V. Sustainability: Knowledge & Environment

This research thrust evolved as three interdependent activities designed to facilitate the management of transitions toward sustainable development.

  • First, mapping sustainability as a knowledge domain,
  • Second, development of global knowledge system and extending the knowledge value chain, and
  • Third, specific focus on environmental dilemmas emerging from human activities.

While the activities differ in nature, scale, and scope, they are highly interconnected. It is our hope that, jointly, they will contribute to our common quest for a sustainable future.

Mapping sustainability is about generating the ontology of 'sustainable development' according to some select principles. When completed, the ontology consists of key features of 'sustainable development' that are integrated into a coherent knowledge system. Our approach to the mapping process consists of:

Organizing the content of types of human activities and framing these in terms of different domains of human activity—from the most general level of aggregation to the most specific granularity for individual components or component manifestations thereof.
Defining the dimensions of human activity in terms of problems generated by human activities, as well as solutions to date.
Capturing the interconnections (or intersections) within and between domains and dimensions.
Creating an integrated system that pulls all of the individual pieces together.
Incorporating coordinated international actions, which includes domains and dimensions and provides an overarching context for collaboration but does not conform to the structural logic above. The reason is that individual forms and types of international agreements may cover a range of topics (core concepts) or a range of elements across the nested system of relationships.

The full ontology is a multidimensional representation of sustainable development—specifying domains, dimensions, and intersections of human activities.

The results, in Mapping sustainability: Knowledge e-networking and the value chain, co-edited volume (Choucri, 2007), connect different parts and provides ways of transcending critical barriers to the effective use of knowledge and networking. Of special relevance is the development of new approaches to the provision and transmission of knowledge—from local sources to global networks and from global sources to local networks. In many ways, this is a book of theory and methods, as well as policy and performance.

Mapping Sustainability is useful in several ways.

  1. One — It is a 'baseline' of internally consistent ideas about the nature of 'sustainability' as a knowledge subject (i.e. topic). The 'science' of sustainability is at an early stage of development. This 'baseline' captures current understandings of dimensions and domains at this point in time.
  2. Two — The ontology—or the overall multidimensional system—shows the complex nature of the issues, as well as their various interconnections, and reduces undue simplification.
  3. Three — Conceived and written in English, the terms used throughout Mapping Sustainability are commonly understood, even when the subject itself can be interpreted differently by different communities of knowledge, policy, or practice.
  4. Four — Mapping Sustainability is rendered in another language. However, in Arabic and Chinese, for example, the 'sustainable development' glossary is not as fully developed as in English. We can formulate the correspondence for the terms in question. The result is as reliable a multilingual rendering of ideas as currently possible.
  5. Five — The ontology generated by Mapping Sustainability (and the companion glossary of explanations and definitions) is also an indexing system for the knowledge base and helps to categorize and generate a knowledge system consisting of information about the Internet-materials characterized.
  6. Six — The knowledge base is an integral part of GSSD. It is reviewed and updated on a regular basis.
  7. Seven — Mapping Sustainability provides key guidelines for the architecture and operations of the foundations of GSSD.
  8. Eight — The ontology provides 'topic outlines' for educational and research purposes, an indexing system, sustainability, and a mechanism to help track evolving knowledge over time.
  9. Nine — The knowledge content of GSSD—organized according to the mapping ontology—is the framework for connecting knowledge of users, providers, and brokers of content on sustainable development.
  10. Ten — Mapping Sustainability is the knowledge platform for the provision of local content generated around the world and made available to the international community. This knowledge represents "voices" other than those of the advanced industrial countries.


Choucri, N., Mistree, D., Haghseta, F., Mezher, T., Baker, W. R., & Ortiz, C. I. (Eds.). (2007). Mapping sustainability: Knowledge e-networking and the value chain. Springer.

Much of the research on sustainability evolved into foundations for The Global system for sustainable development (GSSD), a web-based knowledge networking system designed to facilitate the provision and use of knowledge in transitions to sustainability.

GSSD seeks to provide more focused content of high quality, supported by intellectual coherence and reliable knowledge and tracking methods. Diverse users have different purposes, capabilities, missions, and priorities, with goals at different levels of development.

GSSD is an evolving knowledge networking system dedicated to sustainable development. Designed to help identify and extend innovative approaches toward sustainability—including enabling technologies, policies, and strategies—it tracks diverse aspects of challenges, problems, and emergent solutions to date.  Specifically, it is a computer-assisted, organized system linking discrete actors with:  A knowledge producing capacity that is, combined via common organizing principles, and based on individual autonomy; such that  the value of networked knowledge is enhanced, and the stock of knowledge is expanded further
What is Global System for Sustainable Development (GSSD)?
Source: gssd.mit.edu.

Features and Functions

GSSD hosts seven broad features and functions useful for different users:

Strategy for integrating & organizing knowledge related to the domains of sustainable development, in multi-dimensional, multi-sector, and international terms,

  1. A conceptually robust knowledge base,
  2. A detailed display of content details for individual topics,
  3. Method to represent knowledge with interrelated concepts organized in a nested, internally consistent form,
  4. Search, submission, and retrieval functions which operate over the system's quality-controlled knowledge base,
  5. Multi-lingual knowledge provision search and submission,
  6. Reports and Working Papers from GSSD and related MIT-based research.

The intellectual basis and implementation of GSSD—all outlined in Mapping Sustainability—is anchored in an ontology for the system as a whole and its functionalities.

Knowledge System—Ontology Framework

The GSSD ontology is anchored in the "master variables" identified in the theory of Lateral Pressure. These are bounded by two issue areas (or domains):

  1. Governance & Institutions
  2. Conflict and War
Knowledge System — Ontology Framework
Knowledge system—ontology framework
Source: Based on gssd.mit.edu

The initiative worked toward an integrated approach to interactions between environmental and social systems, and between ecological and decision systems, in order to untangle the connections between human actions and environmental consequences and to improve prospects for concerted global responses to environmental problems.

Results available as fifteen essays—compiled in an edited book titled Global accord: Environmental challenges and international responses (Choucri, 1993)—cover theoretical and empirical dimensions, actors and processes, law and economics, and international institutions and systems. Effective management of global environmental problems may become the most significant institutional challenge for the twenty-first century. Each essay highlights the importance of recognizing differences in perspectives and priorities among nations and of articulating norms for management of the global accords.

This is the first book of the MIT Press Series is based on this initial investigation.

Global Environmental Accord—MIT Press Series Editor

As an editor for the series Global environmental accord: Strategies for sustainability and institutional innovation (1993– ), I adopted an integrated perspective on national, international, cross-border, and cross-jurisdictional problems, priorities, and purposes to examine the sources and the consequences of social transactions as these relate to environmental conditions and concerns. Click here for the list of titles in this series.