It is Not Enough to Say that Countries Must Become Sustainable…

4 min read

…We Need to Make It Happen as Well

It is easy to say that governments and companies need to invest more make countries sustainable, but this is not enough. In addition to saying it we need to make it happen. This is slightly more challenging, because it involves a number of steps that so far have not been described in detail.

Turning countries sustainable means that decision makers, administrators, and people in general need to agree on what needs to be done.

Complex Changes Do Not Just Happen

The transformation to a sustainable future is a complex transformation and it is unlikely to happen on its own, just because people have expressed the need to change. Large-scale transformation will not happen because investors invest more money in the development and implementation of new sustainable technologies in a haphazard way.

To change society on a large scale, a number of new SYSTEMS need to be built and existing SYSTEMS need to be changed or expanded. Systems consist of a large number of interacting components and parts and all aspects of a system need to be in place for the system to be functional. Anyone who doubt this could test by removing a part at random from a car engine.

The system interdependencies are not always identified when a system in society is tested on a small scale, such as the case is with electromobility or the use of biological materials. There is enough spare electricity and raw materials available to run a few percent of all cars on electricity or produce a small share of all plastic products from renewable plastics.

When this is successfully achieved, sustainability experts and politicians may tell everyone that the transformation is well under way and that the complete transformation can be observed in only a few years.

In Sweden analysts have estimated that the last petrol or diesel cars will be sold sometime in 2028 or 2029, simply by projecting the growth of sales of electric cars a few years into the future. Similarly, the government has set the goal of transforming the entire economy to a circular economy, without setting aside any significant or specified resources for the transformation.

Systemic Change

To change transport systems to electromobility it is not enough to project growth a few years into the future, and it is not enough to do the same for the circular economy. When this is done people assume that circular production and distribution systems for all kinds of products will change over the course of a few years, only because the idea of a circular economy has been developed and tested on a small scale.

To achieve large-scale and systemic change governments need to…

– …map all the alternative changes that can be considered.

– …prioritize the most pressing changes and calculating the resources and investments needed to achieve them.

– …get all key decision makers, investors, and participants in projects to agree about the prioritizations or perhaps start a debate in society about which changes are most important and that should be started first.

– …get all key decision makers, investors, and participants to agree on roughly which activities and investments will be needed to go achieve the most highly prioritised aspects of the transformation.

– …develop a rough schedule for the transformation, like a Gantt-chart that takes into account the most important activities and investments.

The above is not something that could simply be skipped. The transformation to a sustainable society is not a trivial undertaking. Change on that scale will inevitably involve multibillion euro investments and lists of activities that are likely to cover several hundred pages, if listed.

Is it better to go ahead without a plan and discover what needs to be done half-way through the change program, with significant delays and the risk of complete failure?

Or would it be a better approach to map all activities and investments that need to be undertaken, make a plan and then go through with the change in a systematic manner?

It is worth considering that Elon Musk argues that countries need to double power production in order to succeed with a full-scale change to electromobility. As he has no incentive to exaggerate the complexity, rather the opposite, his estimate needs to be considered very carefully.

Could countries realistically succeed with a change of that magnitude without drawing up a plan? Is it even possible to think that change could be successful without making a list of all the parties that need to become involved and discuss with them how they can be engaged? Will everyone discover this by themselves and make the necessary funds and resources available? Will all activities magically tie together to create the desired end result?

Is It Remarkable?…

It may be considered remarkable that sustainability activists and experts, technical experts, and politicians have not taken note of the remarks by Elon Musk, who has both expertise and an incentive to down-play the complexity and scale of the transformation and started to make plans for the large-scale change that lies ahead.

It may be seen as remarkable that the scale of the transformation to a circular economy, or any other large-scale change included under the umbrella of “sustainability” have not been observed and discussed. Instead, countries and the EU set goals, without having mapped all the activities that will be necessary for the transformation.

The transformation to a circular economy will not be a matter of putting a tax on purchases of plastic bags. It will be a matter of dramatically reducing the use of plastics for many different purposes and developing production resources for biological plastics on a large scale, probably in combination with reducing the use of plastics overall.

Decision makers need to take the change seriously and start to map the different activities of the transformations to a sustainable society that need to be considered.

People need to discuss the plans and routes forward and demand from decision makers that they develop plans and make them available to the public.

More people need to take an interest in these matters and contribute to knowledge development and debate.

Journalists need to write and help starting debates on the critical aspects of the transformation.

My latest book on innovation and the transformation to sustainability is “The Blind Guardians of Ignorance — Covid -19, Sustainability, and Our Vulnerable Future” and the first one of these was “The Transparent Market,” written together with David Lundberg. In “The Transparent Market” we discussed the future of electronic business. The book was published in 1998, when most experts still did not see that most companies soon would do business on the Internet. My first book about the transformation to e-mobility was “Global Energy Transformation” from 2009.

Mats Larsson Mats is a business and sustainability consultant with 30+ years' experience. In the past 15 years he has written extensively about the large-scale transformations to electromobility and a circular economy that are in their early phases, but also worked with business development in many other high-tech and sustainability areas. He is an experienced project and change manager, has developed strategies for companies in a wide range of industries, and likes to tackle subjects of importance for the development of society. He was one of the first to write a book about e-business strategy, "The Transparent Market," written with David Lundberg and published in 1998.

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