Tipping toward Sustainability: Emerging pathways of transformation

Westley, Francis et al. 2011. “Tipping toward Sustainability: Emerging pathways of transformation.” AMBIO 40:762–780.

reading notes

We argue that a complex system perspective that recognizes the dynamic links between the social, ecological, and technological subsystems is needed to understand what we see as the paradox of innovation: innovation is both a contributing cause for our current unsustainable trajectory and our hope for tipping in new more resilient directions. (763)

Commoner summarizes four points of contrast: (1) the cyclical nature of ecological processes versus the linear, means-end reasoning that characterizes the technosphere; (2) the biosphere represents a dynamic equilibrium in the exchange of matter and energy, destruction, and creation versus the technosphere’s orientation toward profit maximization through the externalization of environmental and social costs; (3) in the biosphere, parts are fundamentally interdependent versus the technosphere, where single variable interventions without reference to system impacts and interactions are the rule rather than the exception; (4) elements of the biosphere by nature evolve in relation to each other to achieve system integrity versus the idea that growth of separate parts, irrespective of the system, is a good and limitless possibility (Commoner 1993, pp. 8–13). The introduction of the automobile, greeted as an extraordinary innovation, is often cited as an example of failure to consider the possible system consequences of a single technology. (764)

First, innovation gradually became supply driven rather than demand-driven. Today, interesting new ideas or tools spawn companies that invest in marketing to stimulate product demand. ‘‘Need’’ is created. Second, the new ideas or tools are in themselves driven by the availability of pre- existing technology platforms. (766)

Change demands innovation across multiple scales. At the macro institutional scale, we need to transform our global and national institutions, from a pattern that supports environmental destruction to one that favors long-term resilience and sustainability. At the meso or problem domain scale, we need to create opportunities to incorpo- rate novelty and innovation. At the microscale of individ- uals and small groups, where invention originates and where the early source of support for ‘‘disruptive’’ or ‘‘catalytic’’ innovation may be found (Christensen et al. 2006), we must foster mechanisms and agency that can connect a healthy supply of invention, with the institutional opportunities that emerge. (767)

The emerging work on successful social innovation focuses on the dynamics of scaling up new ways of thinking, new processes for action and decision making, new designs for behavior and new social programs (inventions) for greater durability and impact. (767)

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