Theoretical perspectives: local development in the context of sustainable and innovative development

Filippo Strati

1. Introduction

The large body of recent literature demonstrates the importance of the local dimension as a key issue in development strategies. At EU (European Union) level, research and assessment allowed us to discover distinctive characteristics of local development over the last 30 years. In parallel, sustainable development has become a key perspective in the worldwide arena. Controversial but intertwined concepts have marked a knowledge path shared by different actors at different decision-making levels.

This paper does not seek to offer a comprehensive overview of different theoretical perspectives on local development but adopts a systems and complexity approach in order to contribute to the on-going debate about the functional and fuzzy boundaries of local development (Section 2), their relationship with different understandings of development and growth (Section 3), the components and indicators to separate traditional and innovative policies of development (Section 4). Recent EU strategies and programmes that foster area-based local development and territorial cohesion are taken into consideration. The paper closes with concluding remarks on the role of local development in the pursuit of sustainable and innovative development (Section 5).

2. Importance of local dimension and its interdependent nature

The local dimension was recognised as a driving factor to tackle unemployment and social problems during the global economic recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, local employment initiatives (LEIs) were defined both at European and OECD level as those "which have occurred at the local level – often involving co-operation between individuals, action groups, the social partners, and local and regional authorities – with the specific aim of providing additional, permanent employment opportunities" CEC, 1983.

More recently, the European Commission defined local development strategy as “a coherent set of operations to meet local objectives and needs” while proposing common provisions concerning the EU Structural Funds EC, 2011. According to the Commission proposal, integrated, proactive and bottom-up approaches are necessary to foster local development, while “functional geographies” embed local development in economic, social and territorial cohesion strategies. To this end, the EU Structural Funds should facilitate multi-dimensional and cross-sectoral courses of action, implemented through multi-level governance, partnership and local action groups. The Commission proposal adopts several terms like community-led and area-based local development, as well as territorial development, for which methodological orientations are provided (e.g. Articles 28, 29, 30, 31 and 99).

As a whole, the Commission proposal presents concepts that are well explained by several studies and manuals. For example, a recent handbook EUKN, 2011 pays attention to interconnectedness, dialogue and mutual learning between different actors, organisations, sectors and disciplines. While providing interesting definitions, the handbook takes into account different dimensions of an integrated approach: spatial, functional, organisational, and institutional. The incorporation of different policy fields (such as employment, education, spatial planning, social inclusion, culture, economic development and the environment) is deemed essential to achieve a holistic territorial approach at different decision-making levels. A holistic policy framework is suggested to combine top-down and bottom-up policy flows at different levels of governance (EU, national, regional and local) and at different geographical scales (country, region, town, neighbourhoods, etc.). The handbook defines multi-level governance “as an arrangement for making binding decisions that engages a multiplicity of politically independent but otherwise interdependent actors – private and public – at different levels of territorial aggregation in more-or-less continuous negotiation / deliberation / implementation, and that does not assign exclusively policy competence or assert a stable hierarchy of political authority to any level”. Being based on these assumptions, a series of instruments aim at facilitating integrated local actions, territorial cooperation, participation of different stakeholders, coordination between different levels of governance, as well as integrated priorities between sectoral policy fields. The instruments consist of several ingredients, such as common objectives and priorities within the EU key strategies, vertical and horizontal inter-dependencies, subsidiarity, territorial networks, local development coalitions, structural agreements.

Although the handbook is devoted to urban governance, its basic concepts and instruments are of a general nature and have a wider scope. They are, for instance, common to concepts and instruments for rural development, as demonstrated by the intensive debate, implementation and assessment of projects developed under the EU LEADER programmes.
However, two questions need to be further explored: why and how interconnectedness can determine “functional geographies” to such an extent that they foster community-led, territorial and area-based local development?

System complexity

To answer these questions, paradigmatic shifts need to be taken into account. They allowed a confluence between concepts derived from different disciplines (e.g. economics, mathematics, ecology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, theoretical physics, spatial planning and geographical sciences) to better understand a process linking local dimension and development dynamics. They are deeply embedded in the nature of living complex systems.

System and complexity have similar etymological roots. The word “system” derives from the Greek “synhistanai” and “synistemi”, whose meanings are to place together, to get together. The term “complexity” derives from the Latin “complecti” (to embrace, to include, to cover, to entwine) and “complexus” (embrace, aggregation of parts). Therefore, connectedness (from the Latin “cum” = with and “nectere” = to join or to unite) is a property of a complex system.

According to this property, a system is more than the sum of its parts. It cannot be described only by a detailed study of its units. Evolution and trends of complex systems cannot be explained by a reductionism view, but require holistic approaches to understand their functioning.

A system can be conceived as the globally organised unity of interrelationships between elements, actions or individuals Morin E., 1977, moving the attention from its components to its connectedness in terms of internal (intra) and external (inter) relationships. A system continually creates and re-creates itself. It transforms and replaces its components, while preserving and modifying web-like patterns of organisation Capra F., 2003.

The quality of its internal and external links determines the quality of a system as a recursive combination of parts that are at the same time parts of a shared system and individual systems. The system co-evolves and self-organises itself at the extent that the relationships allow a common life. As Pascal said: the part is in the whole and the whole is in the part.

