Sustainability in an uncertain world

Published on 13 February 2019

The ESRC STEPS Centre has launched a new theme on Uncertainty, with a series of activities planned for 2019.

Untitled by Alistair Hamilton, CC-BY 2.0

The STEPS Centre, hosted at the Institute of Development Studies and SPRU, University of Sussex, is hosting an international symposium, The Politics of Uncertainty, in July, as well as a series of public seminars with invited speakers.

The Centre has also launched a set of projects linked to the theme, exploring how so-called ‘marginal’ communities deal with uncertainty, and how art and creativity can respond to an uncertain world.

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About uncertainty

Uncertainty is a hot topic in discussions on sustainability and development – whether in financial systems, climate, migration, disease or infrastructure.

Decision-makers often treat all kinds of uncertainties as if they are risks, with probabilities that can be calculated. But sustainability involves other kinds of uncertainties – whether they’re due to incomplete evidence, complexity, divergent values, scientific disagreement, gaps in knowledge or the simple possibility of surprise.

Uncertainties can make it hard to plan ahead. But recognising them can help to reveal new questions and choices. Through a series of events and learning activities linked to research, during 2019 the STEPS Centre is exploring responses, methods and action to open up new pathways to sustainability in an uncertain world.

Overview: Uncertainty (STEPS Centre website)

Blog posts

Language in the politics of uncertaintyAndy Stirling

Embracing uncertainty: what are the implications for sustainability and development? – Ian Scoones

Art, uncertainty and system change – Becky Ayre

Views from the coast: uncertainty beyond climate change – Nathan Oxley

Project highlights:

PASTRES: Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience

PASTRES (Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins) is a research project which aims to learn from the ways that pastoralists respond to uncertainty, applying such ‘lessons from the margins’ to global challenges.

PASTRES will foster a conversation with other policy domains where uncertainty is pervasive, including financial and commodity systems, critical infrastructure management, disease outbreak response, migration policy, climate change and conflict and security governance.

Read more


The TAPESTRY project examines how transformation may arise ‘from below’ in marginal environments with high levels of uncertainty, and how this could be scaled up and out. TAPESTRY focuses on three ‘patches of transformation’ in India and Bangladesh – vulnerable coastal areas of Mumbai, the Sundarbans and Kutch – where hybrid alliances and innovative practices are reimagining sustainable development and inspiring societal transformation.

Read more

System Change Hive

Held in Brighton starting from February 2019, the System Change Hive is a series of discussions that brings together art and research on the theme of systemic change. Informed by ideas from STEPS and climate communications experts, and with mentoring from experienced artists, a group of emerging artists are creating a set of artworks that respond to concerns about environmental collapse under capitalism, and open up the possibilities of radically different futures.

Visit the website

Further resources

For more resources, video and publications linked to the theme, see the STEPS Centre’s overview page on Uncertainty.

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