The “Myth of Success” Must be Challenged for Sustainability to Succeed

Forced to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree, Tantalus couldn’t reach the fruit or drink the water before it receded. Does this reflect sustainability?
Photograph: moodboard/Corbis

Photograph: moodboard/Corbis

Is the Greek myth of Tantalus an accurate metaphor for the current status of the sustainability movement?

Tantalus was forced to stand in a pool of water underneath a fruit tree. While it had low branches, he could never quite reach the fruit and the water always receded before he could take a drink.

This is not so different from sustainability practitioners who talk incessantly about the need for scale and speed when it comes to driving change, whilst at the same time agreeing that both remain tantalisingly out of reach.

Taking sustainability mainstream

So the question on everyone’s lips is what is going to move us beyond the current era of experimentation, occasional notable successes and a number of heroic failures?

The main hope, and hardly one that inspires, is that as climate change and resource scarcity start to bite and become more front of mind. It will force us to confront the illusion that we can carry on with business as usual.

But, on a more proactive note, I am placing a bet on a small cohort of systems thinkers and mappers to help business shift gears.

This community of systems experts are helping companies, such as Walmart, get out of their narrow mindset and create new ways of driving transformational change by involving key players across business, civil society, academia and government.

Collaborating more effectively is increasingly recognised as key to making progress, but few are expert at it and business has traditionally been more adept at building high walls, rather than tearing them down.

Systems innovation

Nike is perhaps the world’s leading corporate proponent of systems change and it’s worth listening to CEO Mark Parker, who recently hosted a gathering of diverse experts representing the entire materials system, in a bid to find ways of scaling the development and manufacture of sustainable products.

“Our future depends heavily on innovation, collaboration and transparency,” he told the 150 materials specialists, designers, academics, manufacturers, entrepreneurs and NGOs at the 2020 Launch event in Portland, Oregon. “Nike has learned the value of these principles first hand through some tough lessons over the years. We were one of the first companies to understand the challenges of global supply chains.  We recognised quickly that our own efforts to create change were not enough. It started us on a journey of partnering for solutions.

“Now is the time for bold solutions. Incremental change won’t get us where we need to go. And it certainly won’t get us all there fast enough. Nor at a scale that makes a difference. We are moving from an era of open innovation to one of systems innovation.”

The reason systems experts are so valuable is that they not only understand the inter-connection of issues, important in itself, but also recognise the power of group dynamics and of finding ways to encourage groups with competing interests to find common ground.

Overcoming obstacles

There are many barriers we need to overcome if cross-sector groups are going to make progress. For example, one unconscious block is that we remain largely tribal in our outlook, often having a loyalty to our own business or sector, to the exclusion of others.

Systems experts also work with the paradox that people need to recognise just how difficult it is to change, in order to open their minds to the art of the possible.

Speaking at the Nike event, Marshall Clemens, founder of Idiagram, highlighted a few of the mountains we need to climb. Firstly we must face the conundrum of how to simultaneously drive broad-based growth and development, so that everyone has a decent standard of living, without frying the planet.

Next, we need to recognise we don’t really understand any more the complexity of the current system, or how it dynamically evolves over time. We also have no prototypes for an alternative system so have no clear sense of where we are exactly aiming for.

As if all that is not enough, Clemens says that if we are to generate real change, we need to deeply understand the powerful props that are holding the current system together, ranging from the comfort and stability the current system offers to perverse subsidies, the lack of patient capital and first mover disadvantage.

Identify the levers of change

So how can systems thinkers play an important role in helping us move beyond our feelings of powerlessness?

One of their particular skills is spotting key levers of change, which individual actors within a particular system might well miss.

A particularly useful tool they have is the development of dynamic visual maps of the system they are seeking to influence. What these complex maps are able to do is help individual characters understand the system they are operating in, something they rarely do.

They are also critical in generating different types of conversation. There is something powerful about the physicality of standing around a map having a debate, that is very different from sitting round a table talking.

Nike’s mapping of the materials system, for example, not only looks at the basic supply chain but also factors in the limits of the natural world and our human environment, such as governance, education, business, communities and employment.

Alongside the maps, systems experts also incorporate the cross-cutting themes of transparency and data analytics. These are critical in providing feedback to understand what drives the system and what will help change its direction.

They also are on the constant look-out for developing new networks of unusual suspects which can disrupt the current ways of doing things.

While I have a lot of admiration for systems experts, who have learned the difference between what is complex and what is complicated, they are not superhuman and their ability to stimulate action is ultimately dependent on the courage of those people in the system to challenge their preconceptions.

In that sense systems thinkers are the corporate equivalent of therapists – they can go only as deep as their clients are willing to let them.

Hannah Jones, Nike’s global head of sustainability and innovation, points to the challenge and the opportunity: “We believe that the innovations required to create the future won’t come from a single source. Not from science. Not from technology. Not from governments. Not from business. But from all of us. We must harness the collective power of unconventional partnerships to dramatically redefine the way we thrive in the future.”

This article was originally published on The Guardian

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Jo Confino is an executive editor of the Guardian and chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business. He also advises Guardian News & Media and Guardian Media Group on their sustainability strategies.