Systems are networks of intertwined strands, self-organising networks whose components are all interconnected and interdependent but not in a linear or hierarchical way Capra F., 1997 and 2003. Due to their non-linear nature, complex systems do not yield to easy prediction.

Systems are different, as different are their components. This diversity is at the basis of resilience, which is the capacity of a system to react and adapt to natural or induced stress or shock situations by resisting or changing in order to reach and maintain an acceptable level of functioning and structure.


Ecosystems demonstrate how real these assumptions are Loiselle S., 2004. They are evolving and open ended systems whose form and functions change, in a non-linear manner, in relation to the temporal and spatial variations, which characterise continuous exchanges of energy and matter and therefore information Koestler A., 1967, Ulanowicz R. E., 1986.

In such a way, ecosystems are self-organising and self-regulating systems, embedded within other systems and with causation exchanges in both a horizontal and vertical fashion Prigogine I. and Stengers I., 1984. Their behaviour is determined by a nested arrangement in which all processes are related to all other processes, processes are not related equally but unfold in systems within systems which differ on temporal and spatial scales on which they are organised Norton B. G., 1994.

Self-producing, self-organising and co-evolving capacity is the “autopoietic” property of a system. The term “autopoiesis” merges the Greek word poiesis (making, creating or producing) and auto (self), in order to express "what takes place in the dynamics of the autonomy proper to living systems" Maturana H. and Varela F., 1980.

Social systems

When the concept of autopoiesis is extended to social systems Luhmann N., 1995, it denotes the capacity to be autonomous, self-propelled and self-contained by means of principles, codes and practices co-evolved within internal webs and external linkages.

Shared values, beliefs and behaviours provide the basis for a sense of identity among and belonging to social networks. The latter constitute a “relational capital”, a social capital.
Rather than being the property of any one individual, social capital is a public good that is shared by the community that creates and utilise it. Human beings determine values and behaviours of civil society and civic culture (civic-ness according to Putnam R. D., 1993). Thus, social capital consists of mutual trust, collaboration, interaction and benefit, community participation, co-ordination and co-operation, developed through formal and informal networks, social organisations, norms, and so on OECD, 2001. They are energetic resources developed within cultural boundaries, negotiated and redefined continually by the concerned participants. They are components of the “art of association”, a concept used by Alexis de Tocqueville (1838) while looking at a democratic society. This "art" identifies the capacity to weave fair interrelationships between individuals and groups.

Nested networks (from family to trade unions, trade associations, political, religious, socio-cultural, environmentalist and so on organisations) form bridges and glues of social capital Lang R. E. and Hornung S. P., 1998; Fukuyama F., 1995, 1999; Putnam R. D., 1993, 2000; Ladd E. C., 1999; Dionne E. J., 1998. For instance, structured non-governmental organisations of citizens act as social bridges; the citizens themselves act as the social glue. Together they nurture relationships between the human beings according to non-linear dynamics, multiple feedback loops and modifications in culture, which are based on “inescapably plural identities” Sen A., 2006. The latter converge on a process concerning mind and consciousness.

Knowledge systems

Human mind is an ecologically interdependent system that connects cultures, disciplines and approaches Bateson G., 1972. This system allows concepts to co-evolve according to changes in assumptions, rules, points of views determined by individuals and because of the unavoidable interrelationships between them.

Human mind is the actor of an ongoing process of paradigm changes Kuhn T. S., 1962 that makes it possible to acknowledge the scientific knowledge as provisional Bateson G., 1979, and science as a continuous attempt to “falsify” or “refute” theories, concepts, approaches and methods, instead of seeing its aim in the ideological discovery of the “truth” Popper K, 1969. It is exactly this uncertainty that allows knowledge to develop.

Paradigmatic changes follow a coexistence of new and old concepts, while social practices are constantly analysed and reformed in the light of new knowledge. This dynamic is the characteristic of reflexivity. “We are abroad a world which is thoroughly constituted through reflexively applied knowledge, but where at the same time we can never be sure that any given element of that knowledge will not be revised” Giddens A., 1990. Thus, everything is open to question, the scientific knowledge is provisional Bateson G., 1979, and all sciences rest upon shifting sand Popper K, 1959.

A recursive "cause and effect" process develops consciousness, values and the related behaviours (ethics). It is an autopoietic and self-referential process, fostered by the actors’ potential and attitude to see and anticipate developmental changes. As new dynamics are discovered, they are transformed into new consciousness.

This iterative process is based on a dialogical (connecting) attitude Morin E., 1999 that produces open-ended but interlinked feedback loops of concepts, approaches, methods and tools. New concepts arise while the old ones are still alive. The cognitive maps are continuously decomposed and recomposed, improving the quality of collective consciousness.
The cognitive process (consciousness) is inside the collective and individual knowledge, but it appears also as a single system that nourishes the world of ideas, concepts, theories, and cultures. The term of “noosphere”, introduced by Teilhard de Chardin and developed by Popper, Morin and other scientists, explains why and how this “knowledge system” is endowed with a dependant autonomy, having its own life, the power to influence the human mind, but, at the same time, relying on all the other systems and being created and cultivated by the human mind. Almost simultaneously, while being strongly embedded in a system (e.g. economic, socio-cultural and natural), knowledge changes the cognitive maps through which the system is analysed and managed.

