Transition towards sustainability: a practical approach

Posted by on jan 11, 2017 in Article, Project guidance

A city showing the effect of Climate Change by kwest/shutterstock

More and more companies, people and governments are interested in sustainability. But becoming and remaining ‘sustainable’ is not so easy. There are many different approaches available that offer support for the transition towards sustainability. I found that many of these approaches only scratch the surface and do not help with the challenge to bring real and relevant change. That is why I use my own approach for sustainability projects, based on systems thinking and adaptive conservation management.

Integrated sustainability
There are many different definitions of sustainability. What they have in common is:

  1. The concept of a limited system;
  2. Responsibility to keep the system ‘going’, or in other words to not destroy it;
  3. Understanding of the system;
  4. Consideration for others, now and in the future;
  5. Quality of life, the ability to flourish.

In three of the five key elements the concept of a ‘system’ is presented. Systems thinking is an approach that zooms out of the challenge in front of you, to find ways to make sense of how everything interrelates, learning from its patterns and dynamics.

The concept of integrated sustainability is associated with systems thinking. The word integrated refers to an holistic approach, namely analyzing an entire system to view the world around us and define what sustainable means within that larger context. The well-known triple bottom line of people, planet, profit is a very basic attempt to have a broader perspective on sustainability. Integrated sustainability goes much further and therefore allows for better analysis, solutions and more impact.

Transition towards Sustainability Framework
Applying integrated sustainability to real-life challenges can be complex. It asks for a practical and coordinated approach. I developed my own framework, incorporating elements from systems thinking, Symbiosis in Development by Except Integrated Sustainability and the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation by the Conservation Measures Partnership. My approach, the Transition towards Sustainability Framework (TSF), can be used for project design.

There are three main phases:

  1. Vision, Values and Goals: The starting point and foundation for each project or process is to define what sustainability means to the project team, company and/or stakeholders;
  2. Iterative and holistic project design approach: A series of steps resulting in a project action plan and a monitoring and learning framework. System analysis and developing theories of change are key elements:
  3. Project execution and evaluation: Implementation of the action plan and planned project evaluation, allowing for adaptation and learning.

Key concepts behind my approach:

  • Using systems thinking to define sustainability goals, moving beyond people, planet, profit;
  • Performing a knowledge and dialogue phase before project design;
  • Analysing the system to understand your challenge;
  • Identifying good strategies using theories of change;
  • Developing a monitoring and learning framework;
  • The strength of iteration and adaptation.

Interested to learn more about this Framework? Contact me for a cup of coffee at