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Does sustainability emerge from between the scales?


This paper applies systems thinking and emergence theory to present an understanding of sustainability in terms of the human actions and attitudes required for sustainability to emerge. Sustainability is viewed as an emergent quality that occurs when the interactions within the system, and between the system and its environment are nourishing. We suggest this conception is useful because it indicates the kinds of relationships individuals and groups need to engage in as actors; the responsibilities and importance of observers in recognising emergent patterns; and the significance of the relationship between the actor and observer scales. We aim to identify strategies in these three areas that can best facilitate the emergence of sustainability. Emergence theory is found to be a fruitful framework for generating solutions and stimulating new thinking about defining, monitoring, or acting for sustainability.


This paper uses systems and emergence to explore sustainability and focuses in particular on the relationships between actors and observers operating at different scales. While many people are working on defining sustainability5,30,22, measuring and monitoring sustainability4,26,1,23, and considering actions at all scales that might lead to sustainability 12,19, authors such as van Kerkoff and Lebel have commented that if sustainability is to be achieved the relationship between those who monitor and those who act requires more attention 47. This relationship operates between two different scales, the monitor or observer perceiving a system from a scale of greater generalization and abstraction than the actor whose actions are being monitored 3,46,16 and the scale of the actor. This paper explores the space between the actor and observer scales using systems thinking and emergence theory, and suggests that this space can be a significant focus for change towards greater sustainability.

The features of systems thinking that we draw upon for this analysis are those concerned with boundary determination and the relative position of an observer. Systems thinking demands the process of determining boundaries be given due respect. It focuses on the relationships between, rather than just the nature of, elements that make up a system, and it is able to give attention to long term outcomes 43. A useful feature of a systems approach is that it is able to recognise the active role that the observer or analyzer of the system plays, and the significance of the location of an observer as either within or outside of the system. It also is able to account for the possible blindness of a person analyzing the system, to aspects of that system that might be occurring at the scale at which the whole system may be observed.

Emergence theory is a derivative of complex adaptive systems thinking. It is from complex systems that new properties of a system emerge 29. Emergence implies at least two scales; one at which interactions and action occur, and another from which any patterns resulting from that action may be observed. Other key elements of emergence theory that we draw upon here are that direct or indirect interactions in a system between local actors may result in patterns 21 that can only be detected by observing from a scale of greater generalization 18. The scale difference between an observer seeking patterns and the individual actor is a relational, rather than a temporal-spatial scale difference 6. A further important feature we think is helpful from emergence theory is that pattern emerges from local actions without the orchestration of a leader 21. Minati, Pesa and Abram 32 describe emergence as the engine of general systems theory, just as natural selection is the driving force behind evolution. In this paper, we apply emergence to the concept of sustainability, to reflect upon the actions, monitoring and feedback required for sustainability to emerge from a complex system.

Opinions are divided amongst emergence theorists as to whether emergence is by necessity uncontrollable by humans due to the complexity of the systems involved, or whether the process of emergence can be influenced to promote desired outcomes. Supporters of chaos theory and the butterfly effect suggest that such nudging is not possible, and that instead a mind shift is required to accept the unpredictable nature of our planet 2. The Santa Fe School argue in their interpretation of emergence theory that control parameters (those that come from humans, their relationships and their environmental systems) and order parameters (that describe the collective modes of behavior within the evolving system) may be determined, allowing some level of influence over the evolutionary trajectory 44. We argue here that parameters can be established that shape relationships and therefore what emerges from the system, however, we also think that a mind shift towards accepting more uncertainty, along with social and individual values that promote relationships of nourishment would be helpful for moving towards sustainability.


