ThriveAbility — Waymaker for the Next Economic Paradigm:
A Dialogue with Ralph Thurm

In December, Ralph Thurm delivered a captivating TEDx Talk introducing the notion of ThriveAbility, and its promise in bridging what he calls the “Sustainability Context Gap.” As former COO of the Global Reporting Initiative, to complement deep experience in the corporate world (at Siemens) and consulting realm (at Deloitte), Thurm has witnessed firsthand the limitations of the corporate sustainability movement to achieve the transformations necessary to solve our social and ecological crises.

And along with his ThriveAbility Consortium partners (Robin Wood and Sheila and Chris Cooke), Thurm advocates for solutions that not only solve these entrenched problems, but also create a more thriving world. #NewMetrics channel co-curator Bill Baue recently talked with Thurm to gain a deeper understanding of ThriveAbility.

Bill Baue: What is ThriveAbility, and how does it differ from other similar concepts, such as sustainability and flourishing?

Ralph Thurm: Our current economic system is based on an unsustainable, high-stress, linear economy powered by fear, fossil fuels, materialism and a focus on financial success. Maintaining this rationale will both cause irreversible damages to planet Earth as the mother of all life, and trigger the emergence and increase of social dissonances due to discontent, population growth, demographic change and increasing social inequalities.

Sustainability, with its focus on risk reduction and optimization of the existing system, has failed to close the gap between the trajectory we are currently on, and what's needed for a thriving future. Impact minimization has failed to motivate the vast majority of humankind and most businesses to change their mindset and their behavior. What is needed is a new worldview that supports the mindsets, models, methods and practice to make the shift to sustainable thrival for all. That is the promise of ThriveAbility.

Bill Baue: So how does ThriveAbility function?

Ralph Thurm: ThriveAbility functions in two ways: First, we try to regain meaning from the losses of what the mechanistic and technocratic application of sustainability has caused, by focussing on aspects that have long been forgotten through the puristic application of management system and reporting standards. We need to go back to defining a business case that derives from a North Star perspective.

So, what is the 'business case for survival' for your business, you may ask. Isn't it dramatic that questions of intra- and intergenerational equity, a wonderful concept to look at impact, is normally not even belonging to the vocabulary of sustainability managers any more? The effect is a focus on short-term input and output, not on outcomes and impact. This shortened understanding of sustainability is part of the scant excitement for sustainability nowadays and leaves sustainability as a sort of Damocles sword above the heads of a few that see sustainability as a risk factor and don't discover the opportunity.

Secondly, in order to reposition sustainability, we need to put it into broader context, and that is through combining it with innovation, design and the newest learnings around human consciousness. This leads to a way more holistic approach and understanding of transformation, starting from the individual and empowering many. This combined understanding also embraces concepts like social entrepreneurship, flourishing or the circular economy, concepts that all come from certain angles, but also leave out others. That is what ThriveAbility tries to achieve, it is an invitation to solidify, integrate, and enlarge the power of existing concepts through what we at the ThriveAbility Consortium call 'simplexity' — the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Bill Baue: What are some specific examples of shortcomings of current mechanistic/technocratic sustainability initiatives?

Ralph Thurm: Normally, building a sustainability practice within the existing economic paradigm (in which a concept like 'Creating Shared Value' seems to us a bit like 'the spicy sauce to make a rotten meal taste good'), the inactive accounting profession when it comes to creating measures that show performance against necessary contributions to green & inclusive growth, etc. The current coziness around incremental change and the shoulder-clapping of the winners of the ratings and rankings are just indications that we miss the necessary 'world view.' The current discussion around the new IPCC report is a great example: The fact that this planet hasn't warmed up in the last decade on average now seems to be good enough to relax instead of the understanding that a) there is considerable warming up in certain parts of the world, and b) that we are moving towards a chain reaction that will be much worse at a certain moment, we just don't know exactly when and how. This discussion shows how immature we are in our handling of sustainability, and the shortcomings described are parts of the reason why we get these reactions to the IPCC report instead of understanding the warning behind it: If we don't act now, there is even less opportunity to act in the future, given the complexity of the weather phenomena.

Contemporary civilization is still using a 17th-century scientific map to navigate 21st-century complexity. There is an irrational inertia in society to adhere to this map, despite evidence to the contrary. It’s like trying to navigate through fog without a lighthouse. What is required is a new lighthouse and the means to navigate. It’s not only new metrics, it’s about the interpretation of the metrics. We are ill-equipped to make decisions due to the multiple, simultaneous changes that are occurring. Present-day science cannot measure the subtleties of viable life; weak signals are discarded as noise in the experiment. Existing sustainability initiatives mainly focus on driving change on a societal meso level — within companies, countries or organizations — whilst applying reductionist models and methods. What is lacking is a concept that fully embraces all layers, starting with each and every individual person and reaching up to the global level.

Bill Baue: How does ThriveAbility solve these shortcomings?

Ralph Thurm: The vision of ThriveAbility is to serve as a waymaker for the next economic paradigm. The concept of ThriveAbility builds on the idea of a Conscious Economy and aims at an integration and radical simplification of existing complex and confusing solutions. The aim is to integrate existing approaches into a new worldview that supports mindsets, models, methods and practices that have the potential to facilitate a systemic transition towards sustainable thrival. By creating conditions that allow thrival of all species on the planet, ThriveAbility enables flourishing of all human beings so that they are able to fulfill their individual potential to the fullest and promote a positive state of well-being in a sustainable environment. ThriveAbility is a fractal concept that ranges across different scales of time and complexity — it is applicable from the level of individuals, families and communities right up to organizational, national and global levels.

To conceptualize the idea behind ThriveAbility, we have developed a Dashboard that illustrates the essence and five key ingredients of ThriveAbility thinking. The application of the Dashboard is also possible on different levels, making it highly relevant and immediately useful to everyone who uses this approach. The Dashboard shows that ThriveAbility has the potential to serve as ‘the glue’ between the hard, technical systems and the soft, human systems. Only if both cooperate in a symbiosis will the ThriveAbility vision will be achieved.

ThriveAbility DashboardBill Baue:

This dashboard looks great, Ralph. Can you give a hands-on sense of how companies would use the dashboard, on the one hand to measure the thriveability of current practices and impacts, and on the other hand, to set goals and targets to achieve, maintain and enhance thriveability going forward?

Ralph Thurm: The ThriveAbility dashboard, with its four different components, is an integral approach. In our view, you need all four angles, not more, but also not less. It is a logical consequence of the fact that sustainability approaches until today left out the macro and micro level of sustainability, and that needs to be cured. We could describe corporate sustainability management thus far as meso-approach, with a focus on improving support systems (methods & models) in the existing economic paradigm, so missing the focus on real systems transformation, and thereby both missing out on the macro level (that opens the gate to bigger adaptation) and micro level (the gate to individual alignment).

As we can show, a lot of work has been done in all four quadrants, but disconnected, so the main aim of the dashboard approach is to synergize and energize, making ThriveAbility irresistible. What needs to be done is the consolidation of the various approaches into this one dashboard, describing the state of the journey (the possibility to get there), aligned by indicators that bring together corporate performance and macro-urgencies, and a clear profiling and positioning of the corporation, based on predictive models describing the transformation. We have defined that direction in our white paper (viability factors, thriveability factor). We are working on this consolidation approach and look at a “community of the willing” to flesh this out.

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