ABCD method: A strategic tool for backcasting from sustainability principles.  The letters represent the following steps:

  • A – Gain awareness of the ecological and social systems your organisation operates within, based on an understanding of the principles for sustainability.  From this understanding, create a vision of what your organisation would look like if it operated within these principles;
  • B – Undertake a baseline assessment of today’s current reality. Note where violations of the principles for sustainability occur and identify organisational assets;
  • CCreate solutions to the issues discovered in the B step without technological, political or other constraints – this is brainstorming. Imagine measures to achieve these. Be creative!
  • DDecide on priorities. Prioritise the actions developed during ‘C’ by asking: i) Does this action move us in the right direction (toward alignment with the sustainability principles)? ii) Can this action be built upon in future? (Ie. is this a flexible platform?) iii) Does this action bring an acceptable financial, ecological and/or social return on investment?

Backcasting: A fancy word for a strategic planning method where a successful future is envisioned first. The current reality of today is then assessed against the vision.  More here.

Basic human needs: A comprehensive set of fundamental human needs that are culturally and historically universal, non-overlapping, non-substitutable, complimentary to one another, and must be satisfied on a continual basis. They are: subsistence, protection, affection, idleness, identity, freedom, creativity, participation and understanding.  This list of basic human needs was created by the Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef, and is used to define human needs for the fourth system condition of The Natural Step.

Biosphere: The portion of the Earth and its atmosphere that is capable of supporting life. 

Capacity-building: The transfer of knowledge from experts to practitioners with the intent of strengthening the skills and ability necessary for them to act self-sufficiently.

Community Planning:  Any planning that is done for a community. This may include, but is not limited to, Official Community Plans, Municipal Planning Strategies, and/or Integrated Community Sustainability Plans. Community planning may encompass a variety of aspects, such as planning for sustainability, water use, economic development, parks, and/or land-use.

Community Engagement: The involvement of the community in the creation and implementation of major decisions.

Continuous improvement: In the context of management systems, this means the continuous focus on improving an organization’s performance - from assembly line to the CEO - is a permanent objective.

Decision-maker: A person who has the authority to make decisions.  Decision-makers do not always have formal authority; they can also be the individuals within an organization or community that make decisions behind the scenes.

Downstream Solutions: Solutions that deal with the symptoms of larger systemic problems. These solutions are often developed in reaction to the obvious symptoms without examining the cause of the symptom.

Early Adopter Program: This is a program that brings together local businesses, organisations, community groups, concerned citizens and, ideally, the local municipal government. Early Adopters commit to becoming leaders by introducing and incorporating sustainability into their respective organizations and by working together towards community sustainability. As Early Adopters implement their sustainability plans, they become local success stories and share the lessons, knowledge and energy they have gained with the rest of the community.

The Natural Step pioneered this approach in Whistler, British Columbia by providing a training program for Early Adopter organisations, which focused on building community capacity. The program helped develop a common understanding and shared language for sustainability among a variety of community stakeholders.

Eco-municipality: An eco-municipality aspires to develop an ecologically, economically and socially healthy community for the long term, using the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development for sustainability as a guide, and a democratic, highly participative development process as the method. The eco-municipality becomes the driving force for involving citizens and sectors of the larger community in the process of becoming a sustainable community. Eco-municipalities collaborate with other organisations and communities regionally, nationally, and internationally to learn from and assist each other.  Networks of eco-municipalities are found in Canada, Sweden and the United States.

Five level model framework: A generic framework for planning and decision making in complex systems utilizing 5 distinct, non-overlapping levels: (1) System Level, (2) Success Level, (3) Strategy Level, (4) Action Level, and (5) Tools Level.  More here.

Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD): A planning and decision-making framework that allows individuals to understand the root causes of un-sustainability and then move strategically toward sustainability (More here). Describes a generic five level framework used to understand and plan progress towards a sustainable society using backcasting from sustainability principles to prioritize strategic actions.  

Full-cost accounting: a method of accounting where the full costs and benefits of the decision are weighed (ie. costs are estimated for the long term impacts of the decision, hidden costs, externalities, overhead and indirect costs are included).

Funnel metaphor: A metaphor that demonstrates the sustainability challenge that results from continuing along our current path.  More here.

