors; the second between their actions; the third between actors and actions;
  • it is a way to fully recognise that human beings are neither the nor the principal typology of actors; other stakeholders exist who are unable to speak for themselves and who do not think and behave according to human normative codes; generally speaking, they are the natural environment, future generations and non-human species (Wheeler D., Sillanpää M., 1997; Clarke T. & Clegg S., 1998);
  • it is a way to admit that humanity is a an important component of ecosystems and that nature is society and vice versa;
  • it is a methodology to understand that human actions are interrelated to non-human actions expressing the degree of natural cohesion within and between different ecosystems.

In conclusion, all is interconnected (orientation, potential and dynamics) and the 32 SQM elements help to understand mutual relationships i) as the ways in which actors behave and feel towards each other, and ii) as the patterns of action which distinguish different (social) structures.

According to systemic thinking (Anderson R. E. & Carter I., 1984), the one cannot exist without the many and vice versa. Each human and social entity exists and thrives as both whole and part. The (socially determined) interdependence is constituted by the melding of opposite twins (one might say dichotomies) such isolation and participation, dependence and autonomy.

All is interconnected: the One and the Many

The relationship between individuals and social organisations has always been at the basis of the concept of civil society and understood as divergence and/or confluence between the One and the Many, that is the individual and the collective, the person and the institutions, the private and public spheres of life and action (Seligman A., 1993).

The relations between the One and the Many constitute largely the problem of how many parts can be opposite each other and simultaneously constitute a unified whole, how dichotomies are interactive parts of cohesion. This is one of the main issues of philosophy, religions, social and political thinking (in the Eastern world, since the discovering of Yin and Yan - believed approximately 3,000 BC; in the Western world, since the ancient Greek period - i.e. Heraclitus and Plato about 400 BC).

These relationships were based, according to different historical periods, on universal laws (natural providence, divinity), social contracts, the Reason, human conventions and morality, regulative principles, ethical solidarity, human emancipation, etc.

The problem was and is that of the integration of differentiated parts, of harmony in diversity. It seems that the sine qua non issue of the human knowledge and existence is to be found in the idea of reconciliation of differences, the reconciliation of the individual with the group, the organisation, and the integration of parts into a whole. This concerns individual and social structure and all societal dimensions (small or large: a marriage, a family, a group, a community, a firm, a nation, etc.).

The combination of confluence and opposition among the different entities determines network behaviour and cohesion by means of: a continuous negotiation between autonomy and integration; conflict and agreement; individual freedom and respect of reciprocal rules; partness and wholeness; diversity and homogeneity; etc.

Social interaction: networks and webs

Social interaction is reciprocal and cyclical; it qualifies how interdependence is socially managed or, better, how is based on the quality of mutuality. Since everyone (every organisation, part, etc.) is affected by the others and vice versa, mutuality implies the recognition and the respect of and between all the components of a social system. Trust becomes one of the key elements of the quality of mutuality and conflicts, negotiations and agreements determine it. Nothing is determined forever.

Society can be considered as an organism based on autonomies which are connected and interrelated; in other words it can be understood as a holistic, fractal, holonic etc. organism. Thus there must be simultaneous attention to the whole and the part. Each social entity, whether large or small, complex or simple, is a "holon", that means that each entity is simultaneously a part and a whole. A family is a clear example (Anderson R. E. & Carter I., 1984). There is an intensive network among the members (each of them as a whole), the family (the member as a part and the family as a whole), other families (each of them as a whole), a larger social system like a local community (the family as a part, the community as a whole), and so on. The network (as a whole) can be understood as a complex loop between different webs (each of them as a part) created and continuously transformed and changed by each spider (as a whole). This network does not imply one-way causation, but multiple and multidirectional trajectories. A change in any part affects other parts; together the spiders determine the dynamics of the network; changes within the network determine the dynamics of each web. And so on, given that each part of the network, each spider, creates its own web with other parts in other networks…

SQM helps to improve governance towards subsidiarity

SQM can also be understood as a methodology to deal with the changeable patterns of a complex society, to improve and sustain a process of subsidiarity, by which all organisational systems are concerned: formal and informal; social and institutional; individuals, families, local communities, businesses, local authorities and those at a higher level, etc.

Subsidiarity involves societal and individual roles as they are performed in space and time dimensions, by institutions and populations aimed at mediating differences, rights, obligations and interests.

To take care of themselves

Plato in "The Republic" and other writings stressed the importance of direct participation of citizens to governance through the "polis". In his opinion, laws and mores developed by citizens themselves are more likely to be understood and followed.

Even though Plato introduced this concept, he distinguished between those who should take part in all decisions (the impartial and wise philosophers etc.) and those who should not participate (ordinary people who have intellectual limitations and are influenced by their personal interests; women, at that time, were considered less than ordinary people).

