Making Sustainability Operational: Coping With Contextual Circumstances

Uma Pupphachai, Christian Zuidema

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperAcademic


Sustainability became popular through Brundtland Commission’s report published in 1987 and has subsequently been introduced as a key planning guideline in urban governance. To make the abstract and fuzzy notion of sustainability palpable, various governments are using a list of Sustainability Indicators (SIs). Common sets of Sis, for example those form the UN, help compare the sustainability of urban areas all over the world, whilst they inspire the development of national and local initiatives to measure and monitor sustainable performance. Using SIs should, however, not be isolated from the different geographical, socio-economic, political and institutional circumstances that exist in various towns and cities. Instead, in this paper we argue that for SIs to be well integrated in the local policy process, SIs should be adapted to different contextual circumstances. We discuss this argument based on a desk study of key policy documents and research reports on cases in four clearly different regions: the UK (London), China (Hong Kong), South Africa (Johannesburg) and Singapore. One the one hand, we will explain that sustainability is indeed defined differently in different contexts and, also, that it makes sense to do so as priorities and contextual circumstances do matter for integrating Sis in local governance. Hence, indicators should also be tailored to the existing policies and local policy priorities so as to function as a bridge between various disciplines both within urban governments and between governments and non-governmental stakeholders. Secondly though, we will also explain that improving the fit between SIs and existing policies and local policy priorities does not discard the importance of a common set of SIs. To avoid skewing definitions of sustainability to whatever ‘fits’ in a local context, we will argue that a common set of SIs can function as a benchmark for reflecting on existing sustainability plans and policies and, as such, inspire innovation. We will thus conclude that making sustainability operational is a two way process of using a common set of generic principles and of adapting them to local circumstances, which should be reflected in the design and use of SIs.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2012
EventAESOP Silver Jubilee Congress - Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey
Duration: 11-Jul-201215-Jul-2012


ConferenceAESOP Silver Jubilee Congress

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