TEDx – Sustainable Value Systems

by Nov 21, 2011

In this TEDx talk we outline why and how

  • an experimental attitude,
  • an entrepreneurial mindset which fosters activity and
  • an understanding of sustainability and value creation which goes beyond the resource view and takes into account four different dimensions (scientific, systemic, cultural, psychological)

can be used to think up and create better systems: Sustainable Value Systems. The presentation starts off with a description of Energy Streetfight, a project we created in Berlin in 2010. Energy Streetfight is a venture which attempts to reduce domestic energy consumption by playful means.

Can you see how this approach could help you to think about your venture? If so, how? If no – what would need to be improved? What are the questions that remain?


Energy Streetfight – An Introduction

Energy Streetfight is a project we ran for 8 weeks on the streets of Berlin in 2011. It is a game in which two teams compete against each other in a race to make more islands habitable than the other team. The players are the residents of the street. All houses and residents from one side of the street form a team and compete with the residents from the other side of the street.

The game is played in an undiscovered island-world full of mysteries, treasures and secret hideouts. Friendly pirates sail this world’s seven seas. Each pirate ship represents one house on the street.

Sailing from one island to the next, the pirates quickly discover what each island has to offer. Some islands have plenty of resources while on others, vital supplies are missing. In order to use an island as hideout, the pirates need to transport supplies between them. Each time the right supplies are transported to an island in need, this island is made habitable and falls to this team. Whichever team has enlivened more islands by the end of the game wins.

What fuels the game is an input from the real world: the residents submit their electricity meter reading each week and depending on how much or little they consume, how much they improve over time, and how innovative their ideas to save energy are – their pirate boat’s speed and mobility changes. In addition to thinking about their own homes, the challenge is to share ideas and approaches with neighbors and the rest of the street side. When less is consumed, the boat becomes faster and more agile.

To sum it up: Energy Streetfight is a playful approach to reduce domestic energy consumption.

The Underlying Rationale – An Excursion

Sounds like a fun project, energy saved through competition, fun theme, game mechanics applied to a serious matter. A neat game. But Energy Streetfight is not just a game that aims to tackle a serious issue in a playful manner. It is an experiment in achieving a paradigm shift and building better systems.

What do we mean by that and why do we believe there is a need for this? Well, let’s see: Take a look around, look at the person sitting next to you. Can you recognise anything odd about them? Can you make it out in their eyes, in the way they look at you? It’s difficult to make out, but if you look closely, you might see it, you might just see that…We live in a sick world!

With that I don’t mean that your neighbour is hiding something awkward from you. I mean it quite literally,

we live in a clinically sick world, a world that is infected with a virus:

The Consumption Virus. This is an extremely tricky virus, because its symptoms are very subtle. It doesn’t affect any bodily functions. The immune system doesn’t notice it! That’s because the consumption virus doesn’t affect your body – what it affects, is your perspective. In fact, there’s a good chance that your neighbour or even you are infected – or to use the correct econo-medical term – that you are homo consumensis.

And the symptoms are worrying: The homo consumensis suffers from severe passivity (by that we don’t mean that he is lazy or unemployed, the virus does not affect busyness). Passivity is to be understood in the Spinozian sense, that is, the homo consumensis is internally, psychologically passive. He doesn’t know himself truely, he is unaware of his essence, unaware of his own potentials. He is thus forced into a one dimensional existence, into a logic of taking, where relating to the world around him is possible only in the single way allowed by his state of passivity: consumption.

Products, lifestyles, natural resources, habitats, people, relationships, ideas – nothing is spared in the delirium of the infected. What makes matters worse is that the virus spreads easily through the culture produced by a type of system that we have built around us, for us, and through us. The type of system I am talking about is called: The Business Model.

Business models are blackboxes where inputs are transformed into output. What we input are resources of all kind; natural, intellectual, human. The transformation process in the blackbox then turns these inputs into something consumable, what we call ‘products’. However, contrary to popular belief, products are NOT what the system outputs. In fact there’s one more step to the transformation process that is conceptually overlooked – the consumption of the produced product in exchange for monetary inflows.

