Real-World Decisions Can Demand Greater Creativity Than Can Be Dreamt Up in Academic Imaginations Alone

Stephen Carpenter is fond of saying "ecology isn't rocket science - it's far more difficult". Sustainable development is more difficult still.
Real-World Decisions Can Demand Greater Creativity Than Can Be Dreamt Up in Academic Imaginations Alone

At the UN Ocean Conference in 2017, after I presented a just-published paper outlining how to assess the relationships between policy objectives, focusing on the Sustainable Development Goals, I was approached by a delegate member from Aruba.

“Would you be willing to implement your methodology in Aruba?” he asked. I was excited to develop this work further and apply it in a specific context. However, working with the ideas I had developed previously, outside of a group purely made up of academics, quickly made me confront challenges that academics take for granted or simply assume away to focus on methods development to promote academic interests. Yet, it was these exact challenges that led to the most novel advancements of our latest work.

The academic literature addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across all dimensions was largely focused on identifying links between goals and identifying broad-scale “transformations” needed for SDG achievement, regardless of how feasible or disruptive they were. In other words, they followed academic interests determined within the community of academics without much concern paid to the people who presumably would be listening to their advice, who may or may not share the primary interests of academics, and almost always focus more on implementation and application than academics do.

Working with Aruban policymakers and policy advisors promoted novel research directions and interdisciplinary methods I would not have conducted if I only worked with other academics.

Besides the challenge of linking results to application, there is a challenge of differing vested interests an concerns between academics and policymakers. While the original paper on assessing relationships between policy objectives had focused on SDG 14 (the Sustainable Development Goal focused on sustainable Oceans), it explicitly focused on determining different kinds of relationships, differentiating between relationships where achievement of some goals benefit another (co-benefits) in all contexts and relationships where co-benefits can be achieved so long as particular contextual conditions are met. We had stressed that this distinction was important since if those contextual conditions were not met, a potential co-benefit might manifest as a tradeoff. Implementing our methodology in the initial study, we found that achieving SDG 14 could lead to co-benefits across all other SDGs, though over half of the co-benefits depended on contextual conditions. However, many environmental non-profit organizations and academic ocean researchers heavily cited our paper, citing the oceans' potential to promote sustainable development across all dimensions, but neglecting the importance of contextual conditions. This makes sense when these groups are often focused on bringing attention to the importance of the oceans.

Working with Aruba's policymakers quickly led to different research focus and more attention to research gaps routinely neglected by academic researchers. For one, Aruba depends overwhelmingly on marine tourism, and Aruban policymakers were, therefore, less interested in conducting another study exploring how oceans benefit society broadly. Instead, they were interested in understanding how oceans benefit from social and economic choices. Additionally, they wanted to understand how these high-level insights could translate into actual decisions they could make. Finally, they placed more weight on identified co-benefits that were considered more guaranteed and wary of those dependent on context. To these people who would face the consequences of bad policy advice, tradeoffs disguised as possible co-benefits were not automatically accepted as co-benefits. Plus, they told me that even if you have many co-benefits, a misidentified tradeoff can have disproportionate effects.

An analysis of the relationships between the SDG goals to SDG 14 (the oceans goal). Despite few potential tradeoffs, Aruban policymakers were wary of them. They were also less convinced that context-dependent co-benefits should be treated as co-benefits similarly to those co-benefits judged to be context-independent, especially where one goal is required for ocean targets to be achieved (prerequisite).

Addressing the implementation issue, we were spurred to think about research frameworks that explicitly connect research findings to governance and decision-making planning. In this way, we could link our method for determining relationships between policy goals with a research and policy framework developed in policy science called transition management. Through this approach, we could relate policies that support ocean sustainability into plans for institutional cooperation within Aruba, focusing on linking institutions tasked with addressing policy goals that can benefit oceans with ocean-focused institutions. To the surprise of some, we found that the Aruban institution most responsible for sustainable oceans, considering the necessary collaboration between institutions that would promote sustainable oceans, is an institution dedicated to social and economic programs and not one focused on the environment specifically. To our understanding, this is the first study to link analyses of SDG relationships to nationally relevant governance structures, and it took insights and interests from our non-academic partners to lead us there.

In determining SDG relationships important for Aruba, we also began to explore indirect effects of SDG attainment across other SDGs, focusing on co-benefits that are not dependent on context. Here, again in a first, we were able to use Input-Output models, first used in economics to model the interdependencies among different sectors of the economy, to model the direct and indirect effects of specific SDG attainment across all other SDGs. We also began to explore the kinds of context dependencies that some co-benefits require to be realized. Our Aruban partners rightly pointed out that in cases where the context is not met, then co-benefits are likely to not be realized, and may actually manifest as trade-offs instead. We found that policy contexts, largely where policy directs monetary benefits from marine tourism to other policy goals (such as education), were the most important regulators of context-specific co-benefits.

Overall, we were able to explore strategic options for Aruba to pursue sustainable marine development. We were also able to highlight the importance of social and economic factors in promoting sustainability, where much current academic attention is placed on exploring the presumed environmental foundation of sustainability. Importantly, the most creative and novel interdisciplinary methods and insights came from working with our non-academic partners in this process rather than simply working with academic groups.

Academics can often be more homogenous than many people realize, which translates into how they approach problems. Most academics are from the Global North, of a narrow socio-economic and ethnic background, and a high percentage are second (or more) generation academics. Academics focused on the oceans are often drawn in because of a passion for the oceans, and work to showcase its importance. While this is an admirable aim, it also brings a specific lens to sustainability problems which can and should be complemented by other perspectives. Importantly, because of their background and interest, many are not familiar with real-world decisions that governments need to make to pursue sustainable ocean development, and even if they do “policy-relevant” work, their work may not be policy-informative. Real-world decisions can demand greater creativity and broader perspective than academics can bring alone, and would benefit from academics working explicitly with policy makers and advisors.


Singh, G.G., Oduber, M., Cisneros-Montemayor, A.M., Ridderstaat, J. et al. Aiding ocean development planning with SDG relationships in Small Island Developing States. Nat Sustain (2021).

Singh, G. G., Cisneros-Montemayor, A.M., Swartz, W., et al. A rapid assessment of co-benefits and trade-offs among Sustainable Development Goals. Marine Policy (2018).

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