By Simon Carter

4 June 2009 – Critical to our achievements in the green building movement to date has been our breaking down of the overwhelming task at hand into bite size pieces digestible by everyone.

We have created numerous models, methods and tools, and now many thousands of people are taking action to help green our built environment.

Yet people are still grappling with what sustainability really means. Many see the macro trends around sustainability playing out in the world and are recognising that this is a defining moment in history. But they are struggling to work out their role in it.

Many more are also wrestling with exactly what it is that they want to sustain with sustainability – in terms of quality of life. This is an enquiry that comes back to personal and collective values and indeed, one’s purpose.

Maybe it is time to start putting all of the pieces back together and get a sense of the whole that we are dealing with.

When the green building movement was initiated we commonly referred to “whole systems thinking” and a “holistic approach”. We might well have stretched the scope of our work since then, but what proportions of the systems that we deal in are we actually engaging or even recognising in our models of thinking? Probably only a small proportion.

This is not surprising given we all have limited bandwidth in our day.

While many people have allocated a small portion of their precious time to sustainability, the natural approach is to take on well-defined activities that deliver predictable outcomes.

Hence we typically only ever look at one piece of the whole puzzle at a time. This makes it possible to get started with some sort of action, but impossible to see the full picture of what we are creating.

In the case of sustainability, this picture means the possibility of a much greater value proposition, both commercially and in terms of the social and environmental outcomes we now desperately need in the world.

Theory U is one approach that helps us see much more of the whole puzzle. It taps into our greater sensory and collective abilities as human beings to help us see the greater systems in which we operate, connect deeply into personal and collective purpose and grow our vision.  It also innovates great commercial opportunities.

It was Theory U that helped transform Unilever’s Dove brand, increasing revenue manyfold. It also enabled The Hunger Project to utilise just 350 paid staff and $17million a year to be taking an unbelievable 35 million people sustainably out of poverty in 13 developing nations.

Theory U was developed by Dr Otto Scharmer and others at the MIT in Boston, and is used widely around the world to achieve breakthrough results in many spheres of business and society.

In simplest terms it is an explorative journey following the shape of a U and taking many possible forms from long-term deep explorations to quicker shallow ones.

The sequence of activities and experiences progressing down the left hand side of the U are designed to slow us down. It is a process of opening up the mind, the heart and then our will. This slowing down and opening up creates the space for breakthrough innovation to occur and from there we can move rapidly to action up the right-hand side of the U.

At the bottom of the U the experience is one of having a greatly increased sense of the systems in which we operate and it is from here that our understanding of sustainability can go to a whole new level.

At the bottom of the U, people, both individually and collectively, can have a transformed sense of the interrelatedness of the social, environmental and economical dimensions of sustainability.

For years we have been using the model of the “triple bottom line” or the “three legged stool” to help define sustainability.

It was Theory U that helped transform Unilever’s Dove brand, increasing revenue manyfold. It also enabled The Hunger Project to utilise just 350 paid staff and $17million a year to be taking an unbelievable 35 million people sustainably out of poverty in 13 developing nations.

Unfortunately, these models can actually enhance the separateness of these things rather than their integration – the top of the stool is in fact a device for keeping the three legs separated after all!

The bottom of the U is a place at which people tap into a much deeper level of knowing about the systems in which they operate – intellectual knowing, but also a deeper sensory knowing.

People connect back to their core values and also their purpose in the world. They ask much bigger questions around the challenges they face than they otherwise would.

It was at the bottom of the U that the Dove team, out of an authentic concern for the wellbeing of society, started to enquire into the real impact of their brand on women in the world.

It was this greatly enlarged enquiry, grounded in a sense of personal purpose that created the enormous breakthrough in commercial performance as well as the excellent social contribution that the Dove Real Beauty brand is known for.

Through simultaneously dealing with the environmental, social and economic dimensions, new paradigms of value can be found for all three.

It might be time for our green building movement to go on this sort of journey, build a bigger shared vision and take progress to a whole new level. Over the last decade or so we have careful dissected green building and sustainability in order to be able to comprehend and work with its individual parts.

But the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts. Let’s step right back and get a sense of the whole again. Let’s slow down, expand our bandwidth and collectively reconnect with what is really important to us on our mission.

Whether that is altruistic or purely commercial, either way, the act of putting sustainability back together will accelerate progress and offer much greater returns on the hard work we are all putting in.

Simon Carter is director of Morphosis, a consultancy assisting organisations create enlarged vision and value around sustainability.

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