Sustainability pushes systems to change

September 7, 2016

Sustainability pushes systems to change.  And that is not easy.  Seth Godin put it so well in his blog post “Bureaucracy, success and the status quo”:

“When you show up offering change, understand that the status quo isn’t the enemy of the bureaucracy, it is their entire reason for being.” 

Every day, we interact with multiple complex systems.  Most of the time, we don’t give them a second thought.  But when they don’t give us what we want, we start to take notice.  Even then we might not see that the roots of our frustration lie with a system and not with the poor front-line person who happens to pick up the phone.

Looking at systems in a different way often surprises us.

Malcolm Gladwell looked at a story in a different way in his New Yorker article, Million Dollar Murray.  A man named Murray is at the centre of Gladwell’s story.  He consumed a staggering amount of the system’s resources.  They included health, police, social, addiction, correctional services to name a few.  Yet the system as a whole failed to make a difference for Murray.  Every community has their own Murray. For instance, a review of call statistics in Guelph a few years ago revealed that the police had responded to one home 500 time in a single year.  This is an unintended failure of a system not an isolated story.

A Sankey diagram is a different way to look at our energy system. Canada’s efficiency of energy end use is about 32%.  As Canadians, two-thirds of our domestic energy use is lost or “wasted” before we get to use it.  Community energy plans aim to crack into this wasted energy to improve a community’s energy performance and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  This makes sense but it is very disruptive to the status quo.

An unintended and unsustainable outcome of fossil fuel use is rising global temperatures. Since energy use is woven into the fabric of so many of the systems that make up our world, it makes climate change a particularly wicked issue to deal with.