The meaning of sustainability, like that of other abstract concepts that are embraced by a wide range of disciplines, and applied in a wide range of contexts, has drifted over time. This drift has changed the concept and its application from the ways it was two decades ago. Since the Bruntland Report 51, the concept of sustainability, sustainable growth, and the concept of sustainable development have become conflated in many usages 35. Recent theorists of sustainability assert that the concept is essentially concerned with human wellbeing and advancement 7. Bossel 4 recognizes that the simplest meaning of the root word, sustain, is “to maintain; keep in existence; keep going; prolong”, but that this has little meaning for human society because it is “a complex adaptive system embedded in another complex adaptive system—the natural environment—on which it depends for support” (p.2). A much broader conception that acknowledges this multi-system character suggests that sustainability is “the kind of human activity that nourishes and perpetuates the historical fulfillment of the whole community of life on earth” (p. 10-11). In this paper we seek to approach the concept of sustainability by drawing on an understanding of the planet as containing many interacting systems that co-evolve and are interconnected. We also seek to strike the right level of generality for a wide range of contexts 40. Our intention here is to present an understanding of sustainability framed in terms of the human actions and attitudes required for sustainability to emerge. We conceptualize sustainability here as an emergent quality of a system that results from the responsive interplay between the nourishing actions of individuals and feedback about the persistence and nourishment of the interrelationships between elements of the system, the supporting environment and ultimately the global system. We hope that explaining sustainability in a way that is directly based upon how a person acts and thinks will be a practical, useful addition to the field and to the future. We acknowledge that these ideas are part of a work in progress and that this outline is not in itself a sufficient or all-encompassing discussion of the concept, nor do we suggest that there is one ‘right’ framework or meaning for sustainability.

By choosing ‘nourishing’ we want to convey the active maintenance of relationships within and between systems, similar to the idea of ‘heedful actions’ as described by Weick and Roberts 48. Heedful actions are the outcome of training and experience, rather than careful thought before each action, so that each action weaves together thinking, feeling and willing. Consequently, nourishing, like heedful actions, should express qualities of “noticing, taking care, attending, applying one’s mind, concentrating, putting one’s heart into something, thinking what one is doing, alertness, interest, intentness, studying, and trying” 36 (p. 136). Nourishing actions will change over time, with each nourishing action being modified by its predecessor, because actors continue to learn.

We take a similar approach to the meaning of action as van Kerkhoff and Lebel 47, that is doing something that has a physical or behavioral repercussion. “Actions may include purposefully changing practices and environments, as well as implementing or changing regulations, policies and institutions.” 47 (p. 448). A key challenge in this paper is determining the sorts of relationships that need to occur between those acting and those providing feedback on actions, to determine whether sustainability is emerging.

Feedback in this definition of sustainability means both the gathering and dissemination of information about whether sustainability is emerging. Observers would be drawing upon the extensive work on sustainability indicators by Bossel 4, Singh et al. 37 and others, to ascertain if sustainability has emerged. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss indicators of sustainability and the means by which they are developed, but we recognize that this is an important field of investigation. What will be discussed further is the relationship between the observer scale, where these indicators are predominantly employed, and the actor scale.

What are the preconditions for emergence?

There are two core processes to consider as we engage with this model of sustainability: those that are required to support emergence, and those that are required to ensure that the emergence leads to sustainability. A review of the literature identifies a number of different factors that are preconditions for emergence. Goldstein 17 summarizes four basic systemic pre-conditions as: non-linearity, that is, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, within which he includes feedback loops; self-organizing, that is the system has a degree of complexity enabling it to have adaptive behavior; being beyond equilibrium, that is, emergence necessarily occurs when a system is not just maintaining an equilibrium state, so it must be able to move from equilibrium; and lastly, attractors must exist, that is there must be some direction towards which change moves, rather than changes immediately dissipating. These preconditions appear clearly necessary, in a definitional sense, for emergence to occur. Interpreting what this means for human behavior, we may say that emergence is more likely to occur where a system contains sufficient complexity, in terms of feedback and diversity between the groups and individuals making up the system, that it will be able to adapt. This will mean that it can produce and support new patterns of action and interaction. Johnson has argued that to describe a pattern as emergent it must have come from a system that had no outside control, and that the emergent outcomes will be different when there are more, rather than only a few actors in the system 21. With many actors in the system contributing to decision-making, like bees considering a new hive option 31, the chances of making a decision that has the potential to move towards an attractor is improved. A highly interconnected system with simple elements provides high resilience and to a lesser extent efficiency and allows more sophisticated behavior to trickle up the system to emerge as a pattern at a higher scale 21,16.

