What is Sustainable Development?

Sustainable development means different things to different people. It has become the buzz word of our generation without a clear definition for many. The following article is presented from reviews of present literature to understand the relevance of sustainability in our times at the local, regional, national and global levels.
The idea of sustainable development grew from numerous environmental movements in earlier decades. Summits such as the Earth Summit in Rio, Brazil, 1992, were major international meetings to bring sustainable development to the mainstream. The idea was defined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission 1987) and the most frequently quoted definition is from the report Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report):[1]

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Sustainable development focuses on improving the quality of life for all of the Earth’s citizens without increasing the use of natural resources beyond the capacity of the environment to supply them indefinitely. It contains within it two key concepts:

(1) the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
(2) the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs."

The creative ambiguity of the definition leaves us free to interpret what “sustainable development” really is. What is to be sustained? And what is to be developed? In the years following the Brundtland report, the Board on Sustainable Development by the US Academy of Sciences sought to bring some order to the broad literature that it’s members reviewed.

The board identified three main categories under “what is to be sustained” – nature, life support systems and community – as well as intermediate categories for each. Similarly, there were three very distinct ideas on “what is to be developed” – people, economy and society. Table 1 gives the relationship between the two and the time horizon of the future [2].

The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development marked a further expansion of the standard definition with the widely used three pillars of sustainable development: economic, social, and environmental. The Johannesburg Declaration created “a collective responsibility to advance and strengthen the interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable development—economic development, social development and environmental protection—at local, national, regional and global levels.” [3]

Since then there have been many attempts at nailing down the definition based on goals, values, indicators, and practices [4]. However, all definitions of sustainable development require that we see the world as a system—a system that connects space; and a system that connects time.

When you think of the world as a system over space, you grow to understand that air pollution from North America affects air quality in Asia, and that pesticides sprayed in Argentina could harm fish stocks off the coast of Australia.

And when you think of the world as a system over time, you start to realize that the decisions our grandparents made about how to farm the land continue to affect agricultural practice today; and the economic policies we endorse today will have an impact on urban poverty when our children are adults.

And what about the quality of life? Is that a system, too. It’s good to be physically healthy, but what if you are poor and don’t have access to education? It’s good to have a secure income, but what if the air in your part of the world is unclean? And it’s good to have freedom of religious expression, but what if you can’t feed your family?

The concept of sustainable development is rooted in this sort of systems thinking. It helps us understand ourselves and our world. The problems we face are complex and serious—and we can’t address them in the same way we created them.

Based on a detailed analysis and review of literature on sustainable development, some of the key sustainability characteristics observed include capacities to understand and analyze problems, partnering with different resources/organizations to find solutions, using local resources for local solutions, involving the whole community and all stakeholders with comprehensive participation, negotiation and consensus-building from within, ability to incorporate and adopt external resources within local contexts, or respecting historical and cultural issues.

The Global Development Research Center (GDRC) has put forth seven “Triads of Sustainability” – seven issues (participation, decision-making, partnership, governance, knowledge and information, continual improvement, and lifestyles) that lead to sustainability . These triads are key ingredients that define and drive sustainability, particularly at the local level.

The seven triads of sustainability as defined by GDRC is given below: [5]

Sustainability Triad 1: Participation

The Participation Triad has commitment, communication and cooperation as its three defining corners. The involvement of the community in any activity that affects their life is inherently critical. For an innovative community effective and comprehensive participation enables exchange of ideas and opinions both among themselves and also from external experts and resource persons, strong interpersonal rapport and sharing of information (communication), that is grounded in mutual respect and shared responsibilities (commitment), and working together towards common and mutual benefit (cooperation). Participation also includes such issues as solidarity among the community members, value-adding to available knowledge – either within the community or external.

