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Foresight illustrated: Making change — Beyond the low-hanging fruit

For exploring and explaining sustainability, I developed the diagram at the right. It is a forecast. It focuses on change over time, showing rising degrees of transformation starting in the 1990s, and continuing to about 2025.

In the recent past and today, most green efforts involve things we can do easily, such as replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, selling more gas-electric hybrid cars, and buying carbon offsets for some of our impacts on the planet. Those steps are valid efforts to be greener, but they are Low-Hanging Fruit—that is, they can be done at only slight expense or inconvenience.

In some places, we can say we are Getting Serious, with initiatives to install alternative energy, increasing regulation, and more economic incentives. Cap and trade systems for emissions are a “getting serious” initiative. For some people, Getting Serious also includes changing their lifestyles and consciously trying to reduce their carbon footprints, for example, by eating more locally-produced foods. Voluntarily home-installed solar panels are another example.

A further stage we can anticipate is Big Systems. Mostly aspirational, that is when we will or could substantially replace carbon-based energy, require people to change their lifestyles, radically cap emissions, or force reductions through regulation, and so on.

You can argue with the years spanned by each period. You can also challenge the forecast: Will we really get serious, and ultimately make big systems change? But the years are approximate–I only mean for them to help people think about the changes we are seeing and can expect to see over the next 15 or 20 years. The chart has proven useful to our clients, and I thought it worth sharing here, as well.

You can also look at this chart a different way. Considering only the vertical axis, it differentiates our degrees of willingness to change. Then, the bottom is easiest, the top, hard to imagine. That is why most people expect that the big systems change will happen gradually over the next generation. That is a reasonable expectation, but our situation with energy and other systems may force Big Systems change sooner than we want, and sooner than this chart suggests.

I’ve already found this basic breakdown, Low-Hanging Fruit, Getting Serious, and Big Systems, to be useful in looking at other kinds of change, too. Examples include primary education, where teachers have begun to introduce some experiential moments in their classrooms—e.g. showing video clips, role-playing, but our classrooms are still typically four walls, one adult, and kids in chairs. Big systems change might mean immersive learning using virtual reality, or sending older students out to teach themselves using a city as their classroom.

Another example is corporate change. Companies routinely innovate on the margins, e.g. by introducing a new product at relatively low risk, before truly getting serious and challenging their broader strategies. Low-hanging fruit means brand extensions, or adding related and complementary products, for example. Big systems change means entering a new market, radically changing the mission and product mix of the company, and so on.

If you know you want to get beyond Low-Hanging Fruit, and want or expect to have to make Big Systems change, you need to begin the process of comprehensive change now. In that sense the bars on my chart are deceptive. You can’t wait until 2012 to launch big systems change for sustainability. The work, the discussion, the plans, the research have to start now.

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