Karl-Henrik Robert
Ashoka Fellow since 2009   |   Sweden

Karl-Henrik Robert

The Natural Step
In launching the Natural Step, former cancer researcher and clinician Karl-Henrik Robert has facilitated the outgrowth of a unifying framework for social and ecological sustainability, and built a…
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Karl-Henrik launched the Natural Step in the 80s, a global platform that assists institutions to create and implement concrete sustainability strategies. For 30 years Karl-Henrik Robert has created a unifying framework for social and ecological sustainability. 

Today, Karl-Henrik has moved on to continue building a unifying framework for social and ecological sustainability.

This description of Karl-Henrik Robert's work was prepared when Karl-Henrik Robert was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


In launching the Natural Step, former cancer researcher and clinician Karl-Henrik Robert has facilitated the outgrowth of a unifying framework for social and ecological sustainability, and built a global institutional platform that brings together disparate strands of environmentalism (scientific, social, economic, etc.) to assist institutions, from companies to governments, to create and implement concrete sustainability strategies. Karl-Henrik has successfully nurtured a global environmental movement. It engages a coalition of universities, companies, industrial groups, municipalities and larger government entities to pioneer new ways in which humans can systematically develop into a world that is socially and ecologically sustainable.

The New Idea

When Karl-Henrik Robert launched the Natural Step, he sought to answer a seemingly simple series of questions: how can sustainability be defined in an operational way, and how can we design logical guidelines for how to approach an attractive society that complies with such a definition? In addressing these questions, Karl-Henrik and The Natural Step embarked on the first unified attempt at defining the first version of a framework that would stand for scientific scrutiny at the same time as it would be functional for step-wise and concrete business approaches towards sustainability as well as better bottom line performance. Problems from practitioners to make use of the framework, as well as continuous scrutiny from peer-reviews in science, created learning loops in a gradual improvement and refinement of the framework that goes on still today. Today, The Natural Step is a global organization with offices on all continents, linked to a growing network of researchers, business people, governments, students from master’s programs and other stakeholders applying the framework in their daily practices.

The modus operandi of TNS is to find people and organizations that would like to “do well by doing good”, i.e. creating societal momentum through role models who learn how to improve on bottom line business not in spite of their sustainable investments, but because of them. From Karl-Henrik Robert’s work has emerged the unifying framework of principles for strategic planning. It has helped companies and governments guide ecologically sound decision-making worldwide since 1988. Recognizing the lack of unanimity among stakeholders in the business and environmental communities, Karl-Henrik has worked diligently to develop scientific consensus to agree on the root of environmental problems, thereby creating a starting point from which to work on the solutions. Responding to what he observed as a pattern of environmental activism that was characterized by disconnected sustainable development efforts done project-by-project, Karl-Henrik’s work uses a systems approach that involves widespread community awareness-raising, emphatic focus on joint decision-making, and integrated stakeholder involvement that reverse-engineers from a notion of success. In concrete terms, this means to apply the framework as a shared mental model for analyses of current practices, scrutiny of visions and solutions, development of smart step-wise approaches in business programs, selection of the tools needed for the transition and, not least important, for community building. To have a shared understanding of operational and dignified goals is “an underestimated source of enthusiasm”.

Early in the Natural Step, Karl-Henrik and his colleagues developed the four “System Conditions”, i.e. basic principles for sustainability. Having been applied as criteria for redesign of business and government since the early 1990s, those principles, as well as logical guidelines for how to inform business plans by use of the principles, has been gradually refined into the TNS framework, or “Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development.” This Framework has become the building block for decision making among governments and corporations and industrial groups alike. To date they have been adopted by over 70 cities and towns in Sweden (over 25 percent of all municipalities), several in the United States and Canada, and by national planning associations, international companies, and full industries who have examined and overhauled their processes.

