MetaCapital, sustainability and bottom lines

professional swimmer underwater after the jump in abyssAnyone and everyone connected with sustainability dives straight into a dizzying array of frameworks.

If you spend even a short time in this space (or for some like me, a career!) you’ll be swimming through terms, measures and concepts such as:

  • Corporate social reporting; Global reporting initiative; Ecological footprint
  • Triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profit
  • Zero impact, net zero; Environmental restoration, re-wilding
  • Dematerialisation; Industrial ecology
  • Carbon neutral, carbon positive; Decoupling

So how do we cut through? How can we turn all the deep care, passion, effort, insight, work and brilliance, associated with all these concepts, into transformational global fast change?

Will it help to go big – meta –  and what is the minimum set of concepts that will encapsulate sustainability? As simple as possible but not simplistic.

To do this the MetaCapital Framework measuresmetacapital-summary-figure 4 types of impact with 10 types of capital to produce 4 bottom lines.

That’s a lot to grab in a short blog post. However, MetaCapital is resonating strongly within organisations not only around sustainability. In part, what has been occurring with so many diversified views of sustainability is that people are mixing impact measures, the stock of something as well as flows (increases and decreases).

We clearly distinguish such parameters for a company’s finances – e.g. business plan, assets and liabilities, cashflow. In today’s world, we need to do this across multiple bottom lines, environmental, human and psychological capital and across the impact on individuals as well as groups – just to mention a few parameters. The developing MetaCapital framework has the potential to bring clarity to help us in this complexity.

For an introduction, watch Sean Esbjörn-Hargens explaining the framework’s background and its potential to the first MetaCapital masterclass.

For a deeper dive into MetaCapital and the slides referred to in the video see

For those new to meta-frameworks like this and/or integral theory quadrants see Beyond the boxes for some first steps.



Repeating patterns

crystal-wallpaper-11One of the compelling beauties of Integral Theory are repeating patterns, the fractal nature of quadrants, repeating patterns are observable at every scale. This is fundamental and creates a wonderful window onto ourselves, our biases and preferences. It is powerful – working with the integral quadrants becomes a way of differentiating our awareness and learning how to identify ourselves and others from these perspectives – through this  differentiating practice, real integration becomes possible.

We’re exploring Integral Theory’s quadrants* as this opens greater potential for impact and agency on difficult, stuck and complex problems that are inherent to fields such as sustainability, health and  business futures – see last week’s post, Beyond the boxes, about this blog series.

A key distinction that assists seeing and working with the quadrants is the screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-3-05-26-pmconcept of looking at and looking as. We can look at ourselves or anything – e.g. a group of people or a collection of objects – or we could adopt a perspective of seeing such quadrants as ourselves or others.

Try a simple example. Imagine you are looking at another person, someone you’re emotionally close to. Obviously, you can see that person, the contexts and surroundings they are in. You may identify what you think are their emotional states (happy, sad, angry etc.) and the cultural influences (e.g. are they in a fun social situation) at play for them – you’re looking at them. Next, think about and imagine their experience. What are they seeing at the moment, experiencing physically from the environment around them? How do you think they would describe their cultural context at the moment or emotional state? In doing this you’re looking as them.

The reflective or contemplative nature of this is important. For example, as Sean Esbjörn Hargens illustrates, a therapist has an emotional dimension of themselves and that enables them to see the emotional dimension of a client – they can look at the client and see the emotional dimension of the client. They can only do this as they have this emotional dimension built  into themselves. They could not see the emotional dimension without this (or if they could it would be much more conceptual).

Encouragingly, as this theory holds, you can’t reduce these four quadrant dimensions – any sentient being has these four dimensions. This opens a window onto the groups, things, objects and problems we seek to have impact with. Sean highlights, the fact that I have these four dimensions in my own embodied selfness enables me to take these four [integral quadrant] perspectives. I can [consequently] look at the world through these for windows … that is similar and slightly different from those four dimension that are part of myself.

This is an important embodied piece. When we’re working with complex situations and many moving variables – such as considering effective and sustainable future business opportunities – there are an exponential number of parts, influences and perspectives. Quadrants are a way of reflecting ourselves back at ourselves that helps to bring around, as an object of awareness, our own preconceptions so that we can then operate in an enhanced way of being. In essence, we are taking what is subjective and becoming more aware of our biases, seeing our tendencies reflected back to us as our unit of analysis, to become more conscious. In doing so, we can shift what we were subject to to be objective.

