Arguably, sustainability is the most complex challenge humanity has faced to date. Not only are the impacts of our behavior resulting in more and more sever repercussions, but we are also realizing that the causes of unsustainability are deeply embedded in the design of many of the systems we rely on. This means, of course, also, that solutions to the problem cannot be one-off ideas, but that strategic and systematic transformation of many of our systems is needed. Because of the necessity of the re-design of our economic and other man-made systems, it has been suggested that sustainability science should be considered a “science of design” (Miller 2011). Perhaps it can be considered one of the most “wicked” cases of design, as it needs to aim both for significant impact and a participatory approach to solve the challenge.
One framework that approaches the sustainability challenge from a design angle is the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD). Specifically, it is based on the idea of strategically and step-wise designing sustainability out of the systems we currently rely on. The FSSD is a trans-disciplinary framework built on insights from systems thinking and has been continuously developed for the last two decades. Its core is built on backcasting from principles of re-design for sustainability, which allows for wide-spread agreement on what sustainability means and allows for creativity within these constraints, so that each group or organization can create their own path towards sustainability within these constraints. The FSSD has been used in organizations all over the world to create real transformation towards sustainability.
A particular recent development focus has been the social dimension of sustainability. Following the idea of sustainability as a design science, the development was based on a design research methodology (e.g Blessing and Chakrabarti 2009), which included a suggested new ‘prototype’ for the approach to social sustainability within the FSSD. Based on a systems approach to the social system, five new principles of social sustainability have been proposed (Missimer 2013, Missimer et al. 2013a, 2013b). This paper aims to contribute to the evaluation stage of the prototype and presents preliminary results of an evaluation based on field-work with the new social sustainability principles. Overall, a clearer definition of social sustainability is not just for theoretical purposes, but because without a clear theoretical concept, it is hard to strategically work towards social sustainability in practice.
The data for evaluation comes from workshops that were run with sustainability professionals (also called practitioners) who use the FSSD in their work. In three workshops, the authors, as well as groups of sustainability professionals, used the new social sustainability principles to assess projects on their contribution to social sustainability. The workshops were followed by reflections by and interviews with the professionals assessing the usability of the new principles.
Preliminary results indicate that it is indeed possible to use the newly proposed social sustainability principles in the manner intended and that the approach yields results that are valuable to the professional and the potential clients of these professionals. Integration with existing tools commonly used by the practitioners was possible, although further refinement of the designed tool prototypes will be needed.
Practitioners reflected that the earlier approach to social sustainability lacked in clarity and the ability to structure other tools and concepts in the field. They reported that most practitioners designed their own way of working with social sustainability, which lead to confusion and undermined a common approach. They appreciated the more thorough and scientific approach to the social aspects presented in the new approach, which allowed for a common language and a more thorough assessment of contributions to un-sustainability. The practitioners also reported new insights regarding the use and connection to other tools and concepts in the field of social sustainability.
However, challenges were expressed as regards the somewhat more difficult nature of the science behind the new approach and how this impacted the ease of working with the framework for practitioners. The paper ends with some reflections by the authors. In further research this preliminary evaluation will be expanded and built upon to facilitate continuous improvement and applicability of the FSSD.
Strategic Sustainable Development, Social Sustainability, Systems Thinking, Action Research