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Laszlo, A; Laszlo, K.C..; Dunsky, H. (2008). Redefining Success: Designing Systemic
Sustainable Strategies. Systems Research and Behavioral Science. Publication
Designing Systemic Sustainable Strategies
Alexander Laszlo, Ph.D.
Kathia Castro Laszlo, Ph.D.
Halim Dunsky, M.A.
In an increasingly complex and interconnected global society, the need to redefine “success” has become an
imperative for the survival, sustainability, and continued evolution of social systems and their interdependent
environments. A wide range of contemporary human institutions — from corporations to governments,
schools and universities — narrowly focus their structures, functions, and processes (and the strategies that
create them) on the attainment of individualistic, and often myopic, conceptions of success. More often than
not, success is defined in egocentric and competitive win-lose terms and is primarily measured according to
standards of monetary accumulation. Such a definition is at the heart of the currently unsustainable path of
human social evolution at the dawn of the 21st century, and its inadequacy represents a serious challenge for
contemporary conceptions of capitalism. This paper explores and presents a more comprehensive definition
of success: one that embraces financial, social, and environmental sustainability as the cornerstones of a
holistic approach to value creation and gives rise to conditions for life-affirming dynamics of value exchange
to unfold in perpetuity. This, it is suggested, would both re-humanize and re-vitalize capitalism with a much
needed (though not unprecedented) claim to an evolutionary and life-sustaining ethic.
Evolutionary Systems Design (ESD) is described as an approach to the creation of systemic sustainable
strategies. ESD is best understood as a heuristic approach that supports and guides the participatory co-
creation of sustainable and evolutionary futures. It is grounded in idealized systems design and evolutionary
systems theory and embraces theoretical and methodological complementarism from a critical systems
perspective. As such, it represents a future-creating form of participatory inquiry that provides a means by
which organizations and communities may achieve success — not in a narrow self-serving sense, but in one
that is systemic and evolutionary. Through presentation of ways in which to engage in strategic design
conversations, this paper illustrates the potential of ESD as a praxis by which to foster the evolutionary
corporation and, in so doing, to guide the evolutionary transformation of business. It is intended as part of
the active research of the authors and should be understood as an expression of an ongoing exposition on
ESD, treating the issue of strategic design here and leaving that of strategic planning for subsequent
Keywords: success, strategy, systems thinking, sustainability, evolution, design, evolutionary corporation,
Redefin in g s uccess in t h e 21st centu ry
Modern societies have been extremely successful in applying the industrial model of production to create
unprecedented progress manifest in increasing opportunities for human development and well-being. At the
same time, this “progress” evinced in the last 150 years has had significant unexpected side-effects
(Meadows, 1972) that, although ignored for some time, have now become global issues that threaten the
stability of societies and ecosystems the world over. The possibility of higher quality of life for the majority in
human development has remained an unfulfilled promise of the technological and economic progress
enjoyed by a tiny minority of the human species. In fact, population growth, social inequity, hunger, armed
conflict, water shortage, soil depletion, pollution, species extinction, and global warming – interconnected
global problems that challenge our long term viability – are very much the result of a mindset obsessed with
growth and progress. Within the last few decades, there has been a broader recognition of the finitude of
resources and the limits to growth on our planet. Even in the face of massive scientific evidence about the
catastrophic impact of human activities on our planet, many individuals and organizations choose to
continue with “business as usual” – so long as they continue to be part of the privileged minority. Ironically,
of course, the position of this minority itself is increasingly threatened.
In a time when the values of the business world largely influence the values of society as a whole as well as
the possibilities for future generations, the going definitions of success need to be questioned and expanded.
Corporate success is the dominant objective in the world of business – and even beyond. Robert Theobald
(1997) begins Reworking Success with the familiar cliché, “You can’t argue with success” (p. 3). For many, if a
company is among the Fortune 500 or Global 2000, it is clearly successful, and if it is a household name we
rarely question how it came by its success, let alone what constitutes success or how it is defined and
measured. Nevertheless, Theobald points out that many people see corporate behavior as a serious
national problem in the United States. He presents data in which only 22% of those surveyed think that
competition motivates corporate behavior, while 70% think greed is the motivating factor – a finding that
resonates with David Korten’s voice in a 2002 article called “From Mindless Greed to Civil Society:
Restoring an ethical culture and challenging a world consumed with the love of money” (Korten, 2002).
Business practices in the United States have certainly gone through numerous changes in the past decade –
from the rapid growth and subsequent crash of the dotcom bubble, to the scandals of Enron, Arthur
Andersen and others, to terrorists attacks that crippled the U.S. economy, to a war on many fronts that
threatens to do great damage both locally and globally. Undoubtedly, success is not as simple a concept as
used to be thought.
From a classical Darwinian perspective, the criteria by which to differentiate one corporation from another
in terms of success would come down to which business showed evidence of an expanding market share,
or a faster and more consistently rising stock price, or a larger profit margin. With criteria such as these, the
most financially profitable corporation with superior market share is considered to be most successful. But
Darwin is long gone and his theories, while never legitimately applied to the sphere of social dynamics, are
now being replaced with a perspective on evolution informed by the sciences of complexity, and in
particular, by that area of the systems sciences dedicated to evolutionary systems studies.
Nevertheless, “in our day the consequences of social Darwinism go beyond armed aggression to the more
subtle, but in some ways equally merciless, struggle of competitors in the marketplace. . . . States and entire
populations are relegated to the role of clients and consumers and, if poor, dismissed as marginal factors in
the equations that determine success in the global marketplace” (E. Laszlo, 2002, p. 51).