Sustainability Triad 2: Decision-Making

The Decision-Making Triad has consensus building, awareness building, and review and hearings as its three defining corners. Environmental decisions are taken everyday, and it is those taken by the individuals, households and communities that have broad and lasting impact. Therefore taking effective decisions that have a positive impact on the environment as a whole – local and global, is imperative. Creating collective agreement and opinion reached by the community is important (consensus building) for action; initiating action on decisions taken necessitates the overall understanding of the causes and effects (awareness building), and the active involvement of all members of the community to discuss and debate the issues concerned (review and hearings). Decision-making also includes such issues as ownership, visioning, flexibility, empowerment, informed consent, community choice etc.

Sustainability Triad 3: Partnership

The Partnership Triad has interdependence, networking and clustering as its three defining corners. Partnership is a relationship between individuals or groups that is characterized by mutual assistance and responsibility for the achievement of an agreed, specified goal. The key to effective community partnership is that members of a community bring to the table different resources, skills and knowledge needed to take action. This calls for mutual respect of each members strengths and weaknesses (interdependence), of interacting with people who have similar interests or concerns, or providing support (networking), and bringing together the different skills and resources needed for a particular/specific action (clustering). Partnership also includes such issues as building credibility, trust among the community members, equality of the partnerships etc.

Sustainability Triad 4: Governance

The Governance Triad has transparency, accountability, and efficiency as its three defining corners. Good governance occurs when societal norms and practices empower and encourage communities to take increasingly greater control over their own development, without impinging upon the accepted rights of others.

Good governance is enabled by the free flow of information. Processes, institutions and information are directly accessible to those concerned with them, and enough information is provided to understand and monitor them (transparency). In an innovative community, empowered and responsible members have more authority and responsibility for decision-making, can improve delivery of the city’s aims and objectives, and can improve management of human and financial resources (accountability). Making the best use of proximate and available resources to maximize the output achieved is also a key ingredient of a community governance system (efficiency). Governance also includes such issues as community empowerment, impartiality of resource allocation, adaptation of external and internal pressures, responsiveness, representativeness, information disclosure etc.

Sustainability Triad 5: Knowledge and Information

The Knowledge and Information Triad has appropriateness, accessibility and timeliness as its three defining corners. Knowledge and information lies at the core of a community’s ability to become innovative – to become aware, to take decisions, to communicate and to act. In order to be able to carry these out, it is essential that communities have knowledge and information that is appropriate, easily accessible in a form that can be understood, and made available in a timely manner. Knowledge and Information also includes such issues as learning, formatting and packaging information, targeting, delivery mechanisms, information sharing, technologies (ICTs) etc.

Sustainability Triad 6: Continual Improvement

The Continual Improvement Triad has monitoring and evaluation, needs assessment, and Feedback as its three defining corners. Continual improvement refers to the setting up of a corrective and preventive action system, as well as a learning environment that makes use of lessons learned and involves all members of the community. The key operational components of continual improvement is a monitoring and evaluation put in place that checks the progress of a program or project. An efficient needs assessment system also enables setting up targets and goals against which progress can be measured and monitored. Feedback from community members help in increasing efficiency and effectiveness. Continual Improvement also includes such issues as capacity building, indicators etc.

Sustainability Triad 7: Lifestyles

The Lifestyles Triad has behavior, ethics, and values as its three defining corners. Sustainable lifestyles are at the core of an innovative community – as a goal and as a process. Building a sustainable lifestyle depends externally on the smooth implementation of the six triads discussed above, but is intrinsically linked to the behavior patters, ethics and value systems adopted by individual members of the community. Ultimately, the success of a local environmental management plan or program will depend on the lifestyle choices adopted by the community – and the value that they place on the environmental resources they consume. Lifestyles also includes such issues as quality of life, respect, dignity, self-esteem etc.


[1] World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987 p. 43.

[2] U.S. National Research Council, Policy Division, Board on Sustainable Development, (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999).

[3] The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, 4 September 2002.

[4] Robert W. Kates, Thomas M. Parris, and Anthony A. Leiserowitz, 2005, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, Volume 47, Number 3, pages 8 – 21.

[5] http://www.gdrc.org/sustdev/index.html

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