Basic concepts and principles of sustainomics

Note: The author welcomes comments, which may be sent to MIND.


World decision makers are facing traditional development issues (such as economic stagnation, persistent poverty, hunger, and illness), as well as new challenges (like environmental damage and globalization). One key approach that has emerged is the concept of sustainable development or ‘development which lasts’. Following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the adoption of the United Nations’ Agenda 21, this idea has become well accepted worldwide [1]. Subsequently, international events like the 2000 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, have helped to maintain the impetus.

The Brundtland Commission’s original definition of sustainable development was succinctly paraphrased as “meeting the needs of the present generation without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs” [2]. As a contribution to better define, analyze, and implement sustainable development, Munasinghe [3] proposed the term “sustainomics” to describe “a transdisciplinary, integrative, comprehensive, balanced, heuristic and practical framework for making development more sustainable.” Many other definitions have been proposed, but it is not the purpose of this book to review them.

Sustainomics broadly describes sustainable development as “a process for improving the range of opportunities that will enable individual human beings and communities to achieve their aspirations and full potential over a sustained period of time, while maintaining the resilience of economic, social and environmental systems.” This definition recognizes that development of economic, social and ecological systems depends on expanding the set of opportunities for their improvement. Meanwhile, the sustainability of systems will be enhanced by improving their resilience and adaptive capacity. Based on this approach, a more focused and practical approach towards making development more sustainable also emerged, which sought “continuing improvements in the present quality of life at a lower intensity of resource use, thereby leaving behind for future generations an undiminished stock of productive assets (i.e., manufactured, natural and social capital) that will enhance opportunities for improving their quality of life” [4]. This evolution of ideas takes us beyond traditional “development” (which relates to broadly improving the well-being of individuals and communities), and growth (which refers to increases in economic output or value added in goods and services, conventionally measured by gross national product, etc.)

The heuristic element in sustainomics underlines the need for continuous adaptation and rethinking of the framework based on new research, empirical findings and current best practice, because reality is more complex than our incomplete models. The current state of knowledge is inadequate to provide a comprehensive definition of sustainomics. Sustainomics must provide a dynamically evolving learning framework, to address rapidly changing sustainable development issues.

The basic ideas about sustainomics sketched out below have benefited greatly from the post-Brundtland discussions and work of other researchers. They also provide a fresh start. The intent is to stimulate discussion and further research that will help to further flesh out the basic framework. Many authors (cited throughout the text) have already contributed significantly to this effort, with work that is related to the sustainomics approach and the sustainable development triangle (see below).

The core framework rests on several basic principles and methods:

  1. making development more sustainable (MDMS);
  2. sustainable development triangle and balanced treatment;
  3. transcending conventional boundaries for better integration; and
  4. full cycle application of practical analytical tools and methods, from data gathering to policy implementation and operational feedback.

Making development more sustainable (MDMS)

Since the precise definition of sustainable development remains an elusive goal, a less ambitious strategy might offer greater promise. Thus, the step-by-step approach of “making development more sustainable” (MDMS) becomes the prime objective, while sustainable development is defined as a process rather than an end point. Such an incremental (or gradient-based) method is more practical and permits us to address urgent priorities without delay, while avoiding lengthy philosophical debates about the precise definition of sustainable development. However, this approach does not eliminate the need to have a practical metric to measure progress towards sustainable development.

MDMS suggests a pragmatic, systematic process. We start with the many unsustainable activities that are easiest to recognize and eliminate – for example, reducing land degradation through improved farming practices, or conserving energy by switching off unnecessary lights. A section below argues that an appropriate measurement framework should cover the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. Especially critical is the choice of appropriate indicators to suit the application. Conventional economic evaluation attempts to measure all such indicators (economic, social and environmental) in monetary units and then use economic cost-benefit analysis (CBA) criteria to test for viability. However, problems arise because CBA is based on the concept of optimality which differs from sustainability, and such economic valuation is often difficult to do. In that case, our MDMS metric will need to rely on indicators that have different units of measurement (monetary, biophysical, social, etc.) and corresponding sustainability criteria. Multi-criteria analysis (MCA) is more suitable to assess indicators that cannot be directly compared. If an activity results in an improvement of all sustainability indicators, it clearly satisfies the MDMS requirement – also called a “win-win” outcome. For other actions, some sustainability indicators may improve while others worsen. In such cases, judgment is required to trade-off one indicator against another, and practical ways of addressing such ambiguities are discussed in the case studies. This process needs to continuously adapt and improve itself, as we increase our scientific knowledge about sustainable development.

Instead of criticizing the shortcomings of other disciplines, sustainomics takes a positive and practical viewpoint by borrowing appropriate methods and tools. Reliance on an eclectic set of concepts and methods does not imply lack of rigor, but rather, underlines the value of diversity in cross-disciplinary thinking. However, concepts drawn from different disciplines may not be mutually consistent, and thus require more efforts to ensure trans-disciplinary integration.