Profitability is the main and almost exclusive indicator of success in the business world. Good business
objectives should always indicate, in an observable and measurable way, how a product or service will
“generate revenue, contain expenses, or comply with regulations” – in other words, they must provide
economic benefits in the form of either increased profits or reduction in costs (Carliner, 1998, p. 382). The
unspoken assumption about business and the bottom line is: the more the better and the bigger the more
However, this has not always been the case (and what’s more, it is starting to be less and less the case,
again). Business, as a legitimate money making practice, is not the “universal human activity it is sometimes
thought to be. It is, instead a remarkably modern and culturally peculiar phenomenon” (Solomon & Hanson,
1983, p. 34) whose infancy was marked by the industrial revolution during the 18th century and supported
by rise of individualism and the Calvinist Protestant ethic. “For thousands of years, business existed only at
the fringes of society. Society thought little of people in business, and people in business expected little of
society. Profit was their only reward because power, social status, and even social acceptability were closed
to them. In this context… the idea that making a profit was the only goal of business might have some
sense” (Solomon & Hanson, 1983, p. vii). As far back as the dawn of human history, livelihood was a matter
of sustenance work integrated with community life and spirituality.
At the personal level, material accumulation parallels the obsessive pursuit of corporate profitability and
growth. In the process, we have confused happiness with possession. Even worse, industrialized nations are
broadcasting this misleading message to “less developed countries” where social cohesion and simple living
might otherwise translate into a higher quality of life and viable paths for sustainable development.
Unfortunately, the question of How Much is Enough has become drowned out in the roar of overstimulation.
In a 1992 book by that name, Alan Durning notes that, “measured in constant dollars, the world’s people
have consumed as many goods and services since 1950 as all the previous generations put together” (p.38).
Clearly, there is no denying that the way of life under materialist consumer-based capitalism is wasteful.
Durning (1992) calls on Victor Lebov who, in the years immediately following the end of the Second World
War, commented on how
our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of
life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual
satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. … We need things consumed, burned,
worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate. (pp. 21-22)
Already in the 1950s, this pattern, this defining but defaming profile of the contemporary human being,
emerged and caused Lebov and others to take pause. More than half a century later, some of us are still
only just waking up to this reality, although many more of us are in deep (and often highly remunerative)
denial. Like Lebov and Durning, Pierre Pradervand of Vivre Autrement has called for simpler living
(Pradervand, 2003). The contribution of simpler living to the emergence of a new, more evolutionarily
attuned culture — one of the sort Paul Ray’s Cultural Creatives (Ray, 2000) could bring forth — is a
sobering yet vitalizing antidote to the ills brought on by ever more powerful information processing and
communications technologies coupled with engulfing global business dynamics.
There is ever clearer need for new forms of production, distribution, and consumption. Add to this the
pressing need for new ways of learning, living, and enjoying life and we are looking at a shift from business as
usual to innovation with people and planet in mind. In reality, this shift is more like a huge leap. In fact, it
requires an evolution of the world view – the consciousness – that informs and validates all our activities,
from the most strategic to the most mundane.
Expanding e t h i c al framewo r k s f o r redefin i n g s uccess
Carolyn Merchant (1996) makes a useful distinction among various ethical frameworks. Her system helps
identify the dominant ethical stance of modern business: the egocentric ethic. This stance encourages the
individual to act in ways that bring about the personal good based on the assuming that a society
constituted of fulfilled individuals equals the collective good. This is the ethos of capitalism, fueled by
materialism, and justified by individualism, that is pushing society along unsustainable patterns of growth
(Balakrishnan et. al., 2003, p. 312). As it turns out, there are pitfalls to this ethical reasoning even for business
interests: “because egocentric ethics is based on the assumption that the individual good is the highest good,
the collective behavior of human groups or business corporations is not a legitimate subject of investigation”
(Merchant, 1996, p. 521). Also, “it includes the assumption that humans are ‘by nature’ competitive and
capitalism is the ‘natural’ form of economics” and as a result “ecological effects are external to human
economics and cannot be adjudicated” (p. 521). Unfortunately, trickle-down economics does not work in
reality and the gap between rich and poor continues to expand at all scales – from local economies straight
on up to the global economy.
The next ethical possibility in Merchant’s system is the homocentric ethic, which goes beyond individualistic
self-interest in order to promote the collective good. However, it assumes that humans have a special place
in the universe and this entitles them to exploit the rest of the world for their own purposes. So the
homocentric ethic is an improvement over the egocentric ethic by way of expanding and enlarging the
sense of self to include a brother- and sister-hood of humankind, but it does not yet position human activity
within a larger span of concern that includes its natural context and setting. Rising to this level, Merchant's
ecocentric ethical approach seeks to bring a balance between human progress and preservation of the
natural world. The ecocentric ethic embraces a systems view of the world – in contrast to the ego- and
homo-centric ethics which are rooted in a reductionistic paradigm.
However, we believe that the ecocentric ethic needs to be situated in a yet larger dynamic context in which
ethical decisions emerge from conversations that are informed by ideals and promote evolutionarily
consonant responses to the complexities of any particular situation. The evocentric ethic is, therefore, a
larger framework in which the benefit (or at least lack of detriment) to the individual, social and ecological
spheres are brought into ethical consideration, making of the conversation an inquiry in which “human
values are regarded as neither relative nor absolute” (Churchman in Banathy, 1996, p. 187), but rather are
seen to be mutable, fluid, and subject to negotiation. Ethical decision-making becomes a matter of balancing
the consequentialist and intrinsic values of social, ecological, and economic capital (Balakrishnan et. al., 2003,
p. 313). (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. Ethical frameworks: From egocentric to evocentric ethics.
Koestenbaum (in Labarre, 2000) points out that “an evolutionary transformation of who we are, how we
behave, how we think, and what we value” (p. 226) is necessary to resolve the paradox between business
as usual and the contemporary global challenges that call for social and environmental responsibility. He
connects this evolutionary transformation to the basic human quest for meaning, purpose, and fulfillment
which have been left behind in the disconnected life style fostered by industrial society. Human depth makes
business sense, he argues, and it is precisely the depth required to move from the egocentric business ethic
to a broader perspective that both seeks – and has enhanced capacity to advance – the wellbeing of
individuals, societies, ecosystems and future generations. “The more you understand the human condition,
the more effective you are as a business person” (p. 224). To this sentiment we would add, the more we
understand the interconnected and evolving nature of the cosmos, the more competent we can be as
shapers of sustainable – and evolutionary – organizations. To focus beyond the single bottom line does not
imply forgetting about the “profit motive” but rather expanding the meaning of wealth generation so that it
includes human, social and ecological gains in addition to financial ones.
