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The Natural Step – Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development‏

The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development

ImageProxy.mvcHuman society is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Earth environment. If our “parent company” destabilizes, our society and our economies go down with it. This is another way of expressing the funnel metaphor.

Science has proven we are currently destabilizing our Earth environment, and this in turn is producing escalating negative social and economic impacts.

As a way to address the many challenges that arise from this situation and empower organisations to innovate and open up new directions for themselves, The Natural Step has developed a Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD). We have iterated and refined this framework in collaboration with the private and public sectors, and the scientific community, over the past 25 years. 

What Does It Do?

  • The FSSD cuts through the noise and confusion by providing a definition of sustainability grounded in peer-reviewed science.
  • It provides concrete, customized guidelines for how to approach being sustainable in a way that improves the bottom line.
  • It clarifies how to select the most effective sustainability tools for your specific needs and pathway from amongst the many available.
  • It offers a way to organize thinking and conversations around sustainability. This gives the actors in your system a common language and a way to unify their efforts so they’re all pulling in the same direction from their various areas of expertise.
  • It provides mechanisms to deal effectively with sustainability’s greatest challenges, such as:
    • Trade-offs – how do we take the bad with the good?
    • System boundaries – how can one single organization or project define the world’s sustainability challenge in relation to itself and manage the implications for its own plans and operations?
    • Sustainable resource potentials – which investment alternative has the greatest chance for growth?
    • Reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable, such as small scale with the biosphere, short term with long term, and social responsibility with a powerful bottom line.

At the heart of the Framework is its definition of sustainability, applicable to any organization or undertaking regardless of activity or scale. 


Our approach is collectively called the “Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development” – it is a comprehensive model for planning in complex systems. It is openly published and free for all to use. The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development has helped hundreds of different organizations around the world integrate sustainable development into their strategic planning and create long lasting transformative change. It is constantly being used, tested, refined and developed.

The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development is based on systems thinking; recognizing that what happens in one part of a system affects every other part. Think of a soccer team. We can’t understand why the team lost the game until we look at how each player – the goal keeper, defenders and forwards – all worked together on the field. We won’t learn much if we just study one member of the team. The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development gives an organisation the tools to look at the whole team, understand the rules of the game, define success, and move towards it together.

Any successful team must have a common language and understanding in order to facilitate cooperation. The Framework provides this shared mental model of sustainability by helping people across organisations, disciplines and cultures to communicate effectively, build consensus and ultimately move toward their vision. We use an upstream approach that anticipates and avoids problems before they occur, rather than reacting to their downstream effects.

This scientifi­cally rigorous Framework gives organisations the tools to perform a gap analysis using the lens of sustainability, and then work toward closing the gap. Furthermore, The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development complements other sustainability tools and methodologies, such as life cycle analysis or environmental management systems, by providing the context and strategic vision that makes them more effective.

Understanding the Problem

The Funnel – Society Is Being Squeezed

framework_funnelWe use a funnel as a metaphor to help visualise the growing economic, social and environmental pressures that are acting on society. The way most human societies work now, as we move through time, these pressures continue to increase, giving us less and less room to operate, until we run out of room altogether.

The things we need to survive – food, clean air and water, productive topsoil and others – are in decline because they are being used, exhausted or damaged faster than nature can regenerate them.

But at the same time, our demand for these resources is growing. There are more than seven billion people on the planet and the population is increasing. So are our levels of consumption.

As our demand increases and the capacity to meet this demand declines, society moves further into the narrower portion of the funnel. As the funnel narrows there are fewer options and less room to manoeuver. Organisations that continue business-as-usual are likely to hit the walls of the funnel, and fail. That’s where The Natural Step can help.

Opening the Walls of the Funnel — We Can Help

Every one of us lives and works in this funnel and every one of us has the opportunity to be more strategic about our choices and long-term plans. Through innovation, creativity and the unlimited potential for change, we can shift our ways of thinking and doing towards sustainability. The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD) that The Natural Step originated and has refined in practice over the past 25 years provides a method for doing exactly that.

In this way, forward-looking organisations can position themselves to avoid the squeeze of the funnel by investing towards creating a truly sustainable and rewarding future, regardless of what everyone else does. The more we do this, the more we begin to open up the walls of the funnel again, to create more breathing room for ourselves and our planet’s life-sustaining natural processes to thrive.

