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Business Case
Design Thinking, Systems Thinking & Pragmatic Optimism:
Inspiring Change to Mitigate the Climate Crisis

I am a huge believer in tiny actions adding up to have incredible, positive impact. We have climate crisis data and solutions — by implementing design thinking, systems thinking, and going about it with a little fun through pragmatic optimism.

Imagine your doctor says you have a major artery that’s blocked, and immediate action is necessary to mitigate the impending heart attack. You don’t like the way it sounds and you know adjusting will take some effort. However, confronting that blocked artery with the best data, knowledge, technology, support and empathy is better than the alternative.

Would you leave the office and head to your favorite fast food joint? Or would you sit down, create a plan to integrate incremental and healthy changes to your lifestyle, monitor the situation, and then celebrate your success? Hopefully, you’d choose the latter. This is the same situation we’re facing collectively at every level in our communities, when it comes to the climate crisis. 

Climate change is affecting us at a rapid pace — a development emphasized yet again in the IPCC's highly motivating 1.5°C report last year. The message was clear: If we maintain the status quo, our planet will begin to break down and become inhabitable — not only for future generations, but also for us. 

More recently, in August, the Washington Post reported the following: “Here’s how the hottest month [July 2019] in recorded history unfolded around the world...Wildfires raged across millions of acres in the Arctic. A massive ice melt in Greenland sent 197 billion tons of water pouring into the Atlantic Ocean, rising sea levels. And temperature records evaporated, one after another: 101.7 degrees Fahrenheit in Cambridge, England; and 108.7 in Paris. The same in Lingen, Germany.” 

The good news is that we have and understand climate data. We’ve seen its impact across public and private sectors, public health, transportation, food systems, education and our communities overall. And, we have enough tools to begin making change today at every level.

Practical, timely and effective solutions 

Paul Hawken’s amazing team collected and beautifully illustrated 100 ways to drawdown climate crisis-causing pollutants. Many of these solutions are already taking place around the world, but in order to see a truly effective impact, they must be scaled up. These solutions are categorized in eight categories: electricity generation, food, women and girls, buildings and cities, land use, transport, materials and coming attractions (solutions that are currently being tested).

Hawken ranks each of these pragmatic solutions per total atmospheric CO2-equivalent reduction, the net cost of implementation, and the savings on investment. The top ten solutions ranked by total atmospheric CO2-EQ reduction include: refrigerant management, wind turbines, reduced food waste, plant-rich diets, tropical forests, educating girls, family planning, solar farms and silvopastures

These solutions are flexible and can be used in a variety of settings, including the business community. What follows are three strategic skills that employees can leverage in order to implement climate drawdown solutions within their organization:

1. Design thinking

When organizations need to implement risk management, supply chain, emerging markets and climate-related initiatives, having an employee base that is trained in design thinking is instrumental.

Steps of design thinking are defined as:

  • fully understanding the problem;
  • exploring a wide range of possible solutions;
  • iterating extensively through prototyping and testing; and then
  • implementing.

As a result, design thinking helps individuals and teams approach solutions through a methodological approach and allows failing ideas to fail fast and often, so teams can get to positive solutions faster. 

I’ve utilized design thinking principles when participating in sustainable product innovation exercises. The design thinking process offered clear steps toward viable solutions to complex challenges, while also allowing freedom and flexibility to propose creative and actionable solutions.

2. Systems thinking

As our understanding of the world around us becomes more and more complex, the ability to view that context from a systems perspective becomes more vital to ensuring sustainable systems. Daniel H. Kim, co-founder of the MIT Center for Organizational Learning, echoes this need: “It’s been said that systems thinking is one of the key management competencies for the 21st century. As our world becomes ever more tightly interwoven globally and as the pace of change continues to increase, we will all need to become increasingly ‘system-wise.’” 

Much of what I studied in graduate school involved systems thinking — first applied to ecological sciences, and then to integrating sustainability principles into private sector organizations. Practicing systems thinking when navigating complex situations in search of multi-stakeholder-optimized solutions takes practice, understanding, empathy and an openness to understand differing points of view.

Offering opportunities through continuous education related to sustainability, workshops, experiential learning and transformative experiences for your employees to practice systems thinking in combination with design thinking will allow you to find more effective climate solutions, faster. 

3. Pragmatic optimism

American author Allen Klein once said, “Your attitude is like a box of crayons that color your world. Constantly color your picture gray, and your picture will always be bleak.” So, how can we add colors to the grim situation we face in the current climate crisis? While it may be difficult, it is advantageous for us all to practice not blind optimism, but pragmatic optimism. 

Pragmatic optimism is understanding from a systems- and design-thinking perspective the situation you’re dealing with, while being able to remain hopeful enough to not freeze in fear and apathy.

Now more than ever, we need more empathy, grit, hard work and commitment to move forward, as well as enthusiasm and enjoyment to take on the climate crisis in a new light. When our attitude changes from pessimism and defeat to pragmatism and optimism, possibilities for solutions grow and stakeholders will be more likely to jump on board. 

Practicing pragmatic optimism also allows us to view the changes needed as not a deprivation of our luxuries, but rather as the ability to raise the standard and quality of living for more people in our communities — which, in turn, is beneficial to each individual and seamlessly taps into systems thinking!

I am a huge believer in tiny actions adding up to have incredible, positive impact. It takes one individual to inspire another to make a subtle improvement to his or her life that alters an entire system. We have climate crisis data and solutions — by implementing design thinking, systems thinking, and going about it with a little fun through pragmatic optimism.

As Hawken said in a 2017 presentation at the Town Hall in Seattle: “… this is [a] short life; let’s stay here, let’s have fun. We’re granted the most incredible opportunity that any set of generations has ever had, and it’s about reimagination.”