From Sust a i n a ble Growth to E v o l u tionary D e v elopment
“When asked what the purpose of business or the corporation is, all too many executives still say ‘profit’,
sometimes elaborated as ‘maximize profitability’ or, in the modern idiom, ‘create shareowner value’ ”
(Wilson, 2004, p. 22). However, Wilson argues that if a corporation cannot come up with a better
definition of its social purpose than profit, it risks alienating itself from key stakeholder groups, including
employees, customers, and community members. An exclusive focus on the single bottom line does not
reflect today’s complex business environment.
In a recent Canadian study focused on identifying the internal barriers to growth of small and medium sized
enterprises (SMEs), the achievement of sustainable growth at the stage of global enterprise is portrayed as
the “ultimate stage” in a company’s life cycle (Bhargava, 2003, p. 16). The life cycle of the corporation is
described as a transition from start-up stage (focused on validation of the business), to a fast-growth stage
(focused on growth for survival), to a sustainable stage (focused on growth for profitability), and at last to a
global enterprise stage (focused on self-sustaining growth). Many questions arise from such an exclusive
emphasis on growth as the “path to prosperity:” Are there limits to growth? Are there alternatives to a
growth-based strategy that focuses on profit maximization?
From the perspective of biomimicry, that is to say, using nature as a model (Benyus, 1997), growth is
understood as part of life but not its final purpose. Growth involves an increase in size or quantity. For
example, human beings grow from conception to their mid-twenties, with variations between the sexes.
Even though healthy growth stops at a certain age, healthy development usually is an ongoing lifelong
process. Development involves qualitative changes and improvements in conditions. Learning is a key
process in human development, and so long as we are alive, there are always opportunities to develop into
more whole human beings. Might there be parallel opportunities for business and for society?
It is commonplace to talk about the development or even the “sustainable development” of society.
However, the idea of sustainable growth for society seems far less tenable. In fact, the global population
explosion and the continuous increase in the size of urban centers are not examples of societal
development but rather of pathological growth. And yet we continue to talk of the endless growth of the
economy as a rational and reasonable objective – even to the extent of equating economic growth with
social development, under the operating premise that what can be quantified is what is best measured. As
we know, standard economic indicators such as Gross Domestic Product (GNP) and Gross National
Product (GNP) count any form of monetary exchange, famously including examples such as skyrocketing
prison costs and medical costs, as contributing toward wealth. Indicators of this sort are highly reductionistic
in their quantitative focus, and consequently poor measures of societal development.
As to international development since at least the early latter half of the 20th century the potential for true
development has been marred by a proliferation of efforts that have been responsible for major
environmental damage and the widening of the gap between rich and poor on a global scale. Regrettably,
global development economics has become largely an arena for the furthering of the hegemonic interests of
the “developed” West and North. In the political debate over globalization and sustainable development,
two assumptions about the economics of these processes have been clearly stated by the dominant players:
“that ‘development’ proceeds, solely and inevitably, through the industrialization and the proliferation of
capital intensive high-technology towards the creation of service sector economies; and that globalization,
based on a neoliberal, capitalist, free market ideology, provides the only vehicle for such development”
(Balakrishnan et. al., 2003, pp. 299-300). Given this apparent dichotomy of views, new perspectives clearly
are required in order to create viable alternatives for truly sustainable development.
From a systemic and evolutionary perspective, development integrates human, social, and environmental
factors in a continuum of learning and ethical innovation inspired by the lessons of the evolving natural
world (Laszlo & Laszlo, 2002). Evolutionary development involves designing new ways of learning, working,
and living that embody social and environmental integrity. It is about creating a simpler, more equitable, and
more meaningful way of producing what we need in order to reestablish the balance between our human
systems, the biosphere, and the geosphere in which they rest. Implicit in this goal is a shift in both our
understanding of what we need and our values about what we want.
There is an important role for business to play in evolutionary development. After a corporation has passed
the stage of growth for required for survival, it has the unique opportunity to make a positive difference in
the success of societal systems and even in the survivability of our species. In other words, the next stage
after survival does not automatically imply domination of the marketplace – it can be partnership in a
business ecosystem that contributes to the greater good. After all, “it is not the marginal or profitless
corporation that creates new jobs, cleans up the environment, supports education and community activities,
or does any other of the socially desirable things that people expect from business – because it cannot
afford to. Earning a profit and being socially responsible are not incompatible: they can be – indeed, must be
– bound together” (Wilson, 2004, p. 24). In fact, emerging research in the area of blended value and
sustainable value creation suggests that they tend to be found together; responsible corporations as a group
outperform irresponsible ones (C. Laszlo, 2003).
From competit i v e advantag e t o e v olutiona r y a d v antage
Leaders in contemporary strategic thinking tend to focus exclusively on benefit to the individual competitor.
It is important not to be confused by the use of the term "sustainable" in such approaches. For example,
Michael Porter’s core works on strategy are framed in a competitive paradigm couched in Darwinian terms
of corporate rivalry and survival of the fittest. The notion of competitive advantage as presented in his
widely read books of the 1980s ostensibly confers what Hao Ma has called positional advantage, in contrast
to kinetic advantage (Ma, 2000). Positional advantage relates to the assessment that a corporation will make
of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in relation to what it perceives to be its direct intra-
industry rivals. However, as Porter points out, “the more benchmarking that companies do, the more
competitive convergence you have—that is, the more indistinguishable companies are from one another.” As
an alternative, he goes on to suggest how “strategic positioning attempts to achieve sustainable competitive
advantage by preserving what is distinctive about a company. It means performing different activities from
rivals, or performing similar activities in different ways” (Porter, 1996, p. 2). What Porter describes as
“sustainable competitive advantage” has little to do with the notion of sustainability in terms of the triple
bottom line as considered by the evolutionary corporation. In fact, it amounts to little more than a strategy
for “sustained or self-sustaining competitive advantage” exclusively in terms of financial profits.
Corporate strategies of this sort leave issues of social ethical innovation (Laszlo & Laszlo, 2002) out of the
picture entirely. What these approaches are missing is a framework that recognizes the evolutionary
advantage conferred on the corporation that pursues sustainability in terms of the triple bottom line.
