Wednesday, December 01, 2004

5-Level Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development

The idea behind the 5-Level Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development is to create a shared mental model of what it is we’re trying to do to “be sustainable.” On the one hand it seems obvious, but without really stating what exactly it is to be successful things can get confusing – it’s easy to get lost in the details, and while a lot of great solutions are going on in the ‘green movement’ it is hard to be truly strategic when dealing with these complex systems on such a huge (global) scale.

So, why a framework? We have pressing problems, and we should be getting right down to action to fight them, right? Definitely, and people are, which is great and absolutely vital. But without a framework to develop a long-term view it’s very difficult for organizations to be strategic on how we become sustainable, or what it even really means to be sustainable.

We’re back to dealing with problems on the detailed “leaves” level instead of the core “trunk and branches” 

The 5-Levels:

I. System Level – this is just identifying the scope of the system we’re dealing with. If a self-sufficient farmer was using this, the system would be the farm and all of its components. In terms of sustainability the system is the entire biosphere. So we need an understanding of the major flows (in basic terms) that run the system:

Energy from the sun drives cycles that sustain life (photosynthesis uses the energy to organize matter into a useful form). The system is “open” in regards to energy, as it exits our atmosphere. 

Matter from the crust is introduced into the biosphere naturally (through weathering and volcanoes) and through human activity (mining / drilling). The system is “closed” in regards to matter as gravity keeps things here (with the exception of some space ships and satellites). Matter flows back to the crust through sedimentation (usually takes a while).

Looking at our role in the biosphere, we have the “techno-sphere” where society does its thing to survive and entertain itself. To do this we pull “input” flows from the crust (metals, oil, etc) and from natural systems (timber, crops, fur coats, etc). We then discard “output” flows back into the biosphere through emissions, solid waste, etc.

The Funnel – a core concept at this level is the idea that we are in a “funnel” in that as we move through time, we have a decline in resource availability, productive ecosystems, purity, trust and equity in society on the one hand and an increase in population, resource demand, and competitiveness on the other hand:

II. Success Level – In this case the success level is “sustainability,” as defined by 4 Sustainability Principles, which state that in a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematic increases in:
     1) concentrations of substances from the Earth’s crust;
2) concentrations of substances produced by society;
3) degradation by physical means;
and, in that society,
4) people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

(Quick note on why the principles are framed in the negative – “not subject to…” It may seem restrictive, but really it’s just defining the known restraints of the natural cycles. Aside from these 4 constraints, anything can be done. It’s meant to foster positive, creative solutions-based thinking. We’ve been referring to it as free creativity within constraints, and it works to promote brainstorming, knowledge sharing, and organizational learning when the framework is applied in real-world situations.)

III. Strategic Level – these are some strategic guidelines for organizations to follow in implementing the framework and taking actions towards sustainability. One example would be precaution which we touched on with the car driving towards the abyss example (if you know there's an abyss on the road ahead, but you don't know exactly where, use precaution and turn the car around).

But the most important one to focus at this point is Backcasting from Principles: it consists of establishing a vision of the organization in the future when the 4 principles are not being violated and then ‘backcasting’ to the present to see what specific actions should be taken first to start strategically working towards that vision. Two basic points:
1) It is preferable to forecasting because when you look forward from the present, you are bound by the current realities and trends, and even if those are flawed, you will bring them into the future.
2) Backcasting from principles as opposed to from scenarios allows for more flexibility and adaptation as unforeseen situations arise on the journey towards the vision of success. Imagine it’s like chess – the vision of success is checkmate, or satisfying 3 basic principles that ensure victory (your piece can attack the king, the king can’t avoid the attack, and no other piece can kill your attacking piece) – on the way there the board is constantly changing and you’re constantly reevaluating and adjusting your strategy in this dynamic situation. Backcasting from scenarios would be more akin to doing a puzzle, where you have a picture of a set future, and you set out to make it real. It can be done, but it’s harder to get a group / organization to agree on what the picture and details should look like exactly, and you’re left with fewer options and less flexibility as new knowledge is discovered and/or problems arise.

The concept of backcasting is integral for “ABCD Analysis” – a tool for helping organizations implement the framework. 

IV. Action Level – these are the concrete actions that are taken on the path to sustainability. Depending on the nature of the organization, they could include things like phasing out fossil fuel use by switching some capacity to renewable energy, or substituting metals that are naturally abundant in the biosphere and therefore benign for ones that are scarce and potentially harmful. 

V. Tools Level – here we find a variety of tools that help organizations manage their path towards sustainability. Certain tools are effective in different situations, but a lot of them work well together and create synergies when utilized within the context of the framework. They include things like Environmental Management Systems, ISO 14001, Life Cycle Assessment, Factor 10, Natural Capitalism, Ecological Footprinting, Zero Emission, etc. A lot of these tools have great organizations behind them and are helping organizations with various environmental and / or sustainability initiatives.
The first tool we’ll be looking at is ABCD Methodology, which is a method of walking organizations through the process of applying the framework for their specific case.

Stay going. 

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