What do people mean when they speak of "Sustainability"?

Definitions of sustainability abound. However, most definitions of "sustainability" seem to share at least two things in common: (1) they are all anthropocentric (unless the human component is removed from the picture); and, (2) they all speak of an ideal process or state. Based on the these two observations and on the seminal work of Ackoff and Emery (1972), the only operational definition of sustainability to this day is:

A Socio-Ecological Process Characterized by Ideal-Seeking Behaviour

Ideal-Seeking Behaviour:

Behaviour characterized by the DESIRE and the ABILITY (i.e., opportunity & resources),

IDEAL: An unattainable state or process (in a given point in time/space) but endlessly approachable. Only ideals serve as appropriate guidelines within a context of uncertainty and complexity because only ideals are time-free, hence, intrinsically adaptive in themselves (Emery, 1993). The four universal ideals are:(1) Homonomy; (2) Nurturance; (3) Humanity; and, (4) Beauty (Ibid).

Sources: Ackoff & Emery, F., 1972; Emery, M. 1997


Literature advocating a variety of organizational designs ("Matrix", "Poised", "Fractal", "Learning","Chaordic" etc.) and "participatory" forms of decision-making abounds (Argyris, 1955; Alutto and Belasco, 1972; Bragg and Andrews, 1973; Fallon, 1974; Gormley, 1989; Hirsch and Shulman, 1976; Packard, 1989; Ramsdell, 1994; Resnick and Patti, 1980; Thrupp et al., 1994; Toch and Grant, 1982; Turner, 1991; Wynn, 1995; Pretty et al., 1996). However, all these (re)designs have been nothing but fiddling around the phenotype of a hierarchical structure. As for the "participatory" forms of decision-making these have also remained only 'phenotypic'.

Emery and Trist (1965) in their seminal work The Causal Textures of Organizational Environments demonstrated that there are at least four types of such environments:

They recognized our current Turbulent (Type IV) Environment as emergent back in 1962
Source: Emery & Trist (1965)

The work of Lippitt and White (in late 1930's and early 40's) and that of Fred Emery (1945-1997) demonstrated that all human organizations make a conscious or unconscious choice between two, and only TWO genotypic and fundamentally different organizational designs:

