We studied what makes systems thrive. Applying the answers we found can preserve life on earth.
Petra Kuenkel is an Executive Committee Member of the International Club of Rome and the Founder of the Collective Leadership Institute. Sandra Waddock is Galligan Chair of Strategy, at Boston College Carroll School of Management. This article draws on their paper, “What Gives Life to Large System Change.”
Tackling climate change requires society to act in new and less ecologically costly ways. The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) help set the objectives. But it can be difficult to figure out how to get there. What would help us make fundamental shifts in collective behavior?
For businesses, the task ahead is far more than not doing harm. It is about companies’ contributing to societal and global systems that work for all.
A system is a set of interrelated elements that constitute a whole, like a business, community, a society, or ecosystem. To understand how to achieve transformative change, we need to understand how healthy systems operate. We can learn from natural systems such as forests, but also from well-functioning human systems. They all display certain characteristics that work together. It is time that we make use of this knowledge to strategize change.
We explored the question ‘what gives life to systems’ by analyzing many different fields, including architecture, urban planning, biology, systems thinking, resilience theory, complexity theory, and physics. We extracted six principles that make systems thrive, and compared them with common sustainability strategies.
We are convinced that it is possible to translate these systems principles into strategic actions that become truly transformative. It is time to focus on what supports life most.
Six Principles for Transformation
Below, we’ll describe the principles underlying healthy systems and how to apply them. We illustrate the proposed strategies with an example: the Finnish Roadmap to a Circular Economy. The Roadmap is a national, cross-sectoral plan for moving an entire country (a system) toward sustainable action. The Roadmap identifies policy and collaborative actions related to different sectors and global markets.
Life Principle 1: Build Purpose
All living systems look to the future. Very simple organisms seek to eat and reproduce. Humans have a core desire to shape a better future, at whatever scale. Such an emotionally compelling purpose orients and motivates us. A collective purpose can empower diverse change agents.
How to build purpose: Recognize that you can’t motivate action solely through targets, fear, or requirements. Develop or draw on a broadly-shared vision. Make sure it is accompanied by an inspiring narrative encouraging everybody to take action — like the SDGs or Finland’s notion of a circular economy. Build a story around a future in which life on Earth thrives.
Example: The Finnish Roadmap is anchored on a well-being narrative: building a circular economy that drives job development, export, and investment. The ultimate goal is well-being for all. Finland wants to become a pioneer, showing the world a successful transition.
Life Principle #2: Design Fluid Boundaries
Living systems need boundaries that give them identity but are also fluid. Living systems exchange energy with others; for example, a cell membrane keeps the cell intact yet can exchange nutrients and wastes. In businesses, employees can similarly join or leave the organization without changing its identity.
How to design fluid boundaries: Today’s healthy businesses operate as relatively flexible networks centred around an identity or purpose, able to adjust quickly. Future businesses need to build networks across organizations that enable them to work toward a healthy planet.
Example: The Finnish Roadmap process drew on existing business structures while creating new partnerships. Companies from multiple industry sectors contributed perspectives. Both companies and public sector actors identified with the close to zero waste approach envisioned.
Life Principle #3: Pair Novelty with Purpose
Thriving systems constantly seek new possibilities to evolve. In business, that can mean developing new products and technologies, creating new alliances, and shedding what no longer works. Such innovations need to be connected to the broader purpose of a healthy planet.
How to pair novelty and purpose: Companies that foster research and development need to set clear criteria that mirror what a healthy planet needs. Orient innovations toward environmental and social well-being.
Example: The Finnish Roadmap supported pilots and prototypes that responded to stakeholder input. To qualify as part of the Roadmap, all projects needed to support a path to the circular economy.
Life Principle #4: Build Interconnectedness and Diversity
Everything is connected, even at the quantum level. Actions in one part of a system affect others. This complexity builds resilience; for example, diverse perspectives help map the best way forward.
How to build interconnectedness and diversity: Stay open to difference and organize constructive dialogue. Transformative change requires multi-stakeholder governance and consultation.
Example: The Finnish Roadmap has developed a diverse stakeholder steering group, with representatives from different industries, the public sector, and NGOs. The Steering Group provides overall guidance: connecting the stakeholders, evaluating progress, and suggesting roadmap adaptations as needed.
Life Principle #5: Emphasize Wholeness
In biology, living systems are considered as wholes, sometimes nested within others. In medicine, for example, a doctor must consider the whole person as she treats a disease. Breaking apart a living system eventually kills it. Yet companies tend to have a silo mentality, as if their practices were not part of bigger industry, social, and ecological systems. Recognizing the bigger “whole” means understanding where their actions affect those broader systems.
How to emphasize wholeness: Businesses should understand how their products or services affect societies and work collaboratively with stakeholders to resolve issues. One approach is to develop measures and ruleslike certification programs that safeguard the whole.
Example: The Finnish Roadmap emphasizes the nation’s well-being and develops collaborations in key areas, often working with standards. Risk and collateral financing, tax guidance and investment subsidy arrangements all have a holistic orientation.
Life Principle #6: Reflect While You Act
All life — from microbes to forests — has some awareness. But humans are uniquely able to consciously reflect on their actions.
How to reflect while acting: Bring in knowledge and information about sustainability issues wherever you can. Expose people to information on sustainability threats and opportunities. Create metrics that encourage strategic reflection, on questions such as: How can we contribute more to a healthy planet and society? Are we making progress towards sustainability that works for all?
Example: The Finnish Roadmap is a deliberate effort to plan a future other than business as usual. It consciously and explicitly incorporates the latest sustainability science and acknowledges the need to invest in mindset changes for both businesses and policy makers.
The need is urgent; the path is clear
Human beings need to take a serious stewardship role in governing Earth’s systems. Irreversible changes in the planet’s capacity to support life are likely to take place unless we transform our behavior, argue Will Steffen and colleagues from the Stockholm Resilience Centre. These changes could happen relatively quickly, pushing the Earth from “Stabilized Earth” towards “Hothouse Earth.”
Our research on what gives life to human and natural systems provides guidance for change agents attempting to support flourishing conditions in human and natural systems. These six principles can help people working towards system transformation, and can build more resilient and effective enterprises of all sorts. Working thoughtfully, businesses and other organizations can support life in all its many forms.
Scaled to the world system level, such an approach can begin to shift the trajectory of the planet towards “Stabilized Earth,” and, we hope, towards “Flourishing Earth” in the long run.