Kevin J. Dooley, Arizona State University and Co-Director, Sustainability Consortium

I’m currently Co-Director of the Sustainability Consortium, where we are working with retailers, manufacturers, suppliers, NGOs, and government agencies to develop science and tools that improve decision making about sustainable products. Our current focus is on developing uniform standards for measuring and reporting consumer product sustainability, and our pilot projects involve computers, home and personal care items, and food and beverages. In just over a year the Consortium has grown to involve over 100 organizations and 250 active participants.

Knowing my background in complexity science, some of my colleagues ask me, “Kevin, where is the complexity thinking in what you’re doing?” My reply is, “Complexity science is how I view this effort every second of every day!” It’s true. I honestly can’t comprehend how I would approach this effort without a complexity science perspective. I do know that in a large, multi-stakeholder environment, there is no other perspective that can provide as much insight as complexity does.

It’s instructive to note that the Consortium’s other Co-Director, Jon Johnson from University of Arkansas, is an expert at social networks and wrote some of the early papers on management and chaos theory. I guess it should be no surprise this endeavor attracted two complexity folk.

In my role as Co-Director, one of the most practical and impactful concepts that I use from complexity science is that of “simple rules”. The concept of simple rules stems from the observation that in a complex system, a few simple rules that define interactions amongst agents or variables can yield complex, nonlinear dynamics. Coupled with the Zipf’s Law that human systems seek to minimize energy expenditure, this implies that human systems will tend to seek a small set of simple rules by which to guide collective behavior.

In an organizational setting, these simple rules can be usefully considered to be the principles or values by which members of the organization act and make decisions. In the Sustainability Consortium, our core values are:

Collaboration of Diverse Participants
This impacts how we compose our Steering Committee, our Working Groups, and our Advisory Boards; who we seek to partner with in research; and how we build the staff of the Consortium.

Scientific Integrity
Whenever you’re developing standards to be used in the real business world, there’s a tension between science and economics. We are a member funded organization, so we are especially sensitive to developing systems and values that uphold this core principle. For example, each of our standards is based on an underlying research document that is peer-reviewed by academic experts, and not subject to consensus review by industry members.

Comprehensiveness and Holism
One of the reasons we exist is because existing efforts to measure and report product sustainability have been fragmented and partial, in terms of their scope, the impacts of concern, or the life cycle stage being addressed. Our approach seeks to capture all environmental and social impacts across the whole life cycle of a product. Holism, and complexity science more specifically, also impacts how we develop our own decision support systems, using principles of modularity and distributed control as key design criteria.

Transparency and Accessibility
To be open, to all, is an easy thing to say but a hard thing to do. Transparency impacts both how we operate, the relations that we seek, and the data and methods we seek to use. Numerous research studies have shown that transparency of data and methods is key to buyer trust of product information.

Progress and Solutions Orientation
Our members and stakeholders want results, our earth and society want results, and we want results, sooner than later. In a sense, this is where science becomes engineering. From a complex systems perspective, this means we strive for short learning cycles and multiple iterations, in order to adapt to good solutions.

I’ve seen the same thing in other organizations I have been part of, especially smaller organizations. For example, when I worked in two different, small community radio stations, our mission statements were key in every day decision making. Other research into new venture development highlights the importance of principled decision making.

In order for “simple rules” to work however, it can’t just be in my mind—it has to be in the mind of all the agents (people) in the Consortium. This comes from agents co-creating the principles, and having a relatively simple set of principles so people can remember and therefore use.