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Taking a systems-based approach to sustainability

January 2014

Everyone knows it. Some of us pretend we don’t, others bury their heads in the sand and ignore it, and some even deny it and say that everything is fine. But really, when push comes to shove, we all know it’s true: the systems that we rely on are broken.

Ever since the industrial revolution, humankind has been in pursuit of a better quality of life. And there’s nothing wrong with that in principle. But as we know, the costs – particularly environmental – of development have gradually started to catch up with us, and for years the world has been living off borrowed income. In the words of Unilever chief Paul Polman: “We are now in a position where the cost of inaction is beginning to exceed the cost of action.” Incremental change is no longer good enough, we are in urgent need of transformative change.

But how to create transformative change?  Particularly when we are headed into a VUCA world, a world characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity? That’s why at Forum for the Future we believe that the key to making significant change happen is by taking a systems-based approach to sustainability.

Our world is made up of complex, interlocking systems that have grown up over time – some planned, others accidental. System change comes from seeing the interconnections, the dependencies, the causal roots of, and therefore the game-changing solutions, to the challenges we face.  We believe that the route to changing systems is system innovation; a set of actions that shift a system – a city, a sector, an economy – on to a more sustainable path.

The challenges we face are too big for one organisation to tackle alone. This is why we help establish coalitions of organisations from across key industries to collaborate on system innovation, in a pre-competitive environment, in a way which benefits all – within those industries and beyond.

Take the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, for example, which Forum set up in 2010 to tackle the huge sustainability challenges facing the maritime industry.  Today, the SSI membership represents 20 of the world’s largest and most influential ship owners, charterers, operators, shipbuilders, engineers, financiers and supply chain managers – including MaerskLine, Lloyds Register and Wartsila. 

Last month, we officially kicked off #theBIGshiftcampaign to emphasise the urgent need for system innovation.

Some of our biggest partners at Forum have been actively putting their support behind #theBIGshift including the like of Nike, PepsiCo, Kingfisher and Unilever (we made some great videos of these companies talking about their individual approaches – you can check them out on the Forum website).

Indeed, Unilever is one of the best system innovators out there. The primary motivation for establishing the Marine Stewardship Councilover a decade ago was securing future fish stocks (Unilever owned a frozen fish business then). Unilever understood it couldn't achieve the future sustainability of fish stocks on its own. The business case for being a system innovator was clear when you looked just five, 10, 15 years into the future.

We know that leading companies agree: we conducted a survey of business leaders in our Network and found that not only did 98% say businesses which did not adopt robust sustainability programmes risked failure, but 100% agreed that the sustainability agenda presented genuine opportunities for their business.

We want to use this groundswell of enthusiasm to help other businesses think about their long-term future and get involved in some joined-up thinking and action with us. Join #theBIGshift campaign today and be a part of that movement!

 

Sally Uren is ceo of The Forum for the Future




Forum for the Future | UK & NI Ireland | Sustainability

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