Working with quadrants in this way helps us start to see the fractal nature of our world – systems within systems. But, before we disappear down the rabbit hole (that’s next week!) is this practical and what comes from such consideration for the things and outcomes we care about?

There are some real advantages. Looking as, for example an object, does stretch our thinking and it helps to design the object better. From the earlier example, try differentiating which of your perspectives are looking at a person and which are looking as that person, how they may consider that same outlook for themselves. No doubt you already do this when thinking about people you are close to but I find this distinction creates subtle (and sometime not so subtle) insight. That’s a very valuable thing.

*  For an Overview to Integral Theory see Sean Esbjörn Hargens pdf here>>>

** Looking at and as perspectives diagram from Sean Esbjörn Hargens, TetraDynamics (2014).

Beyond the boxes

NOX_Textures_177_5When people first come across integral theory* they are often stunned, enticed, surprised and excited by its simple beauty and explanatory power. I certainly was! Suddenly, through accessibly integrating global knowledge, many tensions in ourselves, families and society come into clear illuminated focus. Sustainability and health are great examples – integral’s mapping power illuminates stuck situations**. It creates hope for changes that are perversely hard to implement.

Excited, we apply it to everything around us. Then we look for greater traction and impact.

If you are like me, you’ll have seen some wonderful shifts. Just working with one prominent piece of integral, its quadrants, can be highly revealing, catalysing transformations. Groups, clients and friends quickly get the quadrants and love the clarity this brings to discussions. This occurs if the structure is being used explicitly – we’re talking integral theory and its application to others – and delightfully it still works if it is simply informing the design of an interaction, project or program.

Yet, our experience with this clear integrating model is uneven. Sometimes it flies powerfully. Sometimes it seems it could do so much more. Seemingly, how to best apply the quadrants is largely uncharted territory.

Enter TetraDynamics. I’m privileged to be observing the latest application of this -approaches like integral seem fundamental to managing and dealing with many of the environmental and social imperatives we face today – the sold out program is a wonderfully exciting thing. But, what is TetraDynamics?

The Four Quadrants are deceptively simple. They are comprised from the intersection of two of our life’s most fundamental polarities: insides and outsides; parts and wholes…

TetraDynamics highlights the many different kinds of relationships (Dynamics) that are possible between each of the four quadrants (Tetra).

Over the next 12 weeks this blog series touches, very lightly, on some program highlights. By its very nature, a short blog is a lot less than a whole course or two hours of discussion and application. However, as a first step, think about how quadrants can be used to understand integral theory itself. We can:

  1. Look at ourselves and discover the reflections of integral quadrants in ourselves – the “I” piece, if you like – self understanding.
  2. Greatly deepen our understanding in discussion and interaction with others – a “we” piece – impact and action with others.
  3. Get busy creating a better methodology for using these integral quadrants  – an “it piece” – as they are so powerful.

One of the astonishing strengths of this model is the reflections, our own embodied understanding. Part one above, if you like, is a key to change.  Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, TetraDynamics creator and program leader says:

When I activate these dimensions in my own being [it becomes] not just a head trip of boxes for interesting insight… I can feel it, I can experience it, for me this is what makes integral analysis so delicious. While, even as a strong mental type I can dissociate from this which is why I work on the embodiment to try and bring it down and stay related.

Before I lose the more cognitive folks, consider how this reflected insight, of understanding felt within your own body, may assist during challenging situations. At the very least, the clearer and more connected we are, the more likely others are to engage.

Or try it for yourself, take Sean’s walking integral meditation on a 25 minute walk:

  • Spend the first 5 minutes walking noticing your own subjective awareness, what is arising in your experience, your feelings and emotional states
  • The next 5 minutes focus on the intersubjective dimensions – birds, hikers, the dynamics of your relationships with other beings
  • For the third 5 minutes pay attention to the objective data coming through your senses – what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell.
  • Then look for patterns –  the systems that support you being and walking in this place – for 5 more minutes.
  • Finally, spend 5 minutes brining it all together – experiencing  (gets easier over time…) all four of the elements simultaneously

There are a cascade of similar reflections, reaching out into the systems and circumstances and societies you care about, that the next blogs looking at TetraDynamics will touch on.