The dynamic patterning process of change management initiatives that embrace evolutionary advantage is
essentially future-creating. Strategic Evolutionary Advantage (SEA) incorporates notions that promote
collaboration over competition, linking rather than ranking, power to empower instead of power over
others, and win-win rather than conquer-and-dominate relations. These are not antithetical to the
fundamental axioms on which business is based in its most generic and pervasive form. The fact is that
competition makes sense under conditions of unbounded independence, but when there are no more new
frontiers into which to expand, no more countries to colonize or people to conquer, then conditions of
interdependence and mutual interest promote cooperation above and beyond (though not to the exclusion
In business, as in nature, community means that “every species . . . directly or indirectly, supplies essential
materials or services to one or more of its associates” (Dice, 1962, p. 200). Such a conception of
community brings with it deeper insights, such as “. . . the notion of life as self-directed movement. Nature is
not at war, one organism with another. Nature is an alliance founded on cooperation” (Augros & Stanciu,
1987, p. 129). Ruthless competition never was the law of nature. If it had been, we would never have
witnessed the rise of multicellular organisms. Similarly, in a world of great interrelations, tight
interconnections, and deep interdependencies within and between businesses, it makes just as much sense
to take a cold and calculating “survival of the fittest” attitude to the international market place as it does to
let the cells in the toes of an infected foot struggle to survive as best they can. The pretense of such
attitudes is that if we help those in need it will only weaken the entire system, but as we clearly know, not
taking care of the overall health of our body leads to certain disease and probable death. Life in our global
village is no longer akin to that of independent amoebae in a vast sea of possibility. Our shared resources
and common destinies have woven us into a geopolitical body whose every move affects all of its
In essence, Strategic Evolutionary Advantage seeks to situate the corporation in a flow of value exchange
that both nourishes society and the environment in which it is embedded and is nourished by them. It is
advantage to the entire system and thereby to the system's constituents. Only this kind of rising tide truly
lifts all boats.
SEA is built on the foundations of Natural Capitalism, as described and championed by Paul Hawken, Amory
Lovins, and Hunter Lovins (1999). The notion of sustainability to which it adheres is not the linear
conception of being able to continue doing what you are doing for longer than any of your competitors.
That, in fact, is not sustainability but sustained ability. To sustain something is to keep it in existence, as in a
note that a singer is able to sustain (until they run out of air), whereas to engage in a strategy for
sustainability is to learn how to play improvisational jazz through listening, responding, improvising,
innovating, actively learning, and interactively creating (a process which need never run out). When a
strategy for sustainability is further informed by a perspective that continually seeks to position the
organization in harmony with the dynamics of its broader environment (both socio-cultural and bio-
physical), it confers evolutionary advantage on what otherwise could be seen as merely an agile company.
SEA is based on a recognition of the organization’s need to ensure the evolutionary maintenance of an
increasingly robust and supportive environment in which to operate. As such, it fosters attention on the
social and ecological context upon which it is dependent for its ongoing existence.
In terms of the strategies involved, SEA emphasizes the triple bottom line as a standard according to which
ten interdependent dimensions of capital are generated. These are:
1. Natural capital (the raw materials we use as input in our industrial processes and the affordances*
2. Manufactured capital (the finished products to which we ascribe market value)
3. Financial capital (the monetary representation of market value)
4. Technological capital (the implements and methods of doing or making that extend human
5. Intellectual capital (the knowledge and know-how that support human activity and innovation)
6. Human capital (the health and well-being of a productive population)
7. Social capital (the coherence and functionality of relationships in a community and the foundation
of trust that underlies them)
8. Cultural capital (the lifeways and traditions that characterize a society or social group)
9. Environmental capital (the biodiversity and ecosystemic robustness of a bioregion)
10. Evolutionary capital (the potential for a course of action to be opportunity increasing)
By and large, classical conceptions of competitive advantage focus on the generation of financial and
manufactured capital, occasionally including intellectual capital in their purview. SEA, by contrast, considers all
ten dimensions. To do so, SEA employs a particular design methodology that permits it to engage in such
informed practice, that is to say, it incorporates a strategic design praxis.
Evolution a r y Systems D e s i g n: An appr oac h f or system ic s u stainable s t r a t e gies
Banathy looks upon social systems design as a ‘future creating disciplined inquiry’ (Banathy 1996, p. 45). He
* The notion of "affordances" relates to qualities inherent in a situation or in an object's sensory
characteristics that permit specific kinds of uses. For example, a button, by being slightly raised above an otherwise
flat surface, suggests the idea of pushing it. A lever, by being an appropriate size for grasping, suggests pulling it. A
chair, by its size, its curvature, its balance, and its position, suggests sitting on it.
even if people fully develop their potential, they cannot give direction to their lives, they
cannot forge their destiny, they cannot take charge of their future – unless they also
develop competence to take part directly and authentically in the design of the systems in
which they live and work, and reclaim their right to do so. This is what true empowerment
is about. (Banathy, 1996, p. vii)
ESD takes this admonition to heart. It offers a compass by which to orient our efforts to create evolutionary
advantage for our organizations and institutions and, in turn, for our societies and ourselves. Now, any such
process of guided evolution necessarily implies normative considerations. In ESD, the norm is nature, not
idiosyncratic human proclivity. If we wish to give rise to dynamics that support sustainable global learning
societies, our challenge becomes that of fomenting individual and collective developmental processes that
manifest evolutionary consonance. An action-oriented theory of evolution suggests that human beings have
the choice consciously to participate in the co-creation of the future. And yet it seeks neither to predict nor
to ‘socially engineer’ the future. Rather, it aims to create the conditions for the emergence of sustainable
In systems such as contemporary society, evolution is always a promise and devolution
always a threat. No system comes with a guarantee of ongoing evolution. The challenge is
real. To ignore it is to play dice with all we have. To accept it is not to play God – it is to
become an instrument of whatever divine purpose infuses the universe. (Laszlo, 1996, p.
