Analysis and perspectives: Democracy, governance, science-policy and societal organisation: an ecosystemic approach to public policies, research and teaching programmes

Open submission by André Francisco Pilon, University of São Paulo, Brazil / International Academy of Science, Health and Ecology,


In a time where advocacy, communication, public policies, research and teaching programmes can not reach the roots of many of the problems that are difficult to settle or solve in the world, an analytical, ecosystemic, epistemological and methodological framework, encompassing the combination and co-design of four dimensions of being in the world (intimate, interactive, social and biophysical), is posited to identify and reconceptualise roles and drives, towards a transformative change of the current paradigms of development, growth, power, wealth, work and freedom embedded at institutional, cultural, economic and political levels, encompassing environmental problems, the quality of life and the state of the world.

Reviewing the latest global challenges, evidence shows that the dominant paradigms of knowledge, development, wealth, power, growth, work and freedom, embedded into political, economic, social, cultural and educational institutions, favour the dominant political-technological-economical status quo, associated with a perverse system of production and consumption, energy squander, deforestation, mining expansion, hazardous wastes, pesticides, pollutants, degraded and violent urban centers, global climate change, and diminishing biological diversity.

Contemporary problems stem from the prevailing power-driven ethos and anomic individualism, which diverts human concern into unlimited material consumption and production, technological invention and scientific advancement, whatever the circumstances and consequences may be. More critical than individual motives and morals, the quality of life, creation of choices, and development of capacities and motivations, depend on incentive structures, rooted in the ethos of the cultural, social, political and economical institutions.

In our asymmetrical societies, large differences in power between natural and legal persons (individuals and enterprises), affect state affairs and regulatory agencies. ‘Legal’ and ‘illegal’ strategies are mixed together; the role of law, the work of attorneys and judicial courts is hampered by the very system in which they are inserted; laws, regulations, and procedures “only serve as the thin part of rule of law; its full, thick realization are institutional capacity, judicial neutrality, informational transparency, and social space for civic engagement” (Sonnenfeld 2012).

Trying to solve isolated and localised problems, without addressing the general phenomenon, is a conceptual error. Policy-makers and researchers - disregarding the profound epistemological and ontological issues at stake - have adopted structuralist approaches, with their stress on institutions and institution building, failing to account for the design, formation and maintenance of institutions, encompassing the role of leaders, elites and coalitions and the general patterns of institutional failure or corruption (Leftwich 2010).

To face the problems that are difficult to settle or solve in the world, a science-policy interface should overcome conventional public policies, segmented academic formats, marketplace interests and mass media headlines, which accommodate people to the prevailing order, instead of preparing them to carry meaning, purpose and life-enhancing values (relational and ontological), to the individual and collective projects of life.

Government environmental regulation in developing countries is often based on unreliable environmental standards, has high corruption risks and presents a clear ecological overshoot (demands on the ecosystem exceed its capacity to regenerate). Societies demarcated by weakening social bonds, a low degree of integration and common values, are unable to decide on the ‘technological solutions’ delineated by the establishment, which usually bind nature with financial interests and ignore social, cultural and environmental impacts. Advocacy, public policies, research and teaching programmes should not surrender to fragmented, reduced, taken for granted issues (the ‘bubbles’ on the surface), but define and deal with the problems deep inside the ‘boiling pot’, where they emerge and should be tackled.

Global climate change, diminishing biological diversity, desertification and overspread pollution are coupled with a perverse system of production and consumption, energy squander, agri-business deforestation, mining, expansion of cattle-raising land, massive insecticide use, dumping of hazardous wastes and real estate interests, linked to profit-seeking and capital accumulation, which are usually sold to the public as ‘development’ projects, transforming people into mere users and consumers, rather than critical citizens committed to the common good.

Anthropogenic views (the ‘human-influenced age’), do not distinguish between the whole of human beings and the destructive actions towards nature and culture of the political-economic establishment; power asymmetries, which confer on a small and privileged part of the world’s population the decisions about the destiny of the entire mankind, should be considered. Offsetting proposals only mitigate a situation here and there, but do not address the causes of the problems continuously re-created within the system (such as corruption that involves state capture).

The focus should not be on humankind, but on the political-economic-cultural system and its components, on its institutional embeddedness, on the marketing and advertising impact of mass media on public opinion about products, services and lifestyles, and on challenging the mass-market mind-set that favours producing costly things that people do not need (luxury products, military hardware, pollution, traffic jams, useless chattels and widespread corruption and criminality), instead of what they need for a better quality of life (healthy food, adequate shelter, education, security and healthcare).

Public policies, advocacy and educational efforts need an integrated, ecosystemic approach to design, develop and assess the processes that could enable individuals, groups and society at large to deal with the problems that are difficult to settle or solve in the world, in view of the weight of asymmetric power relations, accepted lifestyles and current paradigms of development, growth, power, wealth, work and freedom on the quality of life, the environment and the state of the world. The question encompasses socio-cultural learning niches, policy-makers, the marketplace and vested interests in different areas: military, economic, political, educational and cultural (media arts and entertainment).