The flow of knowledge is the pillar for capacity building since it allows individuals and communities to improve governance, to innovate and to foster creativity, to determine development patterns.

The knowledge contained in a local system is “naturally” a blend of endogenous culture, tacit knowledge Polanyi M., 1958 and 1967 and that acquired from and shared with the global knowledge network (noosphere). This combination nourishes innovation (cultural, social, technological and so on) and transformation of a specific territory, intended as a “work of art” of humanity Magnaghi A., 2000, the protagonist of plural identities, a versatile integrator of interactions between cultures, actors and the environment.

Economic systems

From an economic perspective, a territory can be understood as a plurality of places where local and trans-local dynamics merge internal (endogenous) and external (exogenous) resources of development Becattini G., 2009. A territory becomes the spatial dimension where a number of economic behaviours interact and the interdependence of single actors makes up the local economic system. Several theories on the territorial agglomeration (cluster) of businesses, networks of businesses and networked companies offer a reference point to understand the evolution of territorial productive systems, while underlining multiplicity, synergy and proximity of spatial organisational forms Bramanti A. and Maggioni R., 1997: marshallian districts, industrial districts, technological poles, system areas, small enterprise territorial systems, milieux innovateurs, etc.

Territorial and spatial systems of enterprises participate in the global economic process. This assumption means that the already mentioned basic rules of living complex systems are easily applied to an economic system, in that it is located within other systems and contain systems that are entirely or partially contained within its boundaries. In other words, globalisation cannot exist without localisation as well as vice versa. Thus, more emphasis on the local should not mean less emphasis on the global Norgaard R. B., 1994, but it implies an improving “glocacity” intended as the capacity to simultaneously incorporate the local and global dimensions in the decision-making processes: the “capability to act locally with a global perspective, and to be effective globally with both global and local perspectives” OECD, 1996.

An important consequence of the systems approach is that, as components are combined to delineate larger functional parts, new properties emerge that were not evident within each part Loiselle S., 2004. As any chosen system lies within another scalar level, management and definition directed specifically at that system will fall short of managing the fluxes that are vital to the development of that system. There are an infinite number of information required to explain the functioning of a system given its self-organising nature on many different dimensions and levels Norton B. G., 1991.

In a nested system, each level influences the processes and functioning of the adjacent levels. Processes at lower levels are constrained by those at higher levels, while processes at lower levels influence the functioning of processes at a higher level.

Fuzzy boundaries

Expressed in organisational and institutional languages, the connection between these two processes constitutes the “vertical” direction of subsidiarity. On one hand, devolution of policy making to lower levels and smaller dimensions allows individuals and communities to develop self-management, self-administration and self-governance, by means of empowerment and capacity building. On the other hand, devolution of policy making to higher levels and larger dimensions allows objectives to be better achieved by reason of the scale of problems or the effects of actions, as stated by the EU Treaty (Art. 5).

The “horizontal” direction of subsidiarity must be added. It allows coalitions and networks of actors (e.g. individuals, communities, institutions and governments) to function as larger organisations that integrate policies and actions to better cope with the scale of problems. Thus, value added scales foster the combination of horizontal and vertical directions of subsidiarity, but the combination is temporary and co-evolves as far as relationships between actors and components of different systems evolve.

The functional interaction of the components determines fuzzy spatial boundaries of economic, natural and social systems, while they absorb new energy and force from outside. A temporal perspective further complicates this. Here as well, different scales make difficult any attempt to define temporal boundaries of a system.

According to these assumptions, the boundaries of local, territorial, community-led development areas, likewise by definition those of every ecosystem, have to be considered as provisional delimitations. As a consequence: a) the concept of boundary represents only a formal category and makes the definition of scale and perspective a relatively arbitrary decision; b) jurisdictional and even natural boundaries represent a partially acceptable limit to a system that is in continuous exchange and self-organisation; c) boundaries should be defined in flexible and adaptable way according to the above-mentioned functional interactions (e.g. functional geographies). At the same time, a multi-level-governance can facilitate openness, intensity, solidarity and stability of relationships between the constitutive components of a local area and between different territorial areas.

In conclusion, territorial and temporal boundaries are related to the consciousness and the values shared by the concerned individuals and communities. They create boundaries. They decide the degree of isolation and inclusion, closeness and openness, connectedness and separation, while the dynamics embedded in living complex systems are scientifically evident as so far demonstrated.

According to this (debatable) conclusion, the importance of local dimension and its interdependent nature play a key role in the theory and praxis of development, but the question is: what dimension for what development?

3. Difference and relationship between development and growth

Development depends upon the capacity to create a clear image (vision) of what the future should look like, to define the suitable trajectories (paths) to meet the vision, to establish coherent organisational and social behaviours (missions) to follow the paths.

According to the already mentioned proposal of the EU Commission (EC, 2011), “sustainable development” is the vision to be followed in line with the Europe 2020 Strategy (EC, 2010), while the latter states that local and regional authorities are required to be fully involved in delivering on this development vision, along with national parliaments and authorities, social partners, civil society organisations and other stakeholders.

