The art and science of systems change

pdfnewThe corporate sustainability movement, such as it is, has made enormous progress in the last decade. Just not enough. Despite the well-intentioned efforts of forward-thinking companies, greenhouse gas emissions are rising, species are dying, forests are shrinking, etc. Smart companies have come to understand that acting alone, they can’t bring about the change we need.

This is why companies are collaborating to drive what’s being called systems change — that is, efforts to remake complex systems such as supply chains or marine fisheries. Recently, I heard a consultant named Joe Hsueh (it’s pronounced Shway) talk about systems change at an event sponsored by Guardian Sustainable Business and Forum for the Future.

Joe has a PhD from the Sloan school at MIT, so he understands the science of how systems work and knows how to deploy tools like systems maps (like the one above). Perhaps more important, though, he spent a year volunteering with Buddhist nuns in Taiwan, his native land, so he has practiced listening and empathy.

I wrote about Joe this week in the Guardian. Here’s how my story begins:

Until recently, the momentum driving US businesses toward greater sustainability came from big, influential companies: GE with itsecomagination campaign, Walmart with its bold environmental goals, Google with more than $1bn in renewable energy investments and Nike with its pioneering design work, among others.

Lately, though, much of the most exciting work in sustainable business has focused on systems change – sometimes within an industry, sometimes up and down corporate supply chains and sometimes across industries and geographies. Systems-change initiatives like the The Sustainability Consortium, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and ZHDC, which stands for Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals, differ in their approach and structure, but they are all tackling problems too sprawling and too complicated for even the biggest companies to solve on their own.

The process of changing large-scale systems is a mix of art and science, and its practitioners can be found inside companies, in consulting firms and in academia. The consulting firm BluSkye helped the dairy industry reduce its carbon emissions and was hired by Alcoa to try to give US recycling rates a big boost. Starbucks engaged MIT professor Peter Senge to take a systems-based approach to the challenge of recycling the billions of cups the food service industry uses every year to hold hot liquids. Nonprofit WWF has dived into system-change efforts such as theRoundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a standard-setting group that brings together producers, processors, traders, brands, retailers and NGOs.

To grow systems change, a group of individuals and organizations formed the Academy for Systemic Change in 2012. Joe Hsueh, one of its founding members, recently sat down with me to talk about systems change, how it works and why it matters.

You can read the rest here.