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Attention Wordsmiths: Any One Know A Sexy Alternative To “Systemic Thinking”

OK, just so you know, the title here is a plea for help not a rhetorical question. You see, our notion of sustainability boils down to this: A systemic approach that enables a place to be healthy and vibrant without diminishing the capacity of that place in the future to be healthy and vibrant.

The problem is obviously this: Systems thinking doesn’t resonate with most people, few have any idea what it means, and it sounds totally wonky.

Yeah, yeah, it’s a wonky definition. Most people, though, when they hear that our expertise is sustainability immediately think about recycling programs or waste reduction or green buildings. When in fact, our definition of sustainability is tied up with systems thinking: How best to integrate all aspects of a business or a community so that its value is optimized through environmental stewardship.

The big issue here is this notion of systems thinking. For a business, this means taking everything from its research and design into its goods and services through its supply chain, its operations and facilities, on down to its after-market re-purposing of what it has produced. For a community, this means integrating everything from affordable housing to contiguous green space to multi-modal access to goods and services to low-impact development to economic development to programs devoted to vibrant place-making. In short: systems thinking. That’s our elevator speech about sustainability and how we approach it.

The problem is obviously this: Systems thinking doesn’t resonate with most people, few have any idea what it means, and it sounds totally wonky.

We could draw on that well-known aphorism often attributed to John Muir: “Tug on anything and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.” So, we could say with a straight face, what we at Melaver & Associates do is what he (Muir) said. We do the Muir-thing. Hmmm.

Or, we could draw upon the brilliant body of work by Dana Meadows and some of her colleagues at the Sustainability Institute and the Balaton Group to talk about how complex elements cohere. And, to be fair and just, this work has only barely been given the recognition it deserves. It’s certainly been the foundation of our own efforts. But again, to most of our clients, this stuff seems extremely heady (it is) and unapproachable (it’s not)

The word “holistic thinking” doesn’t work. It sounds way too granola-esque for the general public. “Comprehensive planning” has become the domain of urban planners. “Collaborative design” is a green building term and focuses on front-end design but leaves unaddressed the ongoing coordination of a system’s parts.

So we are stuck. We are stuck delivering a set of services built around a concept that is puzzling and foreign and off-putting to most everyone. And yet it’s the best phrase we know that accurately conveys what we do. So we are appealing to our readership. Winning answer receives something good.