Sustainable futures/ICSD/Learning

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MICRO COURSE: The inspiring challenge of sustainable development

Awesome summery thing

As the pressure builds and our global development continues to accelerate, our social, economic and environmental systems are falling further and further out of balance. Using a robust, yet simple, scientific foundation this module will enable the learner to explore and understand how these fundamental systems are connected, and how they are being placed under increasing pressure. This context then provides the setting for an effective strategic methodology that can enable us to imagine and create a future where our society thrives.


  1. Sustainability is possible
  2. Understanding systems
  3. From the Holocene to the Anthropocene
  4. Defining sustainability and sustainable development


Session 1: Sustainability is possible


Cool light structures

In this learning session we will:

  • Gain insights into what’s already possible by exploring examples of sustainable and symbiotic industrial design
  • Learn how completely sustainable buildings are being built with the Living Building Challenge

Video Signpost


Croatia Piran

The challenge of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ have been described by many as the most pressing challenge our species has ever faced. With over 7 billion people now living on our planet, the need to find a viable way for humans to prosper peacefully within ecological constraints is more important than ever.

A case for transformation

Tokyo Shibuya shops and crowd

The institutions of business and industry have helped us achieve significant improvements to our quality of life over the last 250 years. Today, nearly everything we do is connected to economic activity of some sort, and the majority of social and environmental pressures we face arise from the way we run our economies.

The ecological, life-supporting systems of Earth have been in a balanced state of evolution for billions of years. Yet, over just the last 250 years technical progress and development of modern industrial systems, combined with rapid population growth have upset that balance.

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Reflection exercise

Take a moment to think about the social or environmental problems that you consider to be important.

  • Why and how do they arise?
  • Who do you consider to be the key actors in bringing about these undesirable (though often unintended) consequences?

The desired and ideal future is already possible

Aloe polyphylla 1

The challenge of sustainability is ultimately one of design. Can we design economic and industrial systems that maintain a social and ecological balance which enable humans to thrive within nature’s limits? We know already that this is possible.

From unsustainability to regeneration

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Watch the first ten minutes of this video and consider this question:

  • How effective are we at communicating the concept of sustainable development?

Write your thoughts in a blog post.

Industrial symbiosis

In the Danish province of Kalundborg, a number of large businesses have been developing a system of industrial symbiosis that results in hyper-efficient resource use and almost no waste. In effect, the industrial cluster is designed in the same way as natural systems work: where the waste of one organisation is a raw material for another.

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Watch this video (2:35 mins) and have a look around the Kalundborg Industrial Symbiosis website; then consider these questions:

  • What do you see as the core elements that have underpinned the development and success of the Kalundborg Symbiosis initiative? What can we learn from this?
  • What do you think it would take to gain widespread adoption of this sort of industrial design philosophy? What are the barriers, and how might they be overcome?
  • What examples are you aware of where this sort of industrial design is already happening?

Living Buildings

Originally developed and launched by the Cascadia Green Building Council in 2006, the Living Building Challenge is acknowledged as the world’s most progressive and stringent green building code. It poses the challenge of designing buildings as nature designs. How do you create a building that harvests all its own water, produces all its own energy, and manages all its own waste-water on-site. These are just 3 of the 7 requirements for a fully certified living building.

There are currently 3 projects that have received full certification under the Living Building Challenge, with 4 others having been partially certified. As at October 2014, there are 90 projects currently in some phase of design, construction or operation.

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Explore the Living Building Challenge website for the basic principles for sustainable buildings. Then watch this interview with Jason McLennan and reflect on these questions in your learning journal:
  • What can we learn from the Living Building Challenge approach that might be applied more broadly in other industries?
  • How do you think the Living Building Challenge might serve as a source of inspiration for other industries to aim for genuinely sustainable outcomes, rather than just better than business as usual?
  • What do you think are the major barriers to people undertaking an approach like the Living Building Challenge? How might those barriers be overcome?

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When you have completed this module, share your thoughts and learning on your blog.

Consider these questions:

  • Are you more or less motivated when you learn of these success stories?
  • How many of these stories do you hear in your average week? why/why not?


