In recounting how he began to focus on environmental issues from his perch as a leading cancer researcher, Karl-Henrik Robert recalls how he (“somewhat naively”) thought the answer lay only in developing scientific consensus around the most broken elements of human interaction with the environment – what he calls the “basic design errors of society” – as a starting point for developing core principles for a solution. These principles could then be distributed to every household in Sweden.
He wrote a paper outlining his thoughts and sent it to a broad cross-section of fifty Swedish scientists, asking them to correct any errors he found. After incorporating responses, he sent the paper to the group for more revisions. After twenty-one drafts, he achieved consensus and began crafting the Natural Step from his findings. The consensus statement details the scientific situation—the worrisome state of the natural world, how human action is contributing towards a veritable systems failure. But it also contained very convincing arguments of why “being part of the solution rather than the problem” would be self-beneficial, i.e. “enlightened self-interest”. His was the first sustainability effort that was based in consensus and a mutually-agreed upon definition of the big-picture problem as well as solution, and it forms a central element of his innovation.
With this initial research in hand, Karl-Henrik began to expand awareness of the Natural Step through an aggressive multifaceted information campaign. He raised funds, creating a booklet of his hard-won consensus, and mailing them, as he had originally planned, to every household in Sweden—some 4.3 million. In addition, he hosted seminars for members of Parliament; established study circles and television programs; built an "Environmental Youth Parliament" and a journal targeted at readers in the business world, and secured an endorsement from the king that continues to this day. His goal was to detail the urgency of the problem and move beyond political debates to raise understanding. He asked everyone from businessmen to farmers for advice on how to remove obstacles to sustainability, and employed celebrities and well-known artists to pitch the issues on the national stage.
Karl-Henrik began to shift his approach from a focus on the individual consumer, broadening it to concentrate on major actors—universities, municipalities, corporations. He built an organization around the Natural Step principles to help citizen groups, businesses, and other members of society see themselves in a sustainable world, and create a plan of attack to achieve it. His framework led businesses and other clients through a process of reverse-engineering from success, following a sequential approach beginning with looking first at an overall system, then detailing achievement goals, how to achieve them on a strategic level, each concrete task for enacting the strategy, and finally detailing what tools were available in practice.
Karl-Henrik recognized the need to nurture a broad knowledge base, and build an entire system of institutions which could carry theory and practice forward. He assembled an extraordinary cross-disciplinary network to test this framework, mainly in businesses, universities, and municipalities. The Framework is used as a bridge between scientists and politicians and business decision-makers.
Early on, Karl-Henrik recognized that the issue of sustainability was all about teaching decision-makers, who are the experts on moving big organizations toward any defined goals, how to apply this expertise also on sustainability related matters – all in the mode of enlightened self-interest. In this area, leading big complex organizations in the big complex world, experts are generally amateurs. Consequently, this domain – to know how to define sustainability and then keep departments and sectors together into joint transitions – must be owned by the leaders of our time. Otherwise they cannot ask the right questions to experts and scientists like Karl-Henrik himself. To this end, Karl-Henrik built a global institution that works to nurture nodes of excellence and expansion to reach larger constituencies. The Natural Step now has offices in over eleven countries, and has spawned a field of sustainability practitioners housed in the companies, government offices and research departments with which the Natural Step has worked.
Since its inception, the Natural Step coaches business, universities, and municipalities to create better performance and understand their own connections to the larger environment. With the organization, he designed a concrete methodology to implement the framework called ABCD Analysis, to aid clients in assessing their business. Typically, clients contact the organization for guidance in improving their sustainability. Karl-Henrik has established a collaborative process to enable companies to move towards new practices. To begin, he and his trained colleagues around the globe, lead workshops, collectively with managers and company staff of all levels, to (a) teach the framework, and then apply it for (b) scrutiny of current practices by use of the sustainability principles, (c) brainstorming possibilities for improvement and (d) prioritizing such early moves that are smart both to improve on the situation, serve as stepping stone towards future improvements towards sustainable business, and are sound from a ROI perspective.