The Bureaucratic Organization or Variety-Decreasing

The Bureaucratic - First Design Principle (DP1)
Bureaucracy is an organizational design principle for administering organizations involving a specific structure of authority and a clearly defined set of rules and regulations. Bureaucracy may be found in large and small, formal or informal, public or private organizations, such as government, corporations, churches, schools, political parties, amd even households. One of the keys to the historical development of bureaucracy was supplied by Max Weber (a German sociologist) who saw it as characteristic of the movement toward rational social organization in modern societies with governments based on "a system of law where leaders obtain their offices through legal procedures and the power to rule is vested in their positions rather than in themselves as individuals" (Weber, 1947). Clearly, a utopian concept of bureaucracy.
Bureaucracy, as a structure of administration, may also be seen as related to the growing complexity of society. The French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1933), saw societies in terms of the division of labor within them. In primitive societies there is relatively little division of labor which is largely based on age and sex. As societies become more complex, their members no longer share the same experiences and thus, a new basis of uniting individuals with the collectivity is required. Durkheim characterized modern society as based on "organic solidarity," in contrast to primitive societies based mostly on "mechanical solidarity".
Most institutions or organizations can be categorized as having a bureaucratic organizational design that follows the variety-decreasing principles and dominant hierarchy or DP1 structure (Emery, 1993) About a hundred years ago the word bureaucracy meant something good. It had the connotation of a 'rational' and 'efficient' approach to organizing something, bringing the same logic to government and institutional work as the assembly lines brought to factories (Bjerknes, 1993). This is no longer the case. Bureaucracies and human needs have been in conflict ever since the dawn of homo sapiens as a struggle for human values, individual fulfillment and social equality (Kranz, 1976). Although Max Weber introduced and idealized the term bureaucracy in the beginning of the 19th century, its emergence , as we now know it, can be traced back to the end of the 17th century with the advent of world economy and resources competition (Emery, 1977). By the end of the 18th century, when large organizational acquisitions took place (triggered by technological breakthroughs in the energy generation and communications field) bureaucracy was fully developed, and the institutionalization of bureaucracies with their hierarchies of personal dominance began (Emery, 1977; Hyneman, 1950; Kranz, 1976).
The pervasiveness of the bureaucratic organizational structure is best explained by the Type III environment of the time (i.e., disturbed and reactive) which favored and allowed for the institutionalization of hierarchies of personal dominance (Emery, 1993). And also by perspectives mostly based on Max Weber regard of it as "technically superior in theory to other forms of organization" (Reinhard, 1962). The bureaucratic structure was 'legitimized' by Theory X and Taylorism, which view humans as machines not fully exploited (Carnevale, 1995). This is the main reason why bureaucratic structures cannot deliver what the theory behind them expects them to deliver. The bureaucratic structure was designed for "instruments" not humans capable of purposeful and ideal-seeking behavior. The building block in a DP1 structure is redundancy of parts. Redundant parts are based on what Feibleman and Friend (1945) called "subjective seriality" where the governing relation between two parts is that of "asymmetrical dependence", i.e., the sharing of parts is necessary to one of the parts only (Ibid). Because of this asymmetrical dependence DP1 structures are inherently error-amplifying (Emery, 1977). This can be viewed as: E = (1 - P) Where: E = error P = probability of error, and = number of redundant parts within the system. In addition, the governing principle of asymmetric dependence also causes the bifurcation of the two primary functions of communication, i.e., to inform and to instruct (Emery, 1977), thus reducing "communication" to a one-way street either to inform or to instruct. This type of organizational structure is characterized by linear thinking and highly dominant hierarchies of parts. In this type of structure the coordination and control of work is located at least one level above those doing the work (Emery, 1993). The bureaucratic, variety-reducing or first design principle (DP1) was arguably appropriate for the disturbed and reactive environment of a time (i.e., industrial revolution). This type of environment demanded fool-proof and variety reducing organizations. At that time, Weber's regard of bureaucracy as superior to any other form of organization was probably justified . People were (and to some extent still are) considered unreliable and incompetent (hence the need for supervisors). The task was (is?) to make them as standardized and interchangeable as possible in order to better achieve their function as cogs in a machine (Emery, 1977, 1995). Despite their pervasiveness, bureaucratic structures cannot deliver what the theory behind them expects them to deliver because humans are not instruments but beings capable of purposeful and ideal-seeking behavior. Bureaucracies, however, deliberately restrict the behavior of their elements from coerced to (at best) goal-seeking individuals, a far cry from being ideal-seeking individuals. The difference between a goal or multigoal-seeeking individual and an ideal-seeking one is particularly evident in a turbulent environment (characterized by increasing relevant uncertainties and system discontinuities) where goals need to be continuously redefined. The five disciplines (i.e., personal mastery, team learning, shared vision, systems thinking and mental models) considered by Peter Senge (a systems thinking "expert") as essential for a "learning organization" are deliberately restricted by bureaucratic structures. Thus, bureaucracies keep organizations from becoming learning organizations. This is is particularly negative in our turbulent environment characterized by increasing relevant uncertainties and system discontinuities and where continuous learning is essential for survival. The turbulent environment was first noticed as emergent in 1962 (Emery and Trist, 1965) and has now become an accepted and continuing phenomenon (Antonovsky, 1993; Gordon, 1992; Gregersen and Sailer, 1993; Kiel, 1994; Jurgen, 1995). In a non-turbulent environment it was possible to predict, rather accurately, the trajectory of a given system and thus it made sense to concentrate most of the resources in the means toward the predicted end (Emery, 1993). Unfortunately, accurate forcasting is very difficult, if not impossible, in a turbulent environment. In our current environment (type IV) people need considerably more freedom and responsibility if they are to have a knowledgeable and active-adaptive relationship with their turbulent and changing environment and behave as ideal-seeking individuals (Emery, 1995)
Although various forms of involvement -often called participatory- take place in DP1 structures their variety-decreasing, error-amplifying nature and design principle remain unchanged. Hence, the relationship between the system and its elements is non-cooperative, dependent, and not ideal-seeking. It has been shown that in DP1 structures it is counter to the individual's interest to cooperate with others (e.g. prisoner's dilemma). For people, under a DP1 structure, the job environment seems unchanging and there seems to be little, if anything, to be learned, people show apathy, stress and disaffection (Cabaņa, 1995). People under this type of structure may have the desire to behave as ideal-seeking individuals but not the ability to do so for they are forced to act as robots but without the ability to cope with, let alone positively respond to, the physical and psychological pressures inherent of a DP1 structure and hence the pathologies associated therewith. Thus, DP1 structures can not satisfy people's psychological requirements for effective work i.e., adequate freedom in decision-making, a learning-inductive environment, adequate variety, support and respect, a sense of meaningfulness, and a desirable future (Emery, 1994) (see Table 1). The failure to satisfy these critical human requirements for effective and purposeful work generates the defense mechanisms and the typical pathologies of bureaucratic structures. Under these type of structures an active-adaptive management process, required for high performance and sustainability, is not possible. The "misappropriation of human awareness" (Purser, 1997), which produces the "egocentric" nature of bureaucratic (DP1) structures, leads to an alienated, static and repetitious form of structural organization standing counter to change, knowledge, and novelty (Tulku, 1990). Hence, the "egocentric" nature of DP1 organizational structures is "anti-adaptive" (Bateson, 1972).

