Systems-based Approach to Sustainability

What is Sustainability?

Everyone has a different answer. Typical responses refer to climate, waste, water and renewable energy. Other answers position sustainability in a more existential context related to the survival of humanity.

Most people agree that sustainability is the critical challenge of the 21st century and yet there is little agreement on what sustainability exactly is. This is a problem!

Without shared meaning, we make poor decisions. As a result many well-intended sustainability efforts actually make things worse – such as poorly constructed recycling efforts that result in waste being dumped in developing countries and ill-thought-through efficiency measures where the gains are overwhelmed by mindless expansion.

The evidence of failure on sustainability is all around us, where despite decades of chest-thumping and strategizing about sustainability, just about every sustainability metric is heading in the wrong direction.

The most recognised definition of sustainability originates from the 1987 Bruntland Report to the United Nations.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

The definition is problematic because it actually doesn’t define sustainability. Rather it defines what sustainability should result in. It’s a bit like trying to explain the rules of hurling by giving the match score. Also, we don’t know what the needs of future generations will be. They are not here and we can’t ask them.

Another challenge is that sustainability is not a physical property of an object or an organisation that can be defined in terms of size or revenue. Sustainability depends on context. For example, are EVs more sustainable than fossil fuel vehicles? Well in many instances they might be? But what if the vehicle is a hospital ambulance? Could the range limitation and recharging requirements of the electric engine increase healthcare costs and imperil patients?

What this means is that sustainability can only be understood in the context of systems. Sustainability is the property of the system within which objects and people interact and relate.

So if sustainability describes the state of a system – what is a system?

A system is a web of individuals, relationships, physical objects and all of their interconnections. Organisations are an example. Some things are clearly visible such as objects and there are other parts that you can’t see – but you know they are there and you can feel their powerful impact – like relationships. For this reason – systems are often thought of as behaving like living organisms,

In doing system-based work it is down to us to define what is in the system and what is outside the system. In effect, they are an artificial construct. As an example, we can see how the impact of system boundaries in how greenhouse gas emissions are counted differently across Scopes 1, 2 and 3. Each scope represents a different system boundary.

We usually set the boundary of the system at one step higher than the challenge we are looking to address. For example, when looking at organizational sustainability we will typically consider all the external stakeholders in direct contact with the organisation and the region where it is situated.

Systems don’t just have a spatial boundary. They also have boundaries in terms of time and context. A relevant timeframe might be 30 years in the context of a Net Zero strategy. A sustainable system accepts that things have a life-cycle; some things must end so that new things can emerge.

Complex Systems

Systems can be considered simple or complex. In simple systems, all the objects and relationships can be fully mapped and indexed. With this insight its behaviour is predictable. Systems are complex when there are so many objects and relationships that it is impossible to model them all.

Therefore, the behaviour of complex systems cannot be predicted. However, they can be studied, patterns discerned and hypotheses can be developed about how to influence them. Working with complex systems is one of learning the way forward. With simple systems, you can plan the way forward.

The pitfall for organisations when crafting their sustainability strategy is to assume their organizational system is simple and predictable when in reality it is complex and requires a much more agile and adaptive strategic approach.

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