However, the legal framework of the EU is conditioned by the overwhelming role of the Member States. According to the new Lisbon Treaties, the number of areas of exclusive competence of the EU is very limited (Piris J. C., 2010) and according to Art. 5 of the Treaty, the Union shall act in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence only and if the Member States recognise that EU coordination is an added value to their policies.

The objectives (headline targets) of the Europe 2020 Strategy identify the paths to follow the EU vision of sustainable development. Each Member State translates these targets into national targets. Moreover, each EU Structural Fund includes thematic objectives within the proposed Common Strategic Framework (CSF) (EC, 2011).

Missions consist in the commitments of each Member State and its partners at national, regional and local levels to elaborate coherent courses of actions for achieving the national targets. The specific mission of each CSF Fund must be added along with a number of commitments (e.g. conditionalities) through which the Member States will demonstrate their progress in the path towards the EU 2020 targets.

The main instruments required to follow the path are the yearly National Reform Programmes, the operational programmes supported by the CSF Funds as well as partnership contracts between the EU Commission and each Member State.
In this context, an integrated approach for territorial development supported by all the CSF Funds will include objectives based on agreed indicators.

As a first consideration, both the strategic and operational frameworks appear to be coherently conceived. However, weaknesses appear in the theoretical framework that influences the EU 2020 Strategy.

The EU Commission elaborated the EU 2020 Strategy as “a strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth” (EC, 2010). The strategy addresses in fact three mutually reinforcing priorities: developing an economy based on knowledge and innovation (i.e. smart growth); promoting a more resource efficient, greener and more competitive economy (i.e. sustainable growth); fostering a high-employment economy delivering social and territorial cohesion (i.e. inclusive growth).

More coherently from a theoretical point of view, the EU Council approved the Europe 2020 strategy as “a new strategy for jobs and growth” (EU Council, 2010), closely in line with the previous Lisbon Strategy.
“More coherently” means that the new strategy consists in an economic approach aimed at improving growth and employment trends.

In fact, although reaffirmed in the previously mentioned proposal of the EU Commission for common provisions concerning the Structural Funds (EC, 2011), the term (and concept) of “sustainable development” has progressively disappeared from other EU key documents.

This is the case of the Annual Growth Surveys (e.g. EC, 2011a), which provide the basis for setting policy priorities at EU and national level each 12 months, as well as of the country specific recommendations adopted by EU Council and concerning the National Reform Programmes and Stability or Convergence Programmes prepared by each Member State.
The bulk of these strategic documents concerns reductions in public debt and budget deficit, which are necessary to face the current global financial and economic crisis. Efforts towards sustainable development strategies appear to be weakened, if not eliminated, while the adjective “sustainable” has been associated mostly with public finance, growth, economic and financial assets standing for continuity, durability, solidity and stability.

Glocacity in Sustainability

The original meaning of sustainability was instead “reconciliation between humanity and nature” through the wise use of natural resources at a level that is not likely to damage the environment.

The concept is both old and new. Old because it is present in the history of humanity since its beginning. New because it is strongly affecting cultures and society of a relatively recent time. Several writers (Samson P., 1995; Welford R., 1995; Kahn M. A., 1995; Robertson J., 1995) demonstrated how basic elements of the concept of sustainability can be found in many civilisations, philosophies, religions and cultures of world (Sumerian, Mayan, Mediterranean, North American Indian, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Gandhism, etc.).

It is also because of these cross-cultural components that a universal definition of “sustainable development” was reached by the Brundtland Commission (United Nations, WCDED, 1987) as:
• a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs;
• a process in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony, and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.
As the Brundtland Report specified, sustainable development contains two key concepts:
• the concept of “needs”, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
• the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation of the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.
Consequently, “No country can develop in isolation from others. Hence the pursuit of sustainable development requires a new orientation in international relations (…). Each nation will have to work out its own concrete policy implications” (WCDED, 1987).

Expressed in other words, “the smaller the area of sustainability, the more equitable the policy”, but the close interconnection between ecosystems on a Planetary scale should be taken into due consideration (Jacobs M., 1991).

Posterity in Sustainability

Being fully conscious of these implications, the 1992 UN (United Nations) Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, approved a series of documents aimed at fostering integrated approaches on development orientated towards long-term strategies (thinking of future to act now), inter-generational and intra-generational equity (meeting the needs of different individuals and communities), worldwide solidarity (merging global and local dimensions) and democracy (allowing individuals and communities to participate in multi-level and multi-stakeholder governance). The Rio 1992 Declaration stated that human beings are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature, and Agenda 21 was defined as a vast and dynamic Programme of Action for Sustainable Development (SD) for the 21st century. Agenda 21 was put into operation by national governments through National Sustainable Development Strategies (NSDS) and by local authorities through Local Agenda 21 (LA21) processes. Participatory governance and transparent decision-making mechanisms were required to prepare, implement and monitor both NSDS and LA21.

Twenty years after the 1992 UNCED, a new UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) will be held in 2012 again in Rio (the so-called Rio + 20). The objectives of the 2012 Conference are: to secure renewed political commitment to SD; to assess progress and gaps in implementation of agreed commitments; to address new and emerging challenges. The Conference has two themes: green economy within the context of SD and poverty eradication; institutional framework for SD.