The Tree – Don’t Get Lost In the Leaves

page_understanding_the_problem_the_tree_381(1)Whole Systems Thinking is more or less explained in the name – it deals with complex systems (such as the biosphere, a government, the weather, a company, an ecosystem, or a farm). It reflects the idea that it’s important to take into account all of the components of whatever system we’re looking at and how they interact, affecting one another in multiple feedback loops. Seeing how everything acts on everything else within the system helps us understand what’s really going on in a way we couldn’t from just analyzing a few of the parts.

This is a daunting task. But it’s important to do, otherwise you get lost in the details—specific areas of specialization (which may be very complex and confusing on their own) and you can spend a lot of time and energy trying to solve a problem, only to realize that you’ve created another. You can go on in this way until you get confused and frustrated and give up.

To avoid this, we often use the metaphor of a tree where the trunk and branches represent a framework with core principles (4 Sustainability Principles) that help guide our conversations at a fundamental level, and the leaves represent all of the details – specific issues and areas of expertise. Because the task of creating a sustainable society is so massive and complex, no one is going to have all the answers – there’s simply too much information. So we need all kinds of scientists, economists, policy makers, researchers, teachers, business leaders, etc. to work together.

Getting onto the Same Page

But such a diverse group brings with it a vast array of ideas, opinions and special interests. Dialogue can quickly degenerate into bickering, confusion and misunderstanding. This is dealing in the “leaves,” the details. Paper or Plastic? Solar, Wind or Oil? These are examples of the details – obviously important ones – but we can’t approach these complex, confusing, politically charged issues without a shared framework – some facts that everyone can agree on. This is what we mean by the “trunk and branches” of the tree. Once we have this shared framework, we can tackle the details with many kinds of specialists working on various aspects of the issues, yet all guided by shared principles and a shared target.

You can think of the 4 Sustainability Principles as guidelines, or the rules of the game – like the rules in chess or football/soccer. Learning the rules is the easy part, but if everyone doesn’t understand them, no one’s going to get very far playing the game. And this is very often the step that is skipped when we set out to create strategies to reach sustainability.

The Four System Conditions of a Sustainable Society

A Science-Based Definition of Sustainability


The Framework For Strategic Sustainable Development revolves around a robust, science-based definition of sustainability. “Robust” means that the principles contained in this definition are both necessary and enough to achieve sustainability. They are also applicable to any activity at any scaleand they don’t overlap (each principle covers its own domain).  

Context:  If Earth is a system, we’d better understand the conditions it needs to keep running the way we like it

Left to its own devices, the earth is a sustainable system. As we continue to learn, however, over the past two centuries the accumulated impacts of one group of actors in that system (humans) are now threatening the stability of the whole thing. That affects our continued well-being. In fact, it is exactly like sawing off the tree branch on which we sit.

An international network of scientists have unanimously and publically concluded that human society is altering life-supporting natural structures and functions in three fundamental ways. Consequently, they were able to define three basic “system conditions” that must be met if we want to maintain the essential environmental services that sustain human society.

Further, because human action is the primary cause of the rapid change we see in the natural environment today, they included a fourth system condition that focuses on the social and economic considerations that drive those actions–recognizing that human beings will always prioritize the meeting of their basic needs (just like every other creature on the planet).

Together, these form the “trunk and branches” of our approach to strategic sustainable innovation and development.

While written to be clear scientifically, the specific wording of the four system conditions can be confusing to non-scientists. However, the system conditions can be reworded as basic sustainability principles that provide explicit guidance for any individual or any organization interested in moving towards sustainability. In most instances, we refer to the basic sustainability principles.

The Four System Conditions… 

… reworded as The Four Sustainability Principles

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

To become a sustainable society we must eliminate our contributions to…

1) concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust

 1) the systematic increase of concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels)

2) concentrations of substances produced by society

 2) the systematic increase of concentrations of substances produced by society (for example, plastics, dioxins, PCBs and DDT)

3) degradation by physical mean

 3) the systematic physical degradation of nature and natural processes (for example, over harvesting forests, destroying habitat and overfishing); and…

4) and, in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systemically undermine their capacity to meet their needs

 4) conditions that systematically undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on).

