SDG-aligned futures and the governance of transformation to sustainability: reconsidering governance perspectives on the futures we aspire to

Hernandez, Ariel
Discussion Paper (30/2021)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

ISBN: 978-3-96021-173-0
Preis: 6 €

The (im)possibility of governance of the transformation to sustainability (T2S) is driven by how the related multiple transition processes as well as the various functional, institutional and bargaining interactions among relevant agents or stakeholders can be steered. Like other transformation processes, T2S is an immediate response to threats and risks behind structural changes. In addition, T2S is a “purposive new normal” because it seeks ways to achieve a new equilibrium whereby the system is able to effectively confront or prevent imminent threats and risks. At the same time, this paper claims that there can be more than one version of the new equilibrium for each state or society. This paper argues against the “ahistoricity” (Geschichtslosigkeit) approach of much of the literature on T2S and contends that each country has a distinct set of socio-political (e.g. quality of institutions) and economic resources (e.g. gross national income) available, depending on its current standing.
The academic debate on transformation has re-emerged with intensity due to it increasingly being linked to the discourse on sustainability. One important thread of this transformation–sustainability nexus is the role of governance. While the academic literature on governing T2S can already build on decades of work, the debate on the three-fold interfacing of governance, transformation and sustainability still has major gaps to fill. This paper articulates an integrated approach in understanding the governance of T2S by bringing together perspectives from sociology, political science and economics (and their sub-disciplines) as puzzle parts. Connecting the different puzzle parts contributed by the different disciplines, this paper conceptualises the four types of resources needed to make governance conducive to T2S: vision, performance, social cohesion and resilience. The next step for this paper is to use these puzzle parts to form a framework to introduce three sets of scenarios of pathways for sustainable futures, the “SDG-aligned futures”. The three pathways leading to these SDG-aligned futures are political-transition-driven (or strong), societal-transition-driven (or cohesive) and economic-transition-driven (or efficient).
The three scenarios for SDG-aligned futures serve on one hand as the basis for the contextualisation of transformation for a more strategic application of appropriate solutions by focussing on what governance structures, levels, processes and scales are conducive to T2S. At the same time, this approach resolves the “ahistoricity” dilemma in many concepts of T2S by highlighting that countries have different entry points when initiating T2S. The perspectives on the scenarios towards a sustainable future provide multiple entry points for each country by specifying the departing stage for a specific country that consists of a set of path dependencies resulting from the country’s (1) historical experience (e.g. colonialism) and (2) national discourse (e.g. debate on the sustainable energy transition). As countries utilise the potentials of their already existing governance structures and implement policy reforms that occur within existing institutional and politico–legal structures as well as through social upheavals and fundamental changes (hence, resilience is fundamental to T2S), these pathways are aligned by the Sustainable Development Goals, leading to coherent societal priorities and policy mixes.

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