The challenges of understanding the governance of dynamic social, technological and environmental systems, and their implications for sustainability and social justice, are addressed by this paper. Defined broadly as political and institutional relationships and processes, governance is central to the interactions between people, technology and environment; to how policy problems are defined and addressed, to how contested values and priorities are dealt with, and to who gains or loses. The paper suggests some key elements of a ‘pathways’ approach to understand the current governance of social-technological-ecological dynamics, and to inform new governance arrangements that might better meet sustainability goals and poorer people’s priorities.
Drawing on a selective review of a vast literature on political systems, the paper identifies a number of key challenges and responses. These include recognising interactions and networks between multiple institutions, public, private and in civil society, across local and global scales; acknowledging poor people’s agency amidst power relations, and addressing the politics of knowledge, risk and uncertainty. Moreover dealing with highly dynamic systems that different people ‘frame’ in different ways requires further moves to embrace the more recent insights of adaptive, deliberative and reflexive governance. Only by combining elements across these approaches in particular political-historical contexts, we suggest, can we make progress in understanding how governance might shape pathways to sustainability.