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Breaking down barriers to sustainability transition

Imagine an approach that can tackle the complex and interconnected challenges we face today— commonly known as “wicked problems”. Consider sectors like water, energy, and food, traditionally, these sectors have been treated in isolation, leading to fragmented decision-making and unintended consequences. Take, for example, the issue of water scarcity, which directly impacts agricultural productivity, subsequently affecting our food security. On the other end of the spectrum, consider energy production, which often demands significant water consumption, creating potential conflicts between allocating water for energy generation and meeting agricultural needs.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the nexus approach as a framework for addressing those wicked problems that defy traditional, siloed solutions. The nexus approach embraces a systems-thinking perspective, recognizing that the actions we take within one sector can have ripple effects across other sectors. It is a call to move beyond the confines of siloed thinking.

Despite its promising potential, the nexus approach has not been widely implemented in policy or practice. This realization propelled our investigation into the challenges surrounding the application of integrative approaches, such as the nexus approach, with a special focus on how international organizations embrace them. As a collaborative effort between researchers from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), the European Forest Institute (EFI) Forest Policy Research Network (FPRN), University College London, and the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT), we were interested in exploring what the “street-level bureaucracy” concept means for the nexus approach. We are thrilled to announce that our recent paper, titled: ‘The mirage of integration: Taking a street-level perspective on the nexus approach‘ encapsulates some of our findings and insights from this work.

Unveiling the potential of integrative approaches

What does it take to implement ambitious and integrative policy frameworks, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the European Green Deal? These instruments address environmental challenges by establishing numerous goals and assessing the connections, complementarities, and trade-offs between different sectors. But when it comes to policy implementation, is it primarily about individual engagement or institutional frameworks? Does it ultimately depend on the people responsible for implementing these frameworks or approaches? Referring to this later point, this is essentially what the concept of “street-level bureaucracy” argues.

More specifically, the “street-level bureaucracy” concept, developed by Lipsky in the 1960s, emphasizes the role of frontline administrators in shaping policy implementation and highlights the significance of people’s behaviour (e.g., individual values and norms) rather than relying solely on institutional frameworks. Our arguments were that street-level bureaucrats likely play a critical role in implementing sustainability policies, and they likely face significant barriers, including conflicting mandates, limited resources, and inadequate knowledge and training.

Through our research on the application of the nexus concept, we explored the benefits, challenges, and potential of this approach in addressing complex and interconnected problems by an international organization. Our paper offers valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities of adopting an integrated and systemic approach to natural resource management. By focusing on the role of street-level bureaucrats in implementing sustainability policies, we provide a fresh perspective on individual agency and emphasize the need for a nuanced and pluralistic approach to agency in transitions research. For example, we emphasize the importance of taking a participatory and iterative approach to policy implementation, involving continuous engagement and dialogue with stakeholders and a willingness to learn and adapt based on feedback. Through practical strategies for addressing the challenges of implementing the nexus approach, our paper also makes a valuable contribution to the literature on sustainability transitions.

The mirage of integration: Taking a street-level perspective on the nexus approach’ has been published in Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 46, March 2023, 100700. The lead author, Filip Aggestam, at the Institute of Forest, Environmental and Natural Resource Policy (INFER) at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) and the European Forest Institute (EFI) Forest Policy Research Network (FPRN), together with his co-authors Michal Miedzinski, at the University College London, and Raimond Bleischwitz, at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) worked on this paper.


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