by Antony Upward on Tue, 2013/03/05 - 8:36pm
I'm busy writing up my thesis right now: “Towards an Ontology and Canvas for Strongly Sustainable Business Models: A Systemic Design Science Exploration”. This blog post discusses one aspect:
In short: the idea explored below is as follows: if you design your business model, i.e. answer the questions posed by the SSBMC, while adhering to the design principles, when you measure your business using the forth coming Gold Standard for Sustainable Business you should find you meet that standard!
Clearly there can be many answers to the questions posed by the SSBMC; after all there are a very large number of possible business designs – even given the goal of strong sustainability: simultaneously generating environmental, social and monetary profit.
So perhaps a simple “list” of answers is not possible or practical. Instead, perhaps it would be better to provide advice to business model designers. They can then apply this advice as they answer the questions using the full knowledge of their business model.
Generally advice used during design are called design principles. Generically I understand a design principle to be:
A statement of what is desired of, or a requirement for, some aspect of a thing being designed.
In this case the thing being designed is a business model and the basis for the requirements are derived from the literature of strong sustainability.
So, Strongly Sustainable Business Design Principles consists of:
A set of advice, that when followed by a business model designer as they answer the questions posed by the SSBMC, ensures their business model will meet the “Gold Standard” for strongly sustainable organizations (or least significantly increases the likelihood!).
As I reviewed the natural and social science literature concerning strong sustainability during my research two things became clear:
So, recognizing the limitations of our knowledge, what I am putting forward should be considered a starting point – proto-Business Model Design Principles – with much further work required.
Also as I reviewed the literature a story became clear that linked together the advice from each of the disciplines about strong sustainability. Together I think that this advice makes a compelling argument for the conditions required for strongly sustainable organizations to exist and thrive.
This story spans the systems or ecologically oriented natural and social sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, (positive) psychology, (environmental) sociology, ecological economics, and their organizational counterparts (micro-) economics (finance), organization design (micro-sociology), and management (including marketing, operations and management information systems).
In my thesis I title this story “Towards a Theory for the Conditions Required for Strongly Sustainable Organizations”. And, like any good story, it has an introduction, a middle (consisting of 5 parts), and an ending. Seven “chapters” in all.
However, the story is ‘only’ an argument: while each chapter has considerable empirical support from its respective disciplinary sources, there is limited evidence to support the inter- or trans- disciplinary end-to-end story. Work, such as that being undertaken by the Strongly Sustainable Business Model Group, will I hope, over time, refine and test this theory.
As I started to consider the business design principles I realized they too appeared to fit within this same narrative. So, in this blog, as a first attempt, I’m choosing to group the principles using the seven chapters.
So in what follows I am interleaving the seven chapters of the story of the conditions required for strongly sustainable organizations to thrive with each of the relevant proto-business design principles. For now, as this is an introduction, I’ve included summaries of each of the proto-business design principles I've identified to date.
Are they a good starting point for advice that can be easily understood and applied by business model designers?
Perhaps, but it is clear much more work is required. The work to transform proto-principles into pragmatic advice is a significant part of the Strongly Sustainable Business Model Toolkit project.
In the mean time let me know if you have questions, comments or if you’d like to see the details!
A “strongly sustainable” organization is one in which all of its behaviours and all the behaviours of all other relevant social, economic and biophysical actors, lead to the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever[a].
The related overall proto-Business Design Principles for Strong Sustainability are:
Within this overall understanding, the first part of the argument for the conditions required for strongly sustainable organization is about ensuring the people involved in the organization have a common understanding of our planet.
First: In order to understand the conditions required for strongly sustainable organizations to be possible, groups and individual humans need to have a shared understanding of what planetary strong sustainability means.
The related proto-Business Design Principle is to ensure any business model design meets the planetary conditions for strong sustainability. I won't go into these here, please consult the referenced materials[f].
Second: To act upon our understanding of the planetary conditions for strong sustainability requires certain individual and collective world-views (i.e. belief systems that cause people to consistently act in accordance those beliefs).
The related proto-Business Design Principle suggests that any person wishing to attempt to create a strongly sustainable organization, should, to the best of their ability, attempt to design it in accordance with the “the Natural Laws of Sustainability”, or a similar set of ideas.
Natural Law of Sustainability[g]
1. Law of Interdependence
See the ecological, social and economic system of which you are a part
2. Law of Cause and Effect
Be accountable for all of the consequences of your actions on those systems
3. Law of Moral Justice
When responding to those consequences abide by society's most deeply help universal principles of morality and justice
4. Law of Trusteeship
Respond to those consequences as well by acknowledging your trustee obligations and taking responsibility for the continuation of all life on the planet
5. Law of Free Will
Break free from the false beliefs that control your life and your organization and choose your own destiny
Third: To consistently act in alignment with these world-views requires a new macro-socio-economic goal for society; or at least people willing to act to achieve this goal even if ‘official’ policy isn’t aligned with it.