Although MDMS is incremental, it does not imply any limitation in scope (e.g., restricted time horizon or geographic area). Thus, the effects of specific near term actions on long run sustainable development prospects need to be analyzed, within the sustainomics framework. While pursuing the MDMS approach to deal with current problems, we also follow a parallel track by seeking to better define the ultimate goal of sustainable development. In particular, it is important to avoid sudden catastrophic (‘cliff edge’) outcomes, in case our MDMS analysis is too restricted and “myopic”. Similarly, incremental analysis may fail to detect serious consequences of large scale changes. Finally, MDMS encourages us to keep future options open and seek robust strategies which could meet multiple contingencies, and thereby increase resilience and durability.

Sustainable development triangle and balanced treatment

caption Figure 1: Sustainable development triangle – key elements and interconnections (corners, sides, center). (Source: adapted from Munasinghe 1992a, 1994a)

Current thinking on the concept has evolved to encompass three major points of view: economic, social and environmental, as represented by the sustainable development triangle in Figure 1 [5]. Each viewpoint corresponds to a domain (and system) that has its own distinct driving forces and objectives. The economy is geared mainly towards improving human welfare, primarily through increases in the consumption of goods and services. The environmental domain focuses on protection of the integrity and resilience of ecological systems. The social domain emphasizes the enrichment of human relationships and achievement of individual and group aspirations.

During the preparations for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, there was a lively debate on how the “three pillars” (environment, economy and society) might be integrated within development policy. The sustainable development triangle was presented at Rio to emphasize that the sides and interior of the triangle (representing interaction among the three pillars) are as important as the three vertices – e.g., placing an issue like poverty or climate change in the center reminds us that it should be analyzed in all three dimensions [6]. There was considerable resistance to the idea, mainly due to disciplinary rivalries. However, by the time of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, the approach had become widely accepted [7]. Several versions of the triangle are in operational use today [8]. For some specialized applications, a fourth vertex such as “institutions” or “technology” has been proposed, converting the triangle into a pyramid. While these additions are useful in specific cases, the original triangle retains its advantages of simplicity and versatility.

Key features of the three vertices of the sustainable development triangle (economic, social, and environmental), are elaborated in another chapter. The linkages represented by the sides of the triangle are explained in "Economic, social, and environmental elements of development" (mainly social-economic, dealing with poverty and equity), Chapter 3 (economic-environmental) and Chapter 4, (environmental-social). Methods of integrating all three dimensions are introduced in "Tools and methods for integrated analysis and assessment of sustainable development". The case studies in Chapters 5 to 16 explore the three dimensions and their interactions – not always comprehensively or symmetrically, because the relative emphasis varies according to the circumstances and policy-relevance. These applications chapters are structured on a spatial scale, from global to local.

The substantive transdisciplinary framework underlying sustainomics should lead to the balanced and consistent treatment of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development (as well as other relevant disciplines and paradigms). Balance is also needed in the relative emphasis placed on traditional development versus sustainability. For example, Southern priorities include continuing development, consumption and growth, poverty alleviation, and equity, whereas much of the mainstream literature on sustainable development which originates in the North tends to focus on pollution, the unsustainability of growth, and population increase.

Transcending conventional boundaries for better integration

Sustainable development encompasses all human activities, including complex interactions among socioeconomic, ecological and physical systems. Accordingly, sustainomics encourages practitioners to synthesize novel solutions by transcending conventional boundaries imposed by discipline, space, time, stakeholder viewpoint, and operational focus.


The neologism “sustainomics” underlines the fact that the emphasis is explicitly on sustainable development, and emphasizes a neutral approach free of any disciplinary bias or hegemony. Several authors suggest that sustainomics represents a new discipline, paradigm or science [9]. We stress that sustainomics is a practical, transdisciplinary framework (or “transdiscipline”), that seeks to establish an overarching, ‘holistic’ design for analysis and policy guidance, while the constituent components (principles, methods and tools drawn from many other disciplines) provide the rigorous ‘reductionist’ building blocks and foundation. It complements rather than replaces other approaches to addressing sustainable development issues.

The multiplicity and complexity of issues involved cannot be covered fully by a single discipline. Hitherto, multidisciplinary teams involving specialists from different disciplines, have been applied to sustainable development issues. Interdisciplinary work goes a step further by seeking to break down the barriers among various disciplines. However, what is now required is a truly transdisciplinary framework, which would bridge and weave the scientific knowledge from diverse disciplines into new concepts and methods, while facilitating a full information exchange among all stakeholders that could address the many facets of sustainable development – from concept to policy and actual practice. Thus, sustainomics would provide a more comprehensive framework and eclectic knowledge base to make development more sustainable.

The sustainomics approach seeks to integrate knowledge from both the sustainability and development domains (Chapter 1). Thus, it draws on information from other recent initiatives like ‘sustainability transition’ and ‘sustainability science' [10]. Such a synthesis needs to make use of core disciplines like ecology, economics, and sociology, as well as anthropology, botany, chemistry, demography, ethics, geography, law, philosophy, physics, psychology, zoology, etc. Technological skills such as engineering, biotechnology, and information technology also play a key role.