Series index

Beyond the boxes (this post)

Repeating patterns (post 2)

Feeling with the organism (post 3)

Opposites attract (post 4)

Out of the box elegance (post 5)


*An integral quadrant introduction is here …The quadrants represent lenses with which to better understand any occurrence; they reveal dynamics and forces in the interiors and exteriors of individuals and collectives. Together, they offer a map of psychology, behavior, culture, and systems.” (pdf)

** Just a few limited large group applications include Energy shifts in Peru, Integral and climate change, Integral and chaos emerging from the middle east

The world today – the new normal and VUCA

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 2.43.53 PMWe live in extraordinary times. Our societies’ are transforming and we are seeing radical non-linear changes. This is occurring whether we live in industrialised or modernising countries. The same is true for people with very different circumstances including those whose main priority is simply generating enough for life’s daily necessities.

How we work, communicate, shop, spend leisure time, rely on natural resources, engage with or are impacted by global markets, manage and connect with climate-sustainability phenomena is changing quickly. All these pieces and more continue to evolve, often in interdependent, highly unpredictable yet connected ways.

Consider just a small slice of this – the network effect. The digital economy is facilitating and enabling different collaboration structures. It’s already very disruptive for existing business models. It is radically reshaping media, manufacturing, healthcare and financial services. It dissolves many traditional boundaries. Indirect impacts and human caring matters. Remote stories can become very personal empathetic connections.  For example, human rights and justice for poor subsistence farmers – such as those impacted by increasing floods and inundation associated with climate change in the Bangladeshi Ganges delta – can become topics of importance and potential carbon risks for large corporations.

At a smaller scale, disruptive business models – such as direct connections between farmers and consumers – threaten traditional retail models. There are many more examples.

We are waving goodbye to much of the predictability and stability that business and government decision making is based on. The unusual has become the new normal.

So what do we do?

A good way of thinking about the “new normal” is through the concept of VUCA – the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity inherent in today’s world.  Bob Johanson, former president of the Institute for the Future, created this concept highlighting how it profoundly changes leadership, business, organisational endeavours and required thought structures.

The good news is VUCA is navigable. We can shift this to incorporate Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility with some fundamental changes in our ways of thinking. An important assistive step to this is using simple (but not simplistic) meta-models. At the leading edge of some of this work is the application of integral theory and action inquiry to practically encompass VUCA’s diversity. We can use this big picture perspective to work within the cultures and predominant worldviews in our organisations (and in ourselves).

This pitch is arguing that we need to practically work with holistic perspectives to bring such vision, understanding, clarity and agility into our new normal VUCA world. Meta is a necessary part of this picture – how else do we draw in all the important influences and the best of global knowledge to create impact? How else do we cope with the bounty of knowledge we have today? We want robust futures for our businesses, organisations and societies. We want to value and receive the best from human altruism. We desire to create effective profitable climate change responses and to create the best effective health service outcomes. We need such meta methods and the capability to embody them as part of our answers – delivering vision, understanding, clarity and agility.

Note: Picture and article are drawn from/draw on MetaIntegral’s VUCA work, its Embodied Practitioner Certification program and consulting.

Human altruism

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 1.36.18 PM.pngHuman beings are altruistic! We’re motivated by a lot more than money and success.

In today’s world, this claim may seem dubious. However, there’s overwhelming evidence – we are not just economic rationalists out to maximise our own personal wealth at any cost.

Frequently, this evidence shows we will happily ignore simple profitable activities – for example energy efficiency. A simple illustration – would you walk past a $50 note on the pavement and not pick it up? In our own homes, companies and organisations we do the equivalent of this all the time!

While that may sound like a double negative there’s plenty of collaborative evidence.

We often behave in ways that are in everyone’s interests rather than just our own. Looking after common resources is a good example. We cooperate to equitably share limited resources and protect supplies of these – it is not uncommon for human created fair sharing systems to be effective over decades and generations. This is well known – e.g. the Nobel prize winning work of Elinor Ostrom.

Perspectives on altruism, not seeing the realities in our world today, are to our detriment. Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks highlights this. He says “by assuming that people are selfish, by prioritizing arrangements based on selfishness, we have encouraged selfish frames of mind.”

