Photo of Alicia HarleyAlicia Harley, PhD
Harvard Kennedy School
Office: Rubenstein 123
79 John F. Kennedy St., Mailbox 81
Cambridge, MA 02138
Personal website:
Group affiliation: Giorgio Ruffolo Post-doctoral Research Fellow 

Alicia Harley is a Senior Research Fellow in the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Alicia studies the role of institutions (rules, norms, culture, and beliefs) in shaping development pathways in the Anthropocene System and how actors can reorient institutions to meet sustainable development goals. She is particularly interested in the consequences of inequality and maldistributions of power on development pathways.  Her empirical work focuses on rural livelihoods and agriculture and food systems, specifically why the poorest communities often fail to benefit from development programs and agricultural technologies. Practically, she hopes her work will contribute to more equitable access to resources and the fruits of technological and institutional innovation for the poor.

As part of her fellowship in the sustainability science program, she is working on the role of inequality and maldistributions of power in shaping development pathways in coal country Appalachia. She is also co-authoring a review of Sustainability Science with William Clark.

Alicia received her BA in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard College in 2008 and her PhD in Public Policy from the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2018. Alicia is a recipient of a Switzer Fellowship (2015), the inaugural Ray Goldberg Fellowship in Global food Systems (2015), a Giorgio Ruffolo Pre-doctoral Research Fellowship in Sustainability Science (2014), and a Fulbright Scholarship (2010). Her faculty host at Harvard is William Clark.


Conceptualizing Power in Sustainability Science

Sustainable development is a massively redistributional agenda. Achieving sustainable development goals asks nothing less than for the world to improve the well-being of people within and across generations, particularly for the poorest and most marginalized.  We argue that this agenda cannot be accomplished without changes in configurations of power governing social environmental systems (SES), including configuration of power over who has access to capital assets and control over production and consumption systems.

Scholarship on poverty and the environment has demonstrated clear feedback loops and complex interlinkages between poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation (Ravnborg 2003; Duraiappah 1998). Research on collective action has shown that a lack of social capital can continually undermine a community’s ability to achieve a whole host of development goals (e.g., Ghai and Vivian 2004; Meinzen-Dick and Gregorio 2004). Without considering power and its effects on the discipline and practice of sustainability science, scholars and practitioners of sustainability science and sustainable development are almost sure to fail both in our scholarly pursuits and more importantly our real-world goals.

This project draws on a wide literature on power and agency in sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and economics and integrates insights from these literatures into sustainability science. Recent work has attempted to integrate power into the study of SES (e.g., Hall et al. 2015; Boonstra 2016). This project diverges from these perspectives by taking a capital assets approach to sustainable development, defined as non-declining human well-being (Matson et al. 2016).

Transitions to Sustainable Development: Conceptualizing Transitions Theory in Sustainability Science 

This project grapples with the fundamental problem driven question of sustainability science: how to shift the current pathway of human development from one of declining inclusive human well-being onto new pathway(s) that lead to increasing inclusive human well-being for current and future generations.

We are focusing on a wide variety of literatures that address the issue of societal and socio-technical transitions. We aim to distill from these literatures insights applicable to the challenge of achieving goal oriented transitions toward sustainable development. These literatures include the technological transitions, innovation systems, transitions in social ecological systems, consumption and production systems, science and technology studies, technological histories, systems modeling, scenario modeling, technological backcasting, and sustainability science. These literatures use different lenses and methods to look at societal and socio-technical transitions. Some are concerned with goal oriented transitions toward sustainable development and others study a wide variety of societal and socio-technical transitions without concern for particular endpoints. From each of these literatures we focus on the institutional mechanisms of change and the role of actors and agency undergirding transitions. Our objective is to integrate these insights into a model of sustainable development defined in terms of inclusive human-wellbeing to offer a broad theory of change for sustainability science.