Spatial and Temporal Scales

The scope of analysis needs to extend geographically from the global to the local scale, cover time spans extending to centuries (for example, in the case of climate change), and deal with problems of uncertainty, irreversibility, and non-linearity. Multi-scale analysis, and multi-stakeholder involvement are especially important with the increasing globalization of economic, social and environmental issues. The case studies in Chapters 5 to 16 are ordered on a spatial scale (global to local).

Stakeholder Viewpoints and Operational Focus

Sustainomics encourages multi-stakeholder participation through inclusion, empowerment and consultation in analysis and decision-making (Chapter 6). Such processes not only help to build the consensus, but also promote ownership of outcomes and facilitate implementation of agreed policies. Three basic groups – government, civil society, and the business community – need to collaborate to make development more sustainable at the local, national and global levels. This multi-stakeholder, multi-level breakdown may be further tailored to suit location-specific circumstances (Chapter 6). The principle of subsidiarity is especially important for good governance, whereby decentralized decisions are taken and implemented at the lowest practical and effective level.

The analytical process is operationally focused. The full cycle includes purposeful data gathering and observations, concepts and ideas, issues, models and analysis, results, remedies, policies and plans, implementation, monitoring, review and feedback.

Full cycle application of practical analytical tools

Sustainomics includes a set of analytical tools which facilitate practical solutions to real world problems over the full operational cycle, from data gathering to policy implementation. These elements are described in following chapters, including optimality and durability, issues-policy mapping, policy tunneling, Action Impact Matrix (AIM), sustainable development assessment (SDA), environmental valuation, extended cost-benefit analysis (CBA), multi-criteria analysis (MCA), etc. Practical applications and case studies are provided in Chapters 5 to 16.


  1. ^WCED (World Commission on Environment and Development) 1987. Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
    United Nations 1993. Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounting. Series F, No. 61, United Nations, New York, NY, USA.
  2. ^WCED (World Commission on Environment and Development) 1987. Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
  3. ^Munasinghe, M. 1992a. Environmental Economics and Sustainable Development, Paper presented at the UN Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, Environment Paper No.3, World Bank, Wash. DC, USA.
    Munasinghe, M. 1994.
  4. ^Munasinghe, M. 1992a. Environmental Economics and Sustainable Development, Paper presented at the UN Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, Environment Paper No.3, World Bank, Wash. DC, USA.
  5. ^Munasinghe, M. 1992a. Environmental Economics and Sustainable Development, Paper presented at the UN Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, Environment Paper No.3, World Bank, Wash. DC, USA.
  6. ^Munasinghe, M. 1992a. Environmental Economics and Sustainable Development, Paper presented at the UN Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, Environment Paper No.3, World Bank, Wash. DC, USA.
  7. ^GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) 2002. Regaining Sri Lanka: Vision and Strategy for Accelerated Development, Govt. Press, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
  8. ^World Bank 1996.
    Hinterberger, F. and Luks, F. 2001. ‘Dematerialization, Competitiveness and Employment in a Globalized Economy’, in M. Munasinghe, O. Sunkel and C. de Miguel (eds), op. cit.
    Odeh, B. 2005. ‘Enhancement of policies and tools for sustainable development’, Paper presented at the Doha Development Forum (DDF-2005), Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Ottawa, Canada.
  9. ^Vanderstraetten, M. 2001. Development of Scientific Tools in Support of Sustainable Development Decision Making, Conference Proceedings, Brussels, November, European Commission, Brussels, Belgium.
    Markandya, A., P. Harou, L.G. Bellu and V. Cistoulli. 2002. Environmental Economics for Sustainable Growth, Edward Elgar Publ., Cheltenham, UK, for the World Bank, Washington DC, USA.
  10. ^Parris, T.M. and Kates R.W. 2001. Characterizing a Sustainability Transition: The International Consensus, Research and Assessment Systems for Sustainability Discussion Paper, Environment and Natural Resources Program, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.
    Tellus Institute 2001. Halfway to the Future: Reflections on the Global Condition, Tellus Institute, Boston. MA, USA.

Further Reading

  • Munasinghe, M. 1992a. Environmental Economics and Sustainable Development, Paper presented at the UN Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, Environment Paper No.3, World Bank, Wash. DC, USA.
  • Munasinghe, M. 1994a. ‘Sustainomics: a transdisciplinary framework for sustainable development’, Keynote Paper, Proc. 50th Anniversary Sessions of the Sri Lanka Assoc. for the Adv. of Science (SLAAS), Colombo, Sri Lanka.

This is a chapter from Making Development More Sustainable: Sustainomics Framework and Applications (e-book).
Previous: Prospects and status of millennium development goals  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Sustainable development triangle



Munasinghe, M., & Development, M. (2007). Basic concepts and principles of sustainomics. Retrieved from


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