The Challenges Ahead

Post by Craig Farkos

Bicycle lane

Some rights reserved by F. Tronchin

Of the three sustainability pillars, the social component presents the most challenging criteria for demonstrating sustainable project evolution.  Defining quantifiable criteria that indicate success or failure in terms of the key social sustainability objectives including: empowerment, participation, social mobility, institutional development, social cohesion, and social identity present researchers and practitioners with distinct challenges that necessitate significant levels of interdisciplinary collaboration and integrated thinking.  To date, realizing the requisite level of interdisciplinary coordination on these key social sustainability objectives has been slow to develop leading some researchers to characterize the current approaches to social sustainability as being “fragmented” and a “concept in chaos.”

In addition, continued improvement in global human development necessitates further efforts by national accounting systems to support ongoing evolution away from “growth” as a primary indicator of progress to a focus on “well-being,” “comprehensive wealth,” and “intergenerational equity” that are more aligned to a sustainable approach to national improvement.  Certainly, social sustainability and its component objective elements listed above are fundamental parameters in this modified calculation.  It is, therefore, imperative that interdisciplinary research like that defined for the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (INSS): Concepts, Language, and Assessment begin to produce near-term guidance to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and support this transition to sustainable national development.

The seeds for the INSS were rather unconventionally formed from conversations between Dr. Helene Hilger and me in June 2011 as I recovered from collarbone surgery to install several pieces of connective hardware.  The accident resulted from an unfortunate collision during my regular bicycle commute along a busy, urban street.  The experience exposed rather alarming gaps between the vision for sustainable urban space and multimodal transport advanced by urban planners and designers, the awareness and regard for formal and socially enforced codes of conduct by rush-hour-crazed bus drivers and commuters who infringe on mixed mode transport zones, and the effectiveness of formal and informal compliance and penalty processes to induce social evolution.

As my accident starkly revealed, sustainable development models like this mixed use urban transport corridor will not fulfill its progressive goals if disparate impacted stakeholder groups do not consent to a common social sustainability lexicon that reinforces community compliance with formal and informal social codes for interacting in these new spaces.  And I wondered with Helene how different my experience would have been in Copenhagen or Amsterdam where awareness and consensus among stakeholders on social sustainability codes of conduct appear to be more closely aligned.  In fact, research indicates that the number of bicyclist fatalities per 100 million km cycled, averaged over the years 2002 to 2005, were roughly five times higher in the US than in Denmark and the Netherlands[1].

A society’s formal constraints are its rules and laws.  Its informal constraints are defined by the culture, and are socially transmitted as part of that society’s heritage.  The informal constraints include codes of conduct, norms of behavior, and social conventions that, in the absence or lack of enforcement of rules or laws, provide community members with powerful guides of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  At times, social conflict may result when formal rules have evolved but the informal constraints stubbornly remain the same.

A fundamental difficulty in resolving the current “fragmented” approaches to social sustainability is that the key component objectives of empowerment, participation, social mobility, institutional development, social cohesion, and social identity are made up of both formal and informal aspects, and the relative weighting is formed within the context of each particular culture.  As we begin our work within the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability, we will be challenged to leverage our diverse, disciplinary experiences to understand and define both the formal and informal constraints and the nature and degree of cultural influence on the lexicon that defines these social sustainability objectives, and ultimately, governs community behavior.

Seven months ago, my wife and I relocated to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to begin new work assignments.  We quickly became aware of the different relative degrees to which formal and informal constraints govern daily behavior compared to our former US home.  As a civil engineer and former chair of the Committee on Sustainability for the American Society of Civil Engineers, I also recognize potential for our work in the INSS to support sustainable infrastructure development during this important transition period for our African partners.  With many African countries, including Ethiopia, currently experiencing considerable change, especially in urban centers, good opportunities are available for sustainability “leapfrogging” with improvements in “well-being,” “comprehensive wealth,” and “intergenerational equity.”  Near-term research results and other INSS products including a common lexicon and definition for social sustainability, practical assessment techniques, and a new and robust web-based communications protocol for disseminating collaborative results can be invaluable to supporting this sustainability transformation and gaining valuable lessons learned.


[1] Pucher, John and Buehler, Ralph (2008) ‘Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany’, Transport Reviews, 28:4, 495 — 528.


Image above: Some rights reserved by F. Tronchin