In a Bureaucratic Structure The responsibility for control and coordination of work is located at least one level ABOVE those doing the work and thus people behave accordingly:

Participative Democratic Organization or Variety-Increasing

Participative Democratic - Second Design Principle (DP2)
DP2 structures are based on open-systems theory (Contextualism) and the model of directive correlation between system and environment. The resemblance of DP2 to an "Ecosphere" may not be accidental. DP2 was purposefully designed to reconcile scientific knowledge (expertise) and ecological knowledge (common sense) based on ecological learning, open-systems and the model of directive correlation thus, catering to physical and psychological human needs and aspects (i.e., to allow for purposeful and ideal-seeking behavior). Some of these aspects are an active-adaptive and participative leadership, shared responsibility and accountability, high cooperation and commitment, and effective communication (Emery, 1994; Fallon, 1974; Rehm, 1994; Trist and Murray, 1993). In DP2 structures, interactive participation, cooperation and commitment are the only viable way to accomplish anything (e.g. mingas). As Fred Emery (1995) puts it "Participative design is a redesign of the process of redesigning organizations. DP2 replaces conventional STS [Socio Technical Systems], while offering all the promise that STS sought to but was unable to deliver". In DP2 structures there is a balance between the technical system (technosphere) and the social system (participative-democratic ecosphere), i.e., people at work who are continuously learning. This continuous learning by the social systems is what gives DP2 structures the ability to adequately address relevant uncertainties, system discontinuities and negative externalities and proactively and swiftly adapt in a competitive, dynamic and turbulent environment (Emery, M. 1995, 1996). The building block in a DP2 structure is a self-managing --but not autonomous-- work team that creates a non-dominant hierarchy of functions (see Fig.2) (as opposed to the dominant hierarchy of parts in DP1) (see Fig.1). In DP2 structures, the governing relation between two parts is that of "symmetrical dependence", i.e., the sharing of parts is necessary to both of the parts (Emery, 1977). Because of this symmetrical dependence DP2 structures are inherently error-attenuating (Ibid). This can be viewed as: E = (1 - P ) Where: E = error P = probability of error, and = number of redundant parts within the system. The governing principle of symmetric dependence does not cause the bifurcation of the two primary functions of communication, i.e., to inform and to instruct (Emery, 1977), thus assuring effective communication as a two-way street to inform and to instruct. In a DP2 structure, processes and reward systems induce higher participation (i.e., from Pretty's #5 to #7), cooperation, commitment, and performance ( Bragg and Andrews, 1973; Fallon, 1974; Trist and Murray, 1993;Van Eijnatten, 1993; Emery, M. 1995, 1996).

In a Participative Democratic structure The responsibility for control and coordination is located WITH those doing the work and thus people behave accordingly:

What Does The Choice of Organizational Design Imply For Sustainable Development?

The implications in terms of human behavior derived from organizations built on the first design principle (DP1), i.e., Bureaucracies versus organizations built on the second design principle (DP2), i.e., Participative Democracies, are profoundly different:

When people work for the system (Bureaucracy) the organization is said to be 'Variety-Decreasing' and the range and level of behavior of its elements is restricted (goal-seeking). When The System works for the people (Participative Democracy)the organization is said to be 'Variety-Increasing' and the range and level of behavior of its elements is enhanced (ideal-seeking).

What happens when:

This is best exemplified with in terms of human behavior, e.g., participation.

Varying levels of Beneficiary 'Participation':

(Adapted from Pretty et, al., 1994)

1) Passive participation, i.e., people told what to do.

2) Informative Participation, i.e., people simply answer questions.

3) Consultative Participation, i.e., people consulted by external agents but decision-making power remains with agents.

4) "Bought" Participation, i.e., people participate in

return for incentives (e.g., cash, food).

5) Functional participation, i.e., people have a say but only after major decisions have already been made by external agents.

6) Interactive participation, i.e., people participate

in joint analysis and take control over local decisions.

7) Active Self-mobilization, i.e., people take control and start action independent of external agents.

So The Seven Levels of Beneficiary "Participation" Range From: