Agendas within sustainable development

Agendas within sustainable development

Whose sustainability agenda matters?

Whose agenda?

"There is some truth in the criticism that (sustainable development) has come to mean whatever suits the particular advocacy of the individual concerned" David Pearce, Anil Markandya and Edward Barbier (1989)

  • The needs, priorities and emphasis of governments, donors and NGOs on 'sustainable development' may not be well-aligned with those of local governments, communities or other organisations, even when a common commitment to 'sustainability' exists

  • Guthrie (2006) distinguishes between a 'developed world' agenda where the primary focus is on the sustainable and a 'developing world' agenda where the primary focus is on the development

  • In the same vein Watermeyer (2006) differentiates between a 'green agenda' where the primary focus is on the environment and a 'brown agenda' where the primary focus is on poverty and underdevelopment

  • Finding a balance between these varied objectives (which often are in tension) is one of the key challenges in designing 'sustainable' projects and an area where the engineer has significant influence

What is 'Sustainable Development'?

The conceptual imprecision of sustainable development has been blamed for difficulties in establishing effective sustainable development policy (Carvalho, 2001); engineers must work to find their own interpretations of sustainable development that work for the project and infrastructure owner in question. Having an overarching framework that captures local and global, green and brown, now and then, may be important in making sure the agenda is not biased towards one particular emphasis. Mitchell et al (1995) identify four common principles underlying the generic concept:

  1. Futurity (concern for future generations)
  2. Equity (concern for today's poor and disadvantaged)
  3. Public participation (concern that individuals should have an opportunity to participate in decisions that affect them)
  4. Environment (concern for the protection of the integrity of eco-systems)

Global forces (globalisation, donor aid, international politics) and local concerns (economic development, local environmental impacts) should be understood as interlinked and inseparable, even if they sometimes seem at odds; denying the existence of either can only have negative effects on the inclusiveness of project design.

Combine local and global, green and brown, 'now' and 'then'

Sustainability in practice

Beyond influencing policy, engineers have opportunities to influence change most directly in two key areas: design (efficiency and responsiveness) and procurement (attaining primary and secondary objectives).

A more systems view of the world is needed and solutions at a systems level need to be developed to address the following two issues (Jowitt, 2009):

  1. Engineering the world away from an environmental crisis caused in part by previous generations in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and profligate resource use.
  2. Providing the infrastructure platform for an increasingly urbanised world and lifting a large proportion of the world's growing population out of poverty.

Sustainability silos

While separation of sustainability concerns may be useful for understanding different agendas, 'achieving sustainability' will ultimately require tackling the linkages between the different components of development – decoupling economic development from environmental degradation being the most daunting and intractable challenge facing policy makers, scientists, planners and engineers.


  • Carvalho, G. O. (2001) Sustainable Development: Is It Achievable within the Existing International Political Economy Context? Sustainable Development
  • Guthrie, P. (2006). Sustainable Development Contexts: Evolution of Thinking and Sustainable Development Principles, ESD0 Course Notes, Centre for Sustainable Development, University of Cambridge
  • Jowitt, P.(2009). Now is the time. ICE presidential address. November.
  • Mitchell, G., May, A. and McDonald, A. (1995) Picabue: A Methodical Framework for the Development of Indicators for Sustainable Development International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology
  • Watermeyer, R. (2006) Poverty Reduction Responses to the Millennium Development Goals The Structural Engineer