Olivia Bina, University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal

Presentation Title: Squaring circles: developing the arguments and framework for the definition of sustainable urban scenarios capable of engaging with global sustainability constraints



Based on her seminal intervention, Donnella Meadows would most likely argue that, if we want “to sustainably transform our urban future” we must first have a clear vision of how we desire that future to look, and would argue for a new scientific approach that we now call 'sustainability science' (International Society for Ecological Economics, 1994).  Given what we know today about global change, tipping points and thresholds, which impose an understanding of planetary challenges and their translation to the urban scale, Meadow’s call for envisioning a sustainable future is all the more challenging. Failing to do so in relation to urban sustainability within the global context may invalidate the attempt to shift towards sustainable development. Drawing on an EU-funded research project on urbanization in China and Europe (URBACHINA), this presentation proposed a conceptual framework for the definition of sustainable urban scenarios, and reflected on its strengths and weakness based on three applications of the framework.

Key Lessons Learned

  • Global environmental change and climate change do not drive transformation in China. The only connection is through resource scarcity concerns and related techno-scientific fixes.
  • Urbanization in China is viewed as the engine of growth.
  • Questions being asked in China regarding urbanization include: how can urbanization help achieve the goals of growth or, at best, development? What is not being asked is: how can urbanization help achieve sustainable development? (this in itself is a paradigm shift)
  • Incremental change is very unlikely to be enough to respond to known (let alone unknown) challenges, and can lead to costly lock-in.
  • The pursuit of better science needs to be combined with a long-term, shared vision for a desirable future for all that is both fair and ecologically sustainable; i.e., the power of vision can help us move beyond the incremental, disciplinary boundaries and scientism.

Policy/Practice Implications of Research

  • Care must be taken when framing issues and agendas, i.e.,  futures cannot be discussed via limits or scientific boundaries, which leads to asking nations to make sacrifices.
  • Bold and hopeful approaches can lead to better choices, but they need a different language and different ways of thinking about the future.
  • Different modes of development often outpace each other (e.g., urbanization occurring faster than economic growth), which is evident in the haste with which solutions are sought. This ultimately leads to sub-optimal choices and failure to address problematic paradigms. More adequate planning and governance process tools must be found to address this issue.

Knowledge Gaps and Needs

  • Is a low-carbon, smart or eco-city enough of an inspiration for the 21st century?
  • How much is the enduring promise of science and technology worth keeping or do we need to question it?
  • Trends in perspectives on the future currently skew in terms of population, economy, governance, technology, etc. (proximate drivers), but only in rethinking values, needs, power structures, knowledge and understanding, and culture (ultimate drivers) can the kind of change required by global environmental change's challenges be envisaged.