The Problem

The growth of the environmental movement in its early decades was characterized by sporadic, piecemeal approaches to pressing environmental problems such as concerns over clean air, clean water, species loss, promotion of recycling, etc. Given the complexity of environmental challenges, numerous disciplines and sub-disciplines must be drawn together, from biology, to chemistry, and toxicology to economics, politics and other social science disciplines. However, too often those working within the field did so from their own silos, with limited collaboration or cohesive action across disciplines. For example, a scientist studying water contamination and toxicity among amphibians would rarely meet with a doctor studying endocrine disrupters among humans. This trend is also reflected in environmental efforts themselves. Various green building programs, smart growth, climate change initiatives, and other sustainable development projects are rarely comprehensive, coordinated, or larger than the sum of their parts.

In the past, approaches to environmental problems tended to be reactive. For example, scientists identified a harmful toxin after it has begun to cause issues, and in turn switch to a different option that comes bundled with a whole new set of issues. Systemic approaches that anticipated problems before they happen were rarely available. Trends were lost as levels of impact are studied rather than root causes and unexpected connections.

When the Natural Step began, there was not yet the large body of theory, practice, and infrastructure in place to support innovation across disciplines in the environmental field, and the disparate fields—environmental science, environmental management—were undefined and in their infancy. In these early years, the concept of sustainability lacked clarity and focus, though it was much used. There were few theoretical frameworks, or applied research and applications systems to allow group decision-makers, such as corporate leadership, environmental compliance officers, and city managers to figure out what sustainable policies and processes meant in practice. Similarly from the consumer standpoint, there has been little clarity concerning how to make the best decisions for the environment given competing claims and concerns. This challenge is felt all the more at the municipal, state, federal, and corporate decision-maker level, where there are too many competing views, few validated approaches, and a network of advisory firms that are difficult if not impossible to evaluate.

The Strategy

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.

The Person

Karl-Henrik, a former national karate champion, began work as a medical doctor in the largest university hospital outside of Stockholm. He headed a cancer ward and was a leading scientific researcher at the Karolinska Institute, which awards the Nobel Prize in Medicine. He had an environmental conscience, but saw little outlet other than annual donations to green citizen sector organizations.

His shift in professional focus began with an insight from peering down a microscope. While studying cancerous cells, he realized that “cells are the unifying unit of all living things. The difference between our cells and the cells of plants are so minor that it's almost embarrassing; the makeup is almost identical all the way down to the molecular level.” He marveled at their complexity, and began to think about the connections between the natural world and the human world, also made of cells. Understanding them could lead to broader understanding on life and how it continues. As a cancer doctor, he began to worry about cancer rates and other threats to global health, which would inevitably increase along with increasing concentrations of pollutants and other un-sustainability related mechanisms. As a scholar and lecturer on leukemia, lymphoma and lung cancer, he looked at the world with a particular focus on toxins and their health implications, and began to see ties between these and a systems perspective on future health. He was amazed to see parents of cancer diseased children grow emotionally and spiritually, willing to sacrifice anything for their children, “strength emerging in times of struggle” At the same time, he became surprised that people were willing to do so little to help fix the environment that would hamper future prospects for all children.

Cancer researchers and other doctors rarely collaborate—past efforts tended to be lecturers from other fields explaining their work to a room full of other specialists who did not understand it. Karl-Henrik saw the most successful collaboration lay in “clinical conferences,” where experts from a variety of fields join to help cure a patient—from the pathologist, surgeon, pharmacologist, to nurse and psychotherapist and social worker, each brings an area of expertise and none is more vital than the other. He saw a process where purpose was not diffused, and applied to the broader challenges of sustainability. He began to form “Scientists for the Environment” groups before building to the work with Natural Step.

Karl-Henrik launched the Natural Step in the mid-1980s, and began to pursue his environmental career full-time shortly thereafter. Nearly thirty years on, he is now focusing on the next strategic challenge, orchestrating the Real Change program, working to coordinate the development of theory, methodology and practice for strategic sustainable development, with students, scientists and policymakers from all over the world. The goal is to refine, hone, and create action plans around the Natural Step principles, and build a community of practitioners. He is a winner of the Blue Planet Prize, often considered the “Nobel” for sustainability.

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