Because emergence requires disequilibrium and therefore some instability in a system, our human systems, if they are to consider emergence as part of a mechanism for our own adaptive purposes, we need to tolerate a greater degree of vulnerability and uncertainty. Uncertainty may present opportunities for exploration and discovery, because the flexibility and adaptability in our interconnections within our dynamic, complex system may enable diverse possible outcomes. Accepting and making visible uncertainty in a complex system is part of a paradigm shift, not dissimilar to what is advocated by proponents of chaos theory. Establishing what is known and unknown makes it easier to determine who to seek assistance from, how what is unknown may be framed differently, and the ability to create more possibilities for application and innovation 39. Although uncertainty presents a serious challenge because it asks us to give up our desire for an increasing level of security and certainty, our risk taking need not be reckless or undirected. Social insects may provide insights in how to accept and engage productively with uncertainty. When ants are looking for, deciding upon and moving to a new colony location they simultaneously commence establishing new nests at multiple locations, but will redirect all traffic exclusively to the better nest during the moving process 13. We also need to have multiple strategies and be testing them simultaneously to be able to make a choice for the better strategy. New, perhaps riskier approaches may be trialled in selected spaces, like the legislated zone in Arizona where Earthships made of discarded auto tires are being tested for house construction 25. Creating space for risk taking in our own living environments, on a daily basis may also be an important steppingstone towards sustainability if we approach our risk taking from a position of nourishing our relationships within the limitations of our supporting systems.

What is needed for sustainability to emerge?

For emergent outcomes to lead towards the social goal of sustainability, they require direction, as well as an environment that can provide the opportunity for innovation and risk. Overall, emergence theory suggests that three key elements are desirable: certain simple conditions (or drawing upon the terminology of the Santa Fe school, rules) at the scale of action; observation and response to these at the scale of the observer, where the pattern emerges, and feedback between these two scales. Nourishing, or heedfulness can be described as the simple rule that individuals would need to follow at the scale of action for sustainability to potentially emerge. To foster the emergence of sustainability where it is desired, we would interact in ways that support the continuation of each relationship we are involved with. Given the unpredictable nature of emergence, however, being heedfully involved in relationships may or may not lead to sustainability. Without an observer, or monitor scale, checking emergent patterns against sustainability indicators and feedback between the observer scale and the actor scale, decisions about actions will lack a broader perspective and may be completely misdirected. Consequently, maintaining iterative feedback processes between the actor and observer scale is critical. These iterative processes foster nourishment and involve understanding, communication of information, and review of the structures and connections between the different scales. Tacit knowledge from these feedback processes can potentially accumulate within the system and become articulated into practice, meaning that the field of caring, the number and extent of the systems that one knows about and actively nourishes, expands. In summary, three key elements are desired to favor sustainability to emerge: nourishing relationships and the freedom to innovate at the actor scale; monitoring for sustainability indicators at the observer scale and feedback between the two, operating in both directions.

Strategies for sustainability between the scales

The structure of the space between the actor and observer scales is important in the processes leading to sustainability, as is the nature of the relationships between these scales. In a human system, where there are actions occurring at one scale, and observations of those actions occurring at another scale, different ways of thinking, expressing and understanding, effectively different cultures, come to operate at those different scales. The other scale can become a foreign space in which a person feels uncomfortable, disoriented, and resistant. Norton 34 suggests there is a need to work at the space between the scales to develop theory and practice, rather than acting at one or another scale. There are a number of strategies, explored by others in different contexts, that we think are relevant to sustainability when the focus is directed at the relationship between actor and observer scales. We explore some of these now. In this, we draw upon the theoretical work of Goldstein 17,18, Tsoukas and Hatch 46 and van Kerkhoff and Lebel 47, all of whom have highlighted the significance of this relationship between the scales.

Responsive iterative feedback

Goldstein considers the importance of the relationship between actor and observer levels within emergence theory 17,18. He stresses the interdependence between the level of action and the observation of emergence, noting that each impacts significantly upon the other. He notes that these levels are distinctive but interrelated and both top-down and bottom-up actions are required. From this we can infer that responsive iterative feedback will play an important role in building heedful or nourishing relationships between these two scales. Ideally, the iterative process of feedback between scales needs to occur at all temporal and spatial scales, from processes of self-reflection at the individual level, to international cooperation in the monitoring and management of global issues. An example of a successful continual review approach with iterative feedback is the academic publishing process, where the effort to maintain integrity requires continual onerous effort, relying upon the same community of peers to act at both top down and bottom up, as reviewers and contributors.


