Can Systems Thinking Actually Solve Sustainability Challenges? Part 2, The Solution

By June 25, 2012Blog

About the Author

This is the second part in a two-part series on the role of systems thinking in business solutions for sustainable development.
Read Part I

What solution?

The Rio+20 Global Compact Corporate Sustainability Forum, which ended on the 18th of June, provided us with a myriad of sessions that showcased the private sector’s best sustainability solutions. In search for the solution that I had promised after Part 1, The Diagnosis, I attended many of them and also interviewed leaders of corporations, NGOs and the UN – all in hopes of finding the solution. Ironically, I have realized that it is, in the end, this lone, linear search for a solution that keeps us from making the systemic changes that are required for global sustainability challenges.

Systems thinking challenges the inherent process in which we search for a solution. Instead of reacting to problems that are considered outside of, or exogenous of our thinking and actions, it teaches us to adopt an endogenous world view, in which we think of how our own actions actually contribute to the very problems we are facing.

Therefore, I believe that partnerships between multiple stakeholders that challenge each other can start leading the way for a truly transformative agenda for sustainability. This has important implications for both businesses and the Rio+20 stakeholder engagement process.

Businesses, let’s be honest.

“How does your sustainability strategy contribute to the problems that you are trying to fix?” is not a question typically asked to a CEO or sustainability executive.

From consumer-facing brand innovation to different valuation metrics at the investor-company interface, businesses here are inventing and implementing incredibly effective and innovative tools to tackle their sustainability challenges. However, no matter how effective their strategy is, they are still faced with the shortsighted limitations of what they believe is the best approach in identifying problems, implementing solutions and measuring success.

How can businesses recognize these limits? A well-established domain in psychology is emotional intelligence, which calls for the need of others for self-awareness. Just like our own human intelligence is dependent on those around us, other organizations are vital for businesses in the face of these global sustainability challenges.

Aside from the clear benefits of simply more minds and more hands for problem-solving, this allows for shifts in framing of the conversation and greater accountability. Different players have different needs – what is a solution for one, creates problems for others.

In a way, too many partnerships make too much sense today. Partnerships naturally arise from common needs and goals. These are of course very effective in delivering solutions. But what about those that challenge each other? I admit it’s hard to imagine productive partnerships without a clear common need and goal. But with agreement that natural resources are common, zero-sum goods, and more opportunities for multi-stakeholder dialogues, maybe non-traditional partnerships will begin to make sense too.

As an example, the 2030 Water Resources Group enables a global public-private-expert network to help governments manage the food-energy-water nexus and deliver water for economic growth. In this case, governments acting as custodian of the common goods enables long-term thinking and integrated strategies.

What about Rio+20?

The Corporate Sustainability Forum is now over and, as part of the UN process, Global Compact put together a document of recommendations for Sustainable Development Goals. This, in conjunction with the major groups approach, is one of the channels that the UN has provided for different major players to engage in the actual summit.

However, these formalized, prescribed channels for contribution are not enough. The presence of the private sector is still heavily criticized and the UN’s efforts to engage major groups have raised more negative rather positive sentiments.

Major groups’ conversations have been geared towards championing their own efforts, creating silos that lead to inaction and fragmentation. They must recognize their own myopia in what they believe are the most important issues of sustainable development and the complexity in other groups’ needs and solutions.

For the first time, we have arguably the world’s most influential, intelligent and effective people from government, civil society and businesses, all gathered in one city. This is an incredible opportunity to create new partnerships that may not have been possible elsewhere. A collection of leaders, called Friends of Rio+20 released a message on the 20th of June, calling for partnerships and collaborations to “cut across traditional boundaries of interest, expertise and nationality” (A Message from the Friends of Rio+20). Even though frustrations are building and hope in the UN process is fading, I believe the real value in this event is the opportunities for new collaboration and partnerships. The message from leaders is clear; let’s hope the dialogue doesn’t get lost.

So, can systems thinking actually solve sustainability challenges? Yes, but the journey is not straightforward. As the late Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel prize winner in economics, said: “This is not a KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach. If we keep it too simple, we lose an understanding of what’s going on out there” (Politics Daily).
Many thanks to World Economic Forum’s Dominic Waughray and Florian Reber for their insightful contribution to this post.

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