Integrated Community Sustainability Plan (ICSP): An over-arching long-term plan based on consultation with community members that provides direction for the community to realize its sustainability objectives.

Greenhouse gasses: Gasses in the atmosphere which reduce the loss of heat into space. Human-induced emissions of greenhouse gasses are believed to be a main driver of current global temperature increases and increasingly erratic weather.

Indicators: Measures used to assess whether an organisation is moving towards its vision and goals.

Mental models: Deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or pictures and images which influence how we understand the world and take action.

Municipal Sustainability Plan: (see ICSP)

The Natural Step (Organization): An international not-for-profit organisation founded in Sweden in 1989 by Swedish scientist Karl-Henrik Robèrt. The Natural Step has pioneered a "Backcasting from Principles" approach to effectively move society towards sustainability.  The organization is committed to helping to create a sustainable human society using the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development to communicate the scope and scale of the current problem and empower individuals to move towards strategic solutions. More here.

Photosynthesis: The process by which plants use solar energy to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen.

Precautionary Principle: A moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who advocate for the action or policy.

Procurement guidelines (aligned with sustainability principles): A set of guidelines to help in the combined functions of purchasing, inventory control, traffic and transportation, receiving, inspection, store keeping, and salvage and disposal operations to ensure that an organisation’s procurement decisions help move society toward sustainability.

Risk: The ‘probability of a consequence occurring’ multiplied by ‘the magnitude of the consequence’.

Root Cause: The most basic reason for the presence of a problem, which, if eliminated, would prevent its recurrence.

Shareholder:  A person or group who owns shares of stock in a corporation or mutual fund.

Stakeholder:  Any person or group who has an interest (a stake) in an organisation or community.

Strategic planning: An organisation's process of defining its strategy or direction and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy, including its capital and people.

Strategic prioritization questions: Three questions for effective backcasting used to make strategic decisions toward sustainability

Strategic sustainable development (SSD): Development and planning based on first-order principles for sustainability. This field was pioneered by a network of sustainability researchers in cooperation with the international non-governmental organization, The Natural Step.

Sustainability: A state in which society does not systematically undermine natural or social systems within the biosphere.  Achieving sustainability would happen when the four system conditions of The Natural Step are met. 

Sustainability Challenge: The combination of the systematic errors of societal design that are driving human’s unsustainable effects on the socio-ecological system, the serious obstacles to fixing those errors, and the opportunities for society if those obstacles are overcome.

Sustainability plan: Encompasses comprehensive, or integrated, objectives including social, economic and environmental. An environmental plan focuses primarily on the environment.  This integrated planning approach sets it apart from other traditional community plans. Because sustainability problems are often complex and overlapping, they cannot be solved in isolation and are best addressed using a comprehensive, systems-based approach that focuses on the root of the problem, rather than only the symptoms. For example, toxic effluent in rivers affects fish health (environmental), which affect people (social) and financial prosperity (economic). All of these elements and their connections must be considered to arrive at optimal solutions.

Sustainability principles: First-order principles for sustainability that are designed for backcasting from sustainability. These principles state that, in a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

  • Materials drawn from the earth’s crust;
  • Substances produced by society;
  • Degradation of natural systems by physical means;
  • And in this sustainable society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their own needs

System Conditions: Four conditions for achieving sustainability. The conditions are stated in the negative to create the constraints within which creativity can flourish. They are:

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

  • Concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust
  • Concentrations of substances produced by society
  • Degradation by physical means
  • and people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs

Systems-thinking: An approach to problem-solving that assumes that the individual problem is part of a much larger system.  The intent is to solve the problem in a way that does not create further problems down the road.  This approach is particularly important in complex systems where we do not always understand the inter-connection between parts. 

Technosphere: Refers to the human system as a sub-system within the biosphere, in which materials, industries and their products interrelate and  interact.

Upstream Solutions: Proactive solutions that address the source of the original problem, as opposed to the effects of it.

Visioning: The process of imagining a desired future.

List of acronyms:
ICSP: Integrated Community Sustainability Plan
FSSD: Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development
MSP: Municipal Sustainability Plan
SC: system condition
SP: sustainability principle
SSD: Strategic Sustainable Development
TNS: The Natural Step