What Does This Mean for Us?

At first reading, the system conditions and sustainability principles might seem to imply that we must stop extracting all materials from the earth and stop producing all human-made substances and that, further, we must never disturb a natural landscape. But that’s not what they mean. The problem is not that we mine and use heavy metals, or use chemicals and compounds produced by society, or disrupt natural processes. It is, rather, that our industrial and economic systems have developed so that environmentally damaging practices like these will continue to grow indefinitely, having greater and greater impacts over time. As long as our impacts were small relative to the capacity of the planet to handle them, the big picture wasn’t so scary. But because we are systematically increasing these impacts, they are now large and getting larger. As a result, we are at the point where there really aren’t “plenty of fish in the sea”. This is the trouble. These systematic increases cannot be sustained on a finite planet.

With respect to the fourth sustainability principle, as long as people’s basic needs* go unmet, we will cut the last tree, dam the last river and pull the last fish from the sea in our efforts to survive. So we can’t have environmental sustainability without social sustainability. Besides, it’s no use building a world where our own well-being isn’t included in our definition of success!

What Can We Do About It?

To learn more about The Natural Step’s approach to dealing with the challenges of implementing this necessary shift in how we design, build and do things, have a look at the following.

What Is Backcasting?


The concept of “backcasting” is central to a strategic approach to planning for sustainable development and innovation. A successful outcome is imagined in the future, then the question is asked: “what do we need to do today to reach that vision of success?” We do this all the time when we plan a trip to buy groceries or find a new home.

Backcasting is often more effective than forecasting, which tends to produce a more limited range of options, hence stifling creativity. More importantly, forecasting relies on what is known today–but that knowledge is always imperfect and things change over time. 

Backcasting from Scenarios vs. Principles

In the context of sustainability, we can imagine an infinite number of scenarios for a sustainable society. Backcasting from scenarios can be thought of as a jigsaw puzzle, in which we have a shared picture of where we want to go, and we put the pieces together to get there. However, getting large groups of people to agree on a desired future scenario is often all but impossible–they have too many different perspectives and vested interests. Further, scenarios that are too specific may limit innovation, and distract our minds from the creative solutions needed for sustainable development.

So strategic sustainable development relies on backcasting from sustainability principles – principles based in science, that represent something we can all agree on: if these principles are violated, our global society is un-sustainable. To achieve a sustainable society, we know we have to not violate those principles – we don’t know exactly what that society will look like, but we can define success on a principle level. In this way, backcasting from principles is more like chess – we don’t know exactly what the board will look like when we get to checkmate, but we know the principles of checkmate – and we go about playing the game in strategic ways, always keeping that vision of future success in mind.

Complexity Demands Backcasting from Principles

Natural physical systems (like climate or the ocean) are complex and non-linear, and while we are getting better at it, we often cannot predict what outcomes they will produce, or when those outcomes will emerge. Social systems are even more complex.  Still, we try to force all these systems into models so we can ‘understand’ them and ‘predict’ how they will behave.

To do this, we are forced to make assumptions that often make the models reductionist, simplistic, and absurd. For example, in economics the assumptions that all people are ‘rational actors’ and that there is ‘perfect information’ are incorrect. In large part, this tendency of ours to make simplistic, reductionist models comes from an academic tradition of compartmentalized disciplines, where social scientists have pushed a quantitative, value-neutral approach to studying these systems in the misguided pursuit of establishing concrete laws similar to the laws of nature.

Even if we could predict the future, why would we want to? We have the power to create a better future. The complexity of social systems within the biosphere demands a whole-system perspective and employing backcasting from sustainability principles. In this way, we can acknowledge the value-laden reality of social systems. We can all take a transdisciplinary approach to learning to better understand the basic constraints in which we must operate. And together, we can implement the changes in how we do things necessary to create a sustainable society.

Applying the ABCD Planning Method

The ABCD planning method of the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development consists of four steps which are repeated as an organisation progresses toward sustainability.

This method, like others used by The Natural Step, is based on backcasting from sustainability principles.


A = Awareness and Visioning

This first step aligns the organisation around a common understanding of sustainability and identifies a ‘whole-systems’ context for that organisation; building a common language around sustainability as well as creating a vision of what that organisation would look like in a sustainable future.

