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How can you future proof your organisation?

How can you future proof your organisation?

The 3 secrets to creating a future proof organisation.

Oxford University in England is a very old college with very old buildings. One building, in particular, a 150 years old building, was very special. Its roof was made of special oak beams – full-length broncs of oak trees. After 150 years, the oak beams were beginning to rot and fall apart. So, the faculty came together to consult about a solution. They enquired about the cost of replacing the beams and quickly discovered that they couldn’t afford it. One of the younger members of the faculty said: ‘Before you take any drastic measures, let me do some research’. Two weeks later, she came back and said: ‘I am very pleased we did the research because we discovered that the architect who built this very building 150 years ago, planted a group of oak trees specifically for this purpose’.

This story comes from Gregory Bateson, an English anthropologist. It is a perfect illustration of the true meaning of sustainability, which is larger than the concept of ecological or ‘green’ design. In addition, this story also reminds us that being environmentally aware is not a new concept. Indeed, it is a very old one. Thinking into the future and facilitating processes, even 150 years ahead is how we can create sustainable systems. Sustainable systems are systems that can sustain themselves in the long-term future.

I believe that the essence of sustainability is to achieve the balance between people’s interests now and the interest of future generations. However, it is also about factoring in the interest of the land, the planet, Nature. This is heavily dependent on solid four-dimensional thinking. Thinking along the fourth dimension is essentially taking into account the element of time and its consequences. In addition, I believe that sustainability spans along three dimensions of time: the present, the (foreseeable) short term future and the (mostly unforeseeable) long term future. For each of these time dimensions, sustainability has a different quality.

Indeed, sustainability is not only ecological, but it is also economical and social. When we consider the future of organisations, we quickly realize that sustainability, specifically meaning a sustainable approach is essential in making organisations future proof. In order to succeed in preparing your organisation to not only survive but indeed thrive in the future, there are three qualities of sustainability to keep in mind. While they are extracted from the world of architecture, they are universal qualities, which means the apply to everything, particularly to business growth and organisations’ success.

Quality #1: Physical
In a first instance, sustainability is about the physical quality of the materials and systems that we employ here and now. This is where most of the global discourse on sustainability is today. This physical quality relates to for example materials selection, such as the use of safe, healthy, recycled, recyclable, biodegradable materials that are able to be maintained within biological or technical metabolisms.
Besides obviously avoiding the use of negative materials, we can also strive beyond the neutral materials and aim to use positive materials. Not only does a positive material not harm the environment, but it actually produces positive added value.

An example of such material in the world of Architecture is the smog-eating cement, invented by an Italian company in 2007. In addition to materials, we also speak here about sustainable products or systems. This concerns how materials come together to create systems that are in themselves also sustainable. Think of simple products such as a chair or more complex systems such as an energy cycle. Another dimension of ‘current sustainability’ is, in fact, geographical, meaning where materials come from and where they might go afterwards. We need to consider the pre- and post- project aspects.

Quality #2: Resilient
Beyond the very physicality of materials and systems, sustainability needs to be adaptive, assimilative and resilient of the changes it faces. This is a responsive quality of sustainability. Being resilient to changes does not mean resisting them. On the contrary, it actually means being able to embrace them and adapt to them. This is where we need to consider consequences in the short term future and create our products and services in a way that stand the test of time. What if the materials we use and systems we create did not loose value over time? Even better, what if – like real estate-, materials could gain value over time? In any case, whatever we design, physical or abstract products, programs and services, we need to ensure they remain agile and able to adapt to changing circumstances. This quality needs to be built into the very premise of the design.

Quality #3: Anticipatory
Beyond the current state of things in the present and immediate future, sustainability should also be concerned with the long term future. The most mature quality of sustainability is one that anticipates the foreseeable but also unforeseeable future trends. As opposed to the responsive quality of resilience, here it is about a pro-active quality. Here we need to empower the systems we create to be able to adapt themselves, by themselves. This is what will enable a system to sustain itself over the long term future and indeed be future proof.

Sustainability embraces the physical reality of now, building in the resilience and agility to adapt to constantly changing conditions and the intelligence of anticipatory thinking. Designing sustainability is facilitating processes into the future.

In order to set yourself and your company up for success, you need to ensure your organisation is future proof. Embedding the three qualities of sustainability: the physical quality, the quality of resilience as well as the anticipatory quality, in everything you do as a professional individual, as a team and as an organisation, can ensure that you create a future proof organisation.

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