The preparatory documents for the Rio+20 Conference state that a green economy in the contexts of SD and poverty eradication needs: to be built from the bottom up, responding to local and national priorities and challenges; to be assessed in terms of social impacts in different countries and local contexts.
According to the preparatory documents, many countries have put in place NSDS and LA21 processes or similar initiatives, but:
• NSDS have seldom been considered as important reference documents to guide policy-making in the preparation, implementation and monitoring of national and sub-national policy plans;
• the scope of NSDS has been often too narrow, focusing prevalently on environmental issues; however, the environmental pillar has not been granted the same recognition as the economic pillar;
• the social pillar (e.g. the fight against poverty and social exclusion) has been considered ancillary to the economic pillar;
• a focus on economic growth continues to prevail in international, national and sub-national plans, including current recovery plans to face the global financial and economic crisis.

The preparatory documents reveal also the weak position of the EU SD strategies in the EU policy-making. In different phases between 1992 and 2010 and with different intensity and political commitment, almost all the EU Member States have prepared their own NSDS and have activated LA21 processes also through national support and coordination. Several local authorities signed important documents such as the Aalborg Charter of European Cities & Towns Towards Sustainability, followed by the Aalborg Commitments. However, there has been confusion over the SD concept and approaches. Moreover, they have not been considered in a wider context, but confined in environmental ministries and departments. In some occasions, the interdependency between the three components of SD (i.e. the environmental, social and economic pillars) was not fully understood.

Reflexivity in Sustainability

As a conclusion, meanings influence strategies and policy priorities. Development and growth were traditionally associated with progress, also etymologically: going forwards, improving, flourishing, increasing, getting bigger, or adult (from the Latin “progressus”). However, although interconnected, these terms acquired different meanings in recent times.

To set the scene, it is useful to reject “the view of those who think they can specify the meaning of development in some specific sense (…) by contrast, ideas about development cannot but be shaped, and consequently limited, by time and place” (Payne A. and Phillips N., 2010).

Some scholars identify the principal defect of “pseudo-definitions” of development: “they are based upon the way in which one person (or a set of persons) pictures the ideal conditions of social existence” (Rist G., 2008). These scholars recognise that there is no universal form for development and that the belief in development “rests upon the credence given to economics”. Thus, they conclude that the aim is to change our perception, to see the world differently, to change our model of society and to persuade ourselves that there is life after development.

Uncertainty concerns also the concept of progress. Intended as a slow, gradual and continuous change and advancement in time, the concept of progress accounted for “cultural differences among the peoples of the world” (Nisbet R., 2009).
However, cultural development changes the ways of looking at human plural identities since “we interpret history in terms of our theories, and our theories develop and change in terms of our views of history” (Sklair L., 1998).

This is true also for sustainability. “We know something about the principles that would underlie sustainability and it is possible to suggest measures that would move us in its direction, but reflexivity means that is impossible to draw up a detailed blueprint of a sustainable society or even of the route to get to it” (Dresner S., 2010).

For all the above reasons, this is not the right place to provide a comprehensive analysis of theories of development by reviewing the huge literature produced by several academic disciplines. However, the definition of some key concepts can facilitate a better understanding of what is at stake also in the current global financial and economic crisis. “Even between major crises, “the market” has no answer to the major problem” that consists in “unlimited and increasingly high-tech economic growth in the pursuit of unsustainable profit global wealth” at the cost of human labour and of the globe’s natural resources” (Hobsbawm E., 2011).

To put this assumption in context, it is useful to trace back to the Aristotle’s distinction between the meaning of economy (oikonomikè) and accumulation of wealth (chrematistikè).
The first term, formed by “oikos” (home) and “nomia” (set of norms), is usually associated with the management of available resources (including human, social and natural resources) necessary to live well for the benefit of a community as a whole.

The second term, usually translated as trading for profit, is the art of maximising benefits by means of monetary exchange in order to increase private wealth unlimitedly.
Two other Greek terms must be added: “logos” (reasoning, discourse) and the already quoted “synistemi” (to put together).

Given that systems (synistemi) are nested in each other, that the global dimension cannot be separated from the local dimension and vice versa, that they are united in a temporal perspective, that as Pascal wrote “everything, then, is cause and effect”, a question arises to set the scene also for posterity: what reasoning (logos) we would like to follow to manage (nomia) the available resources (oikos) for the quality of life of the concerned communities, while trading for profit and accumulating wealth?

Answers are (and were) not easy since “the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist” (Marx C. and Engels F, 1845 – 1846).
Answers might be provided by looking at development in a more coherent way, which is to recognise the responsibility of human beings in managing the globally organised unity of interrelationships between human, non-human species and the natural environment (i.e. the ecosystems).

Local and global citizenship

Two definitions of development follow the above-mentioned considerations. The first one (Sen A., 1999) states that development is a process of expanding the real freedoms that human beings enjoy to shape their own destiny, help each other, make choices and to act reasonably also in relation to allocating resources, such as the natural resources, which are "public goods "(goods enjoyed in common).