The Natural Step sustainability principles, basic science and a whole-system approach are presented to develop strategies for living and doing business in balance with nature and our global community. Participants review the state of the earth’s systems, including the ecological, social and economic trends that are undermining our ability to create and manage healthy and prosperous ecosystems, businesses and communities, and then place their own organisation, community or project within that context.

During the visioning process, people are encouraged to set ambitious goals. Some of these may require changes in how the organization operates and/or take many years to achieve.

This is where businesses often begin to identify the service they provide independent of any one product (for example, providing energy services versus oil). Incorporating this awareness into the visioning process unleashes innovation and releases the company from preconceived limitations.

B = Baseline Mapping

This step uses the four sustainability principles to conduct a sustainability ‘gap analysis’ of the major flows and impacts of the organisation to see how its activities are running counter to sustainability principles. The analysis includes an evaluation of products and services, energy, capital and human resources from ‘cradle to cradle’. The assessment also looks at the social context and organisational culture in order to understand how to positively introduce change. This allows the organisation to identify critical sustainability issues, their business implications, any assets they may have and opportunities for change. 

C = Creative Solutions

In this step, people are asked to brainstorm potential solutions to the issues highlighted in the baseline analysis without any constraints.

Armed with their vision of success and potential actions, organisations look backwards from the vision to develop strategies toward sustainability. This is called backcasting and it prevents people from developing strategies that just solve the problems of today. Instead, they begin with the end in mind, moving toward a shared vision of sustainability, with each action providing a platform for further improvement.

D = Decide on Priorities

After identifying the opportunities and potential solutions in the ‘C’ step, the group prioritises the measures that move the organisation toward sustainability fastest, while optimising flexibility as well as maximising economic, social and ecological returns. This step supports effective, step-by-step implementation and action planning. At this stage, organisations can pick the ‘low-hanging fruit’ – actions that are fairly easy to implement and offer a rapid return on investment in order to build internal support and excitement for the planning process.

Backcasting is used to continually assess decisions and actions to see whether they are moving the organisation toward the desired outcome identified in the ‘A’ step (awareness and visioning).

Sustainability principles provide new design parameters that drive product and process innovation throughout the system. This step also incorporates organisational learning and change methods, essential elements to move people into new ways of thinking and working together.


The ABCD approach is based on systems thinking, setting ambitious goals, and developing realistic strategies to achieve them. The sustainability principles help people stay on course as they process the myriad of information and decisions involved in long-term planning. In this approach, what’s considered realistic today never determines the direction of change, only its pace. 

Organisations are not expected to achieve long-term goals immediately. They’re encouraged to move systematically by making investments that will provide benefits in the short-term, while also retaining a long-term perspective. They use the ABCD as part of the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development to map-out a series of steps that will eventually lead to sustainability.

3 Strategic Prioritisation Questions

During the course of using the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, organisations must find a way to prioritise the actions that come from their initial brainstorms (usually during the D step of the ABCD approach). This can be done using these three strategic prioritisation questions:

  1. Is this moving you toward or away from your sustainability vision?
  2. Is this a flexible platform to support future actions toward your sustainability vision?
  3. Will this offer an adequate return on investment*?

In addition to these three questions, many organisations will develop additional questions specific to their needs or context to help them prioritize ‘right next steps’.

*Note that ROI (return on investment) is traditionally seen as a financial return on investment, but it can also mean a political, social, environmental or other type of return.

The 5 Level Framework

The 5 Level Framework is a way to organize our thinking and information, so we can be more clear and strategic as we discuss and plan for moving towards sustainability. 

1. Systems

ImageProxy.mvc-3This refers to anything having to do with the scope of the system we’re dealing with. In the case of a game like football/soccer, the system would be the playing field, players, ball and all of their components. In terms of sustainability, the system is the entire biosphere, including us within it. So we need an understanding of the way our system works. This can be found on our science page.

The funnel metaphor – a core concept at this level – is the idea that we are currently operating in a system where natural resources and ecosystem services are decreasing while demands on these resources and services are increasing, due to population growth and increasing consumption patterns. This leads to increasing economic, social and environmental pressures (represented in our metaphor by the ‘closing in’ of the funnel walls over time).