The orientation of proactive evolutionary facilitation – which we call anticipatory democracy – is essentially
possibilistic. The aphorism of learning to adjust the sails rather than seeking to direct the wind best captures
this spirit of evolutionary consonance. Learning to sail the currents of evolution – not just to ‘go with the
flow’ but to become active participants in the journey – is at the heart of any effort to create the
evolutionary corporation. Bela Banathy writes about the desired characteristics of designers in his 1996
book, Designing Social Systems in a Changing World – characteristics such as courage, confidence, willingness
to take risks, situational sensitivity, flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, and the ability to move
between synthesis and analysis (Banathy 1996, p. 53). Certainly, design is for the bold, the daring, and the
caring, although it does not admit hubris, self-aggrandizement, or any form of personal or species
apotheosis. It is generally an urgent task, and the proactive evolutionary facilitator is usually driven by an
empathetic sense of concern for the well-being of Earth and all that is in it. This is the sense of response-
ability that ESDers can neither shirk nor deny. Together with the more-than-human world with which we
engage in strategic design, we seek to create designs that have a ‘goodness of fit’ with the dynamics of our
larger society, with our own expectations and with the expectations of the systemic environment in which
they are nested and situated.
Once we get a sense of general evolutionary dynamics, we can understand how it is that society, and the
social institutions of which it is comprised, are neither directionless nor directed as such. As systems that
incorporate purposeful change agents with conscious intent, corporations manifest the potential for self-
directed conscious evolution. So while thriving organizations cannot be manufactured or engineered by
planning or architecture, the conditions that favor the emergence of healthy, sustainable, and evolutionarily
robust environments for their development can be consciously created. Direction thereby emerges –
through the input and invitation of evolutionary systems design in ways that allow the evolutionary
corporation to be direction-generating and therefore directional.
The evolutionary corporation – as described by Nattrass and Altomare (1999), for example – emerges
through the evolutionarily informed design of conditions that nurture sustainable communities. Through the
developmental steps involved in ESD, it is set on a path of evolutionary emergence. By creating mutually
supportive cycles of genuine value exchange with both internal and external stakeholders, such organizations
manage to set themselves on a developmental path that in wisdom cultures would be said to have heart. It
is this sort of process of vital sustainability that makes the evolutionary corporation vibrant and alive and that
distinguishes such thriving organizations from those that are merely self-sustaining. In this sense, the
sustainability of the organization can only be gauged by its consonance with the dynamic sustainability of the
whole system of which it is a part.
A path with heart speaks to the higher calling in each of us to “be the change we wish to see in the world,”
as Mohandas Gandhi said so well. But to set ourselves and our social institutions on such a path says nothing
of the process by which we move ourselves along it. It is not enough to imbue our organizations with an
evolutionary spirit; we must engage in ways that permit us to embody – and in-corporate – processes of
evolutionary development. This is the objective of strategic evolutionary management. There is evidence that
companies are beginning to define themselves and their objectives in ways that resonate with this spirit. For
example, the industrial products giant, DuPont, defines it’s objective in terms of “increasing shareholder and
societal value while decreasing environmental footprint” and asserts that “to thrive, healthy businesses need
healthy communities.” These perspectives derive from their overall corporate vision “to be the world's most
dynamic science company, creating sustainable solutions essential to a better, safer and healthier life for
people everywhere” (from the DuPont website at www.DuPont.com). The traditional notion of “sustainable
management” is being replaced by the broader and more encompassing notion of “sustainability
management” in the eyes of the strategic evolutionary manager. In terms similar to those used by Presidio
World College to define the focus of its MBA, sustainability management is the creative and responsible
stewardship of resources — human, natural, and financial — to generate stakeholder value while contributing to
the well-being of current and future generations.
It is common to draw a distinction between those who can walk their talk and those who merely talk it. In
business, this distinction alludes to the practices of those corporations that do more than merely pay lip-
service to issues of sustainability. It is one thing to project an image of social and environmental responsibility
and quite another to have that image correspond directly with the lived reality of corporate identity. When
image and identity are out of sync, the organization lays itself open to accusations of greenwashing.
However, even when aligned, the corporation that walks its talk may still not be truly evolutionary, for as
Erich Jantsch said in The Self-Organizing Universe (1980), “to live in an evolutionary spirit means to engage
with full ambition and without any reserve in the structure of the present, and yet to let go and flow into a
new structure when the right time has come.” Being able to do this involves a form of evolutionary alchemy
that implies doing more than just walking the talk; it involves being able to live the walk. But even this is not
the mark of the truly evolutionary corporation, for it is quite possible to live one’s walk in a studied and
stultified way. The difference that makes a difference, to borrow a turn of phrase from Gregory Bateson, is
the spirit in which the entire corporation engages in its day-to-day future-creating activity. The organization
that is able to create practical and visionary means that match the inspirational ends it sets for itself as an
evolutionary change agent is the one that will truly be able to dance the path. Dancing the path is the both
the mode and the means through which an evolutionary corporation bridges the visionary spirit of
evolutionary development with the practical competence of truly embodying a path with heart. ESD
provides a flexible and changeable scaffolding for the nascent evolutionary corporation to move from talking
the talk, to walking the talk, to living the walk, and finally to dancing the path of evolutionary development as
a means to achieving true evolutionary advantage for itself and the ecological and social systems in which we
are embedded and entangled.
The change management scaffolding provided by ESD enables the evolutionary corporation to self-organize
at a higher level of social coordination. In other words, while a top-down approach to designing society as a
whole may be impracticable as well as ethically dubious, the design of conditions that support the arising of
evolutionary organizations, and through them, the further emergence of a sustainable society, is not. This
approach to guided evolution is bottom-up, and as such, it is consistent with the nature of evolutionary
development in the chemical, physical, biological, and societal realms. The whole point of design, in this
context, is now to make the evolutionary process reflective of itself – that is, to create the conditions for us
to engage in change management in a conscious, purposeful, intentional way while still maintaining alignment
with the broader evolutionary dynamics of which we are a part.