Sources used in this session

Additional resources

Session 2: Understanding systems


Sunflower bee system

In this learning session we will:

  • Introduce the concept of systems thinking, and why this approach so critical to tackling issues of sustainability in an effective and meaningful way.
  • Introduce the Natural Step’s Five Level Framework for an effective and strategic approach to sustainable development.

Video signpost


Expression of time, Japan

Systems are everywhere. They are often complex because of the vast number of interrelationships and amongst and between different connected systems. Living systems have an added layer of complexity because they tend to evolve by adapting to external stimuli over time.

Many of the challenges we face as a society arise from the way our social and industrial systems currently operate. In many cases we may need to re-think the way entire industries operate, or re-conceive community governance structures if we are to design a way forward that is consistent with a sustainable and thriving future for our society.

What are systems and systems thinking?

Jungle Waterfall

Systems are sets of interacting and interconnected components or relationships that together form an integrated whole. Systems are everywhere and they are often complex. Every system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning.

Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which elements such as air, water, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organisations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organisation "healthy" or "unhealthy".

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Consider your body as an example of a complex living system.

  • How many identifiable systems of the body can you name… for example the nervous system, the circulatory system, and the respiratory system. Can you name four more?
  • In what ways can we harm these bodily systems, or the body as a whole? Brainstorm as many ways as possible.
  • How do these different means of harm come about, and how might you actively avoid them?

Systems and unintended consequences

To create a sustainable and living future we need to address and ultimately eliminate the full range of adverse impacts currently arising in our society and environment that prevent people from being able to meet their needs and apply increasing pressure on resource availability and ecosystem health. This, fundamentally, is the challenge of sustainable development. And the solution lies in influencing current social and economic systems towards a sustainable paradigm.

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Watch this short video of Peter Senge, a world-renowned expert on systems thinking who is recognised as one of the four people who has had the greatest influence on business strategy over the last 100 years. Then consider these questions and note down your answers:

  • What social systems are you part of?
  • What economic systems are you part of?
  • What unintended adverse consequences in those systems can you identify?
  • How might people work collectively and intelligently to avoid some of the adverse consequences you have identified? And, what might you have done to increase the possibility of achieving an improved outcome?

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Consider how well you understand some of the systems that you believe are responsible for current unsustainable outcomes, for example CO2 emissions from vehicles affecting the climate system; or nitrogen run-off from farmland affecting the freshwater system; or the growing gap between rich and poor affecting the social system? What is fundamentally driving these undesirable outcomes? Note your thoughts in your learning journal.

Using a systems approach to foster sustainability

Tokyo aerial

Sustainability challenges are complex because they arise from inter-dependent relationships where one party acting alone is usually unable to solve the challenge on their own. Lasting solutions require collaboration and careful design, or re-design, of systems.

For example, you might buy an electric vehicle to eliminate contributions of CO2 from using a petrol vehicle, but unless there are sufficient charging stations and other infrastructure in place, your ability to travel freely is restricted. Similarly, a government might pursue an approach to develop biofuel as an alternative to fossil fuels. To be successful, a reliable supply of bio-based raw materials, sufficient production facilities and a reliable distribution network are all required. All of those elements require investment and support from a range of different industry players that aligns decisions and action with the overall strategy. A systems focus can help identify all the different players required to achieve success, but how can we ensure they are all working towards the same end goal?

Systems thinking and a unifying framework for strategic sustainability

Road - Strategic path

Strategy is about focusing on a desired outcome, and pursuing an approach that is calculated to produce it. Most organisations use strategic planning to frame a series of goals to work towards that will create their future. Traditionally, strategic planning has taken a narrow approach towards defining the desired success, at either an industry level or the company level. This approach has ignored the fact that companies and, indeed, entire industries are part of bigger systems that make up our society and the interwoven ecological systems that make up the biosphere.

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Read this short paper Proposing a Unifying Framework for Sustainable Development that was presented by The Natural Step Global Network to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

Consider this question and note down your thoughts in your learning journal:

  • In what ways do you think the Five Level Framework encourage greater collaboration and work more effectively towards the shared goal of creating a sustainable future?

Applying the Five Level Framework to smaller systems

The Five Level Framework can be applied to any defined system to differentiate between definitions of success (usually called a ‘vision’ in strategic planning processes), strategies, actions, and tools. As an example, consider the game of football.