Thus what the business model outputs, is in fact profit or growth. And it is this systemic purpose of growth and profit, which defines the ethos of our culture of progress. And it is this culture of progress which keeps the homo cnsumensis in his consumptive trance, serving as the cornerstone of all rationalisations to justify and enforces his zombie-esque existence.

And it is this culture of progress based on the profit and growth ethos, which is the carrier of the consumption virus, spreading it across people, nations, hemispheres. What we end up with is an infectuous reinforcing feedback loop between the psychology of the homo consumensis, the systems he builds, and the culture of progress framed by economic growth that emerges from these systems.

What can we do about this? How can we counter this epidemic?

The answer is deceivingly simple: We need to raise our awareness.

We need to raise our awareness to the ways we are straining our environment.
We need to raise our awareness to the ways we are straining non-human life.
We need to raise our awareness to the ways we are straining our societies.
We need to raise our awareness to the ways we are straining our very selfs!

In short, we need to raise our awareness to our planetary existence beyond the narrow space we currently occupy in our consumptive trance, fueled by a flawed understanding of progress. This needs to happen on an individual basis! Each of us has this responsibility. But just as the delerius consumptive states are currently reinforced by the surroundings systems and their emergent culture, so the positive shift in individual awareness can be aided systemically as well –

However to achieve this, we need to build better systems!

Sustainable Value Systems

What kind of systems are we talking about? Systems that promote activity, not passivity. Systems which are centered around the creation of value, where economic sustainability is only one of the emerging properties. We call these systems value systems. How do value systems look like? How to build them? We are only starting to grasp the implications ourselves, learning from our research and through our experiments – one of them is Energy Streetfight. Let us share three learnings with you:

First: the process. It’s experimental, it helps us to improve our knowledge-to-assumption ratio, it embraces failure. We start out with many assumptions on the world, and slowly, as we breathe life into our idea, we increase our knowledge through experiences and test the assumptions which underlie our worldview.

Second: activity. Our world is currently dominated by transactional relationships. By models which are top-down and hold people ever more passive and unrelated.

Let us build systems which ask for the activation of the individual, instigate action. In Energy Streetfight, we asked participants to come up with new ways to save energy and share them as widely as possible. Let us create systems which foster the activation of groups, enable interaction. In the game, the residents of each house needed to collaborate and synchronize to determine the direction of their pirate ships. One form of activation is playfulness.  In games, a story, fun, the freedom to experiment and dare and a deeper meaning come together beautifully.

Third. Integrality. Our curent models equate progress to profit and growth. Let us move towards understanding progress more holistically. More importantly even: let’s build systems which enrich the many facets of our human experience.

Habib and I, together with our good friend and systems philosopher Vijak Haddadi (and building on many ideas that have been there before) have come up with a model which helps us to think about value creation in multiple dimensions. We call it the Value Diamond.

  • The scientific dimension: how to improve our daily lives with innovations in processes and technologies? There is a lot of that out there, we hear about innovations in this area every day. However, value can be created in more dimensions.
  • The systemic dimension: how to beneficially transform our natural and social environments? Here we ask how to improve the social systems we are embedded in. And in an universe, on a planet where change is a constant, preservation of the natural landscapes which nourish us can be understood as a beneficial transformation as well.
  • The cultural dimension: how can we enable new feelings of belonging, how can we create systems which help us to bond in new ways, become more empathic? How can we facilitate new forms of expression?
  • Finally: the psychological dimension:  how can a value system help us to uncover our human potentials, enhance our subjectivities, aid us in seeing and accepting reality as it really is?

The Value Diamond offers a lense through which we can look at value creation, and hence progress, more holistically. From our work as coaches and lecturers we have experienced how it can open up spaces to think about more aspects of value creation. Let’s therefore move beyond business models, let’s build systems which transcend the homo consumensis, which help us to become active, which take into consideration all facets that make us human…

Let us build sustainable value systems.