Instead of taking current prospects for granted and projecting them into the future (exploratory forecast), science-policy interfaces programmes should emphasise the definition of desirable goals and the exploration of new paths to reach them, in view of a set of values, norms and policies that prioritises socio-ecological objectives and human well-being, the quality of natural and built environments and the aesthetic and ethical values linked to a moral and cultural meaning of existence (through normative forecast, and backcasting).[1]

The dynamic field of events encompassing the forms of being in the world, and the transition to an ecosystem model of culture, encompasses heterogeneous attributes, behaviours and interactions of individuals and the dynamics of the systems in which they live (including institutions, populations and political, economic, cultural and ecological backgrounds): an array of factors that could add positive or negative value to the quality of the environment, the equity and the interactions between people and ecosystems, according the emphasis given to “eco-centric policies” versus “mass production policies” (Gorobets 2014).

Teaching programmes, research projects and public policies should contribute to the transition from a non-ecosystemic to an ecosystemic model of culture, taking into account, in the diagnosis and prognosis of events, the configurations formed by the ensemble of all dimensions of being in the world (intimate, interactive, social and biophysical), as they combine to elicit the events and organise for change. Nonlinear interactions and feedback loops both within and between the different dimensions should be considered). It is expected that advocacy, public policies, research and teaching programmes would:

  • define the problems in the core of the ‘boiling pot’, instead of reducing them to the ‘bubbles’ of the surface (effects, fragmented and taken for granted issues);
  • combine all dimensions of being in the world in the diagnosis and prognosis of events, assessing their deficits and assets, as donors and recipients;
  • promote the singularity (identity, proper characteristics) of and the reciprocity (mutual support) between all dimensions in view of their complementarity and dynamic equilibrium;
  • contribute towards the transition to an ecosystemic model of culture, as an essential condition for consistency, effectiveness and endurance.

All dimensions of being-in-the-world (intimate, interactive, social and biophysical) should be considered, as they combine to induce events (deficits/assets), cope with the consequences (desired/undesired) and contribute towards changes (potential outputs). The deficits and assets of dimensions should be assessed, connections strengthened and ruptures sealed, as all dimensions evolve as donors and recipients, in terms of their dynamic equilibrium, complementarity and mutual support (Pilon 2016).

The facts cannot speak for themselves: politics and persuasion are essential to science. Beyond generating new knowledge, contended values and social, cultural and economic constraints should be faced, empowering people to explore new scenarios and information relevant to achieve outcomes, and enabling groups and individuals in socio-cultural learning niches to develop new action pathways, “blurring the boundaries between academic disciplines, research, policy, and practice, and between states, markets, and society” (Leith et al 2017).

The ecosystemic approach favours the development of healthy societies, that invest in each other rather than in mega-projects with intensive use of resources. It extends to environmental problems, the quality of life and the state of the world a larger conceptual framework that includes ontological and epistemological issues, in view of the isomorphy and transfers of concepts, laws and models in various fields; it relates to how taken-for-granted worldviews, values and perceptions affect the definition and treatment of the problems by public policies, research and teaching programmes in the world.


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LEITH, P. et al., Enhancing Science Impact: Bridging Research, Policy and Practice for Sustainability, CSIRO Publishing, Clayton, 2017.
LEFTWICH, A. Beyond Institutions: Rethinking the Role of Leaders, Elites and Coalitions in the Institutional Formation of Developmental States and Strategies, Journal Forum for Development Studies, 37, 2010 - Issue 1: 93-111.
PILON, A. F., A Global Voice for Survival: An Ecosystemic Approach for the Environment and the Quality of Life, University Library of Munich, MPRA Paper No.86681, 2018:
SONNENFELD, D. A., Rule of Law. In: The Encyclopedia of Sustainability, 7, 320-323, Berkshire Publishing Editors, Great Barrington, 2012:
UN-NGLS, Civil Society Consultation for UN Development System Review Process, The United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service, 2017:


[1] Backcasting is a planning method that starts with defining a desirable future and then works backwards to identify policies and programs that will connect that specified future to the present. According to a recent United Nations document, contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals should be in line with international standards and be accessible and transparent; the results should be actively and broadly shared, and used as a platform for dialogue on changes needed to achieve greater impact and responsiveness, enabling meaningful, full and effective participation of civil society in decision-making processes. Stakeholder engagement in long-term sustainable development works best if it is organised as a continuous, structured process, rather than on an ad hoc basis or through unrelated one-off engagement exercises at different points of the policy cycle; this means having the inclusion and/or engagement of specific sectors or citizen groups directly as a key component of the partnership approach (UN-NGLS 2017).