Interview: Applied systems thinking for social transformation and sustainability

2019 / 4 / 23 | Author: enw_editor

“Systems thinking can provide the foundation for sustainable social transformation
through the basic principles of a profit-making business.”

Interviewee: Robert Steele
Founder and Director of Systainability Asia, Thailand
Interviewer: Nao Okayama


In recent years, the movement towards sustainability has been active globally among various actors.

On the other hand, if each actor builds the plan without thoroughly understanding what sustainability is, it will be less effective and short-lived, which may result in just a temporary PR exercise.

Systainability Asia is a Southeast Asia based consultancy that works closely with national and local governments, NGOs, international agencies and private sector companies in the Asia-Pacific region to inspire, train, and enable successful integration of sustainability into organizational and community systems through a “systems thinking approach.”

In this interview, we asked Robert Steele, Director of Systainability Asia, about how they introduce systems thinking to involve the various actors in achieving the transformation toward a sustainable society.


Q. How did you get into your business as Systainability Asia?

I started Systainability Asia in 2005 after working for eight years as Director of Education for the Thai Environment and Community Development Association (TECDA), more commonly known as Magic Eyes, a long time environmental NGO in Thailand. I was part of a team that developed the UNEP recognized Best Practice Environmental Education Program (Magic Eyes Chao Phraya Barge Program).

After leaving Magic Eyes, I decided to stay in Thailand and work on broader issues of the environment and sustainability, with an emphasis on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), which was launched that year by UNESCO under the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), and through the application of systems thinking approach for problem analysis and innovation development. Systems thinking was something that we started to emphasize on with the Magic Eyes education programs after our collaboration with UNEP as a regional training center for Asia Pacific on Environmental Education (EE) and ESD, and our relationship and collaboration with Alan AtKisson, a protégé of Donella Meadows who is best known as lead author of The Limits to Growth. She was one of the leading sustainability thinkers and innovators in the world.

We established Systainability Asia to work with the region’s stakeholders in all sectors to advance sustainability thinking and actions through the use of systems thinking and the AtKisson Sustainability Accelerator Tools. Most of our early clients were private sector companies in Indonesia grappling with how to enhance their CSR and corporate sustainability reporting practice, as well as questions on how to integrate sustainability into their business models. This early interest was primarily due to the passage of Indonesia’s Company Liability Act/2007, ASEAN’s first national CSR related law that requires a company to fulfill environmental and social responsibility.

Q. Are there any changes in societies in terms of sustainability or CSR compared with the time when you established it in 2005?

In 2005 there were very few companies really interested in sustainability. CSR was largely ― and to some degree even now ― seen as a PR and marketing activities by companies to enhance their ‘green image.’ CSR at that time was essentially another name for corporate philanthropy, and provided good coverage for PR efforts to ‘green wash’ the image of companies that were actually still not very environment-friendly in their operations, products and/or services.

Sustainability only began to gain some traction in Asia at that time due to the increased profile of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), because big multinational companies were starting to publish their annual sustainability reports and the leading international stock exchanges were beginning to incorporate sustainability into investment decision making. However, this situation is now changing. Now Leading global companies are addressing sustainability as an essential component to become long-lasting companies and trying to fully integrate it into their business values and models. With the SDGs, there seems to be even more awareness and interest. Unfortunately, SMEs still do not address sustainability given that in Asia they comprise anywhere from 80-98 percent of all registered businesses in a country, such as here in Thailand.

Q. Recently more and more large global companies are publishing their commitments and strengthening their disclosure on corporate responsibility, not only on environmental issues but also on social issues such as ensuring working conditions and protecting human rights both in their companies and in their supply chains. However, there are gaps between their commitments and the achievements. What do you think can bring positive changes in the current situation?

I agree, more global businesses are reporting on their alignment of business operations and products with sustainability (not just for environmental compliance) through corporate reporting. This is largely being driven by the various stock exchanges that have more aggressively embraced sustainability as something to prevent risks or exposure from occurring and to be addressing. Shareholders are more diverse and aware of these risks and will not invest in companies that do not report their targets and actions.