Five Level Framework (Football).JPG

Football is often described as the world's simplest game. Let’s apply the Five Level Framework to the game of football as a way of exploring how the framework for sustainable development might be used for considering any strategic approach.

The SYSTEM level defines the boundaries of the game: the rules of the game, the pitch, its goal posts and the people involved: players, referees, coaches and other support team members etc.

The SUCCESS level defines how to win, which is to score more goals than the other team. Simple!

The STRATEGIES to enable success are much more complex and involve creative thinking to score goals and win. This might include set piece moves, rehearsed interplay between players, and other agreed tactics.

The ACTIONS level is more specific and is the way the strategies go from being an idea to becoming real. Each person has a specific role to deliver the strategy, such as a the players being in certain places and the coach delivering the appropriate training regime, as well as the more operational roles such as preparing the pitch and running the touch line.

The TOOLS level covers all the equipment, systems and processes required for the actions, and to evaluate and monitor performance. So it includes the players’ boots, nets for the goals, a stopwatch to keep time, video refereeing equipment, and the processes for gathering performance statistics like shots on goals, tackles made, possession etc.

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Choose a topic or industry that you are interested or involved with. Using the Five Level Framework:

  1. Define the System that you are focusing on
  2. Describe what real Success looks like - be as specific as you can by using measurable outcomes
  3. Identify the Strategies (actual or desired approaches) that will bring about the successes you are seeking within the system
  4. List the Actions (current or future steps) that demonstrate implementation of the strategies being pursued
  5. Identify the Tools that are being, or could be used to measure whether the actions are delivering the desired results to implement the strategy designed to achieve success.

Post a summary on your blog for others to see. (This is a formal assessment activity)


Sources used in this session

Additional resources

  • Book: The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization; by Peter Senge (2006)
  • Video: How the Earth works (as seen from Space) (49:39 mins) - retrieved on 6th November 2014 from

Session 3: From the Holocene to the Anthropocene


Gardens, ecological and human systems

In this learning session you will:

  • Learn how the ecological system works, and how humans are adversely affecting it
  • Learn how the social system works
  • Learn how humans have become the dominant shaping force on the planet

Video signpost


Milky way and aurora
The Earth is believed to have formed as a result of the Big Bang which created our Universe over 13 billion years ago. Earth is a closed system for matter. That means all the matter that formed Earth after that event is still here today (give or take the materials sent into space, and the arrival of meteorites).

The Earth is composed mostly of iron (32.1%), oxygen (30.1%), silicon (15.1%), magnesium (13.9%), sulfur (2.9%), nickel (1.8%), calcium (1.5%), and aluminium (1.4%); with the remaining 1.2% consisting of trace amounts of other elements. Due to mass segregation, the core region is believed to be primarily composed of iron (88.8%), with smaller amounts of nickel (5.8%), sulfur (4.5%), and less than 1% trace elements.

Earth is the third planet from the sun and the densest in the solar system. Whilst being a closed system for matter, it is an open system for energy. Energy is delivered every day from the sun, and returned into space through radiation.

The biosphere is the global sum of all living systems on Earth. It is believed to have started forming over 3.5 billion years ago. The biosphere is the global ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships, including their interaction with the elements of the lithosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere.

Humans have evolved over millions of years as part of the biosphere. However, it was only about 12,000 years ago that we began to form communities around organised agriculture; and just 250 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution. In that small period of time, humans have rapidly spread across all corners of the planet and emerged as the dominant shaping force on the surface of the Earth.

How the Earth works

It was many billions of years after the Big Bang that the biosphere, and life on Earth, started to develop. Understanding how this process came about is essential to understanding how to maintain the delicate environmental balances that will enable life to prosper, sustainably, long into the future.

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Watch the first 15 minutes of HOME, a 2009 documentary by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. And then note down your thoughts to the following questions in your learning journal:

  • What were the pre-conditions for life evolving on Earth?
  • What’s the importance of how chemical elements are organised and located in the biosphere?
  • How is current human activity changing the organisation and location of chemicals?
  • How is current human activity changing the delicate balance of ecosystems that regulate chemical concentrations?

