Sustainable Development: what works where, and why?

Aim and scope of the research programme

The most important question of our research programme is “what works where, and why”? Sustainable development goals are pursued through a multitude of different modes of governance. These modes of governance vary between traditional top-down steering to self-regulation of business organizations. Some are more and others are less successful in bringing about the change that sustainable development is thought to require under specific circumstances. Apart from analyzing and explaining each of these modes of governance, we also study shifts in modes of governance.

The promotion of sustainable development calls for collaborative and deliberative governance arrangements, paying attention to stakeholder participation and partnerships among multiple actors and across several policy levels. These arrangements are seen as able to deal with the complex, multi-scale, cross-sectoral and long-term aspects of sustainable development in a more adequate manner than more hierarchical arrangements.

However, our research so far revealed that in some sectors and in some instances there is still a role to play for hierarchical (or centralised) approaches, especially in situations of urgency or extreme events or concerning the protection of vulnerable societal values. In fact, what is needed is a context specific mixture of centralized governance, decentralized governance, public-private governance, interactive governance and self-governance. This programme takes as a presumption that modes of governance that aim to enhance sustainable development should be effective and legitimate.

By reflecting on particular practices, we gain insight into the conditions under which various modes of governance are successful. Within our research programme we focus on several empirical fields connected to major sustainability challenges: climate change adaptation and mitigation; sustainable urban development; ecosystem governance; water governance; sustainable production and value chains. Cross-cutting themes are decision-support tools (such as environmental assessments) and science-policy interactions.