Leading Sustainable Organizations
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If there is only one world, then how are we to conceive of sustainability issues? If political and ideological boundaries really are “invisible fences in the mind,” as MIT Sloan professor John Sterman puts it, then what kind of image of how the world works will best serve us as we think about issues of economic growth?
These are some of the questions that MIT Sloan’s Jason Jay raised in a thought-provoking presentation called “Natural Capital and the Challenge of Sustainable Development” at the Dynamics of Globalization Executive Education program held at MIT on June 13-14.
A lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Jay is the director of the MIT Sloan Initiative for Sustainable Business and Society. His research generally focuses on cross-sectoral collaboration and hybrid organizations that promote more sustainable business practices, and he gets students and alumni engaged in hands-on projects with leading companies and organizations.
Jay says that MIT Sloan considers economic activity as something embedded in a larger social and environmental context, and defines sustainability as “the fundamental alignment of healthy organizations, healthy environments, healthy societies and economies that meet human needs.”
Societies, he says, can only be sustainable if they are able to meet three basic criteria: renewable resources aren’t used faster than they can be regenerated; pollution and wastes are emitted no faster than natural systems can render them harmless; and non-renewable resources are used no faster than renewable substitutes can be introduced.
So how are we doing? In a nutshell, not great. Jay shared some detailed graphics from a recent article in Nature by Johann Rockström, an interactive chart recently published by the Guardian and a recent McKinsey analysis to paint a picture of a world that looks like it’s rapidly approaching its environmental limits.
Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” Ad
While it would be easy to fall into a doom and gloom funk after seeing where it looks like we’re headed, Jay was quick to point out leverage points for averting the worst scenarios.
“If we take our foot off the gas and turn the wheel,” we can aim for a smoother and more gradual transition to a different future — and one with plenty of opportunities for savvy global companies, he says.
Jay built his case using a system dynamics model created by Sterman. System dynamics — originally developed at the MIT Sloan School — is a way to map the behavior of complex systems over time, taking into account both feedback loops and delays. (See MIT SMR‘s 2009 interview with Sterman for more about system dynamics.)
Technology and innovation, coupled with a voluntary “limits to growth” — as demonstrated by companies such as Patagonia (see the exhibit of its “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad) — are high leverage points in making this change and creating a more sustainable world.
The Dynamics of Globalization program next takes place October 25-26, 2012. Registration information and a sample schedule are online.