A New Sustainability Paradigm: Not More and Faster, but Different

A New Sustainability Paradigm: Not More and Faster, but Different

August, 2021

In recent months, we have witnessed a series of extreme weather events in different parts of the world. From heavy rainfall to scorching heatwaves, these events have had severe consequences for local ecosystems and communities. Madagascar has experienced a famine, the first to be fully attributed to climate change. The IPCC now presents a forecast that within a few decades, life on Earth will start experiencing the consequences as we have already surpassed several tipping points. Additionally, Gaya Herrington (KPMG) has made similar findings in her study, comparing the old predictions of “Limits to Growth” with the developments of the past decades. As individuals and organizations, we must make choices, not only due to moral awareness. To ensure our continued existence beyond 2040, we should not only aim for “net-zero” emissions by 2040 but strive for regenerative actions before 2040. This means there is work to be done. Let us explore some concrete implications

What Lies Ahead

When comparing the past few decades with the “Limits to Growth” model, the data best aligns with two scenarios: the first scenario depicts a future in which pollution and exceeding ecological limits undermine both the economy and prosperity. The other scenario, where technology plays a more prominent role, mitigates the effects to some extent, but there will still be a significant decline in prosperity and economy. This may still sound somewhat abstract, but luckily Karl Mathiesen, Kalina Oroschakoff, Giovanna Coi, and Arnau Busquets Guàrdia from Politico have provided a clearer picture of what we can expect for Europe:

  1. Extreme heat, where Amsterdam’s climate resembles that of Lyon, and Rome becomes as hot as Riyadh 50 years ago (Saudi Arabia), leading to increased mortality. The danger is that cooling with air conditioning exacerbates the problem.
  2. Droughts will occur more frequently, leading to decreased agricultural yields, particularly around the Mediterranean. Northern regions may adapt better and see increased yields.
  3. Forest fires and floods will more frequently affect populated areas, impacting the lives of approximately 5 million Europeans annually.
  4. New diseases carried by mosquitoes and other vectors will spread in Europe, leading to the emergence of tropical diseases.
  5. Inequality between Northern and Southern regions in the European Union will widen, as heat reduces worker productivity (in addition to the differences in agricultural yields mentioned above).

In short, the context is going to change significantly. The end of growth is approaching, and with it, the economic playing field will transform. In a context of contraction, there is no room for traditional exploitation; society will demand a different role from organisations.

A New Paradigm: Not More and Faster, but Different

The initial impulse is to think, “We need to go faster, we need to do more.” This is how we apply our current growth mindset to the sustainability challenge. To prepare yourself (and your organisation) for a time of contraction and loss of prosperity, you need to fundamentally shift your thinking. Our economy (and its growth) is a construct within our society, and our society operates within an ecological context. The economic contraction cannot be separated from the loss of societal well-being and the loss of ecology/nature. Therefore, to restore prosperity and the economy (as a fair exchange of value between people), we must start from the foundation: nature/ecology. Thus, the “Mother Nature as CEO” initiative doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all.

Putting “Different” into Practice

If we see ecology as the foundation on which our society and economy function, it is important to view our business models and value chains within the societal and ecological context. A method that is highly suitable for this purpose (with a few adjustments) is “Vision in Product Design.” Designers use this method to redesign products and services with more meaning and relevance within the context. Instead of the system product – interaction – context, we can use the system economic – society – ecology to zoom out in the same way and work backward from a desired systemic change to a new business model.

The First Steps: Understanding the Current Situation

  • Start by mapping out your business model and value chain. How does it work? Where do you deliver value? How does your organisation capture that value?
  • Then, examine the role your organisation plays in society with that business model. Look at elements that contribute to well-being. The “Donut Economy” provides a good framework for identifying these elements.
  • The third step is to understand the ecology. Which ecosystems are affected by your business model and the societal impact you have? How do you influence ecosystems, and how are the systems influenced?

Then, build your future vision layer by layer:

  • How can ecosystems be restored? What natural processes must function for natural capital to grow?
  • When nature is restored, what prosperity can emerge from it? How can natural growth deliver societal value?
  • Only then, make it concrete for your organisation. What will be your role in this? What proposition will you offer? For which target audience? Which partners and stakeholders should you collaborate with? How will you ensure fair value creation?

In this process, a qualitative approach is key. It’s not about how many tons of CO2 need to be reduced or how many trees need to be planted, but about understanding the functioning of ecosystems and social structures within which you operate. As an organisation, you must seek leverage points, tipping points, and positive feedback loops. If you build your organisation based on these principles, society will want to keep you during times of contraction.

We are eager to hear your insights and experiences. If you would like to engage in this process or discuss how your organisation can approach sustainability differently, send us a message.


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