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A Methodology to Evaluate Sustainability in the Face of Complex Dynamics: Implications for Field Studies in Sustainability Science

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Sustainability Science: Field Methods and Exercises

Abstract

Sustainability as a concept has a strong link with the complexity and dynamic patterns of human–natural systems. Evaluating sustainability in human–natural systems requires paying attention to the observation process of these systems to adequately grasp complex dynamics. Failing to do so can result in poor recognition and translation of the sustainability/unsustainability patterns in them. In order to addressing this challenge the present chapter discusses a newly developed methodology to evaluate the sustainability of a human–natural system in a complex dynamic context, which may be useful when conducting sustainability science field exercises. This methodology pays particular attention to the complexities involved in the observation processes, and how awareness of such complexity would support reflexive and iterative understanding-based sustainability evaluations. Finally, the authors will discuss the basis of the evaluation methodology and how it can be applied to field research exercises in Sustainability Science.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Such as the challenge to observe and understand the complexity and dynamic patterns of human–natural systems and issues regarding their sustainability, or challenges faced during decision-making processes in these systems, that arise largely due to normative standpoints, diverse interests, expertise etc. From the simplest perspective complex dynamics are viewed as patterns in systems that result from the system agents or objects and the interactions among them (derived from definitions by Morin (2008), Miller and Page (2009), Juarrero (2002) and Varela et al. (1974)). For a comprehensive discussion please refer to Satanarachchi (2009, 2015).

  2. 2.

    Aside from the interaction, which is particularly emphasized in ecology (Liu et al. 2007; Gunderson 2001), the use of the interlinked yet somewhat differentiated term ‘human–natural’ in this study highlights the fact that sustainability is a human-interpretation that has nature as one of its most important considerations.

  3. 3.

    In every sustainability-related research or initiative some form of implicit evaluation decision that differentiate sustainability from unsustainability or that differentiates the degree of sustainability is essential.

  4. 4.

    By dynamic relationships here we generally mean the relationships among the system, system entities and the environment, which can have feedbacks, feed-forwards and emergent properties (Poli 2009; Corning 2002; Goldstein 1999).

  5. 5.

    For an elaborative review of ‘complexity’ in these different fields, please refer to Wells (2012).

  6. 6.

    In this study the term ‘holistic’ understanding is reserved for interactively generated understanding, through the understanding of the parts that leads to understanding of the whole, and the understanding of the whole that leads to the understanding of its parts. The term ‘wholistic understanding’ is used for only the understanding that is generated by observing the whole alone. For example, in the case of a bird eye view observation, the understanding could just be confined to the surface of the ‘whole’. Having a bird eye view of a field can lead to a ‘wholistic’ understanding, but not necessarily an holistic understanding.

  7. 7.

    Polanyi (1958) further names these efforts as two types of attentions and discusses their role in the understanding process of a comprehensive entity.

  8. 8.

    By the term ‘dynamically integrated’ we mean an integration that occurs as a process. In the two examples by Polanyi this is ensured by a cognitive process supported by various simultaneous cognitive steps such as ‘grasping’ and ‘doing’ via sensory organs (Polanyi 1966). In the latter part of the framework, we attempt to create such a dynamic process by directing observations from multiple and conflicting angles (via employing dimensions and background layers).

  9. 9.

    By sustainability-linked knowledge we mean the knowledge that is directly linked to sustainability issues, and the systems that are experiencing those issues.

  10. 10.

    Please kindly refer to Satanarachchi (2015) and Satanarachchi and Mino (2014) for an elaborative account on the rationale and the boundaries of what is explained under each of these dimensions.

  11. 11.

    A visual representation of the sustainability boundary appears in Satanarachchi (2015) and Satanarachchi and Mino (2014).

  12. 12.

    Reflexivity has multiple meanings in different fields of studies. For instance it could also denote a characteristic that enables to project the self as an active and creative agent (De Cruz et al. 2007).

  13. 13.

    Usually the term iteration is used to indicate the act of repeating a process (often given as a function) to reach a certain goal. In this repeating process, the results of one iteration are used as the starting point of the next iteration. Particularly in mathematics, iteration stands for a problem-solving or computational method in which a succession of approximations, each building on the one preceding, is used to achieve a desired degree of accuracy. In an understanding process, the result of one iteration could be seen as a whole that is used as the starting point of the next understanding process.

  14. 14.

    Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is a methodology that was developed to facilitate preliminary dialogue and brainstorming to tackle problematical (social) situations. It utilizes a systems approach to analyze and solve complex problems, particularly where there are divergent views about the definition of problem (Wilson 2001; Checkland 1999).

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Correspondence to Niranji Satanarachchi .

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Satanarachchi, N., Mino, T. (2016). A Methodology to Evaluate Sustainability in the Face of Complex Dynamics: Implications for Field Studies in Sustainability Science. In: Esteban, M., Akiyama, T., Chen, C., Ikeda, I., Mino, T. (eds) Sustainability Science: Field Methods and Exercises. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-32930-7_7

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