This paper challenges the concept and practice of “sustainability” and argues for more ambition by reframing the agenda in terms of “thriving” and net positive impacts. This includes going: (1) from breakdown to breakthrough: how the science of thriving helps us understand global systems change; (2) from solutions to synergies: how innovation happens on the journey to thriving; (3) from inspiration to integration: how organisations can practically implement thriving; and (4) from lagging to leading: what leadership looks like in a world transitioning to thriving.
Sustainability: An idea whose time is past?
As a GRLI board member and representative of Antwerp Management School on the GRLI’s Deans and Director’s Cohort, I am part of a community of learning partners that is constantly questioning, and questing, and where we challenge each other to move from creating awareness of sustainability to taking bold actions with transformational impacts.
We have great responsibility as educators of current and future leaders; therefore, we must constantly question whether our most cherished assumptions about globally responsible leadership is still fit for purpose. And if we conclude that our past efforts have not been effective, we must be brave enough to change our framing of the problems and the solutions.
We can start with sustainability itself – or more precisely, sustainable development – which entered our global lexicon 35 years ago. Could it be time to grant sustainability a graceful retirement? There are three main reasons to do this: 1) it is misunderstood; 2) it is misapplied; and 3) it is uninspiring. Let me comment briefly on each in turn.
First, sustainability is misunderstood, in large part because it was abbreviated from its original framing as “sustainable development” (the classic 1987 Brundtland definition). As a result, what was primarily an agenda for improving human development quickly turned into a green badge for anything environmentally related.
Second, sustainability is misapplied, which is the main reason that John Elkington, who coined the “triple bottom line” of sustainability (people, planet, profit) in 1994, withdrew it as a failed management concept in 2019. Elkington meant for sustainability to be transformational; instead, it became a management approach for incremental change.
Third, sustainability is boring. Not only is it jargon that fails to register with the general public, but it is unambitious – as a goal to survive, to endure, to continue – and therefore also uninspiring. When you ask somewhat what their dream is, you never hear them say: to sustain my life. So why would we have that dream for the world?
Thriving: An idea whose time is come
By contrast, if you ask someone if they would like to thrive – in their careers, in their relationships, in their personal journey of development – most likely, the answer will be, “yes, absolutely”. Unlike sustainability, thriving is widely understood. It is also being applied through exciting innovations, and it is something that can inspire us.
In my new book, Thriving: The Breakthough Movement to Regenerate Nature, Society and the Economy (2022, Fast Company Press), I describe it as a movement from breakdown to breakthrough, with six great transitions across nature, society, and the economy (Figure 1). In nature, we see the transition from degradation to restoration of ecosystems, and from depletion to renewal of resources, with business supporting the eco-services (nature-positive) and circular (zero-waste) economies.
In society, we are moving from disparity to responsibility in communities, and from disease to revitalisation of health, with business promoting diversity and inclusion in an access economy, and tackling non-communicable diseases (mental illness, diabetes, cancers, strokes, heart disease) through the well-being economy.
And in the economic sphere, we are shifting from disconnection to rewiring through technology, and from disruption to resilience of institutions and infrastructure, with business closing the digital divide, using technology to address social and environmental problems, and reskilling workers at risk of having their jobs automated, while helping to prevent, prepare for, and recover from crises like climate events, pandemics, or wars.
Breakthrough: The science of thriving
As we navigate these extraordinary transitions in the world, science gives us clues about how to be more effective in catalysing and shaping the changes. This is based on our growing understanding of how complex systems in nature, society, and the economy develop, adapt, and thrive. This body of knowledge is known broadly as the theory of living systems, and I’ve distilled it into the six keys to thriving, which I will group into three for brevity’s sake (Figure 2).
First, living systems need complex coherence to thrive. In practice, this means building and maintaining as many healthy networks of relationships as possible (which is what scientists mean when they talk about complexity), as well as having a clearly-defined larger purpose, which gives direction and inspires unity of action. This can also mean supporting movements or partnering with other organisations that are aligned with your societal mission.
Second, living systems need creative convergence to thrive. This combines the power of innovation with the “perfect storm” of converging trends, such as we see right now with the alignment on climate action between policy reforms, market opportunities, financial deployment, technological solutions that are scaling, and social movements that are building the pressure for more urgent and ambitious change.