The second definition (Morin E., 2007 and 2007a) underlines the need for the metamorphosis of the concept of development in that of “flourishing”, while arguing that a policy of civilisation is needed which is based on solidarity among human beings, between them and the other components of the Earth ecosystem. This definition is supported by the definition of prosperity as “our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet” (Jackson T., 2009).

The importance of these definitions resides in the conceptual wholeness of components already examined, inter alia:
• the pursuit of values and beliefs necessary for life (e.g. equity and social inclusion, unity and diversity, democracy and justice, freedom and solidarity, environmental integrity and diversity) through norms and ways of acting
• the sharing of values, beliefs, norms and ways of acting (i.e. the essence of culture) as a set of individual and collective choices (self-organisation) that affect the conditions of belonging to a specific ecosystem (local citizenship).
• the integration of different cultures, even those conflicting, as the essence of civilization in terms of choices (co-evolution) that affect the conditions of belonging to the Earth ecosystem (global citizenship).

As a consequence, development is qualitative. It consists in the human capacity to consciously manage the ecosystem, when directed towards maintaining natural resources and services necessary for present and future generations. Moreover, taking into account the orientation towards values and beliefs in a given time and ecosystem, it is possible to assess their translation in norms and actions, as well as their impact over time on the concerned ecosystem.

Thus, the scene appears to take place more completely: human beings establish rules for management (economy) according to values (ecology) that bring together all the components, human and non-human, of the common house (ecosystem). As a result, the weaker the ecological thought, the higher the risk that human activities compromise the ecosystem. In other words, development is the process whereby human beings use their knowledge, understanding and capacity to improve the quality of the ecosystems with which they interact, including the other components of nature.

This definition simplifies the meaning of growth by assigning a quantitative nature to the latter over a given time and in a specific ecosystem: growth consists in “an increase in the total volume of goods and services produced in a country” (Peet R. and Hartwick E., 2009).

The complex nexus between development and growth explains also the Aristotle’s distinction between oikonomikè and chrematistikè.

The general belief in a linear and continuous growth without limits is the highest risk to natural ecosystems, which have exhaustible resources and services.

Human beings underestimated the risk of reducing the availability of natural resources in relation to production and consumption rates, especially in the last two centuries (i.e. economic thought prevailed upon environmental thought).
In particular, there was a failure of the post-industrial economic paradigms in relation to natural ecosystem functions and the maintenance of a natural resource base, which is the foundation for economic systems.

The environment is in fact not predictable or describable (non-linear nature) in its response to environmental stress. Risk and vulnerability are no more limited to individual activity but they potentially spread outside the individual sphere of control, i.e. threatening the survival of humanity or jeopardising large numbers of the population, natural environment, etc. (Giddens A., 1990).

Therefore, growth may occur (e.g. income and consumption) without development (e.g. unequal income distribution, poverty and pollution) (e.g. Latouche S., 2007). Likewise, development may occur (e.g. better environmental and health conditions) without growth or with de-growth (e.g. absence of or reduction in production and consumption that are harmful to the environment and living beings).

4. Components and indicators of innovative development

Following these definitions and the scientific debate, development cannot be confused with growth, as well as “sustainable development should not be confused with economic development” (SDC, 2008).
Moreover, “sustainable” growth, intended as a linear and continuous growth without limits, is an oxymoron, having the exact opposite meaning of sustainable (wise and fair) development based on social, economic and environmental justice.

As noticed by some thinkers (Morin E., 2007 and 2007a), the traditional techno-economic thinking of growth affects also the approaches on sustainable development, since it lessens consciousness about how human beings are nested in ecosystems.
Sustainable development itself might appear as a “contestable concept: one that affords a variety of competing interpretations or conceptions. Many political objectives are of this kind: liberty, social justice and democracy, for example. These concepts have basic meanings and almost everyone is in favour of them, but deep conflicts remain about how they should be understood and what they imply for policy” (Jacobs M., 1991).

Whether development is sustainable or not, it strongly depends in fact upon the degree of integration between social, economic and environmental policies. This is a firm scientific assumption endorsed by the Brundtland Report, according to which “Even the narrow notion of physical sustainability implies a concern for social equity between generations, a concern that must logically be extended to equity within each generation” (WCDED, 1987).

Therefore, two principles assume particular importance: an inter-temporal principle that relates to posterity as a nexus between the past, present and future; an inter-local (and inter-regional) principle that relates to a nexus between local and global spaces.

Diversity (biological, cultural, social and economic) connotes both nexus since it increases the capacity of different systems to be resilient and intertwined (“no diversity, no unity”). Diversity is at the basis of bioregionalism theories (McGinnis M. V., 1999), which are generally aware of what can be a sustainable community in that it lives in harmony with its local environment while reducing damages to other communities and distant environments.

With this assumption, the horizon of planning shifts from centralised policies to federalism, subsidiarity, empowering democracy, cooperation and partnership, networking and people participation. However, only synergetic methods include the importance of diversity and unity, limits and well-being (Welford, 1995).