Many centuries later, Alexis De Tocqueville (1835-1840) observed that citizens respect laws which they themselves help to create and administer. He argued against "the partisans of centralisation" who "are wont to maintain that the Government directs the affairs of each locality better than the citizens could do it for themselves; this may be true when the central power is enlightened, and when the local districts are ignorant; when it is as alert as they are slow; when it is accustomed to act, and they to obey"… "But I deny that such is the case when the people is as enlightened, as awake to its interests, and as accustomed to reflect on them"…. "I am persuaded, on the contrary, that in this case the collective strength of the citizens will always conduce more efficaciously to the public welfare than the authority of the Government. It is difficult to point out with certainty the means of arousing a sleeping population, and of giving it passions and knowledge which it does not possess; it is, I am well aware, an arduous task to persuade men to busy themselves about their own affairs; and it would frequently be easier to interest them in the punctilios of court etiquette than in the repairs of their common dwelling".

More or less thirty years later, the Bishop of Mainz (Ketteler, W.E., 1925) wrote about the subsidiarity right as a simple principle, according to which each individual must be allowed to personally exercise his own rights when he is able to exercise them; he acts freely within his sphere and has the right of the most free self-determination and self-governance.

Pope Pius XI (1931) declared, as one of the most important principle of the social philosophy, that it is illicit to take away from the individuals what they can do with their own forces and their activities and to devolve this power to the community.

According to Mahatma Gandhi (Fisher L., 1982), "No society can possibly be built on a denial of individual freedom", while reason and openness are at the basis of the mutual social relationship. Indeed, he wrote "We shut the door of reason when we refuse to listen to our opponents or, having listened, make fun of them", and he admonished "Always keep an open mind". Following Hindu philosophy and tradition, he thought that self-government could be not obtained without self-control for the individual. In his opinion, personal morals and (individual and collective) ethics were the roots of change. He wrote, "swaraj is a sacred word, meaning self-rule and self-restraint, not freedom from all restraint which 'independence' often means"; thus he stressed the need for individual commitment, action and personal change (Ranchor P., 1994; Gandhi M. K., 1982).

In fact, subsidiarity is a general concept which refers to the relationships between actors (the One and the Many) revealing different styles of governance.

Even though subsidiarity seems to be a word conceived by the Western civilisations, its basic principles are present in other philosophies and mysticism (e.g., Buddhism, Hinduism, Gandhism): self-government, self-improvement, individual responsibility for oneself and for society, compassion and individual commitment, societal and individual action and change, etc.

These principles are present in both the ancient and recent past, in texts related to the relationships between individuals and their social organisations. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Locke, Tocqueville, Proudhon, Jellinek and others discussed and wrote on these topics.

One of the most recent and well known definitions of subsidiarity comes from the catholic social doctrine (Pope Pius XI "Quadrigesimo Anno" encyclical - 1931), but its etymological origin can be found in the Latin military language: "subsidium" which indicated the reserves (the supporting troops). Their support to the front lines is temporary. If reserves substitute definitely the front lines, it means that the security of a country is deeply endangered. Pius XI used specifically the terms "subsidium afferre" and "subsidiarii officii" to characterise the temporary role of support which a larger and higher society (or body) should have to not destroy and absorb those which are smaller and lower.

Subsidiarity is nowadays gaining ground as a common understanding and a process orientated towards some basic principles (Pastori G., 1997; Attanasio R. M. et al., 1997; Papa E. R., 1995):

  • the responsibility of individuals and/or smaller social groups to take care of themselves should not be hampered;
  • higher or bigger organisations can intervene only when and where the lower or smaller scales do not have this capability;

Levels and scales

Scales, territorial scales, have always been of critical relevance. The Greeks were aware that if the polis becomes large, participation and involvement of citizens become too difficult to be assured.

De Tocqueville (1835–1840) explained the reasons why "the town, or tithing, as the smallest division of a community, must necessarily exist in all nations, whatever their laws and customs may be" … since … "the activity of the township is continually perceptible; it is daily manifested in the fulfilment of a duty or the exercise of a right".

Mahatma Gandhi believed that "village republics" were the basis of democracy. In 1924 he started his movement in favour of ideal system of village, declaring that "India lives in her villages, not in her cities". According to his point of view, independence should have begun from the bottom upwards and the role of the village was crucial (Ranchor P., 1994).

  • the subsidiary role of higher or bigger organisations must be temporary in nature; their basic commitment must be to allow individuals and/or minority groups to provide for themselves, to attend to their needs; that is to develop self-management, self-administration and self-governance, by means of empowerment and capacity-building;


As De Tocqueville (1835–1840) wrote, small scale constitutes a whole in itself and a part of larger organisms. If small scale, e.g. a town, is fully recognised as basic unit of power, it is independent and free, citizens are fully attached to it, and they practise "the art of government in the small sphere within his reach", whilst "However enlightened and however skilful a central power may be, it cannot of itself embrace all the details of the existence of a great nation. Such vigilance exceeds the powers of man".

Pius XI (1931) recognised that historical circumstances made it necessary that many affairs can no longer be managed by small associations, but he underlined the role of individual and collective self-governance, writing that the natural object of any intervention of the "society itself" is to help individuals and communities in a supplementary manner ("the assemblies of the social body") and not indeed to destroy them and absorb them.

