Sustainability Through Design Science: Re-Imagining Option Spaces Beyond Eco-Efficiency


Laura Alex Frye-Levine, Center for Sustainable Cities, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, USA. E-mail:


Ecological resource efficiency, implemented as a market mechanism within a neoclassical economy, shoulders the burden of providing a worldview for sustainable development: continuous GDP growth to provide for the expansion of human needs, and dematerialization through resource efficiency to accommodate ecological limits.

However, resource efficiency does not equal resource conservation. Empirical evidence confirms that the emergent rebound effects of efficiency gains overpower their first-order intention, creating counterintuitive feedback effects at larger scales. Backfire, the collective product of individual scale resource efficiencies, is little recognized as a key driver of resource depletion. However, the acknowledgement of rebound effects as emergent properties of eco-efficiency systems also opens an opportunity space.

This paper introduces the paradigm of design science for sustainable development, a qualitatively different epistemology in which the emergent effects of throughput growth and social rebound are collectively negotiated within a sustainable area budget. Multiple-alternative scenario building within this budget outlines a process within which emergent properties are negotiated relative to the resilience of social and ecological systems. Design science provides the crucial outlines for the negotiation of a common future inscribed within ecological limits. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.