Integrating the Three Dimensions of Sustainable Development: A framework and tools

Integration of the economic, social and environmental dimensions is key to achieving sustainable development. There is, in general, widespread acceptance of why the integration of these three dimensions is necessary; but there are also many questions as to “how” this integration is to be achieved. This publication was produced to assist policymakers in addressing the question of how to achieve integration across the policy cycle and to assess levels of integration.

Foundational concepts, such as systems thinking, are introduced to underline the interconnectedness between the three dimensions, the need for holistic thinking and the potential for “leverage points” for policy intervention.

The concept of multiple capitals is also introduced to highlight that integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development requires balanced investment in and across different forms of capital. Limiting the focus on only one or a few forms of capital, by assuming and accepting that there will be trade-offs, often leads to a decline and erosion in other forms of capital. Integration for sustainable development requires synergies between investments in the different forms of capital.

Two tools for integration are featured. Qualitative scenario building is a method and process that can support stakeholder learning, dialogue and social innovation by visualizing uncertain but possible futures. Scenarios provide narratives to describe what life in a particular region in the world might look like in 2030 if all the SDGs were to be achieved. This method is suitable for integrating the different dimensions of sustainable development because scenario storylines can explore interactions between them. It can also be used to describe pathways of action towards desired futures and ways of achieving such desired futures.

three dimensions of sd