The notion is not to violently overhaul company practices in one fell swoop, but take strategic small steps which open doors to complete compliance. For example, when working with white-ware company Electrolux, the Natural Step worked with staff to explore ways to phase out damaging CFCs in coolants and insulation of refrigerators, without making other mistakes that would be costly or unsustainable later on. Through the Natural Step workshop, the company emerged with a plan to move to other imperfect coolants, but types that would allow them to move more fluidly to sustainable options in the future. The whole transition towards fully sustainable coolants and insulation, took less then three years once the systematic and logical business plan was on the table. The company also reduced water use in its washing machines from forty-five to twelve gallons, and replaced petroleum-based oil with canola oil in chainsaws. Through the process, Karl-Henrik has helped companies across sectors such as McDonalds, Ikea, Interface, Nike, Rohm & Haas as well as banks such as Cooperative bank in Manchester and VanCity of Canada, insurance companies such as Cooperators in Canada .Companies have overhauled processes including supply chains, manufacturing, transportation, facility construction, facilities, maintenance and waste management. And, not the least, companies have applied the framework to be innovative and competitive towards the growing sustainability-driven markets. Companies that TNS has worked with have avoided problems, such as those linked to climate change, which others are now grappling with in expensive fire-brigading modes. Among the principles are implicit assumptions that people can find their own solutions once they can define the problems. The response to the Natural Step’s work with individual companies has resulted in whole industry groups, such as hydro-polymer manufacturers in Europe, to recruit the Natural Step to help them redesign their industrial processes throughout their value chains.
As one step in building a knowledge base that will be of service to the field, not just his institution, Karl-Henrik Robert has put in motion a ten-year project called Real Change to tap into the resources of academia to help him build the bridge between science and decision-making that TNS was all about upfront. Working in partnership with two major universities, they are systematically exploring the framework and methodology, building degree and non-degree programs that are educating a corps of skilled practitioners who can apply the framework in their own fields. Thus The Natural Step, Blekinge Institute of Technology, Lund university, and five Swedish agencies counting an agency for Technologic development (Vinnova), Swedish EPA, Swedish Energy Agency, one agency for farming and forestry (Formas) and one agency for development and growth of SME’s (Nutek), The Real Change program was launched in May 2008 in the presence of the Swedish King, the Director Generals of the agencies, and professors, Mayors and business executives across the globe. Real Change is critiquing and elaborating the scientific underpinnings of the FSSD framework, and cross-fertilizing fields using the framework. At present, The framework has been elaborated and exhaustively studied through twenty PhD dissertations and hundreds of case studies. The first stage of the Natural Step was based in science, bringing together many disparate scientists and stakeholders to agree to a fundamental, consensus based approach. Being part of Real Change is the next stage, building out the network and the knowledge base by inspiring dozens if not hundreds of institutional actors—both research and practice-oriented to develop the applied sustainability research. More and more universities are today adding their thematic research programs to the Real Change, meaning that they are applying the framework (FSSD) to inform and structure their respective science fields. The name of the program is Real Change, because deliverables to the funders will not only be scientific reports and new PhDs, but concrete change in society. A growing number of business and municipalities are recruited into the program.
The FSSD has been especially effective in transforming how people live in their own communities and is beginning to be applied to peace parks and land management. “Eco-municipalities,” began in the 1980s based on the FSSD and systems conditions, now make up a full 25 percent of municipalities in Sweden—over seventy villages, towns and cities. Eco-municipalities adopt ecological values—based on the FSSD—into their charter, and focus heavily on community-wide decision making processes to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals, reduce encroachment on nature, and meet needs fairly. Dublin, Ireland is the first major European city to adopt the FSSD. Eco-municipalities have spread to the United States, (twelve thus far, brought by environmental thought leader Paul Hawken working in collaboration with Karl-Henrik), several in British Columbia, and national planning associations in America have adopted the framework. As Karl-Henrik describes it, the most important piece of his framework is planning backwards from success—he calls it “backcasting.” The FSSD is a continuation, expansion, and cohesive force for existing strategies such as Total Quality Management, Total Quality Environmental Management, the ISO 9000 and ISO 14000, Factor 10, Footprinting, Natural Capability, and Herman Daly.