In fact, the sustainability of development is determined by the interconnectedness of all its components: economic, social and environmental dimensions, equity and diversity.
Any component is not superfluous to the other but interacts with the other; or better, it is incorporated in the other. For example, the focus is on how “environmental considerations are given weight in social and economic policies – and vice versa” (Karas J., 1995).

Interaction and co-evolution

The challenge is to use a holistic approach that allows assessing the interactions between policies. Examples can be found also in the five important “horizontal clauses” of the New Treaty on the Functioning of European Union to define, implement and assess policies and activities:

  • Equality Clause (Art. 8) to eliminate inequalities, and to promote equality, between men and women
  • Social Clause (Art. 9) to guarantee adequate social protection, to fight against social exclusion, to promote high level of employment, education and training, to protect human health
  • Anti-discrimination Clause (Art. 10) to fight against discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation
  • Environmental Clause (Art. 11) to promote sustainable development and environmental protection (Art. 11)
  • Consumer Clause (Art. 12) to protect consumer rights.

These “horizontal clauses” are not limited in space and time dimensions. They are co-evolving. They include the assessment of past experiences, while looking to present and future times, to present and future generations. They connect local, regional, national and EU geographical areas. They inspire coordination and partnership between powers, roles, competence and responsibility at different decision-making levels (e.g. multi-level governance).

Moreover, “in order to maximise the impact of the policy in delivering European priorities, the Commission proposes to reinforce the strategic programming process” by means of eleven thematic objectives within a common set of basic rules (the Common Strategic Framework – CSF) governing all Structural Funds (EC, 2011).

The thematic objectives have:
• environmental implications (a low-carbon economy in all sectors; climate change adaptation, risk prevention and management; protection of the environment and resource efficiency; sustainable transport)
• economic implications (research, technology and innovation; information and communication technologies; competitiveness of small and medium-sized enterprises, the agricultural, fisheries and acquaculture sectors)
• employment implications (jobs and labour mobility; education, skills and lifelong learning)
• social implications (social inclusion and the fight against poverty)
• governance implications (institutional capacity and an efficient public administration).

To pursue the thematic objectives, the EC proposal includes provisions concerning evaluation, conditionalities, performance review, monitoring, reporting and assessment. Through these provisions, each Member State shall improve the quality of the design of each operational programme while mobilising potential at a local level, strengthening and facilitating community-led local development in order to foster territorial cohesion. Each programme and its priorities, as well as each CSF Fund shall set out common indicators to assess progress.

Conditionalities and indicators concern also sustainable development, equality between men and women, equal opportunities, the prevention of any type of discrimination (based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation), the integration of gender perspective at operational programme and operational level.

For example: Member States shall improve their legislation relating to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) according to the existing EU Directives; national strategies and plans shall support local initiatives devoted to active inclusion, the fight against poverty and the integration of marginalised communities such as the Roma in accordance with EC Recommendations and Policy Frameworks.
Thus, great potential lies for local and national strategies and, in particular, for assessment and design of feeding-in / feeding-out processes consisting of internal (intra) and external (inter) relationships between policy fields.

Monitoring and orientation

Indicators are used to follow the dynamics of this process, since they make visible what is happening in a given context (spatial and temporal). For instance, GDP (gross domestic product) measures growth as total monetary value of all goods and services produced in a country. GDP is a basic indicator also to monitor the impacts of the current global financial and economic crisis. As stated by the Protocol on the Excessive Deficit Procedure adopted by the European Union, public debt and budget deficit must not exceed 60% and 3% of GDP respectively. However, GDP cannot distinguish between costs and benefits for humanity and nature, between destructive and creative activities as far as resource availability is concerned. GDP “measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile” (Kennedy R., 1968).
Beyond GDP, new indicators were developed to foster and monitor change in conventional development approaches at international, national and local level. A comprehensive study (Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi, 2009) provided an thorough analysis of many new indicators. Some of them can be summarised as follows.

The Human Development (HDI), Human Poverty (HPI) and Gender-related development (GDI) indices combine GDP and income per capita with parameters related to health (e.g. life expectancy at birth) and knowledge (e.g. adult literacy rate and enrolment ratio). The Sustainable Human Development Index (SHDI) extends the HDI with components concerning the environmental impact of human activities. The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and the National Welfare Index (NWI) derive from the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW).

While these systems are somewhat different (in methods of calculation, components and data sources), they follow a common approach, that being to take income inequality into account, to make additions to account for non-market benefits (e.g. volunteer time, housework, parenting and other socially productive time uses), to make deductions to account for costs due to environmental damage (e.g. various types of pollution, greenhouse effect, reduction in or loss of natural and energy resources) and damage to health (e.g. road accidents, crime, commuting, under-employment, loss of leisure time).

The European Union Sustainable Development Indicators (SDI) concern 10 themes: socio-economic development, sustainable consumption and production, social inclusion, demographic change, public health, climate change and energy, sustainable transport, natural resources, global partnerships, good governance. Moreover, the indicators developed by the “Community Statistics on Income and Living Conditions” (EU-SILC) provide useful insights into the relationship between poverty, social exclusion, employment and economic trends.

The Ecological Footprint calculation considers the demand for natural resources, expressed in the area required to produce them according to the consumption rate of the associated population. The ecological footprint is compared with the biocapacity of the concerned ecosystem. Biocapacity measures the supply of natural resources, expressed as the area available to regenerate them and to absorb wastes. This comparison shows, for example, how many Earths would be required to support the current lifestyle of the world population.

The Happy Planet Index (HPI) correlates three indicators (ecological footprint, self-assessment of life-satisfaction, life expectancy) to show the ecological efficiency with which the countries of the world use natural resources for human well-being.

Gross National Happiness (GNH) uses indicators of 9 themes (standard of living, health, education, environmental resilience and diversity, cultural vitality and diversity, time use, good governance, community vitality, psychological well-being) to manage the space-time interdependencies between the components of ecosystems. Promoted in Bhutan, the GNH indicators are orientated towards a development understood as a holistic view of quality of life, as a public good whose progress depends on the flourishing of the relationships between humanity and the other components of ecosystems.
Your Better Life Index is an interactive tool created by OECD to see how countries perform according to 11 topics: community, education, environment, governance, health, housing, income, jobs, life satisfaction, safety, work-life balance.

Indicators, therefore, depend on orientators. They indicate the directions of development according to values and visions of the concerned communities. As so far demonstrated, values and visions change over time and space in the light of new knowledge (reflexivity). Thus, also orientators change and anticipate new development paths, while entering a conflict with indicators that become watchdogs of lifestyles no longer deemed acceptable.

Thus “there is a lot that could be done to make our civilisation more sustainable than it presently is. Just because we don’t know how to create a truly sustainable society, that doesn’t mean that we can’t do things to become less unsustainable (…). The alternative to the pursuit of sustainability is to continue along the present path of unsustainability, leading to disaster” (Dresner S., 2010).

5. Concluding remarks

Local development has a long history throughout the world. Development arises, in fact, from local communities to respond to their needs. However, local development initiatives cannot act in isolation. They need to mutually reinforce each other. For these reasons, the present analysis has examined the importance of the local dimension within the wider context of development patterns by answering four questions, though many issues are still open to debate.

The first and second questions concerned why and how interconnectedness can foster local development. By considering the nature of living complex systems, the answer highlighted multi-dimensional and cross-sectoral dynamics that determine propensity for innovation and change in environmental, social, knowledge and economic fabrics. These dynamics are not linear and co-evolve through a complex network of relationships that do not follow deterministic macro-economic models. Internal and external influences (e.g. local and trans-local processes) allow form and functions of local development to vary both spatially and temporally.

Although territories can be jurisdictionally and institutionally defined, fuzzy boundaries follow the relationships between local communities and development. The former are based on social interactions between the plural identities of their components (i.e. human beings). The latter is created by productive interactions between human beings and natural resources. Intensity and organisation of these interactions depend on the scale of problems and on the effects of actions aimed at solving the problems. Therefore, administrative boundaries should be considered as changeable delimitations. For instance, the term “functional geographies” used by the EC implies subsidiarity, multi-level governance and multi-actor coalitions in order to manage vertical and horizontal inter-dependencies while merging bottom-up and top-down approaches. Further improvement in governmental policies is necessary. They should support development planning through territorial networks that connect smaller and larger dimensions, while promoting the capacity of acting locally and thinking globally. Recursive and circular patterns should substitute institutional arrangements that are hierarchal and linear. Common horizons should allow diversity to improve the resilient functioning of correlated systems (society, knowledge, the environment and economy).

Without shared visions of development, interconnectedness does not work well. This assumption was at the basis of the third question (“what dimension for what development”), explained by examples concerning the EU 2020 Strategy and the UN Sustainable Development Strategy. In the first case, the focus on growth induced confusion about what kind of development should be sustained and thus about which policy fields should be effectively interconnected. In the second case, weak political commitment to follow a worldwide definition of sustainable development hampered interconnectedness between local, national and global dimensions. Shared visions and commitments are difficult to be determined. The lack of scientific consensus over the meanings of development, growth and progress still hinders common policy priorities. However, reflexivity, while nourishing conceptual uncertainty, favours paradigmatic changes that imply new ways of thinking about intergenerational rights within local and global groups. The local dimension plays a key role in this debate by underlying the quality of development as a process whereby human beings use their knowledge to responsibly manage the interrelationships between them and nature (namely local ecosystems).

The quality of development has constituted a challenge since the ancient civilisations and was addressed by the fourth question posed by the present analysis: what reasoning can local communities follow to manage their available resources. Many initiatives have experimented with sustainable communities around the world. They foster a shift from centralised to territorially networked planning aimed at incorporating different policy fields. At a larger scale, the horizontal clauses of the EU Treaty constitute an example of how equality, social, anti-discrimination and environmental issues can be used in implementing and assessing policies. The arduous task is to foster feeding-in / feeding-out processes based on intra and inter relationships in order to tackle multi-dimensional problems. Collaboration between the scientific community, local and national stakeholders allowed indicators beyond GDP to be identified. They noticeably orient local dimensions to innovative development paths through which human beings can pursue sustainability by reconciling themselves with nature.


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March 2012

Created by Peter Ramsden3328 points . Last Modification: Tuesday 03 of April, 2012 18:10:16 BST by Haris Martinos1165 points . (Version 15)