The Earth is a closed system for matter

Glacier by Sean Drader

The Earth is made up of chemical elements - think of the periodic table. That is a list of all basic elemental materials on our planet. Because of gravity, matter (comprising all solids, liquids and gases) does not leave the system. It is a closed box. And, the laws of thermodynamics, long agreed by scientists, tell us that it’s impossible to destroy matter. So the chemical matter we have on Earth will always be here. The important question is, how is that matter organised?

The Earth is an open system for energy


It is accepted science that the Earth is an open system for energy. Energy radiates into the Earth’s system, mainly from the sun. Energy is then radiated back into space from the Earth, with the flows being regulated by the Earth’s atmosphere and ozone layer. This delicate balanced transfer of energy maintains the surface temperature at a level that is suited to the forms of life that have evolved and currently exist.

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Take a moment to think about what you understand of global warming and climate change.

  • How does the above explanation of basic scientific principles fit with your understanding of global warming and climate change?
  • At a basic level, how might the climate system be affected if the concentration of gases making up the atmosphere and ozone layer are changed?
  • Is that system likely to remain unchanged?

Note down any insights in your learning journal.

Matter changes form, but never disappears

Plane... Matter changes form but never disappears

It’s tempting to think that the litre of gasoline you put in your car is simply burnt, and disappears. Not so. The process of burning gasoline simply strips out all the energy bonds holding different chemical particles together. The bonds in gasoline are particularly strong, hence the energy release is intense - which is the reason it has been so useful for humans. The chemical elements are transformed into gases and small particles with the same weight and mass as the gasoline that was burnt. These particles are difficult to see (and so easily overlooked) and almost impossible to contain once released into the air.

The same applies to liquids that are washed down the sink, or chemicals that are sprayed on the garden, or rubbish buried in the ground. So while we may think we’re throwing things ‘away’ when we put them in the rubbish or anywhere else, the truth is - there is no ‘away’. Nothing disappears.

This principle is captured in the first law of thermodynamics, otherwise known as the principle of conservation of matter. This agreed scientific law recognises the fact that matter cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be transformed from one form to another as its chemical elements are reorganised.

All materials disperse and spread out if not contained

Thistle - All Materials disperse

If you think about what happens if you put a drop of ink in a glass of water, or milk into tea, or if you leave a piece of metal outside for a year; you’ll realise that materials naturally decompose and spread out. Even plastic, over a long period, breaks down to its basic elements. The law of entropy, which is part of laws of thermodynamics, is agreed science that tells us that all materials will - over time - break down to their smallest parts and transform all energy to its lowest form, which is heat. In this manner, everything disperses.

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Think about different substances or materials that you use everyday.

  • What happens to them after you have finished with them?
  • Where do they end up?
  • What chemical elements are in them, and where have those chemicals come from?

Note down any insights to share on your blog.

If you need more stimulus material, watch the video The story of stuff

How the biosphere works

The biosphere is the living part of the Earth - where all ecosystems and living organisms are found - of which humans are just one of over 8 million species.

Biological cycles

Biological cycles are what sustains life on Earth. On land, and at a basic and very simplified level, the cycle can be described in two parts. Plants use energy from the sun to fuel their growth using photosynthesis. This process takes carbon dioxide from the air, water and minerals from the soil and turns them into cellular structures. The plants provide food and oxygen is produced as a by-product of the process.

In the second part of this simplified process animals, including humans, eat the plants to fuel their own cellular growth and to provide nutrition for their survival. Organic waste from animals is returned to the environment which plants can then re-use as ‘food’. Animals also consume the oxygen produced by plants to breathe and produce carbon dioxide as a by-product.

Photosynthesis is a critical component of this cycle. Plants take energy from outside of the Earth’s system and use it to structure different chemicals into a useful structure that forms the basis of the food chain for animals. Many of the materials used by plants in this process might be considered as ‘waste’ products which are essentially ‘cleaned up’ and recycled. So, using ‘free’ solar energy, plants create net value and provide the basic building blocks for animal life.

Geological and geochemical cycles

Reed pond - Part of geochemical cycles

The biosphere is connected to the lithosphere, or the Earth’s crust, and there are important geological cycles that connect these two systems together.

We’ve learnt that living systems have, over the last 3.5 billion years, created the conditions necessary for life in the biosphere. These processes have removed many chemicals - like carbon and heavy metals - from the atmosphere and biosphere and buried them deep in the Earth’s crust through slow processes of sedimentation. These slow geological processes have stored many materials, like carbon rich oil and heavy metals, deep inside the Earth outside of the biosphere.