Characteristic s o f Evolution a r y S ystems D esign
Many strategic approaches use systems thinking to involve stakeholders in a participatory process and to
consider the interconnections between the organization and its context. Interactive management, soft
systems methodology, social systems design, and total systems intervention are examples of systems
approaches that put values and participation at the core of their process. However, none of these
approaches directly address social and environmental issues as they impact the creation of organizational
futures. In fact, many systems approaches can be used by corporations to achieve their “business as usual”
goals of growth and competitive advantage.
Evolutionary Systems Design operates by way of a scaffolding comprised of many of the powerful processes
and structures provided by a variety approaches in the systems and complexity sciences which are
combined and integrated within an ethical framework that explicitly fosters corporate citizenship.
Evolutionary Systems Design:
• is not a scientific method in the classical sense of having clear steps to follow and procedures to
complete. It is a flexible heuristic that demands creativity and intuition in addition to rationality;
• is not an algorithmic process with predictable outcomes and does not come with “prepackaged” rules
and procedures for any group to use;
• is not focused on problem-solving but rather on envisioning alternatives and transcending unviable
• is different from planning, which projects the present into the future, and has nothing to do with “social
engineering” approaches, which seek to predict the future and to create deterministic outcomes based
upon relative certainties ascribed to those predictions.
ESD is a heuristic in the sense of its use to explore possibilities within a set of “generative rules” that involve
defining the boundaries of an inquiry and alternative paths of exploration (François, 1997, p. 167). The
heuristic of ESD has three components: a metatheoretical component which provides broad conceptual
boundaries for creative exploration; a metamethodological component which provides a universe of
potentially complementary approaches (e.g., models, methodologies, methods, and tools); and a guiding
moral component — an evolutionary ethic — which includes the explicitly held and ever-evolving values
and assumptions that serve as the criteria by which to guide the future-creating inquiry. ESD is open to
continuous self-design since it can be seen as a heuristic for creating heuristics appropriate to each given
designing community that employs it. It relies heavily on intuition as well as on the understanding of the
knowledge base that supports it. In contrast to a method, which suggest a well-established and standardized
scientific procedure, ESD is an approach that suggests a flexible and comprehensive way of engaging in
As a result, ESD is best understood as a heuristic approach that supports and guides the participatory co-
creation of sustainable and evolutionary futures. It does not prescribe what should be designed or how to
go about it. Yet it does arise within an evolutionary ethic that sets forth certain types of “attractors” – such
as the instrumental value of sustainability and the intrinsic value of life. It also suggests possible approaches,
tools, and resources that may be useful in the design task. The participants in a design process create their
own instantiation of ESD – by selecting approaches, combining ideas, and informing their creative
exploration with appropriate resources according to the ideal system images they create for themselves.
However, even though there are as many versions of ESD as there are design teams who employ it, a
common denominator always remains: the continuous exploration of evolutionary values that inform the
future-creating inquiry. (See Figure 1, above.)
ESD makes explicit its commitment to lifelong learning. Learning enables design while design encourages
learning. There are many paths for the journey toward a sustainable and evolutionary future, and learning is
the path-finding process.
The sca f foldin g o f ESD
ESD consists of flexible processes and contents that each organization can adapt and redesign to meet its
particular needs and objectives (see Figure 2). These processes and contents come together in learning and
Figure 2. The evolving conversation guided by the scaffolding of ESD
The importance and power of dialogue in organizational and community settings has become a common
topic (e.g., Brown & Isaacs, 1997; Bohm, 1996; Wheatley, 2002). Conversation is a core human process
through which we create our cultures and make decisions about our present and our future. True dialogue
is “thinking together” (Bohm, 1996). Nevertheless, as an open ended process, it demands specific
competencies from the participants and it is most productive when it is facilitated with flexible guidelines.
The provision of these guidelines is the intention of ESD as a learning and design scaffolding.
As inidcated in Figure 2, the processes involved in ESD are:
• Generative processes: The processes through which the community learns to become and create itself as
a healthy and authentic community. Through generative conversation, the members of the community
learn to develop their individual authenticity and their collective potential.
• Evolutionary learning processes: Through evolutionary learning, the members of the community develop
the competencies and sensitivities that can empower them as Evolutionary Systems Designers —
capable of engaging in the creation of evolutionary communities. Evolutionary learning is guided by an
agenda based on the stages of evolutionary development that goes from evolutionary consciousness to
• Strategic processes: Strategic processes involve purposeful participatory future-creating design. The
community learns how to shape their social systems, create their future, and prepare for and engage in
• Integration processes: The planning and design phases meet through integration processes that bring the
community into a dynamic and ongoing design conversation with their environment (both bio-physical
and socio-cultural). This conversation is to be understood as the actions and interactions that
community members engage in as they consciously shape and are shaped by their environment.
The evolutionary learning agenda of ESD that guides the community building, learning, design, and action is
based on the four stages of evolutionary development (Laszlo, 2004) which are:
• Evolutionary consciousness: This stage involves the expansion of an egocentric consciousness beyond the
immediate bounds of atomistic individuality. It involves gaining the sense-ability of being able to
empathize with other beings and processes and to experience the interconnected nature of the world
in which we live. It also implies a heightening of awareness of the processes of evolution of which we
are a part in order to be better able to co-create evolutionary pathways for ourselves and our
• Evolutionary literacy: This involves a grounded understanding of the evolving notions of evolution and of
the processes that can empower us to participate consciously in it.
• Evolutionary competence: Evolutionary competence is about developing the skills and abilities to act upon
the awareness and understanding gained in the two previous stages and involves a process of self-
empowerment as evolutionary systems designers.
• Evolutionary praxis: This stage marks the ongoing engagement with the world as evolutionary systems
designers participating in conscious evolution.
The processes and stages come together to create a framework on which the community building, learning,
design, and action are woven together through disciplined and purposeful conversation (see Figure 2).
A tour throug h t h e possibi l i t i e s of the st r a t egic design c o n v e rsation
The creation of a healthy and authentic community, and the enabling of such a community as a learning
community are aspects of an important inquiry for the evolution of contemporary social systems – families,
nonprofit organizations, corporations, educational institutions. The design of systemic sustainable strategies in
the business world cannot be accomplished through old ways of thinking and outdated approaches for
decision making. The foundations of community and the spirit of collaborative learning are conditions
necessary for strategic design conversations. Evolutionary systems design is a proposal for engaging in a
creative process that links what matters most for each individual and group with the collective self-interest
of humanity and planetary life as a whole, that considers present and future generations of all species, that
evolves current forms of social organization to align them with the dynamic processes of the cosmos.