2. Success

For our purposes, success is a sustainable society. Success in the football/soccer game is winning, usually measured as the team that scored the most points. In the field of sustainable development, a sustainable society means that nature is not subject to systematic increases in:

  • concentrations of substances from the Earth’s crust;
  • concentrations of substances produced by society;
  • degradation by physical means;

and, in that society,

  • people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

3. Strategic Guidelines

This is where we talk about strategic guidelines for organizations to follow in implementing their sustainability journey. In football/soccer, this level would be about the strategy sessions the team members have as they plan how to make their goals.

With respect to sustainable development, the most important strategy to focus on is backcasting from principles: it consists of establishing a vision of the organization in the future when it is sustainable (as defined by the four sustainability principles) and then ‘backcasting’ to the present to determine what specific actions should be taken first to start working strategically towards that vision.

4. Actions

These are the concrete actions that are taken on the path to sustainability. Depending on the nature of the organization, they could include things like phasing out fossil fuel use by switching some capacity to renewable energy, or replacing metals that are scarce and potentially harmful with ones that are naturally abundant in the biosphere and therefore benign.

In our game analogy, actions would be moving towards the net to score a goal, passing to team-mates, etc. 

5. Tools

This is where we talk about the variety of tools that help organizations manage and implement their path towards sustainability. Different tools are effective in different situations, but a lot of them work well together and create synergies when utilized within the context of a strategic framework. Examples of some of the many excellent sustainability tools include Environmental Management Systems, ISO 14001, Life Cycle Assessment, Biomimicry approaches, Cradle to Cradle design, Factor 10, Natural Capitalism, Ecological Footprinting, Zero Emission, etc.

In football/soccer, some tools would include the players’ fitness equipment and any strategy books they can get their hands on.

The Science Behind our Approach

Back to Basics


The Natural Step’s approach to sustainability, including the 4 Sustainability Principles, are grounded in the scientific laws underlying the earth’s systems. These are well known and accepted by scientists. While many of us intuitively understand these basic scientific principles, we often overlook them in our day-to-day lives.

The ones that concern us most with respect to sustainability are as follows:

Photosynthesis Pays the Bills

Net increases in material quality on Earth are generated almost entirely by the sun-driven process of photosynthesis. Chloroplasts in plant cells capture energy from sunlight and form bonds that provide energy for other forms of life, such as animals.

According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, disorder increases in all isolated systems. The Earth is a closed system with respect to matter, but it is an open system with respect to energy because it receives light from the sun. It is this flow of sunlight that continues to create structure and order from the disorder. 

There is Value in Structure

We determine the value, or use to us, of a material by the concentration and structure of the matter that makes up that material. For example, food and petrol are valuable because they have a high concentration and structure. We never actually ‘consume’ energy or matter because they are neither created nor destroyed by any of our actions. What we consume are the qualities of matter and energy – the concentration, purity, and structure of matter, and the ability of energy to perform work. If you drop a teacup and it breaks on the floor, each of the original atoms is still present, but most of the value (to us) from its former structure is lost.

Nothing Disappears

All mass and energy in the universe is conserved in one way or another. Energy and mass may be converted into different forms, but the total amount of energy and mass in an isolated system remains constant.

This principle of matter conservation and the First Law of Thermodynamics are helpful in understanding the earth as a system. For example, apart from the occasional meteorite arriving or spaceship leaving, the amount of matter on earth has stayed the same for billions of years. Another example: when matter is burned it is not destroyed, but transformed into waste, predominantly in the form of visible and invisible gases.

Everything Spreads

Energy and matter tend to spread; everything has a tendency to disperse (the Second Law of Thermodynamics, also known as the Law of Entropy).

Although the total amount of energy in a closed system remains constant, the quantity of energy that is available in a useful form decreases with each transformation and tends to dissipate throughout that system. Entropy is a measure of the amount of disorder or randomness there is in a system, and in every isolated system – such as the universe – entropy always increases. Examples of this include food decaying, coloured dye dispersing in water, a car rusting and human-made PCBs found in ice samples taken in the Arctic Circle, far away from the site of their manufactue.

Thus, materials generated by, or introduced into, human society will eventually disperse throughout nature.


These basic scientific laws are what allowed The Natural Step, in collaboration with a large community of scientists from across many disciplines, to distil the 4 Sustainability Principles which form the bedrock of our definition of sustainability, and our approach to empowering people and organisations to move towards sustainability in a strategic manner.