The Earth has natural systems that sometimes returns some of these materials to the biosphere. Volcanos dramatically release large quantities of materials from deep inside the Earth to the surface. Weathering, erosion and tectonic movements also release materials back into the biosphere. However, over periods of time these very slow processes are balanced out by the natural sedimentation and mineralisation processes. During the evolution of humans, these processes have maintained a relative chemical balance in which life has blossomed and prospered in ideal conditions.

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Read this paper published by the United Nations Environment Programme on ecosystem services. Then think about the ways that humans have affected the natural ecological systems and note down your answers to the following questions:

  • What human activities move chemical materials from the Earth’s crust and release them into the biosphere? What chemicals are involved? What volumes of material are involved? How do they end up in the biosphere and what is the effect of releasing them into natural systems? How are these materials returned to the Earth’s crust to retain the biosphere’s balanced chemical composition?
  • What new chemical materials have humans developed and released into the biosphere? What examples can you think of? Where are these chemicals used? What happens to them after they have been used? How are these synthetic chemicals broken down into substances that nature can process?
  • Other than the movement of chemicals, how have humans physically affected natural systems like forests, wetlands, oceans, rivers and soils? *What ecosystem functions have been affected? What impacts might this have on the biosphere and what might it mean for us?
  • What reliance does our economy and society have on the activities you’ve identified above? What are the implications of this?

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Read this article published in the UK Independent newspaper on 16th October 2014.

  • Do you agree that the current global epoch should be renamed as the Anthropocene?
  • What are the arguments for and against, that support your opinion?

Write in your blog.


Sources used in this session

Additional resources

Video: Welcome to the Anthropocene (03.37) - published by Globaia. Retreived from on 23rd January 2015

Session 4 - Sustainability and sustainable development defined: creating a good world


Work ute

In this learning session we will:

  • Explore the definitions of sustainable development and sustainability
  • Understand how the social system works, and why meeting human needs sits at the very core of sustainability

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Tokyo field

In the context of sustainability, three connected high-level systems are referred to: Economy; Society; and Environment. In the developed world, and much of the developing world, it is the economy that ordinarily dominates the headlines, with economic and financial objectives driving most decision-making.

Social and environmental issues are taken into account in decision-making - generally to reflect legal obligations and regulations, rather than as a reflection of ethical consideration. Even so, trade-offs that result in some some social or environmental impacts are commonplace, and made in the interests of maintaining and growing economic performance as the primary and most important objective.

Whilst these trade-offs may each only result in small encroachments on the environment or community interests, the consistency of this approach is systematic - resulting in a paradigm that might be likened to ‘death by a thousand cuts’.

In this session, we’ll look at how to define sustainability and sustainable development in a way that can inform and enable decision-making that creates a carefully designed pathway towards genuine success. Based on an understanding of the relevant systems: economic, social and environmental - we need an identified goal that will deliver success across all three of these systems.

Models to define sustainability and sustainable development

The relationship between economic, social and environmental systems is usually shown in one of two ways:

File:Weak sustainability model.JPG

In this graphic, the three systems are shown as separate yet connected systems. The point where all three circles intersect is referred to as the sweet-spot where outcomes are sustainable, by balancing the economic, social and environmental concerns. This model is sometimes referred to as “weak sustainability”. It tends to encourage trade-offs where economic objectives take priority over environmental and social objectives. Some people, cynically, refer to it as the “Mickey Mouse” model, with reality looking more like the graphic below.

File:Mickey Mouse model.JPG

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Take a moment to reflect on the above.

  • Do you agree with this model?
  • How might it constrain or inform decision making to encourage decision-making that supported sustainability?
  • What do you think about the Mickey Mouse model?
  • Do you think it reflects the current, business-as-usual mindset towards sustainable practice?

A model aligned with our reality

Industrial and economic systems are invariably comprised of many individual players through interwoven and interdependent relationships that form value chains and supply chains that ultimately provide goods and services that are useful for people. Economic systems are essentially a subset of the larger society in which they take place, and intended to deliver social benefits through employment, providing access to goods and services, and improving quality of life.

