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Karl-Henrik RobŽrt's photo

Karl-Henrik Robért

      . . . founder, The Natural Step. Once a cancer researcher and practicing physician, Dr. Robért set out in the late 1980s to find "first principles" with which to address profound environmental challenges, worldwide. Since then, The Natural Step framework -- focused on issues of global environmental sustainability and based in the science of complex systems -- has grown beyond its base in Sweden to guide individuals and organizations, worldwide, toward a sustainable future.


Picture a time when all human activities restore the earth, proposes Dr. Karl-Henrik Robért, cancer-cell researcher and founder of The Natural Step. Contrast that vision to today -- we're running out of life-sustaining resources; our disregard for the environment, and non-sustainable activities threaten our life support systems (water, oceans, fisheries, arable land, a stable climate, the environment's capacity to absorb waste, forest cover and food); the human population explodes as the demand for natural resources rises.

The question, of course, is how do we get from here to Dr. Robért's vision of the future?

Take the natural step, he proposes -- do what humans do best. Be clever. Adapt. Solve the problems. Use science. Focus on business. Since the late '80s, Dr. Robért has taken The Natural Step to as many businesses and organizations as possible, starting in his native Sweden, now reaching from New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, and Australia to Japan and beyond. Dr. Robért and his colleagues have elaborated and refined a framework in which to test and implement ideas about how businesses in particular can think and act in harmony with the earth and its cycles. And they've learned along the way.

Individually, people are great at working out problems, according to Dr. Robért. But businesses are group endeavors. People need guiding principles to solve problems is organizations. Rules for the game. Think chess or soccer or business or a family. So Dr. Robért has two rules for playing the game of sustainability (on which he elaborates in much the same way a tree sends out branches and leaves). One: Envision the future you want so that you can "backcast" (backcasting is the opposite of forecasting). Two: Then work back "upstream" to the present, guided by principles which assure that everyone's essential human needs are met. (He borrows nine non-overlapping needs from Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean economist. They range from shelter to love.)

The science of complexity guided Dr. Robért -- from simple rules come complex behaviors -- as he and others developed The Natural Step's framework. They were looking for solutions which worked from the very small (like the cancer cells Dr. Robért studied) to the very large (like the planet he worries about). The guiding principles had to be both robust and scalable so that they can fit every special case -- whatever our business, organization, neighborhood group, family unit or individual challenge. Complex behavior starts with simple rules. Meet the need of a single living cell so we can meet the needs of the planet.

Dr. Robért calls us all -- individually and collectively -- to play the sustainability game. Just as one goes for the edge pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to organize its complexity, figure out the principles that define victory. Welcome the concerns and points of view of everyone involved. Generate a shared mental model of what sustainable looks like. Then play as if your future depends on winning. 


[This Program was recorded October 6, 2000, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Dr. Karl-Henrik Robért outlines the enormity of the paradigm shift through which we are living for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Money and the economy are our current perspective, Dr. Robert believes, concerned that we are running out of life-sustaining resources. He elaborates.

Conversation 2 RealAudio6:46

Conversation 2

Dr. Robért describes a childhood experience which awakened him to issues about sustainability, recounts what he learned as a cancer researcher and connect the two. He explains why he picked science as a tool, confident that human brains quite naturally excel in systems thinking. He bemoans that groups of people trying to think systemically often sink to the abilities of the group's least able person. Dr. Robert defines "systems thinking." He explains why such an approach is vital when people need a shared mental model. He insists that being non-sustainable in business is irrational. He elaborates, distinguishing The Natural Step (TNS) from the framework (rules for "playing the sustainability game") which The Natural Step provides. He explains why it is important that the framework is "scalable."

Conversation 2 RealAudio11:05

Conversation 3

When Dr. Robért began to formulate what became The Natural Step, there was no scientifically agreed-upon framework for decision-making in a complex world, he remembers. In search of a framework in which policies and business decisions could be sustainable instead of destructive, Dr. Robért started with Swedish scientists and ended up addressing all of Sweden. He describes how his daydream morphed into Phase One of his plan, (eventually endorsed by the King!), then Phase Two, where the real work began. He lists some of the results of Phase Two projects.

Conversation 2 RealAudio9:59

Conversation 4

Remembering the confusion that reigned at the time he was organizing his ideas, Dr. Robért tells the story of how The Natural Step's First Principles evolved. He compares them to the rules needed to play a game of chess or soccer. Social principles came first -- he describes his "yes-and" technique to deal with difficult people, among whom he counts himself! He elaborates on how scientific peers and business people began to look upstream, identifying root causes (not effects), finding the First Principles essential to redirecting organizations toward sustainability. Dr. Robért describes the resulting shared mental model -- The Natural Step Framework.

Conversation 2 RealAudio12:59

Conversation 5

Dr. Robért puts forth two elements, key to successfully planning complex systems: "backcasting" (imagining success in the future from which one can look back) and "upstream thinking," where solutions combine three elements: the solutions move in the right (sustainable) direction; they are flexible, and they bring money to fund continuation of the enterprise's endeavor. Dr. Robért gives examples of how management teams "play this sustainability game." He explains why this approach applies at any scale.

Conversation 2 RealAudio9:16

Conversation 6

Dr. Robert describes the individual, institutional and business benefits of not "hitting the wall" of declining quality of life and escalating costs associated with today's non-sustainable activities. He credits significant contributions from Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef, whose 9 essential and discrete human needs Dr. Robert describes as constitutional to who and what humans are, and consistent, regardless of culture. He takes hope in the variety of ways cultures have met these needs, from which we can all learn. He is heartened that new ways to fulfill those needs need not be resource-dependent and offers examples.

Conversation 2 RealAudio5:37



The staff of The Natural Step U S was unflaggingly helpful in making it possible for us to record a series of programs while The Natural Step held it's Fifth Annual Conference on Sustainability at The Carter Center in Atlanta, GA, USA. We particularly thank Jill Rosenblum and Sara Mossman for their help.

Dr. Robért's contribution to the well-being of the world is inestimable. It is also a profound lesson in what one person can do. We are honored to know him. We also thank his wife, with whom he has been in league, on behalf of the earth, from the beginning.

We also thank Ray Anderson for introducing us to the thinking underlying Dr. Robért's work and for applying it in the company he leads.

Related Links:

Learn more about The Natural Step framework at their website.

A version of Manfred Max-Neef's needs/experience matrix can be found in Design for A Sustainable Environment by Robert Gilman, reproduced on the U.S. Forest Service website.

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