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Beyond the Indicators: Improving Science, Scholarship, Policy and Practice to Meet the Complex Challenges of Sustainability

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Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, 14467 Potsdam, Germany
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Arizona State University, Global Biosocial Complexity Initiative, Tempe, AZ 85281-2701, USA
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Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2020, 12(2), 578; https://doi.org/10.3390/su12020578
Received: 9 November 2019 / Revised: 4 January 2020 / Accepted: 7 January 2020 / Published: 13 January 2020
(This article belongs to the Section Social Ecology and Sustainability)
Many teams have developed a wide range of numerical or categorical indicators of progress in the implementation of the SDG targets. But these indicators cannot identify why target goals have not been accomplished, whether or how they do or do not do justice to the social and cultural context in which they are applied, and how newly emerging social dynamics affect indicators. Nor do they provide means for resolving conflicting values and making balanced trade-offs. Our starting point in examining why we have not been successful in progressing towards sustainability is that the sustainability conundrum is primarily a societal, rather than an environmental problem. Our present emphasis is to maintain our way of life while minimizing its impact, hoping that such a minimization strategy would make the world more sustainable. Reducing for example the extent of pollution but keeping the same industries alive would not be sufficient for a transformation towards sustainability. Instead we should ask “How did we come to this point and what practices, in our societies and in our science, need to change to make progress towards sustainability?” To answer these questions, one needs to go much further back than usual in the history of western societies to identify the societal, scientific, technological and environmental co-evolutionary dynamics that have brought us to the current conundrum. And the fact that most societal challenges are of the “wicked” kind, as well as the need to decide among many societal options and many future pathways that may lead to positive results require that we seriously engage in using “Complex Systems” approaches. It is up to our scientific community to identify these pathways, and we need to move fast! View Full-Text
Keywords: sustainability indicators; UN SDGs; sustainability science; conflicting societal values; evidence-informed judgments; complex systems science; narrative expressions sustainability indicators; UN SDGs; sustainability science; conflicting societal values; evidence-informed judgments; complex systems science; narrative expressions
MDPI and ACS Style

Renn, O.; Chabay, I.; van der Leeuw, S.; Droy, S. Beyond the Indicators: Improving Science, Scholarship, Policy and Practice to Meet the Complex Challenges of Sustainability. Sustainability 2020, 12, 578.

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