Social and community systems are comprised of many different groups and individual people who, in democratic countries, are governed by elected representatives. Social systems are made up of people. People are just one species of many on Earth, and their survival is entirely dependent upon the continued function of ecosystems that provide access to food, water and air.

Ecological systems are the interwoven fabric of organisms and ecosystems that form what is often referred to as the natural environment. Ecosystem processes regulate the flux of matter and energy through an environment and are sustained by the variety of living organisms collectively known as biodiversity.

The second way in which the relationship between economic, social and ecological systems are depicted is shown below. This model is sometimes referred to as “strong sustainability” because it reflects the interdependencies of the three systems.

File:Strong sustainability model.JPG

This second model reflects, in a visual form, the hierarchy of the systems: the economy cannot exist without an organised and healthy society. In turn, society cannot exist without a healthy environment that continues to supply basic life-support systems for humans.

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Reflect on the above and then watch this video of Karl-Henrik Robert talking about the triple bottom line (2:21). Consider the two models of sustainability above and note down your thoughts in your learning journal on which one is more helpful to explain the concept of sustainability, and why?

How the human social system works

Japan snow town

An ecological balance is a prerequisite to a sustainable future because humans, as a living species, have certain basic needs for their survival - food, water, air and protection from the elements. However, a sustainable human society also requires healthy social systems that meet their basic needs. These needs are not only physical, in terms of survival, but also emotional to ensure mental health and wellbeing.

Elements of social sustainability required for healthy and liveable communities have been described as:

  • equitable - providing opportunities for all
  • diverse - welcoming all
  • connected - enabling social interaction
  • democratic - with open and accountable governance structures
  • quality of life - ensuring basic needs are met at all community levels

Economic success is, to a very significant extent, reliant on a healthy, stable society populated with people who enjoy good physical and mental wellbeing. For example, it is difficult to do business in corrupt societies where decision-making can be less transparent and unpredictable, making investments more risky. It is also more difficult to run a successful business with a team of people who are unwell, either physically or mentally, or distracted by the worry of their basic needs not being met.

Basic human needs

Children going to school in Samoa

For a healthy society we need healthy individuals. By understanding what needs humans have as a biological species, we can work towards a social and economic system where people are better placed to meet their needs.

The work of Manfred Max-Neef, Antonio Elizalde and Martin Hopenhayn on human-scale development identified a set of nine basic needs that are shared by all humans by virtue of their biology. Their work determined that all humans are capable of meeting these needs to their own satisfaction, so long as barriers (social, economic or environmental) do not prevent them from being able to do so.

The identified needs are:

  • subsistence - e.g. food and water
  • protection - e.g. shelter, or health insurance
  • participation - e.g. voting, involvement in decision-making
  • leisure - e.g. reflection, recreation, free time
  • affection - e.g. love, empathy, friendship
  • understanding - e.g. education, training
  • creativity - e.g. skills, innovation
  • identity - e.g. culture, religion
  • freedom - e.g. equal rights, self determination

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Activity 1: Study the following Rainforest Info webpage on the work of Manfred Max-Neef and others. Assess how well your own needs are currently met against the 9 basic human needs as articulated by Manfred Max-Neef.

Activity 2: Complete this exercise of how well you meet your and others needs.

Activity 3: Complete this exercise of how well your organisation meets your and others needs.

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E-Activity Write a blog post about what you got from these exercises. (This is a formal assessment task for credit)

Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of human needs as a theory of psychology in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation". The hierarchy is particularly useful for understanding human development and psychology.

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Read the summary of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs on Wikipedia, and then read this blogpost by Evan Hadkins. Note down your thoughts about how the two approaches of Max-Neef and Maslow compare in your learning journal. Which do you think is the most useful for enabling communities and organisations to design systems and processes that remove and eliminate barriers that might prevent people from being able to meet their needs?

Needs drive human behaviour

Local cafe

Whilst not always the case, it is not unusual for people’s behaviour to be driven by an attempt to meet their needs or overcome barriers that stand between them and ensuring their needs are met, or the needs of others with whom they have a strong allegiance - such as family, friends or colleagues.

Understanding the connection between people’s needs, their desire to satisfy those needs, and the constraints that are imposed - whether intentionally or unintentionally - by social and economic governance structures, is a critical part of striving to create a sustainable future. Given that it is human behaviour and decisions that largely design the context within which humans live their everyday lives - understanding why people do what they do is fundamentally important.