ABCD method: A strategic tool for backcasting from sustainability principles.  The letters represent the following steps:

  • A – Gain awareness of the ecological and social systems your organisation operates within, based on an understanding of the principles for sustainability.  From this understanding, create a vision of what your organisation would look like if it operated within these principles;
  • B – Undertake a baseline assessment of today’s current reality. Note where violations of the principles for sustainability occur and identify organisational assets;
  • C – Create solutions to the issues discovered in the B step without technological, political or other constraints – this is brainstorming. Imagine measures to achieve these. Be creative!
  • D – Decide on priorities. Prioritise the actions developed during ‘C’ by asking: i) Does this action move us in the right direction (toward alignment with the sustainability principles)? ii) Can this action be built upon in future? (Ie. is this a flexible platform?) iii) Does this action bring an acceptable financial, ecological and/or social return on investment?

Backcasting: A fancy word for a strategic planning method where a successful future is envisioned first. The current reality of today is then assessed against the vision. 

Basic human needs: A comprehensive set of fundamental human needs that are culturally and historically universal, non-overlapping, non-substitutable, complimentary to one another, and must be satisfied on a continual basis. They are: subsistence, protection, affection, idleness, identity, freedom, creativity, participation and understanding.  This list of basic human needs was created by the Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef, and is used to define human needs for the fourth system condition of The Natural Step.

Biosphere: The portion of the Earth and its atmosphere that is capable of supporting life.  

Capacity-building: The transfer of knowledge from experts to practitioners with the intent of strengthening the skills and ability necessary for them to act self-sufficiently.

Community Planning:  Any planning that is done for a community. This may include, but is not limited to, Official Community Plans, Municipal Planning Strategies, and/or Integrated Community Sustainability Plans. Community planning may encompass a variety of aspects, such as planning for sustainability, water use, economic development, parks, and/or land-use.

Community Engagement: The involvement of the community in the creation and implementation of major decisions.

Continuous improvement: In the context of management systems, this means the continuous focus on improving an organization’s performance – from assembly line to the CEO – is a permanent objective.

Decision-maker: A person who has the authority to make decisions.  Decision-makers do not always have formal authority; they can also be the individuals within an organization or community that make decisions behind the scenes.

Downstream Solutions: Solutions that deal with the symptoms of larger systemic problems. These solutions are often developed in reaction to the obvious symptoms without examining the cause of the symptom.

Early Adopter Program: This is a program that brings together local businesses, organisations, community groups, concerned citizens and, ideally, the local municipal government. Early Adopters commit to becoming leaders by introducing and incorporating sustainability into their respective organizations and by working together towards community sustainability. As Early Adopters implement their sustainability plans, they become local success stories and share the lessons, knowledge and energy they have gained with the rest of the community.

The Natural Step pioneered this approach in Whistler, British Columbia by providing a training program for Early Adopter organisations, which focused on building community capacity. The program helped develop a common understanding and shared language for sustainability among a variety of community stakeholders.

Eco-municipality: An eco-municipality aspires to develop an ecologically, economically and socially healthy community for the long term, using the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development for sustainability as a guide, and a democratic, highly participative development process as the method. The eco-municipality becomes the driving force for involving citizens and sectors of the larger community in the process of becoming a sustainable community. Eco-municipalities collaborate with other organisations and communities regionally, nationally, and internationally to learn from and assist each other.  Networks of eco-municipalities are found in Canada, Sweden and the United States.

Five level model framework: A generic framework for planning and decision making in complex systems utilizing 5 distinct, non-overlapping levels: (1) System Level, (2) Success Level, (3) Strategy Level, (4) Action Level, and (5) Tools Level.

Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD): A planning and decision-making framework that allows individuals to understand the root causes of un-sustainability and then move strategically toward sustainability. Describes a generic five level framework used to understand and plan progress towards a sustainable society using backcasting from sustainability principles to prioritize strategic actions.  

Full-cost accounting: a method of accounting where the full costs and benefits of the decision are weighed (ie. costs are estimated for the long term impacts of the decision, hidden costs, externalities, overhead and indirect costs are included).

Funnel metaphor: A metaphor that demonstrates the sustainability challenge that results from continuing along our current path.