We don’t yet have a consensus on such a goal. However, after 67 years of work by the United Nations on various conventions, charters and conferences it is perhaps not too far a stretch to state the following aspiration:
The goal of humanity is to create the conditions so that human and other life will flourish on this planet and beyond forever[h]
The related proto-Business Design Principle suggests that any person wishing to attempt to create a strongly sustainable organization, should, to the best of their ability, constrain their business model designs based on the following three policies, irrespective of whether these are formally in place or not in the relevant jurisdictions[i]:
Fourth: To achieve the new macro-socio-economic goal will require a reconceptualization of organizational success and its measurement: from the maximization of monetary profit to the integrated achievement of tri-profit[j].
The related proto-Business Design Principle suggests that the stakeholders of an organization’s wishing to attempt to enable strongly sustainable outcomes should explicitly define their acceptable level of success (mission, vision, values, etc.) so that it is compatible with the following statements[k]:
Our organization is one in which:
We achieve this by maximizing:
…so that the total net result satisfices greatest amount of environmental, social and monetary benefit for as much human and other life as possible.
Further, an organization’s stakeholders should explicitly choose design goals and assumptions for their organization’s business model so that they are compatible with the following statements[l]:
Our system of production reliably creates the possibility for:
…and in doing so create a net increases in well-being, natural and human capitals, e.g.
Fifth: To design and operationalize organizations which can reliably achieve tri-profitability requires the use of compatible theories, practices and patterns of strategy, business model design, operations and measurement.
There is an increasing body of work in the management and organizational literature about specific details of business model designs which increase the likelihood that strongly sustainable outcomes will emerge. Examples of business design principles surfaced to date include advice about:
Lots of people are already implicitly and explicitly following these principles, to the best of their abilities, creating businesses whose outcomes are increasingly strongly sustainable. Examples of groups of these leading organizations include:
Of course measurement of performance and standards for acceptable levels of performance are also important. How do we know how well these organizations are doing on their journey towards creating strongly sustainable outcomes?
To date I have found just two measurement systems and standards that appear to be well aligned with the science of strong sustainability and the proto-business design principles:
Also worth noting is the forth coming Gold Standard for Sustainable Business being actively worked on by fellow SSBMG member and noted author on the business case for sustainability Dr. Bob Willard. Bob and I are working to ensure this thinking will be embedded in:
So that's the story of the conditions required for strongly sustainable organizations to thrive and a summary of the proto-business design principles to crease such strongly sustainable organizations.
What do you think? Are these a good beginning? What works, what's practical? What needs to be improved?
Please comment below.
Upward, A. (2013). Towards Business Design Principles for Strongly Sustainable Organizations. Retrieved 3/5/2013, 2013, from http://slab.ocad.ca/SSOs_towards_design_principles
This blog post is © Antony Upward / Edward James Consulting Ltd. 2013 and is licensed under an Attribution –Non-Commercial –Share-a-Like Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License. Contact for permission to use commercially.
The following are the key sources referenced above. Please consult the literature review in my forth-coming thesis for a complete set of references:
[a] Adapted from p.6 Ehrenfeld, J. (2008). Sustainability by design: a subversive strategy for transforming our consumer culture. New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A.: Yale University Press.
[e] Adapted from Holmberg, J., & Robèrt, K. (2000). Backcasting from non-overlapping sustainability principles — a framework for strategic planning.International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 7(4), 291. doi:10.1080/13504500009470049.
[f] Two good summaries of these conditions are the Sustainability Principles within the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development and The Planetary Sub-System Boundaries:
[g] Doppelt, B. (2012). From me to we: the five transformational commitments required to rescue the planet, your organization, and your life. Sheffield, United Kingdom: Greenleaf. A summary of the book, including an introduction to the five laws can be found here.
[h] Inspired by p.6 Ehrenfeld, J. (2008). Sustainability by design: a subversive strategy for transforming our consumer culture. New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A.: Yale University Press.
[j] Tri-Profit is a neologism I have coined to describe the ultimate goal of a strongly sustainable organization. It is the conceptual sum of the environmental, social and monetary “profits” generated by an organization: i.e. Tri-Profit is a metric calculated as the ‘sum’ of the net harm or benefit arising as a result an organizations activities in each of the environmental, social and economic contexts in a given time period. Tri-Profit as a unitless score, i.e. it is NOT measured in monetary terms. A full introduction to Tri-Profit will be the subject of a future blog post.
[k] Many of these ideas were inspired by Manfred Max-Neef’s work on “Fundamental Human Needs” and their culturally specific “Satisfiers”. A full introduction to these ideas, including my working definitions of value, value creation and value destruction will be the subject of a future blog post.
[l] Adapated from p.18, ch.2 pp.45-67 & pp.89-91 of McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to cradle: remaking the way we make things . New York City, New York, U.S.A.: North Point Press with additional items from Ehrenfeld, J. (2008). Sustainability by design: a subversive strategy for transforming our consumer culture. New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A.: Yale University Press.