Sustain or thrive? Limits or possibilities?
Bill Baue (CONTACT) and Robin Wood (CONTACT) are on a mission to change the discussion about the future of humanity and our planet, and about how our economies function. The idea of “sustainability,” they say, is inadequate, because it implies little more than survivability – a dour retreat from disaster.
But to inspire people to change behavior – bringing corporations along with them – the duo believes a new word is essential – “thrivability” – not merely surviving, flourishing, prospering, blossoming.
“Sustainability is framed in constraints and limitations that suppress enthusiasm,” says Baue. “It’s a terminally uninspiring world that closes you down instead of firing you up. Positive framing around how we can collectively thrive, on the other hand, is inspiring and motivational, tapping into the human drive for satisfaction and fulfillment. What’s going to inspire people to support change in a compelling way rather than a shrinking way.”
Proponents of “thriveability” see it as including a component of social justice. In a phrase used by many thrivability researchers: “Real thrivability means no one gets left behind in poverty, exposed unfairly to disaster, or suffers at the hand of corrupt governments.”
WATCH VIDEO: Thriveability Story
Who are Baue and Wood?
- Baue, who lives in an Amherst, Mass. cohousing community, calls himself a corporate sustainability architect. He co-founded the Sustainability Context Group, a global community of thought leaders and practitioners who advocate for “context-based sustainability”, and Sea Change Radio, a globally syndicated podcast on sustainability. He works with major brands, and teaches in the Sustainability MBA program at Marlboro College in Brattleboro, Vt.
- Wood is founder of the ThriveAbility Foundation. He also operates a corporate retreat center along the southern Mediterranean coast of France. He is an entrepreneur and futurist author of books with titles like “The Trouble with Paradise,” and “The Great Shift – Catalyzing the Second Renaissance.” He also holds a doctor from the London Business School.
They each are advancing the work of the UK-based ThriveAbility Foundation. In addition to measuring impacts in the present and calculating what it might take to stop the degradation and collapse of world ecosystems, the foundation’s approach is aspirational – where the quantitative elements that would characterize flourishing prospering, blossoming cultures in, say, 50 years. Then, from that vision, it asks, “How do we look back on what needs to happen to get there?”
The foundation’s approach is to take existing sustainability data from the Global Reporting Initiative and Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, and compare them to the metrics for thriving 50 years out – and then work on closing the gap. The idea is to shift from a focus on limits to a focus on possibilities.
“ThriveAbility adds a focus on social and cultural leadership – human and interpersonal dynamics,” says Baue. “The search for sustainability has largely been a technocratic exercise instead of looking at something like, ‘Where do we need to make mind shift changes to achieve that?’ ”
Baue says movement toward a thriving world is hampered by at least three things:
- There is a big difference currently between the commitments that organizations need to make to ensure long-term viability of their businesses and the commitments they have made to most sustainability programs. He says this has been called the “sustainability gap.”
- Many key indicators of sustainability used in the corporate world are proprietary, and only a small number of people have access to the data. The ThriveAbility Foundation wants to create an index that is treated as an open and global “public good” serving all humanity, not private stakeholders.
- The meaning “thriving” is not yet uniform. People are seen as thriving when they earn large salaries even though research shows that generally unrelated to happiness. Thriving might also be living within your bounds instead of overstepping them, Baue says.
Measuring thriveability in the corporate context
“A few years ago, I attended a stakeholder engagement with a prominent global automobile brand. Much of the conversation focused on technocratic solutions, such as reducing the carbon footprint of its manufacturing and of its vehicles. As well, there were breakthrough innovations around building out electric vehicles as its new generation of fleets, which stands to radically reduce emissions associated with its products. All of this is positive momentum.
“That said, the really interesting aspects of the conversation focused on a much more profound breakthrough — namely, in the mental mindset of how the company perceives itself and its business model for creating positive value in the world and for its shareholders. The shift there was from conceiving of itself primarily as an automobile manufacturer — i.e. delivering specific mechanisms (automobiles) for achieving a purpose (transportation) — to conceiving of itself as a company that delivers sustainable mobility. In other words, leapfrogging to focus on the ultimate ends, not just the means. This shift would move the company away from achieving financial growth via more “throughput” — or, in other words, producing more automobiles, which have negative impacts associated with them no matter how efficient they’re made or run.
“Thus, a company seeking to achieve ThriveAbility for all its stakeholders refocuses its business model on creating net positive (or even gross positive) impacts across its entire value chain. In this example, a sustainable mobility company is less focused on increasing the mechanisms of transportation, and more interested in providing sustainable mobility solutions, such as transportation sharing, smart logistics, etc. This is the kind of company that will leapfrog from minimizing its negative impacts to maximizing its positive impacts.
“As important as it is to fill the sustainability gap with technocratic solutions, achieving true ThriveAbility requires more profound transformations that tap into our innate human potential. ThriveAbility focuses on developing the leadership necessary to create the kinds of breakthrough innovations that will shift our economy from net negative to net positive social and environmental impacts.
“These solutions will come not from tinkering with business models adapted from 20th Century thinking, but rather are emerging from new business models that regenerate natural, social and human capitals.
“For example, business models that do not need to reverse engineer carbon out of their processes, but rather that sequester more carbon than they generate, creating “gross positive” impacts on society and the planet. Examples would be agricultural products that absorb carbon while growing, then store it during the useful life of the product and then bury it as soil enhancement at the end of its productive life.”
“As important as it is