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The Nexus: A New Approach to Sustainability Transformations – What, Why and How

Sep 12, 2018 | Blog

By Adam Hejnowicz (CECAN, University of York), Pete Barbrook-Johnson (CECAN, University of Surrey), Kirsty Blackstock (The James Hutton Institute), and Chad Staddon (University of West England).

12th September 2018

This blog reports on recent presentations and discussions held at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference in Cardiff, at a special session on adaptive management and governance of the food-energy-water-environment nexus. The session was jointly organised by researchers from CECAN and the James Hutton Institute.

What is a Nexus Approach?

The concept of the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus first introduced at the 2011 Bonn Nexus Conference has since grown in use in policy circles. Usually conceived as referring to the interactions, connections, and trade-offs between water, energy and food systems, and their joint ‘securities’, it has found increasing alignment with sustainability practice and policy.

Like many other concepts, the nexus is a bit of a shape-shifter, with different groups putting a range of different emphases on it. You can find some of the discussions of what the nexus is at places like the ESRC Nexus Network, in notes from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, at the European Commission, and even at the United Nations.

For us, however, the transformative potential of a nexus approach towards pathways of sustainability does not reside primarily in the way it frames the interdependencies between biophysical systems and sectors, but in its capacity to promote transdisciplinarity; equity; value and organisational reform, and complementarity. Let us explain…


A nexus approach encourages us to (re)connect across disciplines in a meaningful way. Eschewing tokenism, a nexus way of thinking ensures that we consider and embed social, economic, political and institutional dimensions in our analysis of WEF systems. The nexus is about people and politics. Therefore, it calls for us to reconsider the approaches we take to outreach, engagement and participation efforts, going beyond tick-box exercises, and encouraging us towards different ‘atmospheres of participation’. Finally, it also emphasises the importance of multiple perspectives and understanding the practical reality of how scientific research can support policy making and practice.


We and our colleagues in Cardiff also felt the nexus should be understood to have strong social justice dimensions. Synergies and trade-offs across different domains, and interventions aimed at ‘managing’ those effects, will impact people in different ways, both positively and negatively. Taking a nexus approach, for us, means keeping these implications at the forefront of our analysis and decision-making, and ensuring that we focus attention equally on distributive, procedural, and recognition elements of social justice.

Value and Organisational Reform

Adopting a nexus perspective provides an opportunity to embed plural values systems and create non-hierarchical organisational models. A nexus approach leans strongly towards democratic accountability and models of good governance. In this regard, discussions also highlighted that whilst a nexus approach advocates for integration, it should do so in a way that recognises complementarities and conflicts. Hence, we see a nexus approach as promoting a form of integration that is both comfortable with dissent and can harness divergence.


There are plenty of other concepts out there which cover similar ground as the nexus, for example, co-benefits, landscape approaches, catchment-based approaches, ecosystem approaches, transdisciplinary research, co-creation and co-production, sustainable transitions, and integrated water and land management. We don’t see these as being in competition with the nexus, but rather as complements. Each emphasises different things but they all bring value, can inform one another, and help us do better research and make better decisions.

Why you can’t afford not to adopt a Nexus Approach

The main challenge in the Anthropocene is to navigate pathways to sustainability.  Forging pathways to sustainability means understanding how complex human and environmental systems interact and influence each other, alongside developing appropriate ways of ‘steering’ these systems. We believe policy practitioners and researchers will find a nexus approach valuable because it can provide a route to better coordinate policy interventions so as to resolve or mitigate the unintended consequences and knock-on effects of siloed policymaking.

A nexus approach can:

  • Provide an opportunity and a space to question how we govern our social-ecological systems, generating questions about what are considered legitimate governance arrangements;
  • Through a focus on governance, the nexus enables considerations of transdisicplinarity, equity, values and organisational reform and complementarity to be brought to the fore;
  • Provide a means to think in a systematic and open-minded way;
  • Highlight linkages between trade-offs and synergies in policy interventions, and thus promote joined-up government by illustrating policy contradictions;
  • Help reduce costs by reducing negative and unintended consequences across linked systems and encourage the promotion of best practice; and
  • Align policymakers with what is happening at international and global policy scales.

Why not have a look at the nexus approach in action: working with businesses, exploring trade-offs between the Sustainable Development Goals, designing nexus objectives, and exploring nexus approaches at the UK government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

How might I apply a Nexus Approach?

If you’re thinking that taking a nexus approach in your work might be useful, the first step is of course to do a little light reading, find examples in your area, and speak to others who have used it. Beyond that, we would recommend the following:

  • Be clear about why you think the interactions between the food, energy, water, and environmental systems are relevant in your area.
  • Speak to your equivalents, or other experts, across other arms of the nexus, and build shared understandings of the goals and objectives of your work. Identify where key trade-offs occur, see this recent report on the SDGs for inspiration.
  • Don’t just pay lip-service to participation and outreach efforts, do it with real commitment, aim to be innovative in your efforts here, avoid dull workshops held in stuffy office meeting rooms whenever you can.
  • Be realistic about actors’ capacity to make change: try to assess how much power or control others have.
  • Capitalise on peoples’ instinctive nexus thinking: stakeholders and local experts often already think in a nexus way because of their detailed knowledge of a local system.
  • Navigate institutional cultures and structures that may impede nexus approaches by acting in more cooperative and collaborative ways and understanding different ‘cultural’ positions.
  • Value equally quantitative and qualitative data and evidence.
  • Be smart on indicators: don’t focus too much on indicators at the expense of losing sight of the understanding the system. Design indicators that are dynamic and that help capture and reflect the various connections, interdependencies and dimensions of the WEF nexus.

The Nexus Network and this POST note are good places to start reading more on the nexus. For a detailed analysis of the nexus approach, see this excellent paper produced by researchers in the Nexus Network.

Finally, there are of course critiques of the nexus concept, which variously argue that the nexus is problematic because it lacks a precise definition; is overly technocratic and ignores important social, economic and political dimensions; can push a neoliberal agenda directed from the Global North to the Global South, and pushes for a form of policy coherence that may be inappropriate in circumstances in which suitable governance procedures and infrastructure is lacking.

However, whilst we acknowledge these criticisms we argue that the position we have adopted and the view of a nexus approach we have put forward here provides a means of navigating these issues, and crucially, demonstrates the truly transformative capacity of the nexus for sustainability.

Thanks to all of those that presented and took part in the discussions in Cardiff that have formed the basis of this blog.

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