Integrated Community Sustainability Plan (ICSP): An over-arching long-term plan based on consultation with community members that provides direction for the community to realize its sustainability objectives.

Greenhouse gasses: Gasses in the atmosphere which reduce the loss of heat into space. Human-induced emissions of greenhouse gasses are believed to be a main driver of current global temperature increases and increasingly erratic weather.

Indicators: Measures used to assess whether an organisation is moving towards its vision and goals.

Mental models: Deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or pictures and images which influence how we understand the world and take action.

Municipal Sustainability Plan: (see ICSP)

The Natural Step (Organization): An international not-for-profit organisation founded in Sweden in 1989 by Swedish scientist Karl-Henrik Robèrt. The Natural Step has pioneered a “Backcasting from Principles” approach to effectively move society towards sustainability.  The organization is committed to helping to create a sustainable human society using the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development to communicate the scope and scale of the current problem and empower individuals to move towards strategic solutions. 

Photosynthesis: The process by which plants use solar energy to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen.

Precautionary Principle: A moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who advocate for the action or policy.

Procurement guidelines (aligned with sustainability principles): A set of guidelines to help in the combined functions of purchasing, inventory control, traffic and transportation, receiving, inspection, store keeping, and salvage and disposal operations to ensure that an organisation’s procurement decisions help move society toward sustainability.

Risk: The ‘probability of a consequence occurring’ multiplied by ‘the magnitude of the consequence’.

Root Cause: The most basic reason for the presence of a problem, which, if eliminated, would prevent its recurrence.

Shareholder:  A person or group who owns shares of stock in a corporation or mutual fund.

Stakeholder:  Any person or group who has an interest (a stake) in an organisation or community.

Strategic planning: An organisation’s process of defining its strategy or direction and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy, including its capital and people.

Strategic prioritization questionsThree questions for effective backcasting used to make strategic decisions toward sustainability

Strategic sustainable development (SSD): Development and planning based on first-order principles for sustainability. This field was pioneered by a network of sustainability researchers in cooperation with the international non-governmental organization, The Natural Step.

Sustainability: A state in which society does not systematically undermine natural or social systems within the biosphere.  Achieving sustainability would happen when the four system conditions of The Natural Step are met. 

Sustainability Challenge: The combination of the systematic errors of societal design that are driving human’s unsustainable effects on the socio-ecological system, the serious obstacles to fixing those errors, and the opportunities for society if those obstacles are overcome.

Sustainability plan: Encompasses comprehensive, or integrated, objectives including social, economic and environmental. An environmental plan focuses primarily on the environment.  This integrated planning approach sets it apart from other traditional community plans. Because sustainability problems are often complex and overlapping, they cannot be solved in isolation and are best addressed using a comprehensive, systems-based approach that focuses on the root of the problem, rather than only the symptoms. For example, toxic effluent in rivers affects fish health (environmental), which affect people (social) and financial prosperity (economic). All of these elements and their connections must be considered to arrive at optimal solutions.

Sustainability principles: First-order principles for sustainability that are designed for backcasting from sustainability. These principles state that, in a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

  • Materials drawn from the earth’s crust;
  • Substances produced by society;
  • Degradation of natural systems by physical means;
  • And in this sustainable society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their own needs

System Conditions: Four conditions for achieving sustainability. The conditions are stated in the negative to create the constraints within which creativity can flourish. They are:

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

  • Concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust
  • Concentrations of substances produced by society
  • Degradation by physical means
  • and people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs

Systems-thinking: An approach to problem-solving that assumes that the individual problem is part of a much larger system.  The intent is to solve the problem in a way that does not create further problems down the road.  This approach is particularly important in complex systems where we do not always understand the inter-connection between parts. 

Technosphere: Refers to the human system as a sub-system within the biosphere, in which materials, industries and their products interrelate and  interact.

Upstream Solutions: Proactive solutions that address the source of the original problem, as opposed to the effects of it.

Visioning: The process of imagining a desired future.

List of acronyms:

ICSP: Integrated Community Sustainability Plan

FSSD: Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development

MSP: Municipal Sustainability Plan

SC: system condition

SP: sustainability principle

SSD: Strategic Sustainable Development

TNS: The Natural Step



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