Sustainability 2018-02-18T14:58:09+00:00

Paradigm of Sustainability

Shanghai skyline, China. The paradigm of sustainability is a way of seeing the world that recognizes a need for a fundamental change within the industrial model to economic development and our relationship with the natural environment

Shanghai skyline, China. The paradigm of sustainability is a way of seeing the world that recognizes a need for a fundamental change within the industrial model to economic development and our relationship with the natural environment

The paradigm of sustainability is a new way of seeing post-industrial societies and their relationship to the natural environment, it is a recognition of the fundamentally unsustainable nature to the industrial model of development, and an awareness of a need for radical change within its economic and technological infrastructure, in order to achieve a  sustainable circular economy.

Context

The concept of sustainability has risen over the past few decades from obscurity to the center of our collective conscience, and today represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of the world and our place within it. This changing paradigm of environmental sustainability is set to have a fundamental effect on how we manage and design systems in the 21st century. The paradigm of sustainability contextualizes the times we live in as a deep transition period in human civilization, pointing to the graphs of exponential growth in almost all areas of human activity from population increase to natural resource consumption, that began during the industrial revolution, and have sharply increased over the past few decades in a way that is clearly unsustainable.1
The industrial model of the economy was built in a world of what appeared to be almost infinite resources. It was a world where millions of buffalo roamed across the prairies of North America and all you had to do was tame nature and the bounties were endless. This world of a struggle between man and nature is largely over. Through industrialization, we can pretty much declare victory, but this victory has come at a very high price. With a growing manifestation of the negative environmental externality to the industrial age economic model, coupled with a growing manifestation of the finite supply of natural resources, has come the concept of sustainability, a new awareness and paradigm surrounding human economic activity and its relationship to the natural environment.

Energy Efficiency

To highlight how the ideas of sustainability are a whole new paradigm we might think about something like a car. Within the industrial paradigm, cars make sense. After all, the auto industry is maybe 10 percent of our GDP, because advertising agencies told us how important they were to our freedom because everyone else had one. It all made sense largely because it fitted into the industrial paradigm. But with this new idea of energy efficiency, we suddenly start to realize that only a few percentage point of the fuel that we put into our car is actually used to move us. And this is when it is in use when on average a car is unused 92% of the time. When we start to look at the world in this way, things stop adding up in the way that they used to and we start asking whether that industrial model is still relevant. Within the industrial model our economies looked like perfectly efficient well-oiled machines. Within the sustainability paradigm, we start to see a totally different picture. We start to see how the average household power drill is used for only approximately 10 minutes during its entire life cycle, how one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted across the supply chain.

Integrated Systems

The paradigm of sustainability shifts our focus from the optimization of subsystems to the efficiency of the whole system within its environment. Linear systems theory is focused on subsystems. The industrial paradigm that is based on linear systems theory was thus focused on optimizing subsystems like individual businesses or individual production lines. In so doing, it systematically demoted the overall efficiency of the system within its full context. When we change this paradigm, we start to see suboptimal solutions on the global level. As these new ideas of energy efficiency and sustainability rise, we are all slowly starting to become aware of this. Start-ups from Brazil to Amsterdam to Taiwan are ready to take advantage of this. Building new business models around tapping into this vast expanse of under-utilized resources, governments are eager to support them and people feel inspired by the opportunities. The circular economy may be a massive macro scale transformation to the deep structure of our economies, but in many ways, it is happening one recycled plastic bag at a time.

Zero Marginal Cost

Reuse, recycling and sharing often involve the production of value at zero-marginal cost, a phenomena very much contradictory to conventional economic logic

Reuse, recycling, and sharing often involve the production of value at zero-marginal-cost, a phenomenon very much contradictory to conventional economic logic

With this new paradigm, we are now creating value out of nothing, that is to say at zero-marginal-cost.2 We are creating value by reducing waste. Thus, we do not have to produce anything and it may not even cost anything. Marginal cost is a central structure to our Industrial Age economic system. As it is built around the idea that it costs something to produce value. As such, the circular economy is in strong contrast to our industrial economy that was focused on value in terms of production and consumption.
There is thought to be 62 Lego bricks for every person on the plant. We have produced a lot of Lego bricks and that created value, but the vast majority of those Lego bricks are now sitting in some cupboard not being used. The value proposition today is in getting those Lego bricks to the people who want to use them, and there is no shortage of start-ups that are focused on trying to tackle this problem through peer-to-peer markets. But this is not about production and throughput, which is what our whole economic machinery is designed for. As such it is creating a new form of economy, a circular economy based on the paradigm of sustainability which is only set to rise.

