The concept of sustainability is not difficult to understand. We live in a world where every action is somehow supported by the natural world, whether that be to provide food for energy or resources to manipulate.
The fact that people need to live within the ecological system boundaries of the Earth (i.e. within the ‘Blue Economy’) is immutable yet somehow this fact keeps getting lost when people imagine the future. Business, whether that be in the board room or the design studio tends to focus on materiality rather than natural systems, erroneously thinking that improving resource productivity (e.g. ‘lean thinking’ or ‘energy efficiency’) is all it will take, and that ‘doing less bad’ will save the day, but it won’t.
Failing to take a whole systems view of every action undertaken, will lead to people being trapped inside a process-based view of the world, blind to potential wealth of systems optimisation. If we fail to take a blue economy-based, regenerative, positive development approach that focusses on returning natural systems and human communities to full productivity as an integral part of every decision we take, we are at best just treading water. Population growth and the massive growth of the middle classes in the developing world will swamp the capacity of natural systems to cope.
In their recent book Resource Revolution: How to Capture the Biggest Business Opportunity in a Century, McKinsey Company’s Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers identified a range of strategies that they say will deliver a tenfold increase in resource productivity ensuring the sustainability of the planet even with 2.5 billion people in developing countries moving out of poverty by 2025 and the total population growing another 2.6 billion by 2050.
According to Heck and Rogers these strategies are:
- Substitution (replacing of costly, clunky, or scarce materials with less scarce, cheaper, and higher-performing ones)
- Optimization (embedding software in resource-intensive industries to improve, dramatically, how companies produce and use scarce resources)
- Virtualization (moving processes out of the physical world)
- Circularity (finding value in products after their initial use)
- Waste elimination (achieved by means including the redesign of products and services)
The underlying focus and mindset of these strategies is ‘doing less bad.’ They all fall into the ‘techno’ fix category and assume that ‘man’s ingenuity and technology will save the day.’ This is exactly the thinking that economists used to rubbish the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” back in 1972, which has been shown by recent history to have been so accurate.
There is no question about our need to increase resource productivity to cope with increasing urbanisation and standards of living. To raise any argument about how this might be achieved without also focussing intelligence and resources on how to actively do good by regenerating global ecosystems and strengthening local communities will ensure that in trying to be more resource efficient, we must make decisions that further negatively affect nature.
Beyond resource efficiency, what strategies do we need to add to the list to ensure that projects not only have improved resource outcomes but better natural systems outcomes as well?
Here are some thoughts based on Blue Economy principles:
- ‘Whole systems thinking’ and integrative design processes that focus on resource minimisation and focus on regenerative, positive design natural systems and human community outcomes
- Biomimetic engineering (using engineered natural systems and biomimicry based technologies to achieve high performance, low cost technological outcomes that can also restore nature)
- ‘Whole systems metrics’ (using life cycle analysis (LCA) to minimise or eliminate impact burden shifting).
Only by using a ‘whole systems’ approach that ‘begins with the end in mind’ – with the active objective of regenerating ecosystems and restoring community – to business and project development will we have any real chance of sustainably coping with the massive growth in global impacts being generated by population and economic growth and increasing standards of living.