With the three kinds of big pressure on businesses: 1) resource depletion and climate change; 2) rising stakeholder expectations; and 3) increased transparency due to the World Wide Web, ICT, smart phone technology and social media, smart companies know that they cannot put their head in the sand anymore, as they will be called out on these things sooner than later, especially with the globalized supply chains. If something happens in your supply chain, it will certainly hit the news and has negative consequences on public perception, shareholder sentiment and investor confidence. Also, as we are moving into the era of big data and radical transparency/accountability, this trend will increase. More people are educated globally and in Asia, which would bring about more affluence, more information, and thus greater awareness of the issues including food safety, air quality and links to health, water contamination and disease, human trafficking and child labour.

The biggest issue is a continued linear non-systems approach to reporting and to sustainability/CSR by the private sector. If we keep siloed policy and business planning and strategies, then mostly all the business sectors do will be ineffective in the long-term and in the bigger scheme of things like climate change and planetary system boundaries that we are racing across.

Q. In developed countries, especially in Japan, it seems that consumers are not aware enough of the fact their daily lives are leading to the depletion of natural resources. How can we change the situation, so that every person will realize their personal responsibility on sustainability in their daily lives?

My opinion is that the key is to make the visual and experiential the connections that exist between the data (indicators which measure the condition of different systems such as water, forest, biodiversity, women’s security and empowerment and violence against women, emissions, climate change), and the aspirations and behaviour of the people who you want to change. Again, we think systems thinking is crucial part of this, which is why we also run a global education initiative that focuses on capacity building and empowerment of youth, educators and schools on systems thinking using the Compass and Accelerator tools (AtKisson) adapted to education. Changing the way we educate from linear, siloed and reductionist thinking is critical for people to understand the linkage and implications of their daily actions and the trends linked to systems structure and dynamics. In systems thinking we say that “people see what they expect to see and hear what they want to hear.” Also, “inordinately, system structure generates behaviour response most of the time in social systems.” Think of tragedy of the commons type of systems archetype and how to prevent it from occurring.

Q. In addition to large companies, the efforts by SMEs are necessary to pursue sustainability. In recent years, governments in EU are trying to support SMEs’ approach to sustainability. Do you think this kind of approach will become popular in other countries in the world? What do you think the barrier to promote it in the long term?

SMEs make up the bulk of registered (and unregistered gray economy) businesses in most countries, especially developing countries here in Asia, and they for the most part are not engaged in sustainability practices and reporting. They are surely small and don’t have financial capacity or in terms of human resources to engage in these practices.

However, with the strong focus now being put towards sustainable supply chain management by the big players, due to risk factors as mentioned previously, and also consumer and activist pressure on their brands, the SMEs are experiencing pressure through contracts and contractual security to have to start to change. This will be the best way to change them, using the interconnected global supply chain systems. However, what will be required is strict reporting requirements and third party verification, along with different types of reporting by companies on their operations and products, whether it is in a sustainability report or broader and more visible communications to consumers and the public such as through labeling, certifications, and mainstream media focus. Again, education and the type of education in schools to essentially “inculcate a sustainability habit of mind” will be crucial for ultimate society transformation. We must transform our worldview and mindset for anything to really change, as it is our mental models that are the key to designing the systems we live in, or maintaining them, and if these systems are inherently unsustainable by nature, then this really is the root of the problems.

Q. You have been engaged in the SDGs and systems thinking capacity building for both students and professionals for long periods. SDGs cover a broad range of sustainable development issues, and there are various concerned parties as well. What points do you keep in mind when you conduct capacity building to different parties?

In training people so that they pay attention to SDGs, is not to start with SDGs (i.e. goals and targets per say) but start with what people care about and what are their future oriented aspirations, and then from there begin to align the SDGs (via targets and indictors) with where their interest lies. Not to belabor it too much, but I am very much in the belief that they must collaboratively build their systems understanding first before it will all make sense, then alignment with the SDGs should take place much more easily.

As an example, I have recently been working with a fairly young and dynamic Indonesian IT based consulting company that is keen to align their company values, internal processes, and client solutions (i.e. their products and services) with sustainability and the SDGs under the banner of “Leaders for a New Planet.” To get them to the point of alignment, we started with creating a shared vision using appreciative inquiry techniques, followed by a stakeholder and sustainability materiality analysis to identify the priority material issues for both stakeholders and the company in terms of risk and impact. This was followed by the identification of measurable indicators, which were linked together in a causal-systems map to find synergistic linkages and feedback loops which could be leveraged for transformational change both within the company as well as with their outside clients. This is the way that systems thinking can provide the foundation for sustainable social transformation through the basic principles of a profit-making business.