The planet is heating up. Oil is running out. Fish stocks are in decline. And human population is still on the rise. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that—ready or not—something has to change. In fact, says Karl-Henrik Robèrt, every individual can understand “we’re running out of resources at a global level.” But he says when the individuals get together to try and fix things, they’re usually doomed. “Groups larger than five are dumber than the dumbest person in the group.”
Last Friday, Robèrt was speaking to many more than five people at an early-morning meeting at city hall. The audience, mostly government workers for the city and province, paid rapt attention through the 90-minute presentation. Robèrt was preaching, in part, to the converted. The city’s Environmental Management Services department commissioned a study from Robèrt’s organization in 2004, and environmental manager Stephen King made a point of shaking his hand. But Robèrt’s name rarely comes up at council and councillors Patrick Murphy and Sheila Fougere were the only representatives from Halifax’s most notorious stupid group. (Mayor Peter Kelly and deputy mayor Russell Walker sent their regrets; stuck at a mayors’ conference, they’d arranged for a lunchtime version of Robèrt’s presentation.)
Robèrt is like a Swedish version of Al Gore —an accomplished professional who becomes a successful environmental crusader. A medical doctor and academic who’s been called one of Sweden’s leading cancer researchers, in 1989 Robèrt launched The Natural Step, his big green idea. TNS is a way for organizations to plan for a sustainable future. Municipalities all over Sweden now use The Natural Step to plot the most environmentally friendly ways to operate. Businesses including McDonald’s and IKEA have adopted TNS (“You can be long-term greedy,” says Robèrt, if that’s what it takes to cut down on waste today), the TNS organization has spread to 12 countries and universities teach courses in TNS methods.
Although most bureaucratic tools are only sexy to bureaucrats, this one has a focus on action which civilians can appreciate. Describ- ing the difference between saving the earth and coming up with plans to save the earth, Robèrt invokes a board game. “If you read the rules 1,000 times—a million times—you won’t know how to play chess,” he tells the room in Halifax. “You’ve got to play chess to learn.”
TNS helps a group focus on a goal, so its members can play together instead of devolving into petty squabbling. “If the purpose is distinct, then groups can work wonderfully together,” says Robèrt. In cancer treatment, for example, a large team rallies around a patient. Doctors, nurses, surgeons, technicians, dieticians, family members and more: They’re all needed and they’re all thinking, “Mrs. Anderson will die unless we help her.” In the bigger picture, Robèrt says, “Mrs. Anderson is the planet,” and TNS lets us all come to the patient’s aid.
Key to planning with TNS is doing less traditional forecasting and more of what Robèrt calls backcasting. The group agrees on general goals—we want our business to continue even if there’s no more oil, say, or the citizens are always going to need clean drinking water—and imagines what the future would look like if those goals are met. Then with that vision in mind, the group looks back to come up with possible steps leading from the ideal future toward the present.
Flaky as backcasting sounds for a business, it’s the way humans plan things naturally. You don’t, for instance, wake up in the morning, put on your nice clothes, giftwrap a blender and then hope your friend is getting married today.
Forecasting, on the other hand, takes reality and extends it as a map to a future much like the present. A forecast for Halifax, looking at current rates of population growth and how often people drive without passengers in their cars, likely says we’ll need a third bridge across the harbour. Then comes planning for the bridge, setting aside money, striking a Span Situation Committee to figure out where it will go. Soon enough there’s a ribbon-cutting ceremony—the forecast has become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
But for Robèrt, a backcast can be self-fulfilling too. “You can’t see into the future, but you can invent it,” he says, quoting Einstein. Why not envision a future Halifax that has transportation issues solved to the point where there’s almost no wasteful car usage? Maybe the most sustainable city only has one bridge, with beautiful waterparks where the second used to be.