About Our Approach

Circles of Sustainability provides a way of achieving sustainability and resilience that combines qualitative with quantitative indicators. It sets up a conceptual and technology-supported framework with guiding tools for investigating problems faced by communities. The aim is to do so in such a way as to be flexibly applicable across the very different contexts of a city, community, or organization. Accordingly, the approach is particularly sensitive to the need for negotiation from the local level to the global.

All of this challenges most of the existing approaches to sustainability, including the dominant Triple Bottom Line approach. Existing approaches are problematic to the extent that they treats economics as a domain outside of social life, and characterize ecology as either an externality or a contextual resource. Accordingly, there are many terms that are used only with extreme care in the Circles of Social Life approach. ‘Externality’ is one of them. Others include ‘ecosystem system services’ and ‘social capital’.

How can the Value of a Method be Judged?

In setting up the method we applied the following tests:

The Test of Practical Usefulness
Is the method useful for understanding the world? Mapping social world into domains is no more than a heuristic device. It is a device for learning and acting. This is the case for all approaches whether they admit it or not. The Circles approach is no more than as a process for learning. The four domains are treated as useful for analysing and learning about the patterns of social life, considered primarily at the level of empirical analysis. They are used in a way that allows for resolution into related elements or constituent parts — precisely the modern definition of analysis as a process — the breaking down of an object of enquiry into its elements (see Knowledge Circles). The ultimate test of usefulness depends upon long-term use and the positive outcomes of that use, and that can only be judged over time.

The Test of Analytical Coherence
Is the method coherent? The four-domain model of social life arguably provides a much richer and less reductive, a less skewed method than most mainstream approaches. Many approaches tend to treat economics, for example, as if it is completely distinct from the social. It is amazing how, across almost every field of practice, phrases such as ‘economic, environmental and social sustainability’, or ‘economic, environmental and social concerns’, roll off the mainstream production-line of naturalized expressions. Only critics of market-dominated politics ask why economics has come to be treated as the master domain separated from its social foundation. Very few people ask why the environment tends to be reduced to an externality of the economic or why the environment is separated out from human activity. Even fewer people ask why the social is treated as grab-bag of extra things that are left over after the economic and environmental are designated and demarcated. The coherence test can be judged around a number of questions.

  • Can each of the domains in an approach be understood in categorically coherent relation to each of the other domains? One way of testing whether or not this is working within a given approach is to ask whether the various domain names can be used as adjectival in relation to each other. For example, the Circles approach allows one to talk of the ‘cultures of the economy’ — for example the culture of desire for consumer goods, the culture of economic status, etc.
  • Can each of these domains be systematically divided into subdomains that are more than a miscellany of related subthemes? Systematic division of the domains becomes important for giving a sense of the complexity of each of these domains and in turn of the human condition in general.
  • Can each of these domains be understood in both objective and subjective terms? In subjective terms can contemporary ideas, ideologies and imaginaries be mapped across the domains? In objective terms, can empirical indicators and metrics be mapped across the domains? Most approaches do not allow this.

The Test of Simple Complexity
How can an approach be as simple as possible, particular at the top level of its presentation to local communities and urban practitioners? How can it be as simple as possible without becoming simplistic? This test can be expressed in long hand as the ‘Test of Relative Simpleness in Rendering a Complex Social Whole’. This is the social theory version of Ockham’s Razor. Ockham tells us that theories in science should move towards the simplest form where explanatory power is not sacrificed. The difference here is that the dimensions of social life can never be isolated as singular or standalone systems, and therefore the social whole always has to be kept in mind.

In relation to simply rendering complexity, the Circles mapping works in a way that attempts to solve the problems that many other ways of defining fundamental domains tend to treat either reductively or factorially. It works with a simple top-level figure expressive of a city or local that is used to highlight strengths and weakness in the sustainability of a particular urban area, and yet is based on a complex underpinning.

The Test of Normative Reflexivity
Does the method provide a means of examining its own values and assumptions? It is in recognition of the human capacities for political-cultural agency and ethical-moral reflection that the need for an alternative to the current dominant three-domain framework becomes particularly apparent. That is, the three-domain model does not provide a basis for reflexively assessing the social constitution of unsustainable forces within and upon the social or natural environment. Nor does it provide guidance in negotiating sustainable resolutions to the problems associated with such driving forces.

The alternative that is presented here addresses directly the presence of relations of political power and cultural meaning as well as economic resourcing and ecological engagement. In this view, it is necessary to recognize the existence of a ‘minimal ‘rule’ for assessing sustainable development. This minimal rule necessitates the holistic measurement of such considerations as political authority and legitimacy and cultural meanings and narratives in conjunction with economic values and ecological conditions within society (see Scerri and James, ‘Accounting for Sustainability’). In this view, trade-offs in the reporting process would need to be agreed upon, subject to the constraint that economic and ecological drivers were assessed for their interaction with political and cultural drivers.

Overall, the Circles approach is based on a two basic drives: firstly, that it should be principled, linked to contested and negotiated normative concerns about how we should live, and secondly, that it should be issue-driven, locally adaptable and tied to practical outcomes. The method aims to have the following features:

What Features make for a good Method?

The Circles approach is issue-driven, seeking to achieve the following characteristics:

  • Accessible. Readily interpretable to non-experts, but at deeper levels methodologically sophisticated enough to stand up against the scrutiny of experts in assessment, monitoring and evaluation and project management;
  • Graphic. Simple in its graphic presentation and top-level description, but simultaneously having consistent principles carrying through to its lower, more complex, and detailed levels;
  • Cross-locale. Sufficiently general and high-level to work across a diverse range of cities and localities, big and small, but at the same time sufficiently flexible to be used to capture the detailed specificity of each of those different places;
  • Learning-based. Offering ways for cities to learn from other cities, providing support and principles for exchange of knowledge and learning from practice;
  • Comparable. Allowing comparison between cities, without locating them in a league table or hierarchy;
  • Tool-generating. Providing a series of tools — including web-based electronic tools compatible with various information and communications technology platforms;
  • Indicator-generating. Providing guidance for selecting indicators as well as methods for assessing their outcomes;
  • Relational. Focussing not only on identification of critical issues, indicators that relate to those critical issues, but also the relationships between them;
  • Cross-domain. Compatible with new developments that bring ‘culture’ in serious contention in sustainability analysis — such as the United Cities and Local Governments’ (UCLG) four pillars of sustainability;
  • Participatory. Framed by a set of global protocols, while nevertheless driven by stakeholders and communities of practice;
  • Cross-supported. Straddling the qualitative/quantitative divide, and using appropriate quantification to allow for identification of conflicts.
  • Standards-oriented. Connected to current and emerging reporting and modelling standards.
  • Curriculum-oriented. Broad enough to provide guidance for curriculum development, and therefore useful for training.

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