Sustainable development is often explained in terms of three intersecting domains that must be co-optimized when designing a product or process: society, environment, and economy. The concepts of environmental and economic sustainability have been addressed in much greater depth than has social sustainability, and as a result, they are better defined and more consistently applied. Despite a shared interest in social sustainability, academics, professionals and policymakers often hold varying perspectives about what social sustainability is, and how it can be implemented and assessed. Broadly speaking, the social aspect of sustainability examines the social relationships, interactions, and institutions that affect, and are affected by, sustainable development. The purpose of this project is to promote and facilitate discussion about the meanings of social sustainability in its relation to general ideas about sustainability and in its application and measurement in a variety of contexts. The project will use a variety of in-person and virtual conferences and virtual communication technologies to engage broad participation from the policy, practice, and academic sectors to characterize social sustainability, determine research needs, and increase collaboration. Students from partner institutions will participate in and synthesize conference discussions, present at conferences, and develop networks through student exchanges and internship experiences. Project outcomes include developing research agendas, manuscripts, thematic journal issues, recommendations, and conference workshops for defining, understanding, and measuring social sustainability. Assessment of the achievements of the RCN will include the study of our network interactions (in order to understand the degree to which linguistic factors affect network dialogue and progress), and determination of how in-person and online interactions affect member satisfaction and communication frequency.

At the most fundamental level, conceptual clarity regarding social sustainability is crucial because it helps us understand how human activity affects, and is affected by, environmental and economic sustainability. For example, issues of gender equity, social justice, and religious freedom are intimately bound to economic development and stability. This project provides a means to connect topics such as these to provide focus on a few, key, early-stage concepts and cases, and bring much-needed clarity to the concepts and concerns related to social sustainability. Bringing together diverse perspectives from a variety of academic disciplines, agencies, and other groups who are actively working on issues related to social sustainability will allow us to understand the different elements of what might be called social sustainability, and to start a conversation about how social sustainability can be studied, integrated into planning and policies, and assessed.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Thomas Baerwald
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University of North Carolina at Charlotte
United States
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