Sustainability assessment as problem structuring: three typical ways

Marc Dijk*, Joop de Kraker, Annemarie van Zeijl - Rozema, Harro van Lente, Carijn Beumer, Sjouke Beemsterboer, Pieter Valkering

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Sustainability assessment (SA) is an increasingly
popular term referring to a broad range of approaches to
align decision-making with the principles of sustainability.
Nevertheless, in public and private sectors sustainability
results are still disappointing, and this paper reflects on this
problem and proposes a way forward. We argue that,
because sustainability issues are generally wicked problems
(i.e. a ‘complex of interconnected factors in a pluralistic
context’), effective assessments need to be reflexive
about the definition of the issue and about the criteria for
sustainable solutions. Based on a distinction of policy
problems, we characterize SA as a form of problem
structuring, and we distinguish three typical ways of
problem structuring, corresponding to three different ways
of integrating reflexivity in the assessment. We illustrate
these routes in three examples. We discuss the way
reflexivity is integrated in each example by discussing the
mix of methods, SA process and epistemological balance.
Rather than merely calling for more stakeholder participation,
our aim is to call for more reflexivity integrated into
the SA approach, and we conclude by proposing a process
map for reflexive sustainability assessment to support this.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)305-317
Number of pages13
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017


  • Sustainability assessment
  • Assessment approach
  • Problem structuring
  • Reflexivity
  • SEA


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