What follows is a general description of the type of social systems design (SSD) architecture developed by
Bela H. Banathy (1996) and adapted to evolutionary systems design at the stage of strategic design
conversations. This architecture can be thought of as an intellectual technology for evolutionary systems
designers (those to whom we sometimes refer as ESDers or, more aptly, as ESDoers). In this section, we
introduce the dynamic phases of design, and address you, the reader, as designer.
The organizational principles of this technology are what we refer to as the scaffolding upon which to
construct particular design efforts. However, as previously suggested, this intellectual technology should not
be treated as though it were a set of procedural rules or an algorithmic protocol of the sort to be
“implemented” from an instruction manual. ESD is more akin to dancing than it is to engineering. It is also
important to bear in mind that such appreciative human expression can never be authentic if it is overly
orchestrated – although this isn’t meant to imply that it is all a matter of pure spontaneity or that it requires
practice or rehearsal. As a scaffolding, the design architecture is meant precisely to support your design
efforts along these lines until they eventually become (second) nature.
The basic architecture of ESD rests on four thinking/action territories or design “spaces” essential to
Banathy’s SSD. These spaces inform a design process that is not intrinsically evolutionary, but when
informed by perspectives such as we have presented, they offer a means through which to engage in a
praxis for sustainable development and strategic evolutionary management. Additional valuable perspectives
can be found within General Evolution Theory and Lifelong Tranformative Learning Philosophy (see A.
Laszlo, 2001 and 2003).
The design spaces can be mapped as follows:
The Design Spaces of ESD
of the future
• Description of the current situation
• Generation of core ideas and core values
• Creation of an image of the future
• Definition of evaluation criteria
• Experimentation with solution alternatives
Organization of knowledge relevant
for the design process:
• content and context of design
• design models,methods, tools from
which to select
Three systems models:
Figure 3. The design spaces of evolutionary systems design
These design spaces are the territory for the strategic design conversation. The way this works is to start on
the left and work your way over to the right, dipping in and out of the other two spaces in a recursive and
iterative fashion (see the spiraling process in Figure 4). In the front-end, you get a reading on where you and
your co-designers are by describing/analyzing the current state of affairs. This first circle on the map depicts
the space of exploration and image creation. In this space you and your co-designers do the following:
analyze the current state of the organization and describe it in terms of the role it plays (i.e., its function)
in its broader context (whether that be society, a certain ecosystem, the business world, or even your
explore the characteristics of that larger system in which it is nested, then
based on your understanding of the system-relevant implications of this examination (in other words,
on your perception of the implications of whatever broader emergent conditions it represents),
you formulate core ideas and core values for your intended evolutionary organization, and based on all
create an initial image of the desired future system you wish to co-create.
The information and knowledge that you generate in this first space of exploration are placed in the next
space of knowledge as input to design. This is the space at the bottom of the diagram, where you and your
team of co-designers also deposit knowledge about the intellectual technology of design and, most
importantly, collect and organize information/knowledge that informs the generation of design alternatives
and supports your design solution as they begin to take shape. Not only do you “deposit” knowledge there,
you also, of course, draw on that knowledge to inform your design — that, after all, is the whole point of
depositing it there in the first place. What you are building is a Knowledge Base Support System (KBSS) for
the particular ESD project in which you are engaged. As part of the process of building an operational KBSS,
an exploration of ideas such as the ones covered in the first part of this paper (rethinking success, expanding
ethical frameworks, and moving from sustainable growth to evolutionary development and from competitive
advantage to evolutionary advantage) is an important foundation to guide and shape the design process.
The top circle represents the space in which you test the various design alternatives that you generate as you
loop through the other design spaces. The basis of this testing is your set of criteria to assure that the
processes and products of design are sustainable and to continuously assess if the emerging system has the
greatest goodness of fit between the values that guide your inquiry and the constraints imposed by specific
needs and the context in which the design is taking place. It is in this space where “evidence” is sought to
test for the relative degree of dynamic harmony between the ideal image of the company you wish to be as
generated in the first space and the emerging real-world image that you are midwifing into existence.
The last of the design spaces, over on the right of the diagram above, is where you display the model of
your nascent evolutionary organization (we’ll use a corporation as an example here) in the form of a
comprehensive description of what it will be like and what its systemic environment will be like. This
description can take many forms – including systems models (e.g., Banathy, 1992), future histories or
scenarios (e.g., Schwartz, 1991), and other forms of creative narratives and graphic representations limited
only by the creativity of the designers. Of course, just as evolution is never finished, design is never finished
either. In fact, one of the key precepts of design is that “design never ends.” Once you have a model of the
system and you wish to create the conditions for its emergence, you are, in effect, onto your next design
project! In any design journey, as you move toward the horizon, the horizon moves away from you: your
objective is not to “reach” the horizon but to keep sailing the currents of change, and to do more than just
stay afloat — to create a process of dynamic equilibrium, of evolutionary consonance, as you learn to ride
the winds. So while part of your design journey may branch off into a more strategic mode for the
implementation of the design you’ve come up with (i.e., the planning stage that complements the design),
another part continues round to the first space of image exploration and asks the same questions given the
consequences and implications of the new realities you are bringing into being.
The spiraling path you and your team of co-designers need to follow through the design spaces is as follows
(see Figure 4):
formulate the core definition — a description of the purposes — of the system,
devise systems specifications against which to
design the ideal model functions required to attain the purposes of your evolutionary corporation, and
design the system structure that will have the organizational capacity and the human capability to bring
the evolutionary corporation to life.
Design In form ation
Core De finition
Figure 4. The spiraling process of creating design solutions
The first iteration consists of a broad-brush description of the future of the corporation. The most
important aspect of this exploratory phase in the design process is “transcending” the current state in order
to leave behind what is limiting the evolutionary potential of the organization. To enable the leaping out to
envision an ideal future, it is helpful to ask: what would happen if we were not to transform the system?
