Numerous studies attempt to operationalize sustainability and seek to characterize objective, or at least standardized, metrics of sustainable conditions and/or operations. In this paper, we suggest that sustainability is better viewed as an emergent quality, defined in terms of specific institutions and situations. Observations from the water sector suggest that sustainability is not merely a matter of ―bolting on technologies‖, but a complex synthesis of institutional factors, social value perspectives, technologies and engineered artifacts, and natural or environmental conditions.
Although physio-chemical properties, ecological processes and thresholds, and technological factors must inform deliberations, we suggest that the realization of sustainability is at base a narrative enterprise. Observations articulated in this essay were derived through an ensemble research approach including a targeted literature review, a three-phase survey of 18 U.S. water utilities, and a workshop with water sector professionals, regulators, and experts in sustainability and organizational change.