The Natural Step a framework to sustainable design

The natural step, system thinking for a sustainable future

The natural step is a framework to a sustainable design developed by the Swedish scientist Karl-Henrik Robert and the fifth post in a series that aims to discuss the different framework and ways to approach for sustainable fashion design. The first post “how to approach sustainable fashion design” talked about nature capitalism, the second post entered the biological zone where we with a great respect look on how nature solves and design; “Biomimicry as nature builds it.” The third post discussed a successful method and framework for understanding sustainability as the duo Michael Braungart and William Mc- Donough presented the cradle to the cradle framework, an approach rooted in the 1970s. Cradle to Cradle was described in their popular book from 2002 with the same name and Remaking the Way We Make Thing. And finally, the last post discussed the probably most well-known framework and approach towards sustainability in design; life cycle assessment or LCA.

The Natural Step Foundation in Sweden has created a strong interdisciplinary scientific consensus on the root causes of the environmental crisis, bringing scientists and professionals from dozens of fields in a search for a shared vision and universal solutions. The natural step with their forward-thinking dialog influences policymakers, business people, and ordinary citizens with their approach.
The natural step tries to focus on the sources of the greatest impacts in order to generate progress without being lost in details, and therefore, has a lot in common with nature capitalism and Proxy LCA. The framework is built around four fundamental system conditions to help stabilize Earth’s biosphere.

The system is clearly inspired and rooted in complex system thinking as planning is the essential tool to make sure a design is right from the start. As history shows, society is repeating the same kind of mistake repeatedly. The industrial history of such events reminds us of this problem. To use safe materials from the start is essential for future sustainable planning. The Natural Step solutions, discovery, and principles are a decision process determined upfront and upstream. Materials are decided before the process is started or damage occurred. This is the basic approach, called The Natural Step Framework For Strategic Sustainability Development.

The four system conditions include the following

  1. System Condition #1: Substances from the earth’s crust must not systematically increase in the biosphere. Fossil fuels, metals, and other minerals must not be extracted at a faster rate than their redeposit and regeneration in the earth’s crust.
  2. System Condition #2: Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in nature. Substances must not be produced faster than they can be broken down and be reintegrated into the cycles of nature or be deposited in the earth’s crust.
  3. System Condition #3: The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not systematically deteriorate. Productive surfaces of nature must not be diminished in quality or quantity, and we must not harvest more from nature that can be recreated or renewed.
  4. System Condition #4: There needs to be a fair and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting human needs. Basic human needs must be met with the most resource-efficient methods possible, including equitable resource distribution.

Envisioning a picture of success

The natural step uses a term they call backcasting “basic principles of success.” And this is a cornerstone of the natural step framework. The methodology has been elaborated from “backcasting from scenarios” (Robinson, 1990. And refers to a planning routine by which a successful outcome of the planning is visualized in the future. How did we or what was it that we did today that allowed us to get there? By following such a method it’s important that the framework’s key “basic principle is basic enough.

  • To cover general enough to cover the successful outcome (i.e., social and ecological sustainability) and to be an independent field and scale activity wise
  • That the basics are solid and tangible enough to guide problem analysis and create creative solutions.
  • Not overlapping, so that comprehension is supported, and monitoring the progress metrics can be developed later

Backcasting uses a scenario model approach similar to working on a puzzle while being guided by a specific image of the puzzle, we know all the pieces. Backcasting from such a scenario seems safe, however, has its disadvantages when applied to sustainable development. It often is difficult to agree to develop such a detailed description within an organization, ongoing technical development and innovation seldom invite plans developed in such details, naturally, resistance will occur and how can we really know. Decision makers often have more than one agenda and planning with too many details certainly will make innovation-demanding. Therefore, a too detailed plan can easily turn the jigsaw into a principle of checkmate.

Learn the system, follow the system

The natural step framework is systematized as an approach to facilitate the brainstorming sessions and team-planning that are presented in the “ABC” methodology. However, is a rigid framework. Therefore, one of the most important issues working within a planning framework for complex systems, it is essential to keep five hierarchical levels of decision-making and not confuse them with each other.

