University of Edinburgh Business School

Sustainability and complexity

Sustainability is a global issue affecting the whole human population. However, it is an issue that does not appear to be gaining much foothold. Policies can appear far removed from practices, there are many different stakeholders and conflicting interests. The three pillars of economic, social and environmental sustainability are not necessarily in alignment. Situations that arise are deemed complex and perplexing, with lack of clarity about the problem, and different interests creating tensions.

Thus, it is perhaps of no surprise to find calls for approaches that address these complex situations to be integrative and holistic. Indeed, twenty years on from the first Rio summit, ‘Rio +20’ (UN, 2012) specifically called for ‘holistic and integrated approaches to systemic development’ (UN, 2012: 8). This notion of the need for a ‘holistic approach’ was not new, having been raised in both the Aalborg Commitments (1994) as well as the Bali Road Map (2007), adopted at the 11th Conference of Parties for the Convention on Biological Diversity (2012).

Holistic and integrative approaches draw attention to systems thinking and the tools and techniques to be found in this domain. Two prominent aspects to any approach relate to establishing the problem and organising to deal with the problem. Problem Structuring Methodologies (e.g. VIPLAN Methodology, developed by Raul Espejo) attempt to make sense of situations which lack clarity and are deemed complex and perplexing. The Viable System Model (VSM), developed by Stafford Beer, provides a model of how to organise a group of social members to achieve an on-going viable and sustainable activity. Implicit are the governance structures required to maintain the existence of this organised group over time, irrespective of the disturbances it receives. Its explanatory power enables the diagnosis and design of organisations, focusing attention upon governance structures.

This is an innovative domain of research which is conceptually developed but is operationally challenging. Irrespective, it addresses the call for approaches that address complex situations to be integrative and holistic.