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  1. The evolution of the “Sustainable Development” concept

Already in the 70s it was perceived that the classical concept of development, that considered only economic growth, within short would cause a total collapse of all natural systems. A new development model was needed, which would take into account both economic growth and equitable distribution of resources. Economic growth in itself is not sufficient, the development is only real if it increases the quality of life in a long-lasting way.

In its broader meaning, the concept of sustainability means the capability of the development process to sustain over time the reproduction of the world capital, consisting in economic, human / social and natural capital.

In particular, the “builded” (generated / produced) capital is represented by everything produced by individuals, the human /social capital consist in all individuals part of the society while the ecological environment and natural resources constitute the natural capital.

The most often quoted definition of sustainable development is the one expressed during the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland. This definition stated that “mankind have the ability to ensure a sustainable development, meaning that the present necessities are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The central concept of this definition is the need for intergenerational equity: future generations have the same rights as the present ones. Furthermore, although expressed less explicitly, it is also possible to deduce a concept of Intergenerational equity. Intergenerational equity means that persons of the same generation belonging to different political, economical, social and geographical contexts, have the same rights. The success of this concept, mainly of ecological source, has inspired the international debate and led to numerous in-depth studies and further elaborations, so that over time it has come to comprise all dimensions that contribute to development.

From this point of view, development is not to be perceived as a permanent state or a static image, but rather as a continuing process that implies the integration of the three essential and inseparable aspects of development: the Environmental, Economic and Social dimension.


Fig n. 1 -


  • Environmental Sustainability-Environmental Sustainability can be defined as the capacity to preserve over time the three basic functions of the environment: the resource supply function, the waste receiver function and that of direct usefulness. In other words, within a territory (area / region), environmental sustainability means the capacity to increase and bring up the value of the environment and its peculiarities, while assuring the protection and the renewal of natural resources and the environmental patrimony. 
  • Economic Sustainability – Economic Sustainability can be defined as the capacity of an economic system to generate a constant and improving growth of its economical indicators. In particular, the capacity to generate incomes and employment in order to sustain the populations. Within a territorial system, economic sustainability means the capability, through the most efficient mix of resources, to produce and maintain the highest added value, in order enhance the specificity of territorial products and services.
  • Social Sustainability –Social Sustainability can be defined as the ability to guarantee welfare (security, health, education), equitably distributed among social classes and gender. Within a territory, Social Sustainability means the capacity of the different social actors (stakeholders), to interact efficiently, to aim towards the same goals, encouraged by the close interaction of the Institutions, at all levels.


To summarize, the concept of sustainable development is based on a political and ethical principle. This principle implies that the social and economical dynamics of modern economies are compatible both with the improvement of life conditions and the ability of natural resources to reproduce (regenerate) in an indefinite manner.


It seems therefore essential to guarantee an economical development truly compatible with social equity and ecosystems, capable to act in environmental equilibrium and to respect the so called “Three E’s balance rule”: Environment, Equity, Economy.


Conclusively, the pursuit of Sustainable Development depends on the governance’s capacity to guarantee a complete interaction among economy, society and environment.


Fig. no. 2. The interconnections among the three dimensions of sustainable development and the “Three E’s balance rule”


It seems, nevertheless, essential to highlight the many close interconnections that these dimensions share. They should therefore not to be perceived as independent, but rather as a systemic frame of elements that equally contribute to reach the same goal. Consequently, every plan or activity should take into account these interrelations. A plan or program favouring just one or two of these dimensions, will not contribute to sustainable development.


Based on these considerations, sustainable development can be better represented through an image of three concentric circles. This illustration highlights how the economy exists within a society, and how both economy and society exist within the environment.


Fig. 3 – Scheme of the three concentric circles




In this way, it is possible to configure a Pyramid of Sustainability. The environmental dimension, constituting the base of the pyramid, by supplying natural resources and ecosystem service, has a fundamental supporting role to the economic and social dimensions.





It is actually because of these three dimensions (environment, social and economic), that sustainable development needs an essential change in individual behaviours, as well as a great commitment in decisions taken by political governments and administrations on all levels (international, national, regional).


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