Tsoukas and Hatch discuss the importance of communication between the scales of action and observation 46. They emphasize the importance of simple actions like choices of vocabulary and the sequence of information and timing of delivery of communications. Furthermore, they note that making connections across time, activities and experience through communication of shared narratives will increase complexity, making the organizational system more networked and able to cope more effectively with unexpected events. They suggest humor as a mechanism to traverse the paradoxes that can occur between ideas at different levels. Responding with humor, they argue, can begin a process of dialogue to explore a paradox and reveal more about its nature. Norton 34 offers an alternative suggestion about communication between the actor and observer scales. He advocates that we should come from a position of problem solving with a shared language that evolves from the problem solving process, in the place between scales. Theory and language would be mutually generative in the process of solving problems, and the shared language that evolves from the interactions and relationships would promote the emergence of sustainability. These positions highlight the observation that language tends to be different at the actor and observer scales making interpretation between scales problematic. Meta-language develops going up the scales, while going down scales the meta-language needs to be transformed into an applied context. The farmer and the scientist or policy maker, for example, use different terms, as they are identifying boundaries around different things. The farmer has to interpret into a local, practical context, information from those who are monitoring patterns across the whole system, and those who monitor have to interpret and generalize the many individual data points. It is critical that we examine the structures within and through which we communicate between scales to facilitate rather than restrict or obstruct feedback, and to avoid misunderstanding. Furthermore text is but one channel of communication amongst many, and film, art, dance, music and other forms of communication can be equally powerful 40.

Reflection, narratives and norms

Tsoukas and Hatch are also interested in the role of the reflective actor, aware of themselves and their relationship within an organization and its narratives from a complexity science perspective 46. To improve the relationships between the levels of actors and observers within organizations, they argue for a greater awareness of the roles that each individual plays in creating the narrative of the organization as a whole, and advocate for heedful actions in organizational relationships. One process to develop understanding of norms and narratives within an organization could be having decision makers experience roles at different scales of the organization. Other research evidence suggests that narratives and norms may shape the structure of the space between the scales of action and observation in ways that have longer lasting impact than an algedonic approach 29,44. Reflection upon the narratives we use to make meaning can be a strategy in guiding sustainability to emerge. Growth as a narrative has been reframed and challenged by Tim Jackson 20 and others 24,27 who suggest that the economy no longer needs to be tied to growth. Transition towns are an example of the growth narrative shifting towards self-sufficiency and a new social imaginary 10. Modeling behaviors that are outside the social norms can also help to shift dominant norms. For example, Sussman discusses how waste separation behavior is significantly increased amongst those who observed other people having a discussion about how to separate waste correctly 50,41. Some powerful norms, such as those around consumerism and those that discourage active involvement operate in opposition to sustainability and warrant shifting 49.

Blurring, reframing, and flattening boundaries

Van Kerkhoff and Lebel 47 explain how the relational space between scientists and actors is an important point of focus for thinking about sustainable development 47. They suggest that researchers and others working towards sustainable development should take responsibility for improving linkages between the research and practitioners by continually reflecting upon the issues of knowledge, action, power and engagement. They argue that the multiple realities associated with different disciplinary ways of knowing create boundaries and suggest that these may need to be blurred, reframed, or negotiated to facilitate effective relationships. Similarly, blurring, reframing or flattening the boundaries between the actor scale and observer scale opens the possibility to re-imagine and re-focus our thinking and behavior. For example the anonymity provided by avatars blurs status boundaries and assists the disempowered to overcome barriers to engagement, and art frequently reframes the way we think about our societies, cultures, and environments by seeking new metaphors to make a difference to values and ways of living and thinking. Fred Williams changed the way people looked at landscape, its diversity, and its meaning 28, and Indigenous art in Australia has been a critical bridge for greater understanding of culture and values that were misunderstood for many years. Creating inter-dependencies between actors and observers is another method that may flatten the scales, and prevent them from operating without care or responsibility for the other. The Nhunggabarra people structured the understanding and management of their living environment and relationship to the landscape using a somewhat flattened structure 42. Knowledge was shared throughout the individuals that made up their community, such that different individuals held different pieces of knowledge, all of which were required for the functioning of the whole 42. Blurring, reframing and flattening the boundaries may assist with the emergence of sustainability by increasing the complexity of actors and interactions in the system, bringing new ways of seeing and new opportunities for understanding, and easing the feedback between the levels.

