Life in the green lane moves pretty fast… right when you think you have something figured out, another product, concept or philosophy steps up to replace what you had thought was current. A great example of this is the compact fluorescent light bulb… At the household level, we are often led to believe that CFLs are the solutions to our energy inefficiency woes. Truth is they are merely a gateway technology and will eventually be taken over by light emitting diodes. LEDs are significantly more efficient than CFLs, last longer, and don’t require toxins which are found in CFLs… all around a superior product.
On personal, institutional, and global scales we’re often told that sustainability is the ultimate goal… universally defined, sustainability means ‘meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Sounds nice, right? Sure thing… but in all honesty is sustainable development enough to engage society with the appropriate tools to tackle the complex problems we currently face?… Many are sensing that it’s not, that a new philosophy should be developed to better capture our potential to not merely sustain or survive, but to thrive into the future. This, in essence, is exactly what thrivability aims to do.
To properly define thrivability, it helps to start by looking a bit deeper into sustainability, and why in theory it might not cut it.
1. The core of the sustainability movement is about acknowledging that we’re in a hole, a crisis situation, in the negative… it aspires to get us back to zero. Strategically, the approach to get us out of this hole has been about identifying problems and developing appropriate solutions to them… this of course is important, but the issue here is that by placing our focus primarily on problems, we inadvertently develop a cap on what we can create. Our attention is placed on what already exists, on patching and repairing, which in turn limits our capabilities for deeper innovation, for envisioning .
2. By focusing on global threats like climate change and biodiversity loss, the sustainability movement has failed to connect or engage with people at personal and communal levels… this has led many to think that sustainability is a problem for someone else, somewhere else, and for some other time. Disengagement has been further exacerbated by sustainability’s predominant messages of austerity, burden, sacrifice, regulations, elitism and high prices… essentially, sustainability has been mostly stick and very little carrot, and people tend not to enjoy getting hit with sticks, particularly if they feel as if they’ve always followed the rules.
3. Along these lines, sustainability as a term is not very inspiring… rarely do we hear it used in other contexts of our daily lives as something to aspire towards. ‘Things are great with the misses… our love life is sustainable!’… doesn’t sound quite right, eh? Well, if the terminology represents something that’s static and uninspiring in every other connotation, why would we have it signify our most pressing goal of maintaining conditions for life to continue on the planet? And if we really get nitty gritty, sustain as a term basically means ‘to endure’, so a plastic bottle buried in a landfill is sustainable because it has the capacity to endure.
4. It’s also worth noting that we need to restore and regenerate to sustain. For over 40 years now, human demand for ecosystem services has outpaced the planet’s ability to absorb and replenish these services. Our current ecological budget is a little over a planet and a half now, and projections show that demand for resources (and energy) will somehow increase in the decades ahead. Under the current definition of sustainability, lost ecological systems will not be returned to existence. If we were to stop ‘being bad’ today and live impact-free and sustainable lifestyles, we’d be living on a severely degraded planet that has already begun showing itself as being out of balance. The restoration of the biosphere to a healthy state needs to be accounted for, and there are currently very few philosophies or frameworks out there that address this… sustainability as it stands is not one of them.
5. Lastly, sustainability has been around for some 40 odd years now… it carries with it a lot of baggage, with governing bodies and institutions dragging it through heaps and heaps of mud. We regularly see marketing efforts promote things like ‘sustainable mining’ and ‘sustainable waste to energy plants’ that are predicated on inherently unsustainable processes. And if you dissect sustainability to its most fundamental usage, the modern capitalistic system has ‘greenwashed’ the term to the point that it can be translated into business-as-usual in four simple steps… Sustainability -> Sustainable Development -> Sustainable Growth -> Sustained Growth. Basically, the philosophy that we are reliant on for fundamental change has become incredibly easy to manipulate for maintaining the status quo… not good!
Ok, so sustainability has its issues, eh!?!… am I suggesting that we abandon ship? Absolutely not! There has been a vast amount of incredible work done under the sustainability umbrella, with many great policies having been written, ecosystems preserved, and empathetic hearts won over. But what I am suggesting however is that we need to acknowledge sooner than later that our primary campaign of reducing unsustainability is proving to be incapable of getting us to where we’re needing to go. We need more… we need something like…
Thrivability is a nascent philosophy which is currently being brought to life by a network of social innovators and change agents throughout the world who are hungry for an aspirational model of development to work on behalf of. It is a positive and inclusive vision that steps away from messages of austerity, burden and sacrifice and into a mentality that empowers people to take on the deepest societal problems with courage and enthusiasm. It is founded upon the premise that thriving is not something that just happens to inspired individuals, but it is something that can be actively designed into organizations, communities and cultures. To do this, a ‘thrivable’ designer focuses less on identifying problems and challenges and more on actively creating and strengthening conditions that provide the greatest opportunity for a system to evolve and thrive. In this light, thrivability approaches development in a salutogenic manner, akin to a doctor helping a patient live a stress-free, meaningful and healthy lifestyle, as opposed to a pathogenic approach which prescribes medications for diagnosed ailments.
