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Working In Complex Environments: Guest Lecture On Lessons From Sustainable Development Consulting For The Australian National University

Tom Sloan

On Tuesday 8 of May, Sustineo’s Executive Manager – Research, Tom Sloan, gave a guest lecture to the Environmental Sociology undergraduate course at the Australian National University.

Drawing on projects Sustineo has completed in recent years with the CSIRO, UNDP and ACIAR in Asia and the Pacific, Tom outlined a number of important requirements at both conceptual and personal levels for successfully approaching and implementing projects that cut across environmental issues in international contexts.

At a conceptual level, Tom outlined three factors that have emerged as being critically important.

First, is understanding that environmental problems are embedded in complex social and economic systems, and that working within these systems is a pre-requisite.

Second, is the acknowledgement that working with local institutions, governance and decision-making processes and integrating with local priorities is essential in shaping sustainable project outcomes.

Third, is that working with complexity is a reality in addressing any sustainability challenges but there is little point in suffering from analysis paralysis.

On a more personal level, Tom reflected that there were two core lessons he had learned from working on sustainable development related projects internationally.

First, understanding the context and culture within which you work is essential and working with local partners is the most effective and rewarding way of embedding contextual relevance and sensitivity in your work.

Second, being humble and accepting that you do not need to know everything is critically important. Listening and learning from the depth of knowledge and experience of those around you will achieve far greater results for both you and the work with which you are engaged.

On a lighter note, the lecture also provided a time for Tom to undertake some personal reflection on his journey from starting a degree in human geography in 2008 through to his current role with Sustineo… and some of the perils, joys, pitfalls and lessons learned that have characterised that journey!

According to feedback to the course convener, the lecture was well received by students and a highlight of the course, alerting attendees to the challenges of working in the field of development and environmental consulting.

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