Core Constraints

The vision presented by the paradigm of sustainability places us in a world at the center of which is a fundamental set of contradictions between how we operate and what is feasible, given our environment’s carrying capacity. In the face of this, inaction or incremental action is unviable, and thus, it necessitates a radical change in how we design and manage our systems. The challenge of sustainability reveals the inherent limitations of our industrial systems of organization, not just technological and economic but also political and even cultural. In the face of these inherent failures of our industrial systems of organization to respond to the challenges of sustainability, it places responsibility and action on the local level of the individual and private organizations, asking us to redesign and re-imagine not just things but systems as a whole, as it induces a shift from our modern reductionist view of the world as a machine to one of ecosystems and organic evolution. The net result of this vision of the world that has emerged within post-industrial societies is, on the one hand, a set of challenges that seem almost insurmountable, whilst on the other a new set of possibilities for recreating almost every area of our sociotechnical world.

Nonlinear Model

Aerial view of a wind turbine farm. Shifting towards a circular economy is seen to be key to achieving sustainability in the long term

Aerial view of a wind turbine farm. Shifting towards a circular economy is seen to be key to achieving sustainability in the long term

The industrial economic model is a linear system of production and consumption in a world of infinite resources where the aim is to maximize throughput to the system by expanding its scale and access to resources. The growing awareness of the finite nature of the planet’s resources, and increasingly the actual economic reality of peak oil and commodity price increases is changing this linear model to a circular model where energy and resource efficiency are central and everything becomes part of a lifecycle. This nonlinear lifecycle view to products and services necessitates a more complex, holistic view of the systems we design and manage. One that looks for the synergistic connections works with feedback loops and whole systems instead of discrete one-off products.

Increased Complexity

Sustainability increases the complexity of designing and managing systems by increasing the number of factors involved. Whereas previously, systems were managed and designed according to one primary factor – typically some monetary metric – today, the so-called triple bottom line of people, profit and planet is being increasingly adopted by enterprises as a more complex, nonlinear set of metrics that developers of products and services need to be able to balance and find solutions to the constraints of each of these parameters, as they often pull in different directions, and convert what were previously simple linear systems with one optimal profit maximization solution into more complex nonlinear challenges.

Volatility

Human-induced activity is resulting in an unprecedented change in some of the earth’s most fundamental systems upon which our real economy is deeply connected and dependent. It is almost impossible for us to predict the nonlinear effects that these changes will have, leaving us in a world of increasing volatility, uncertainty, and systemic shocks. The only way to respond to this without becoming reactionary is to change how we design and manage systems to make them more adaptable and resilient to change.

Dematerialization

Information technology and the sharing economy that it is enabling are a key part of the process of dematerialization

Information technology and the sharing economy that it is enabling are a key part of the process of dematerialization

Whereas materialism and material consumption was a major part of the industrial economic model, in a post-industrial information society, often what people want are not so much more things or more products, but solutions. The 21st century presents us with a host of problems that are difficult to avoid. People increasingly want solutions to these problems both big and small and are eager for services that deliver them. Information technology is enabling the sharing, exchanging and connecting of resources into ecosystems of services that deliver real value whilst using pre-existing resources, with limited material demand.

Non-Mechanistic

The paradigm of sustainability is rising rapidly to have a pervasive and systemic effect on the makeup of our technology and economies in the 21st century. Real solutions to environmental problems require us to think outside the mechanistic box that we have inherited from the industrial age as developing the solutions that are required will take us into the much more complex environment of designing and managing integrated social-ecological systems.

Cite this article as: Joss Colchester, "Sustainability," in Complexity Labs, February 18, 2018, http://complexitylabs.io/sustainability/.

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