Looking at it in a more inquisitive manner… if sustainability is centered around asking the question ‘how do we fix the mess we’ve made?’, thrivability asks ‘what kind of world do we want to live in? And if sustainability is indeed about aspiring to get us back to zero, thrivability asks, ‘what’s on the other side of zero?’ The philosophy speaks beyond bottom lines. It speaks about actively creating a future we want rather than responding to one that frightens us. And because of its emergent nature, thrivability cannot be approached as a destination, but rather as a dynamic process of adaptation, learning and action. Core components of it encompass fields like appreciative enquiry, presencing, biomimicry, applied improvisation, traditional ecological knowledge, developmental psychology and gift economics. A great excerpt from Arthur Brock here:
Thrivability builds on itself. It is a cycle of actions which reinvest energy for future use and stretch resources further. It transcends sustainability by creating an upward spiral of greater possibilities and increasing energy. Each cycle builds the foundation for new things to be accomplished.
Thrivability emerges from the persistent intention to create more value than one consumes. When practiced over time this builds a world of ever increasing possibilities.
And if we’re looking for applied approaches to thrivability, New York-based Project for Public Space‘s exploration of placemaking has its finger right on the pulse. This group has identified that the current sustainability agenda has tended to work in silos around abstract issues with incremental goals, perpetuation a very passive role for citizens. They advocate that ‘only by helping people connect to, care for and shape the world beyond their front doors will we be able to instill people with a capacity to redress the larger environmental crises.’ PPS Vice President Ethan Kent expands upon this through some positive enquiry:
What kind of places do we want to create? What kind of communities do we want to live in? What kind of world do we hope to see in the future?
These questions are at the heart of environmentalism today, but are seldom posed. Environmentalism can perhaps best accomplish its goals for humans to impact less by leading the conversation on how we can impact more.
Crisis drives people to action but often does not lead us to address underlying challenges and opportunities. Through the years environmentalists have effectively drawn attention to many problems, galvanized action to remedy them and limited the overall damage. But today the movement can seize an opportunity to launch a discussion about the world we want and how we can empower people to make it happen.
PPS further explores this shift from current environmental agendas to ones grounded in placemaking in the following image:
Regenerating Living Systems
Additional inspiration can be drawn from work being done within regenerative development (great manifesto HERE by Bill Reed and David Eisenberg), a philosophy and process that is built around the premise that our communities and earth can be healed through human development. This message is in stark contrast with sustainability and environmentalism’s primary approach of working to save the earth from human development. A brief description of regenerative design via Wikipedia:
“Whereas the highest aim of sustainable development is to satisfy fundamental human needs today without compromising the possibility of future generations to satisfy theirs, the end-goal of regenerative design is to redevelop systems with absolute effectiveness, that allows for the co-evolution of the human species along with other thriving species.”
In his book Thriving Beyond Sustainability, Andres R Edwards confirms this link between regeneration and thrivability.
Instead of restoring ecosystems in decline, the thrivable goal is to regenerate them so that they teem with diverse wildlife and are integrated with flourishing human settlements.
Driving this approach to development is the recognition that humanity must shift from thinking in mechanical and fragmented terms and into methods that are fully integrated within living systems. This is really the key differentiator the philosophies have with conventional and sustainable development, which are still heavily reliant upon mechanical processes that promote strategies like best practices, backcasting, efficiency improvements and optimization of parts. These efforts are generally well-intended, but they often come loaded with unintended consequences. Brian Walker and David Salt touch on this in their book Resilience Thinking:
The more you optimize elements of a complex system of humans and nature for some specific goal, the more you diminish the systems resilience. A drive for an efficient optimal state outcome has the effect of making the total system more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances.
Walking hand in hand with a mechanical approach to development is the mentality of scarcity, which works primarily from a perspective of limitations (be they resources, labor, financial, etc). Scarcity drives the modern capitalistic system as it faces countries, institutions and individuals against each other in an eternal competition for resources. The opposite of this mentality is abundance, which understands everything that is needed is already in existence; the right people, capital, resources and opportunities… they are all available, they just merely need to be discovered, connected, and brought to life. This outlook is much more alive, present, optimistic, resilient, adaptable and responsive to opportunities that present themselves along the dynamic and ever changing road of life. As a brilliant example of abundance thinking being applied, I highly encourage you to watch this video HERE of Stephen Ritz describing his project, the Green Bronx Machine at a TEDx event.
