Karl-Henrik Robert

Ashoka Fellow
Sweden, Europe
Fellow Since 2009


This profile was prepared when Karl-Henrik Robert was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
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 Strategy
The Person

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