• Transcending involves dreaming the ideal and describing “what is the system about?” in terms of a
mission and vision for the evolutionary corporation.
• You also ask “what is the shared vision of all these people with respect to the societal function of this
company?” In other words, what role will we play in fostering constructive and life-affirming futures so
that it generates financial, social and environmental “profits.”
• And “how are we including the voices of the voiceless in the design process? — part time employees
and other peripheral support staff, those employees who have not yet been hired, and anyone at all
who can’t be directly involved in the design effort but still stands to be affected by it, including future
generations and beings of our more-than-human world (e.g., plants and animals who may be innocent
Essentially, this first cycle involves thinking about what it means to form an evolutionary corporation – asking
questions that can energize the evolutionary learning process to move collectively toward possibilities for
The second time around the spiral of design spaces involves developing the specifications of the
evolutionary corporation. The core definitions generated on the first go-round serve as the basis for
developing system specifications on this round. The kind of questions you need to ask now involve:
• “Who are the clients of the evolutionary corporation? – whom does it benefit and whom does it serve?
• “What services should be offered to them?”
• “Where, when, and how should those services be provided?”
• “Who should ‘own’ the system?”
• “How should you distribute ownership?”
• “What rights and responsibilities should owners have?”
• “How should the evolutionary corporation relate to corporations and other social, ecosystemic, and
physical systems in the broader environment with which it has interactions and interrelations?”
Once you have gone around the spiral of design spaces with these sorts of question in mind (you don’t
necessarily need to answer all of them — remember, this is a creative dance, not an engineering project!),
you may find that you need to make some modifications and adjustments to your core definition. That’s
perfectly fine. In fact, such revision is essential to maintaining clarity and accuracy of vision. It is important to
assure that everything generated through the design process is internally consistent and relationally
When you get to the third time around the spiral, you begin to work out the system of functions that
describe how the evolutionary corporation will operate once you’ve finished the first full iteration of design.
The core definition and the systems specifications developed in the previous two spirals provide the basis
for considering and selecting the functions that it will carry out. The sort of questions you will want to
consider now include:
• “What key functions (and sub-functions) should the evolutionary corporation carry out in order to
enable it to attain its purpose and provide the services identified in the previous cycle?” Think in terms
of verbs or actions.
• “How do these functions (and their sub-functions) interact and how can they be organized into a
system of functions?” In other words, you’re looking to identify the major sets of roles to be carried out
within each key functional area and you’re trying to see how they can be linked with each other to form
discrete subsystems — just as the nervous system or the digestive system form coherent subsystems
within each living human system. Both are composed of linked systems with specialized roles (e.g., the
brain, spinal cord, nerves, and ganglia; and the stomach, pancreas, and intestines, in each respective
Of course, the example of organs, organ systems, and organisms is merely suggestive of the forms of
organization you ought to identify in this spiral: there are limitations in thinking of the social system as an
organism. For one thing, the organs and organ systems within organisms can’t decide to improve themselves
or to modify their functions in order to bring about a change in the overall system, whereas in a company,
the employees and organizational sub-units can. In living systems the purposes of the organs are
circumscribed by the purpose of the organism in which they are found, whereas the purposes of the
individuals in an organization transcend the purposes of the organization in which they are found. This
makes all the difference in the world. It is what allows us to engage in ESD, to consciously steward
processes of evolutionary development that foster creative, constructive, and life-affirming futures, and to
purposefully create evolutionary organizations through which to do so.
The fourth loop around the four design spaces gives form to the functions you just identified by describing
the organizational structure that will allow the coordination and integration of the roles and activities. After
this final iteration, you are ready to bring together in a creative way a rich description of the future system.
This description or model is the attractor that will guide the day to day operations so that every action in
the organization becomes a step in the direction of your collectively envisioned ideal.
As should be fairly evident by now, the strategic design conversation is a very detailed and challenging
process of generating strategies, processes and structures to guide the organization on a journey of
sustainable and evolutionary development. This is the Design Journey, and it is through it that a design
outcome emerges on the first iteration of the process and continues to be further developed and evolved
as the conversation unfolds. This journey involves moving through the four spaces in a non-linear process of
spiraling from one space to another, moving counter-clockwise over the map in a recursive dynamic of
exploration and creation. As you continue to cycle through the various spaces, going back and forth through
the various design spaces, you find yourself engaged in a direction-generating process that is highly attuned
to the internal energies of your organization as well as to the external forces that shape the socio-economic
and the bio-physical environment in which it is situated. It is the ethical conversation of co-evolving the
corporation with the dynamics of change in ways that foster life-affirming possibilities for itself and for
others. The design journey is best concieved as an ongoing conversation, like a underground river along
which wellsprings of opportunity emerge. The members of the organization remain connected to the
stream while continuing to engage in the operational aspects of the corporation, translating the evolutionary
image into programs and activities that need to be planned and implemented (see Figure 5).
Next steps: Moving into planning
• Which are the projects and programs derived from our design?
• How will we guide the accomplishment of the functions?
• What knowledge, skills and values are required in the people that will
participate in the system?
• What resources are needed?
• How much, when, and where each of these resources will be required?
• What would be the gap between what is required and what is available?
how much will cost to close the gaps?
• How will we measure the performance of the system?
• How will we continue to redesign the system?
Figure 5. Complementarity between the design journey and the planning cycle.
Final r e f lec tion
Evolutionary systems design and the vision of the evolutionary corporation may appear idealistic and
impractical to some. Reframing capitalism, redefining success, and rethinking the purposes and functions of
corporations within a framework of evolutionary development is not “sweet music” to the ears of most
business people, as Theodore Levitt would say of any business that is not strictly focused on making money
(in Wilson, 2004, p. 26). The design of systemic sustainable strategies and the emergence of the
evolutionary corporation is not about good intentions or philanthropic ventures for the general betterment
of the community. At the dawn of the 21st century – already plagued with terrorism, war, famine, and
environmental disaster – the challenge and responsibility of business (and all other human institutions) is to
act in ways that will assure the survival of the human species and of the ecosystems that support all life on
earth. Without the song of life, the business of business is mute – and moot.
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