Stop the trend of degradation

We connect the small with the large

The Natural Step takes a whole-systems approach to make complexity simple, but not too simple. We need fact-based simple mental models as a basis for a shared language so that we can tackle the challenges at hand and foster collaboration between individuals and organisations to execute effective solutions. Our approach bridges science with political and entrepreneurial goals, day-to-day reality and intelligent actions.

At The Natural Step, we have created a very powerful image for visualising the sustainability challenge: the funnel metaphor.

The narrowing walls of the funnel illustrate the structural degradation of our life-supporting socio-ecological system by global society’s current unsustainable activities. This message of the narrowing funnel is completely different from a cylinder paradigm, which assumes that although our social and ecological problems are serious, they are not systematically undermining either the biosphere or human society. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.

Do you want to stop being part of the problem and instead become part of the solution?

metallurgy factory
danger area

For whom is this relevant?

Entering the narrowing funnel, we find ourselves in increasingly stressful conditions, leading to more intense competition for the remaining resources. This increased competition yields social problems at all scales of society, such as inequalities, unemployment, conflicts, limited or disrupted access to the life’s pleasures and essentials, and large-scale involuntary migration. This includes the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather events causing increased flooding, destruction of infrastructure and soil and crop failure, leading to uncertainties, increased prices and hunger.

When society moves further down the unsustainable path, the funnel walls will further narrow in and the options available for solving our problems will become more constrained, limited and unpleasant.

Do you realise that this is already affecting you, your family and the communities you are part of – and will do so even more in the future? Therefore our common goal can only be: stop the walls of the funnel from narrowing even further.

The opening of the funnel

We define sustainable development as a strategic mission to eliminate society’s unsustainable systemic errors [1]. Instead we need to create a sustainable society [2], thereby stabilising the resources and structures available to support civilisation. The clear goal for us is to make it to the opening of the funnel, where the opportunities for prosperity have stopped declining. A potential next step is to become regenerative [3]. This means increasing our planetary and societal resilience and broadening our possibilities, while repairing past damage and pollution caused by mankind.

Overcoming the sustainability challenge

Overcoming the sustainability challenge

= degrading systems

= no further degradation of systems

= repairing systems

Assuming we want to win the sustainability game, we need to understand the playing field and the rules before being able to make intelligent moves.

Innovation and economical development for economic growth are not enough to master the sustainability challenge. Innovation in general often helps to prolong unsustainable development by creating new problems somewhere else, even with good intentions. Simply by adding the rules of the sustainability game to the equation, innovation provides a counter-force against the social and environmental pressures and helps us to master our major societal challenges.

Intelligent innovation and sustainable development will not only benefit society as a whole. Both of them will specifically be of benefit to those individuals and organisations that come up with these solutions.

Strategic innovation is key

We need change in all aspects of and within society. Strategies to make this happen include applying intelligent innovation processes, the judicious use of new technologies, driving societal transformation journeys, providing effective solutions and new forms of collaboration, business model innovation, etc.

Even if the challenge is clear, it is extremely important to apply a systems view, to use facts grounded in science and to focus on the root causes to find intelligent and effective solutions. For this purpose, we have created a conceptual framework known as “The Five Level Framework”. It structures information in a way that makes it useful for planning and decision-making in a complex system by distinguishing five distinct but interrelated levels.

The five level framework

Systems Level

The system that is relevant for the overall goal (success) in which the planning occurs. Here we connect small and large, i.e. the parts, the relationships, the whole and its context.

Success Level

The overall goal that needs to be achieved. It informs and guides the planning, selection and implementation of strategies, actions and tools. Here we connect the present with the future.

Strategic Level

The strategic guidelines for choosing concrete actions and tools as part of an overall strategic plan to accomplish the goal (success).

Actions Level

Concrete actions and initiatives that follow overall strategic guidelines for achieving success within the system. Intelligent prioritisation adds to speed, direction and return.

Tools Level

The tools, methods and other forms of support for achieving the overall goal (success). They should be selected wisely, each one designed with a specific purpose in mind.

The Five Level Framework is not part of a sequential process leading from one level to the next. Instead, it has been designed for an understanding of all levels and connections among them simultaneously.

This is the lens we use for looking at our planet and our present challenges. It is being used in the development of The Natural Step Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, which enables navigation and acceleration towards sustainability by providing insights for planning and decision making.

Applying the framework to sustainability

When looking at the systems level with the sustainability challenge in mind, we start by briefly describing how the Earth and its sub-systems work. This understanding reveals to us the root causes of unsustainability, grounded in studies of social dynamics, psychology and laws of nature and taking account of thermodynamics, gravity, biogeochemical cycles, photosynthesis, flows of wastes and resources. The simplified socio-ecological system below, which has been derived from numerous studies, gives us a well-structured overview.

Socio-Ecological System

socio ecological system

The Earth’s biosphere is a system open to energy, which enters the atmosphere in the form of sunlight, generates winds and ocean currents and partially leaves as heat radiation. The Earth’s biosphere is a relatively closed system in terms of matter, due to gravity as well as slow geological processes that put and keep minerals, metals and fossil fuels underground.

Much faster, photosynthetic processes in plants drive cycles by providing food, resources and oxygen for other species, including humans, feeding back substances to the cycle and so on.

These natural processes have evolved over billions of years. Humans are an adaptive, self-organising social species with fundamental needs to be fulfilled. Trust is the glue keeping civilisation together. Humans depend on each other and on these systems to sustain them.

