A key challenge at the beginning of the 21st century is to de-carbonize and de-materialize the global economy in time to avoid irreversible changes to the global and local environment while generating enough social and economic development opportunities to reduce poverty and inequity. Four main ‘development paradigms’ dominate the contemporary public discourse on how to best meet this challenge and achieve the social, economic and environment pillars of sustainable development: (i) a growth-focused development paradigm; (ii) a pro-poor growth development paradigm; (iii) a green-growth development paradigm; and (iv) a resilient growth development paradigm. Although these four development paradigms are usually perceived as mutually exclusive, the paper argues that they should be regarded as complementary, with each providing a necessary but in itself insufficient response to the challenge of sustainability. The new sustainable development paradigm will require a substantial transformation of the present economic development model analogous to what transition economies underwent during the industrial revolution. The paper discusses the political, managerial and social implementation challenges for this societal shift and finds that its success will depend on whether public administrations are adequately prepared to translate government policies into action at the different levels, negotiate conflicts and build trust among stakeholders. The paper concludes by summarizing some of the solutions advocated in the individual contributions to this Special Edition of PAD to strengthen the capacity of public administrations in creating a sustainable future. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.