  • all levels of society should improve the relationships between the private and public sides, giving to individuals and their communities scope to organise and manage public functions by themselves;

Private and public

De Tocqueville (1835–1840) underlined that "When a private individual meditates an undertaking, however directly connected it may be with the welfare of society, he never thinks of soliciting the co-operation of the Government, but he publishes his plan, offers to execute it himself, courts the assistance of other individuals, and struggles manfully against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the State might have been in his position; but in the end the sum of these private undertakings far exceeds all that the Government could have done"… "the duties of the private citizens are not supposed to have lapsed because the State assists in their fulfilment, but every one is ready, on the contrary, to guide and to support it. This action of individual exertions, joined to that of the public authorities, frequently performs what the most energetic central administration would be unable to execute".

Pius XI (1931) stated that it is necessary that a State devolves to smaller and lower associations the responsibility for affairs and social cares, concentrating its role on strategic tasks.

Ghandi (Ranchor P., 1994) wrote on life as a whole constituted by the combination of outward and inward change, external and internal transformation, private and public interrelationships (e.g. groups could behave non-violently only if individuals do).

  • organisational systems should provide and assure flexibility and adaptability, in both vertical and horizontal directions, in order to give cohesion between their members; this means adopting a style of "multi-level governance", where vertical relationships between higher and lower levels, larger and smaller dimensions, are conceived and managed in a horizontal way, respecting authoritative roles according to a value added scale.

Multi-level governance

Small dimensions with their power are useful to deal with local problems and to co-operate with larger dimensions in managing overall affairs. The different role of the dimensions should not be determined by hierarchical reasons but by effectiveness and functional transparent allocation of powers.

In this sense can be understood what Pius XI (1931) pinpointed writing that it is unjust to entrust a larger and higher society with what smaller or lower communities can do themselves. For this reasons, it is necessary that the State entrusts minor and lower associations with their own affairs and cares while the State’s duties relate to those that only it can manage in conformity with the principle of supplementary function of the social activity.

A similar orientation can be discovered in the Bishop of Mainz (Ketteler, W.E., 1925), who wrote that, in his opinion, the State is not a machine but a living organism with living limbs, in which each member has his own right, function and unfolds his own free life. Only when the lower member of this organism is no able to meet his own aims himself or to face by himself danger that jeopardises his development, can the higher member intervene in favour of the lower one.

De Tocqueville (1835–1840) recognising that the township has in itself an indestructible element of independence, underlined how "all the townships united have but one representation, which is the State, the centre of the national authority: beyond the action of the township and that of the nation, nothing can be said to exist but the influence of individual exertion. The township and the county are therefore bound to take care of their special interests: the State governs, but it does not interfere with their administration. Exceptions to this rule may be met with, but not a contrary principle".

According to Gandhi, the village should have been a republic with full power; life should have been an oceanic circle with at its centre the individual, while the village was at the centre of the circle of villages. He described the ideal Indian village (1942) as follows: "It is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its vital wants, and yet interdependent for many other wants in which dependence is a necessity" (Fisher L., 1982).

SQM represents a management philosophy of change

A two-century civilisation started from the Western cultures based on rationality and on "an instrumental orientation towards the domination of physical nature" (O’Neill J., 1995) and nowadays a new process of civilisation seems to have appeared based on a multidimensional integration between cultures (both current, from the past and for the future) and also upon the universal meaning of the reconciliation between humanity and nature (Morin E., 1994).

Sustainability can be considered both as a new vision (of development and civilisation) and as a methodological way to affirm that vision. This vision is embedded in the above reconciliation, the methodological way in the related ethical points of views (missions).

An ethics of sustainability will clearly be constituted by means of a fusion of universal principles and local moralities; and, given that ethics depends on culture, it can be evaluated for its contribution to the growth of knowledge of humankind in its adherence to the other living organisms and the nature as a whole.

Sustainability seems to contribute to paradigmatic shifts in respect of the unity of three different basic values which have constituted the prevalent civilisation of the modern and industrial age: freedom, equality and brotherhood. They were different because, freedom can act against equality and brotherhood as each of them can act against the others. They were united to act as a dialectic combination.

Sustainability seems to progressively move towards the unity of the other three basic values: from equality to equity; from freedom to subsidiarity; from brotherhood to solidarity.

These principles open up new paths for a global civilisation based on human wisdom and basic values, which can determine a new constitutional pact within various social dimensions and levels. This constitutional pact depends on the actors, on their perception of the new values, on their culture, on the degree in which these values are shared among and within the international, national, regional and local social communities.

Considering the main elements of the above transition, SQM could be an instrument which helps strategic thinking and a new management philosophy of change. In fact, with its 10 orientation components, 16 local key factors of social potential and 6 transformation levers of dynamics, SQM contributes to discover:

  • a new kind of "solidarity" between human beings and all the other living beings and the nature as a whole; the tasks are "to conserve the greatest possible number of ways of interacting with the environment if we are to maximise the chances of survival, both of our own species and those with which we share the planet" (Milton K., 1996);
  • how to qualify "equity"; the tasks are to open and assure equal opportunities between different conditions, times and spaces;
  • how to qualify "subsidiarity"; the tasks are to open and assure freedom and autonomy within a process of participatory democracy and social cohesion.





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