The FSSD is a process of continual learning that incorporates other methods, tools, and concepts into a shared, structured overview. No successful attempt to develop such an overview would ignore other approaches – instead, this framework will make better use of them. We have deduced the FSSD from empirical data on systems and impacts from unsustainable development, tested it in the real world, refined it, tested it again on empirical data, and so forth. The framework and methods, tools and concepts can help decision makers design the problem out of the system. The growing numbers of international participants in this research include leading experts and the prominent pioneers of methods, tools, and concepts for sustainable development.
In the following paragraphs, we develop the theory for the FSSD, put it into an operational methodology, verify it in relation to existing methods, tools and concepts, and then apply it in practical ways. To justify claims of having derived a unifying framework for sustainable development, we first needed to publish peer-reviewed research in three arenas: theory (robust), practice (applicability), and various kinds of methods and tools for sustainable development (comprehensively relating them to sustainability and to each other). In this paper, we synthesize our collective work on all these three arenas.
Terminology and theoretical considerations
Forecasting is a common method used in decision-making. It consists of projecting current trends into the future to predict and solve problems. Unfortunately, forecasting leads to ‘path dependencies’ and may not be a proactive method when planning for novel objectives.
In contrast, backcasting, begins by defining the objective clearly and then asking — “what shall we do today (and subsequently) to achieve the objective?”. For the FSSD, we use the term backcasting simply to envision a situation in the future and then explore pathways to reach it. Semantically, one is “backcasting” from that imagined situation in the future to the present (not vice versa, i.e. “forecasting” from present trends to predict the future).
Backcasting occurs in different ways and for different purposes, none of which are in conflict with our definition above. One typical way is to develop a scenario, for example an image of “a defined sustainable energy system.” Then, one considers various step-by-step routes to attain that system, for example, by modeling multidimensional aspects  such as energy potentials, learning curves, costs, consumption of areas, etc. This can also be an explorative exercise used to collect data and for learning. In actual planning, one may re-assess the planning, as well as the envisioned scenario, as the plan unfolds in the real world.
“Planning towards scenarios” without clear understanding of the basic principles or underlying conditions that frame the objective (in this case sustainability) has at least four potential shortcomings :
- It may be difficult for large groups to agree on relatively detailed descriptions of a desirable distant future.
- Given technological and cultural evolution, it may be unwise or unrealistic to lock into overly specific assumptions about the future too soon.
- It is difficult to know whether any given scenario is truly sustainable or not.
- It is difficult to compare one set of scenario based-plans with another set.
To counter these problems, we have systematically developed another approach. The FSSD, with its basic principles of sustainability, emerges from a process of consensus building among scientists, policy makers, and business leaders. This group rejected “planning towards scenarios” as the sole method and proceeded to explore the usefulness of backcasting from principles, the key feature of the FSSD. Our experience finds that this method is more general, intuitive, and practical (and still may well include scenarios).
In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:
- concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust (such as fossil carbon or metals),
- concentrations of substances produced by society (such as nitrogen compounds, CFC’s, and endocrine disrupters),
- degradation by physical means (such as large scale clear-cutting of forests and over-fishing)
- Moreover, in such a (sustainable) society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically: undermine their capacity to meet their needs (such as from the abuse of political and economic power).
We derived these four principles by asking “by what primary mechanisms, upstream at the level of first approximation in chains of causality, do human activities set off downstream social and ecological impacts that will destroy this system?” The answer revealed how myriads of downstream impacts are rooted in a few upstream errors of societal design and operation. Thereafter a “not” was inserted into each category to form the above first order sustainability principles. These are also called “The Natural Step (TNS) System Conditions.”. This set of principles comes as close as possible to meeting criteria for planning; that is, that planning criteria be “necessary”, “sufficient”, “general”, “concrete”, and “distinct”. They are now tested extensively in practice and have proven to function as exclusion criteria for redesign, (see below).
Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development
An appropriate analogy to guide sustainable development is chess, where a premature steering towards an exact position of pieces on the chessboard (a “scenario”) is a mediocre, and perhaps impossible, way of playing. As long as the goal is distant in complex systems, it is the principles of the objectives—checkmate or sustainability—and not an exact picture of how those principles will be fulfilled that guide a strategic player. Within a given system we should differentiate between the objective of the planning and the process by which we approach that objective. Military [e.g., 43] and civilian [e.g., 44] strategic planners have long known this. The FSSD is thus comprised of five specific levels :
(i) The Systems level. We describe the system’s major overall functions,, in this case the biosphere with its human society, our knowledge of stocks, flows, biogeochemical cycles, biodiversity and resilience, and the basic relationships between human practices and their impacts. The description must be sufficient to inform the subsequent levels. To apply an analogy, in chess, the systems level contains the game rules, the pieces, and the playing board.
(ii) The Purpose level. We specify the definition of the objective — in this case, sustainability. Returning to the game analogy, the purpose is to checkmate one’s opponent within the constraints of the game (level 1). This can happen in an almost uncountable number of combinations, all complying with the basic principles of checkmate. The next level requires the second level.
(iii) The Strategic level. We specify principles of how to approach the objective strategically. This implies a step-by-step approach that ensures that financial, social, and ecological resources continue to feed the process. In chess, good moves serve as strategic steps to checkmate. Tradeoffs are selected from their capacity to serve as platforms towards complying with principles of success (level 2), rather than as choices between inherent evils.
(iv) The Actions level. We inform every action that could take us strategically towards the objective.
(v) The Tools level. Tools are often required to monitor the (iv) actions to ensure that they are chosen (iii) strategically to arrive at the (ii) objective in the (i) system. Examples in sustainable development include indicators, management systems, and life cycle assessments.
It is the rigor with which we describe levels (i)-(iii) and allow them to inform each other that determines how confident participants can be when choosing the right actions (iv) and tools (v) [13,23]. In many planning processes, level (ii) is often either too detailed — such as when scenarios are used for backcasting — or not fleshed out operationally. An example is the Brundtland’s definition , “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition is adequate in some ways, but does not give guidance as to the design of such a society. To be functional, the set of principles for the objective must be necessary (to achieve the planning objective, i.e., sustainability plus anything else that a team of planners agree is mandatory) and sufficient (to cover all aspects of the objective) [17,46]. In addition, the set of principles should also be general (to make sense for all stakeholders), concrete (to guide problem solving and actions), and distinct (to enable comprehension and facilitate development of indicators for monitoring and assessment).
FSSD* In the business world, this framework is known as The Natural Step Framework after the Swedish international non-profit NGO promoting it (www.thenaturalstep.org).