In line with SIAA’s institutional mission, the 2022 edition of the conference proposes a reflection on the role of anthropology in public space through the exploration of sustainability, one of the themes that most engages us in the effort and need to build and leave future generations a liveable planet with more equal and fairer societies.

In recent years, anthropology has worked both to deconstruct the uses, and sometimes abuses, of the concept of sustainability and to rethink it. In particular, the discipline has proposed overcoming conceptions of sustainability that are too anchored to paradigms of “modernity”, “development”, “progress” and “resilience”; conceptions that nevertheless still underlie the visions and policies of many social and institutional actors. In fact, anthropology is striving to propose new visions and ideas that would allow us to respond to the challenges of the contemporary world by going towards sustainability, understood as a set of processes that facilitate conditions for change by building and supporting diversity on an ontological, biological, cultural, economic and political level. In other words, a sustainability that is no longer seen merely as an effort to preserve what existed in the past, but as a set of proposals that can prepare humanity to face an unpredictable future by supporting diversity in all its forms.

In order to be able to start a serious reflection on the model of society that we want to build for the future, it is necessary to try to learn from models that are unlike the industrial-capitalist model of Western modernity, which has been responsible for much of the damage to our planet. Among the possible alternative models that the numerous ethnographic experiences of anthropology, which encompass different theories and practices from around the world, point to are those of indigenous peoples, of landless movements, of activists within marginalised groups, as well as the increasingly frequent attempts to rediscover urban and rural spaces in our Western societies. The challenge is to try to learn from human experiences that feature intentional processes of diversity maintenance and generation, which in turn produce sustainability.

Although there is already considerable convergence between natural sciences and human sciences in acknowledging that diversity of all types and at all levels should be maintained and supported in order to reduce the ravages of the Anthropocene era and the social and economic inequalities that characterise it, the challenge of producing new convergence between the scientific world and the institutional-political world, which is tasked with designing and implementing sustainable development objectives, still remains. What happens, in fact, is that despite recognising the necessity to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising those of future generations, and despite the intention to achieve this through the pursuit of improvement objectives in terms of economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection, as in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, local perspectives are all too often ignored and bypassed in the name of universalist conceptions that actually lead to the failure of many development policies. These policies are insisted upon, not only to the detriment of politically marginalised populations, but also to the detriment of a full and long-term sustainability, both in economic and social terms, of the global system in its more developed poles.

Experiences of applied anthropology have made us aware of the gaps between rhetoric and implementation, of the difficulties caused by institutional inertia and political conditioning, of the negative effects of planning and implementing agendas that do not derive from the activation of bottom-up processes. One of the main objectives of this conference is therefore to discuss the possibilities of giving the concepts of sustainability and development a new definition, a new meaning and a new structure, starting from the promotion of an increasingly strong ethnographic engagement in local contexts that would include collaboration with populations affected by processes of change. These interventions can aim to address the improvement of living conditions through a strengthened dialogue with other disciplines (not only with natural and technological sciences, but also with economic, legal and political science), as well as through a collaborative effort that could start with co-planning together with various political-institutional agencies at local, national and international levels. In this sense, applied anthropology must rethink its practices even more thoroughly in a perspective of intervention based on the advancement of concrete proposals and on cooperation with these other bodies of knowledge.