All-Round Solutions

A tool to assess sustainability developed by WSU researchers is making a global difference.

Managing enormous populations calls for solutions to immense problems, such as how to create fast, convenient transport with minimal air pollution and how to inspire social cohesion. A research team at Western Sydney University has developed practical tools to address such problems and facilitate the creation of sustainable cities and communities.

Professor Paul James, Dr Liam Magee and their colleagues have created a method for assessing and managing social and environmental sustainability that goes beyond early tools such as the ‘profit, people and planet’ approach of the triple-bottom line.

“Triple-bottom line set economics as the core consideration. Despite the attempt to get beyond this focus, it allowed companies to go back to the economic bottom line,” says James.

“Our method is more comprehensive because it brings cultural and political issues to the fore.”

They call the method Circles of Sustainability and it integrates cultural, political, ecological and economic data and presents them as circle diagrams. It highlights strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, it points to where there are tensions. 

Need to know

  • WSU research has developed a tool to assess the sustainability of cities
  • It has been adopted around the world

“We provoke cities to confront the tensions and contradictions of their own policies,” says James.

Michael Müller, mayor of Berlin, says, “Circles of Sustainability is an extraordinary guide to our way forward. By bringing together the clear insight of political analysts with the citizen-oriented perspective of experienced practitioners, [it] changes the paradigm of urban studies. It…will be used by cities such as Berlin as we seek a better world together.” The team used the tool to understand why a new rapid bus transit system created to address spatial apartheid in Johannesburg, South Africa, was under-utilised. The analysis showed that the city hadn’t considered the culture of the local community.

“People were reluctant to leave behind a gang-based minivan service, and were distrustful of the new service, even though it cost the same.

“The initial system was also developed around credit cards, but the people of Soweto did not trust banks,” says James.

“The big shift came when they renamed the bus system ‘Corridors of Freedom’ and started employing the minivan drivers as bus drivers. The drivers were already known to the community and were happy to have more secure employment,” says Professor James.

Circles of Sustainability is now being used all over the world, and has been adopted by Metropolis, a global network of 130 cities.

Meet the Academic | Professor Paul James

Paul James is a social theorist with three overlapping areas of research focus. The first is globalisation and its impact upon social relations, from national community to local community. The second is social change and the human condition, including the impact of modernisation on customary and traditional ways of being. The third is sustainability with an emphasis on sustainable urbanisation. These areas of focus are integrated through an approach to social theory called 'engaged theory', encompassing questions of social formation, social integration and ontological tension.

Across the last decade, Paul James been engaged in bringing out a sixteen-volume series called 'Central Currents in Globalization'. This collection maps the contours of a bourgeoning field that now crosses the boundaries of all the older disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. The set comprises approximately 7,000 pages and 3.5 million words. 

He has also been working on the issue of community resilience and urban sustainability. This research has gone in two directions. One massive research project in Papua New Guinea resulted in changes to the way in which that country approaches community development. The research has subsequently been written up in a book called Sustainable communities, sustainable development: other pathways for Papua New Guinea (2012). The second direction has been in the area of urban sustainability. This currently involves ongoing work with Metropolis and other organisations to develop an alternative model of urban development called 'Circles of Sustainability'. It is elaborated in a book called Urban sustainability in theory and practice: circles of sustainability (2015).

Paul James is Research Director of Global Reconciliation, an international organisation based in Australia that has been doing work in zones of conflict around the world including Sri Lanka and the Middle East, bringing people together in ongoing dialogue. He is on the Council of the Institute of Postcolonial Studies, Honorary Professor at King's College London, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts (London). He is an editor of Arena Journal, as well as an editor/board-member of nine other international journals, including Globalizations and Global Governance. He has delivered invited addresses in over thirty countries and is author or editor of 31 books including, most importantly,Globalism, nationalism, tribalism (Sage, 2006). 

He has been an advisor to a number of agencies and governments including the Helsinki Process, the Canadian Prime Minister's G20 Forum, and the Commission on Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor. His work for the Papua New Guinea Minister for Community Development became the basis for their Integrated Community Development Policy. He was Director of the United Nations Global Compact, Cities Programme (2007–2014).

Meet the Academic | Dr Liam Magee

Dr Liam Magee is a Senior Research Fellow at ICS. Liam's principal research interests focus on the application of social methods and information technology to the areas of urban development and sustainability. His doctoral dissertation, completed in 2010, examined the importance of cultural assumptions in the emerging world of interconnected knowledge systems, including emerging systems such as the Semantic Web. His current work extends this research into the areas of urban development and sustainability. He is presently investigating how online games, simulations and other information technologies can facilitate greater clarity and visibility of sustainability objectives among urban communities and stakeholder groups. This research includes study of the underlying technological requirements for such tools (data structures, communication and visualisation), as well as the social research methods for evaluating those tools in practice.


This research was partially funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council.

© Liam Magee and Paul James © Jordan © Weyne Yew
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.