Power, policy and responsibility

As well as discussing boundaries, Van Kerkoff and Lebel are interested in the relationship between knowledge, action, engagement and power. They argue that the tensions between these forces may become “productive sources of creativity and innovation, destructive sources of marginalization and violence, or stagnant domains of blame casting and inaction” 47 (p. 25). The mechanisms by which societies and other groups negotiate these relationships affect the potential for the emergence of sustainability. The relationship between policy and the actions of those who are affected by it, for example, is often complex and challenging to predict. In deriving policy, we create goals at the observer scale that then influence the actors at scales below. Once an important observer scale goal is established, it structures the surrounding environment, and modifies behavior. For example, in education, university entrance scores have come to determine decisions through earlier years, even in some cases affecting decisions people make before their children are born, such as the suburbs they chose to live in to get their children into the best schools. Because of the complexity and uncertainty of the system, the university body deciding upon a cut off score for entry into a course is unable to take into consideration the wide range of possible impacts their decision might have upon individual choices and in turn patterns of development across a city. Terenzi talks about the need for “an embedded sense of responsibility for the consequences your system has on those systems that are higher and lower in scale/order/level” 44 (p. 608). However, the above example is good evidence of the difficulty that exists for top-down approaches in taking into account and working harmoniously with bottom-up strategies 8. The kind of responsibility suggested by Terenzi can be supported by processes of blurring, reframing and flattening the spaces between the scales. In addition, upward feedback, from the scale of action back to the scale of monitors and policy makers is essential. Feedback between the scales should not be a one-way process if we wish sustainability to emerge.

Many have argued for the need to consider all stakeholders, sometimes referred to as the extended peer community 15,44. One of the benefits of including all members of a community in decision making around issues of high stakes and high uncertainty, is that the risks are shared across all members, and there are more minds contributing to generating solutions. Chambers 9 advocates that sustainable outcomes are more likely to result from decision-making based at the local level, that takes into account local contexts, and Fraser et al. 14 have determined that decision making cannot be focused at either one of the scales, but instead on the relationship and communication between the scales.

The physical environment

An additional consideration affecting the relationship between the scale of actor and observer, and hence the potential for sustainability to emerge from a system, is the physical structure of space. An emergent approach towards physical spaces looks at the impact of the physical environment upon the relationship between the actor and observer and the patterns that emerge. The physical structure of spaces can enable or restrict the ability to adaptively respond in our interactions as individuals and in groups. The Agora in ancient Greece and coffee houses in Vienna physically allowed groups to come together and actively exchange ideas, while the design and layout of sports stadiums have lead to injury or death in stampedes caused by poor communication and mob-like behavior 31. Furthermore, spaces like the Agora have sometimes been intentionally built over to remove venues where citizens can gather, debate and potentially incite unrest and revolt. Physical structures play an important role in meeting the needs of all organisms, and shaping human physical spaces to meet the needs of all species is a challenge that follows from shifting the frame of mind to accepting the interconnected complex systems of the Earth 38. So, thinking carefully about the creation and structure of physical spaces is an important strategy for encouraging the preconditions that would be needed for sustainability to emerge.

If we think of ourselves as interconnected with our environment then we are more likely to make decisions about shaping the spaces we live and interact with in ways that respect the complex systems we live within. This can be achieved through learning about the multiple complex systems that interact to create our environment, or, in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau 45 and John Muir 33 we can also come to know our landscapes better through a focused immersion in the landscape over a lengthy period. Developing a greater understanding of our environment may increase heedfulness and our ability to be more nourishing of our environments, and hence, we suggest it is likely to lead to the emergence of sustainability.


In summary, emergence theory is helpful in refocusing thinking around sustainability on to three key elements—the actor, the monitor and the relationship between the two. This approach provides a theoretical framework for a way of understanding sustainability that focuses on relationships rather than boundaries and that identifies the relationship between the actor and observer scales as a site of particular significance. This reframing generates practical approaches towards this space between the actor and observer scales that may assist sustainability to emerge. The strategies identified here that we think will help to lead to sustainability include: facilitating iterative two-way feedback between the actor and observer scales; developing effective communication across the scales; using narrative and norms to shift and transform actions to develop nourishing relationships; flattening scales and reframing and blurring boundaries; considering the impacts of policy in complex emergent systems; careful designing of physical spaces; developing a deeper sense of understanding of the physical environment, and adopting a willingness to take risks and accept more vulnerability. This is not an exhaustive list, and some strategies may work at one scale but may not at another 44. Nonetheless we hope this review of strategies that apply to the relationship between actor and observer scales, from the context of promoting the emergence of sustainability, promotes further interest.

A great deal of thought and research has been and continues to be directed at the concept of sustainability. We have shown how emergence theory introduces into this research field the relationship between actor and observer scales as a significant site for further academic attention if we wish to move towards a more sustainable future. Our hope is that others will also find the alternative framework provided by emergence theory fruitful for generating solutions and stimulating new thinking about defining, monitoring, or acting for sustainability.


The authors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments to the manuscript.



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