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Watch this TED talk by the inspirational speaker Tony Robbins on ‘Why people do what they do’ (21:44) and then reflect on the following questions, noting down your thoughts:

  • How might the six human needs identified by Robbins align with the nine needs articulated by Max-Neef?
  • How might an understanding of human needs and the emotional strength of individuals improve the people’s ability to achieve more sustainable outcomes? Note down the main reasons for your thoughts.

Trust - the thread for weaving a good world

Samoan market

Extensive research has pinpointed “trust” as a critical element for creating healthy relationships and communities. It literally is the thread that weaves our social fabric together. Trust lies at the heart of successful relationships at the individual and community level. Commercial relationships also flourish with trust - enabling cooperation and collaboration in working together solving problems.

On the other hand, a lack of trust undermines relationships and often results in conflict. At an economic level, a lack of trust can often result in inefficiencies and under-performance that reduces productivity levels. It is also likely to add costs through the need for greater surveillance and monitoring, lower morale, and a higher turnover of employees.

The research of Merlina Missimer (2013) identified five separate factors that can serve as guiding design principles to strengthen trust in any community or institutional setting.

  1. Health and well-being - for individuals both physically and mentally. In an organisation it might refer to working conditions.
  2. Influence - being able to participate in shaping the social systems one is part of. This can include the right to vote, or be consulted on decisions that affect you.
  3. Competence - having the opportunity to be good at something, and develop one’s skills to become better. In an organisation it might refer to training and development opportunities. In society generally, it includes access to education and training.
  4. Impartiality - equal treatment for all; between individuals, between individuals and organisations, and in decision-making institutions - like councils and courts.
  5. Meaning - having a purpose and reason for being. In an organisation it might refer to clarity of purpose for the company, and for individual roles contributing to that purpose.

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Reflecting on what you understand about social sustainability, human needs and the building blocks for increasing trust, note down your answers to these questions in your learning journal:

  • Do you think that levels of trust generally are increasing or decreasing as between individuals and business, individuals and government, and between business and government? What are the reasons for your thoughts?
  • What examples can you point from your own experience where trust has been undermined or destroyed? Which of the principles above do you think are most relevant, and why?
  • Think of a governance system you’re familiar with, perhaps a company you’ve worked with, or your local council, or national government. In what practical ways do you think governance processes could be enhanced to promote greater trust? What would be required, in your view, to achieve those changes?

Defining sustainable development and sustainability


One of the most significant challenges with sustainability is that it is interpreted widely and often misunderstood as having a purely environmental or ‘green’ focus. In fact, sustainable development, and sustainability, is essentially focused on meeting the biological and emotional needs of humans in a way that can continue indefinitely; that is, in a way that is sustainable.

We’ll consider two of the most widely used definitions here. The first is the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development, which arguably establishes a set of guiding values. Secondly, we’ll consider the Natural Step’s scientific definition which is founded upon the agreed scientific principles you’ve learnt about already.

The Brundtland Commission’s definition

Asian market dried fish

The definition of sustainable development is often attributed to the Brundtland Commission (formally known as the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The Commission published its final report published in October 1987 called Our Common Future, also known as The Brundtland Report.

A key element in the definition is the unity of environment and development. The Brundtland Commission insists upon the environment being something beyond physicality, going beyond that traditional school of thought to include social and political atmospheres and circumstances. It also insists that development is not just about how poor countries can ameliorate their situation, but what the entire world, including developed countries, can do to ameliorate our common situation.

The term sustainable development was coined in Our Common Future. Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The two key concepts of sustainable development are:

  1. the concept of "needs" in particular the essential needs of the world's poorest people, to which they should be given overriding priority;
  2. the idea of limitations which is imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment's ability to meet both present and future needs.

Most agree that the central idea of the Brundtland Commission's definition of "sustainable development" is that of intergenerational equity. In sum, the "needs" are basic and essential, economic growth will facilitate their fulfillment, and equity is encouraged by citizen participation. Therefore, another characteristic that really sets this definition apart from others is the element of humanity that the Brundtland Commission integrates. The particular ambiguity and openness-to-interpretation of this definition has allowed for widespread support from diverse efforts, groups and organisations. It lays out a core set of guiding principles that can be enriched by an evolving global discourse. As a result of the work of the Brundtland Commission, the issue of sustainable development is on the agenda of numerous international and national institutions, as well as corporations and city efforts. The definition gave light to new perspectives on the sustainability of an ever-changing planet with an ever-changing population.