So it is from this mentality of abundance, a much stronger emphasis on empowering communities, and an intent to regenerate whole living systems that thrivability can really come alive and spread its influence. The philosophy has the potential to guide us to redefine progress, accelerate innovation, and influence everything from organizational structures, governance approaches, technology, education, economics, agriculture and theology… much to do, eh!? It’s worth noting that this movement is well on its way as several mavens have already begun planting thrivability seeds into organizations, university curriculums, mainstream books and community developments throughout the world. And for a few accessible examples, the lovely Michelle Holliday’s musings on her blog, Solarium, capture her adventures and insights of rooting thrivability within the Montreal community. The (fairy) godmother of thrivability, Jean Russell, has built a consultancy around the philosophy and Andres R Edwards wrote a book called Thriving Beyond Sustainability that explores the terrain of the emerging philosophy. Furthermore, a network I’m involved with called Biomimicry for Creative Innovation is doing some incredibly inspiring work laying out the conditions organizations must embody to align with the principles of nature.
It’s also important to acknowledge that it’s not thrivability’s aim to replace sustainable development, whose emphasis on working to ‘get us back to zero’ is as valuable today as it has ever been. So long as we continue to face issues like tar sands, oil pipelines, fracking, depleting rainforests, poisons in our commerce system and violations of human rights, we’ll require efforts to bring attention to preventing these degrading practices from continuing. Sustainable development has done a noble and determined job of taking on this role.
It’s clear that the thrivability movement is young, and as it further develops, it will most likely have to confront and overcome many of the same struggles that sustainability has faced. Questions like ‘how will it be applied, measured, documented and verified?’, ‘will we be able to create certifiably thrivable products, businesses and communities?’, and ‘how can we ensure it doesn’t become another word that gets greenwashed or manipulated?’ will need to be addressed for it to take full effect.
A logical question one could ask at this point is if thrivability is even necessary when we’re so far away from achieving sustainability. My response would be a resounding YES! for a number of reasons. The first being:
We move towards what we picture in our minds.
The future is not something that just happens… it’s a decision. It is shaped and forged by the choices we make, the values we hold, and the stories of which we live by. The story we are most frequently exposed to is one of decay, of turbulence and hostility, of abuses of power and short-term thinking. This story has been projected loudly from within the mechanistic and scarcity-based paradigm that is breaking down in front of our eyes, and it has driven the sustainability movement’s primary outreach strategy of advocating for change as a measure to avoid the consequences of inaction. Well, it’s been said that we move towards what we picture in our minds. If the only picture we are shown is that of a future worse than the present, then it’s no wonder why people resist change.
Thrivability is an alternative to this story of breakdown, offering a positive and aspirational vision that we can hold in our minds and actively work on behalf of. This new story can realign us with the beauty of life and its guiding principles, rekindle and strengthen our communities, help us recognize and appreciate the abundant gifts and opportunities that surround us, and understand that human development is not inherently destructive, but is vital in healing our communities and planet. Branding and advertising expert Cindy Gallop has contended that ‘the single biggest pool of untapped natural resource in this world is human good intentions that never translate into action.’ Research has supported this by acknowledging 2/3rds of the American populous as having good green intentions that are not actively being fulfilled. Thrivability is poised to activate this pool of good intention much more effectively than sustainability and its predominant austerity-based messages has shown to do.
Corresponding to this, thrivability can generate much needed creative tension within the greater socio-ecological system. Change happens when there is tension within a system. When a bar is raised, a new standard released or an aspirational philosophy developed, these efforts pull a system towards a vision of its potential and help to combat the effects of fatalism. If there is little creative tension in a system, there is little desire or inclination to change from what is already known and practiced.
A great example of creative tension in action is the Living Building Challenge, an ambitious building standard which has in a few short years redefined what is now possible within the built environment. The release of the standard has energized leading practitioners to rapidly accelerate innovation within the industry and develop structures that were considered impossible to build only a few short years ago . The challenge has raised the bar and has subsequently found its way into many municipal codes throughout the world, providing an actionable vision that architects and communities can now strive towards.
By embodying the ideas presented in this article, thrivability can act as a cultural affirmation of our inherent goodwill; a vision of wellbeing and conviviality that pulls us forward into the future that we want. And perhaps at its purest level, it can help us unite around a fundamental bond that we all share; that we all want to be happy, to flourish, to fully express our gifts and passions within a community that is supportive and value-enhancing.
So where do we start? Pick an idea important enough that even if you fail, the world will still be better for you having tried.
And I’d like to take a moment and highlight that this philosophy and process of engagement is really at the heart of what we at Thrive Design Studio do. We are currently developing a framework that captures the principles of living systems and thrivability with the intent of bringing these ideas to life through applied projects within the built environment, in community developments, through innovative business strategies and creative communication campaigns. If you are interested in working together in an applied way, be sure to contact us.
For a more thorough exploration of thrivability and where it fits into our collective story, please check out this fantastic flash-collaborated e-book curated by Jean Russell, or this SlideShare presentation by Michelle Holliday.