  1. Level System – articulation of how the system is constituted.
  2. Level Success – setting a vision and identifying desired outcomes in the system.
  3. Level: Strategies – to achieve the vision and move purposely toward success.
  4. Level: Actions – concrete measures that will lead to the desired outcomes.
  5. Level: Toolbox – set of tools to assess, manage, and monitor the actions.

Correcting errors at the basic system level is the rule of the game

Correcting errors at this basic systems level (level 1), or “upstream” in the cause-effect chain, is the only way to both come to grips with current problems and avoid new problems. Understanding this level – the “basic rules of the game” from a biophysical and societal perspective – makes it possible to ask the right questions and to structure all the details in a way that makes sense for decision-making. For example, Renewable Energy belongs to the action category level 4, not in the success category level 2. Renewable energy is not a principle, but something that we do. It’s an important step forward. However, it’s important to note that renewable energy may lead to other significant ecological alterations. Renewable is not in itself a principle of sustainability.

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

A – system condition enables to play. Gain awareness of the ecological and social systems your organization operates within, based on an understanding of the principles of sustainability. From this understanding, create a vision of what your organization would look like if it operated within these principles.
B – conducting the assessment, undertake a baseline assessment of today’s current reality.
C – solutions and visions of tomorrow, applying system conditions to decision-making processes (a creative
D – making and decides priorities from the list developed in the previous step and launching concrete programs for change. Does this action bring an acceptable financial, ecological and/or social return on investment?


Finally, it’s impossible to create comprehensive up to the front checklist and very detailed manuals managing complex systems. Problems are mostly multidimensional, nevertheless, for every project more and more pre-hand selected success principles will be available. In a nearby sustainable future, more companies will find and share principles for success from experience, where new solutions found, processed mapped and selected. The industry in a sustainable future will require important dematerializations, by taller resource productivity and less waste. Design improvements, recycling, and similar actions will increase taller material performance and avoid dangerous accumulation of waste and reduce pressure on system conditions. Many materials today are not good for our planet’s health and needs to be faced out or replaced by substitutes.

New materials should be selected in a way that maximizes the benefits for a global society and presents opportunities for future generations. Last, as the process unfolds – and the marginal costs in relation to utility and profit decrease, as more and more “low-hanging fruit hanging fruit is picked” – it is likely that a need for more sophisticated tools will evolve, including, ISO 14001, life cycle assessments (LCA), tools for product development, purchase manuals, and so on. To ensure, however, that all efforts are continuing to move in the alike direction, all of these tools should be informed by the same framework as is informing the business program – backcasting from basic principles of success.

Strength and Weakness of the model
  • The advantage of applying backcasting from basic principles of success is greater planning flexibility, and the method brings concrete steps in the forward direction of the process
  • The natural step approach prefers principles rather than details.
  • It does not discuss or consider economic questions.
  • Hard to make people agree that the outcome of a detailed scenario description will be successful, after all, we are talking about the future.
  • Resistance to making detailed plans regarding ongoing technical development.
  • Little space for exploration and design creativity.

  • Transforming sustainability strategy into action, The Chemical Industry. Edited by Beth Beloff, Marianne Lines, Dicksen Tanzil, bridges to sustainability. Published by John Wiley&Sons, Inc.
  • “Backcasting” from Principles of Success: Introduction to The Natural Step Framework and Approach
  • The Natural Step Framework Guidebook
  • Sustainability Using The Natural Step Framework, Oregon natural step network
  • John Boardman and Brian Sauser, Systems Thinking Coping with 21st Century Problems. 2008, published by Taylor & Francis Group
  • Universal design handbook Wolfgang F. E. Preiser editor-in-chief Korydon H. Smith
  • The design is the problem. The Future of Design Must be Sustainable by Nathan Shedroff, Rosenfeld Media
  • What is system 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.
  • Natural Step Foundation The Amiralitetshuset, Skeppsholmen 111 49 Stockholm, Sweden

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