The Natural Step’s system conditions for sustainable human activity

The Natural Step is a non-profit organisation founded by paediatric oncologist Karl-Henrik Robèrt who was investigating growing rates of cancer in children. After the Brundtland Commission’s report in 1987, Robèrt developed the Natural Step framework (also known as the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development). Using a scientific and structured understanding of the socio-ecological system, the framework articulates four conditions for sustainable human activities on Earth. The conditions provide a scientifically based definition of sustainability that can be used to guide actions for sustainable development.

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of:

  1. substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
  2. substances produced by society;
  3. degradation by physical means;
  4. and in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

These four conditions are often written as positive principles, simplified for application to any organisation, community or product:

To become sustainable we must:

  1. Eliminate our contribution to the progressive build-up in nature of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels);
  2. Eliminate our contribution to the progressive build-up in nature of chemicals and compounds that are produced by society (for example, plastics, dioxins, PCBs and DDT);
  3. Eliminate our contribution to progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural systems (for example, over-harvesting forests, destroying habitat and over-fishing); and
  4. Eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and poverty wages).

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Read this paper “A compass for sustainable development” by Karl-Henrik Robèrt, Paul Hawken, Herman Daly and John Holmberg. And then note down your answers to the following questions in your learning journal:

  • Do you consider the four system conditions to be a comprehensive definition of sustainability? What are the main reasons for your answer?
  • Compare and contrast the four system conditions with the Brundtland definition.
  • Which do you think is the most useful to inform organisational and community planning? Again, what are the main reasons for your answer?

Summary - a scientific definition of success for humans


A scientific understanding about how ecological and social systems work is critical if we are to know what to aim for in creating a sustainable future; a future that works for humans as a living biological species.

The Natural Step’s framework for strategic sustainable development (FSSD) provides four concrete principles to guide a creative process that can envision sustainable outcomes as part of a planning process aimed to arrive at a specific destination - sustainable activity for humans on Earth.

The principles quickly highlight that the current success model for our society has inherent design flaws that are placing our eco-systems, life-support systems and social systems under ever more strain. Using the Natural Step’s four principles we can see that:

  1. Our society is built around a reliance on digging up materials from the Earth’s crust that then are allowed to accumulate in the biosphere as polluting waste. This includes the atmospheric accumulation of carbon from fossil fuels, the atmospheric accumulation of hydrofluorocarbons from refrigerants and aerosols; and the accumulation of heavy metals in water and soils from various industrial processes and IT equipment such as computers and mobile phones.
  2. Our society produces and uses large numbers, over 100,000, of different synthetic chemicals which are also allowed to accumulate in the biosphere as polluting waste. Many of these chemical compounds are foreign to nature and do not easily break down. This includes pharmaceutical chemicals, like antibiotics, that accumulate in water, pesticides and insecticides that build up on water and soil systems and enter the human food-chain; and industrial chemicals used for plastics and mining.
  3. The growth of our society has relied upon consistently increasing its encroachment upon and alteration of natural and ecological systems. We dam rivers for power, or drain water from them for irrigation reducing the flow to a mere trickle. We have removed vast amounts of forests, over-fished the oceans, destroyed soil systems with mono-culture and intensive agricultural methods, and we have dramatically reduced the prevalence of wetland systems that purify water and control flooding. In the process the amount of biodiversity has plummeted, with species extinction now estimated to be up to 1,000 times the natural background rate. Many biologists believe we are now heading towards a man-made mass extinction event.
  4. The gap between rich and poor is now at epidemic proportions. A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations University reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000. And, the three richest people in the world possess more financial assets than the lowest 48 nations combined. Working conditions, pay rates and labour rights for many in the developing world, where much of the world’s manufacturing industry is based, are poor. Even in the rich countries, democratic processes and personal freedoms have been systematically eroded, largely under the auspices of national security and the war on terror. Working hours have generally increased, with many people having less time to spend with family or on recreation.


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