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Beyond sustainability

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Looking beyond recycling, the United Nations defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compro- mising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” And in 2005, the W orld Summit on Social Development established the following three areas of focus for achieving sustainability: economic, environmental, and social.

As such, sustainable businesses should look beyond popular metrics such as percentage of waste recovery or net carbon footprint. Maintaining an upward trajectory of continuous growth and renewal, powered by a continuous cycle of innovation and learning, should be the goal.

But many, including the World Economic Forum (WEF), are concerned that sustainability, similar to its linear predecessor, may soon be reaching its limits. After all, the dictionary defines sustainability as the ability to maintain a given rate or level. In a complex, rapidly-changing world, this makes as much sense as the current practice of digitizing outdated and inefficient processes. This has given rise to the notion of what the WEF calls the circular economy, an “industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. The economic benefit of transitioning to this new business model is estimated to be worth more than one trillion dollars in material savings.” Which brings us to...

The regenerative model

Regeneration is something we see in nature all the time. Rather than prediction and control, this model shifts the emphasis to anticipation and participative co-creation. This means paying close attention to systemic relationships, interactions, and information flows aimed at supporting the health and resilience of the whole system, as well as diversity and redundancy at multiple scales. In essence, we’ re talking about a combination of intelligent, complex, adaptive systems. As such, regeneration seeks to influence positive emergence. An excellent “go-to” source for all things regenerative is Daniel Christian Wahl’ s book, Designing Regenerative Cultures.

3D printing is one of several technol- ogies moving in this direction. Manufacturing, as a whole, is subtractive in nature, similar to a sculptor chipping away at a block of marble in order to produce a finished masterpiece. Regenerative processes, conversely, are additive. Throw into the mix the notion of transporting digital signals across the ethers to local 3D printers, as opposed to shipping finished goods from a central manufacturing facility, and you’ve got the ingredients for some serious transformation.

As Janine Benyus of Biomimicry 3.8 put it, “3D printing gives us the ability to build to shape, layer by layer. It also gives us the ability to think about varying materials layer by layer, creating bio-inspired composites that add toughness or strength, but that easily disassemble. Suddenly, you can create an intricate architecture inside the product, as well as an optimized outer shape. You don’t need more material to enhance performance. You need design.” The key word in all of this is “design,” which is about as knowledge-intensive as you can get.

KM, front and center

With a mindset of growing through sharing and adapting, regeneration is pretty much what we KMers have been doing since day one. When it comes to opportunities for applying KM, the sky’s the limit.

For starters, there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit, such as capturing, sharing, and adapting the finer aspects of Japan’s approach to recycling. The McKinsey report mentioned earlier also identified a series of improvement initiatives, including developing and sharing best practices on minimizing the inflow of pollutants and other contaminants, and maintaining fiber content through multiple recycling loops. These are just a few examples. Imagine the impact KM would have if it were applied across the entire spectrum of sustainability.

Better yet, the most exciting opportunities lie in the design of regenerative systems. For that, we need to bring our full arsenal of KM theories, tools, and practices to bear, including complexity, systems science (natural and artificial), culture, and ontology. For example, in the world of food and agriculture, opportunities abound in developing, curating, sharing, and applying the rapidly growing body of knowledge about permaculture—a regenerative approach to the local production of food in almost any location or climate.

As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation put it, “Shifting the system involves everyone and everything: businesses, governments, and individuals; our cities, our products, and our jobs. By designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems we can reinvent everything.”

Are you up to the challenge?

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