The challenge is that these natural and social systems are being influenced more and more by humans, up to a point where we are degrading these systems on a global scale. In a nutshell, the root causes of unsustainability are:

  1. Extraction of a relatively large flow of materials from the earth’s crust.
  2. Introduction and concentration of persistent chemical compounds foreign to nature.
  3. Physical inhibition of nature’s ability to run cycles.
  4. Allowing the existence of obstacles to people’s health, influence, competence, impartiality or meaning-making.

The rules of the sustainability game, or the conditions that need to be met, are derived on the basis of these root causes. At The Natural Step, we call them system conditions or sustainability principles.

Referring back to the five level framework, we now perfectly understand that the funnel metaphor and the Earth’s sub-systems visualise parts of the systems level. However, this is still not enough to describe all the systems aspects of the framework. Let’s take a step back and change our perspective to see the larger system we are part of.

palatinate forest

From reductionism to whole-systems thinking

We have always perceived our situation of being a small world living on a relatively large planet. But in reality, we have changed to a large world residing on a relatively small planet.

Considering our challenge we must recognise that the economy has prevailed over society and the environment and is still perceived to be too big to fail. Even recent attempts to seek a balance between society, the environment and the economy – also referred to as People, Planet and Profit – are failing for two reasons: The still perceived predominance of the economy and the common underestimation of the interdependence of society and the environment. Organisations using this mental model to drive and communicate their well-intended sustainability efforts frequently experience limited results and impact.

At The Natural Step, on the other hand, we advocate the perspective of nested circles. This mental model clearly implies the interdepence of the environment, society an the economy.

Traditional perspective:
economy too big to fail

traditionally economy is too big to fail

New perspective:
nested interdependence

nested interdependence

What can we see happening in our current society? Very often, we refer to effects or symptoms. We apply a direct cause-and-effect thinking and end up in creating quick fixes. Our attention focuses on details instead of fully understanding the context. There is no doubt that when working on and debating specific issues, such as migration policies, melting ice predictions, inflation and deflation models, or car emissions regulations, we gain expertise on them, which is good.

Simultaneously, we tend to narrow our view, thereby losing sight of links with other seemingly unrelated issues. As a consequence, communication at the general level becomes more difficult. All this happens with good intentions, but often leads to confusion and continued unsustainability. This is what we call reductionism.

At The Natural Step, on the other hand, we advocate the perspective of nested circles. This mental model clearly implies the interdependence of the environment, society and the economy.


thinking reduced


whole systems thinking

Summarising our framework

For almost 30 years, The Natural Step has further developed and continuously improved its unique Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, FSSD. It is a science-based approach with the capacity to build bridges and create relationships between individuals, organisations and systems. As a holistic framework for planning and decision-making in complex systems, it can be applied to the Earth as a very complex and interconnected mixture of smaller systems. Let’s first of all wrap-up what belongs to the systems level:

  • the funnel metaphor
  • nested interdependence of the environment, society and the economy
  • the understanding of the socio-ecological system
  • root-causes of unsustainability

The Natural Step’s sustainability principles, derived from the root-causes of unsustainability, define our success and therefore represent the basis for our approach. Now that we know what success looks like, we can strategically identify the gap between where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow. This enables us to bridge the gap: with creative solutions, intelligent action and effective tools.

Obviously the framework has more to it and is a result of co-creation between multi-disciplinary researchers and academics around the globe. It is constantly being further developed, tested and refined by implementation in hundreds of commercial and non-commercial organisations, and through interaction with thousands of practitioners.

An effective shared definition of sustainability and our strategic approach are indispensable when planning for sustainable development in an organisation or business. Our processes help people to simplify and categorise a complex issue and give input for planning and implementation. As such, our framework creates relationships between, and is of value to, local and global, present and future, ethics and money, individual and collective, challenge and success, organisations and systems, theory and practice.

By changing from a reductionist view to a whole-systems perspective, we immediately recognise the relationships and interdependence of the environment, society and the economy. There is no economy without a society – no society without the environment. Society and the economy are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the environment. The model of nested interdependence also shows that human society cannot exist without food, clean water, fresh air, fertile soil and other natural resources. As a result, it is a very complex ecosystem that we depend upon.

Applying the systems view and planning strategically on the basis of The Natural Step’s Framework, we can connect theory and practice. This is how we find a solution.

whole systems perspective
whole systems perspective

Change comes from within

With our systemic approach we connect individuals with each other, with their organisations, the economy, society, and eventually the whole world. This enables true value creation for all of us. However, this requires change from within. We, as individuals, need to change first!

Accelerating the sustainabilty transition

Many of our current sustainability challenges are societal design errors, interwoven into the fabric of how society works today. Such complex societal transformations are very hard to achieve. They require change on three different levels:

individual to system
Empowering sustainability change agents (01)

The Natural Step empowers individuals to think sustainably by increasing their awareness and understanding of the challenge, the complex adaptive systems we depend upon and what is needed to achieve the benefits of change. These change agents are required for the transition of our society.

Helping organisations get fit for the future (02)

Complex challenges require awareness and capacity building and effective collaboration, for which a clear language and shared definition of success are crucial. We need effective tools and methods to create shared value and make organisations fit for the future.

Collaborating to transform systems (03)

When transforming towards a sustainable society we need to transform entire societal sub-systems. This can only be done by engaging and collaborating with all key actors, with a common objective and a simple but effective process.

Once having understood the relationships and interdependence between individuals, organisations and systems, we can stabilise the life-supporting systems on which we depend.

Does this sound logical? Does this touch you? Do you feel the need to take action, to drive change? Then please have a look at our solution now.

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