Third, living systems need cyclical continuity to thrive. This is about ensuring that we not only survive in the short term, but also thrive in the long term by constantly regenerating our resources, organisations, and societies. To do this, we must think and act in cycles, moving from a linear to a circular economy, and making strategic decisions that create value for multiple stakeholders and for future generations.
Synergies: The secret sauce of innovation
One of the lessons we learn from nature is that creativity – including the ability to adapt and evolve – comes from diversity. Today, we have many solutions to our societal and environmental problems, but we must not fall into the trap of thinking in silos. Instead, we must think systemically, seeing the connections between problems and solutions across multiple parts of our global system.
For example, if we use drones to rapidly replant deforested areas, we create benefits across nature, society and the economy. Reforestation restores ecosystems, and absorbs carbon, thus reducing the risk of climate disruption. Using drones makes reforestation cheaper and more accessible for poorer communities, while also providing a renewable resource that improves local air quality.
Another good example is the Barefoot Solar project, which works with illiterate grandmothers from developing nations and trains them within six months to be solar engineers. They go back to their rural villages where they install and maintain a full solar lighting system. Besides increasing renewable energy, which is a climate solution, they are breaking down social prejudices around age, gender and rural living.
These are synergistic solutions, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. They challenge us to always look at the benefits of a solution (and the unintended costs) for other parts of our global social, economic and environmental system. And then to intentionally design our products or services, our processes or policies, our organisations or communities, to achieve thriving synergies.
Integration: How to implement thriving
Thriving is a pragmatic agenda. In fact, it only happens when we implement the principles I have described. Most often, this means making thriving operational in organisations. There are six aspects where organisations need to apply thriving, in a process that I call integrated value management (Figure 3). Each step provides clarity and direction for the next step, although they can also be addressed simultaneously.
First, organisations must rethink patterns by applying systems thinking. This means understanding the complex socio-cultural, ecological and economic systems that they are part of, and how trends are shaping the rules of their market game. Second, they need to realign with partners through stakeholder engagement. This makes societal expectations clear and brings collaborative action to tackling entangled problems.
Third, organisations must renew their principles through a values dialogue among their employees. This ensures that professed values match up with how people are treated and incentivised in the workplace. Fourth, they need to redefine their purpose through strategic goals. Most already have strategic goals but have not distilled three or four that are bold, societal goals that define where they are going to make a big impact.
Fifth, organisations must reassess performance by defining new metrics and using the latest reporting frameworks, like the Future Fit Business Benchmark or the Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics. Sixth and last, they need to redesign their portfolios of products and services through innovation. Each product or service should be classified on a thriving spectrum from detractors to enablers and accelerators.
Leading: The transformational imperative
Good leadership helps complex systems to change and there are various characteristics that make organisational leaders more effective in turning societal breakdowns into breakthroughs (Figure 4). Remember, however, that leaders are not only at the top of organisations. In fact, in nature, self-organisation is common (termite colonies are a good example). This means that leadership is, in effect, distributed and shared.
Leaders for thriving are systemic, since they see the interconnections between different parts of the global system, especially the links between social, environmental, economic, and ethical impacts. They are also inclusive, knowing that diversity and fairness makes organisations better, and teams achieve more than individuals.
Leaders for thriving are strategic, committing to create value for the organisation, society, nature, and the economy in the long term, rather than trading these off for short-term financial gain. They are also caring, showing that they are not afraid to bring passion and emotion into the workplace and to connect personally with people and nature.
Leaders for thriving are innovative, recognising that the challenges we face are enormous, difficult and urgent; hence, they will not be solved by incremental thinking or yesterday’s solutions. Finally, they are courageous, always prepared to stand up for what is right and to set ambitious goals for improving the world, no matter the risks.
Hope: The final frontier
For thriving to succeed, we need to embrace hope as an action verb. We do not need to have blind faith in a thriving future; rather, we must learn to recognise the signs of its emergence all around us. Fighting against injustice and ecocide and working for thriving is the basis of active hope – for we are the system we are trying to change. And as we transform, so the world transforms.
See more articles from Vol.16 Issue 02 – GRLI.