“Maybe it’s time to build institutions that harness people’s natural longing to do good” he says. Fortunately we are seeing some of this – acting on our knowledge – for example, at the Paris Climate Change agreement.

Clearly there’s scope for more and to shift cultural views. These often seem to privilege the idea we’re always chasing money and power.

Supercharging clean technology innovation in Peru

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 2.48.14 PMSupercharging clean technology innovation, to address climate change, is a high priority for many governments and our global society. Consequently, when a city – such as, San Borja, Lima Province, Peru – identifies over 50 billion tonnes (carbon dioxide equivalent) of potential greenhouse gas reductions we’re faced with a lavish range of enticing choices.

At the same time, turning profitable carbon opportunities into high impact delivered solutions is often far more challenging than it appears at first sight. It is not just an innovation task, there are many systems, beliefs, cultural and mindset pieces that are inherently involved in success.

To assist San Borja an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) low carbon policy review team (including myself) recommended an integrated framework for the city. Carbon abatement potential and cost are important considerations. Similarly, the city’s leadership, especially the San Borja mayor’s, passion and advocacy for change is of great importance. Visibility and enjoyment, awareness, community and business support are also significant factors. Ultimately, the low carbon transformation is likely to succeed when the people of the city regard sustainability practice as a norm.

This is, we think, the first published integral review and framework for low carbon city wide innovation. The review, available here from APEC, evaluates action using integral theory recognising human motivation (internal – what I and we care about) alongside objective measurement (external). Explicitly considering paradigms, personal motivation, world-views and cultural norms lead to far stronger outcomes, high innovation impact and competitive sustainable advantages.

† Opportunities include:  Residential, commercial and municipal low carbon building design; renewable energy; community energy management systems; area energy; planning; waste; transport; urban planning and policy changes facilitating low carbon initiatives; walking, cycling and public transport use instead of private cars; avoiding waste, recycling, waste stream re-use; accessibility encouraging adoption of sustainable choices; Lowering the urban heat island impact; and, the likelihood of alternate travel, consumption and energy use choices. The APEC report lists the technical background from pages 1 to 13 and the integral framework and action opportunities from pages 14 to 70.

Image: Policy Review for APEC Low Carbon Model Town Phase 4 Final Report San Borja, Lima, Peru page 18 (pdf)



Suzuki: love, carbon and being

CdZsH3PVIAA2ENh    Rhodora! If the sages ask thee why
    This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
    Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
    Then Beauty is its own excuse for being. 

Some things just are: Too much carbon. The need for fast change. Low carbon business is profitable. We think we are motivated by money. We’re carbon change laggards.

David Suzuki, speaking at WOMADelaide, advocates answering these perplexing paradoxes by preferencing love.

David points our that love is a driving force of our species. “Our love of our kin, children and grandchildren, overrides economic pressure” he says.

That may sound limiting. Love and care. Is that all? Knowledge and understanding is equally important, if not more so?

If climate change represents the greatest challenge of our species and our greatest opportunity we surely want all the data possible.

Such hard data is necessary but not sufficient. The way we see the world, what our values are, determines how we are going to behave and act. Considering values and worldviews is important. It is a dominant focus for success in our interconnected world.

David highlights that a lot of environmental work didn’t shift the paradigm, we’re still stuck thinking about things in the old ways.

However, we’re motivated by love and care, connected and interconnected to nature. We will prioritise our family and kin. Similarly, the mother earth is our kin.

If this sounds a little too unscientific, some compelling and logical argument – on interconnection, the earth as our kin, love, the limitations of science and accepting what just is – from David’s Womadelaide talk is here.

Notes: The poem is an extract from The Rhodora by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1847. Click here for David Suzuki’s WOMADelaide bio. More on David’s argument and what ‘just is’ follows in the next blog post.



Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 1.07.55 PMSometimes, frequently we can’t ‘solve‘ a problem without creating another one. Often we need to manage this, manage polarities, rather than trying to create a singular focused outcome.

Nature and nurture is a classic example. Freedom and responsibility is another one. So many sustainability issues need this type of both-and thinking and the following is a lovely summary of polarity from Seth Godin.

Freedom and Responsibility – Which do you want?

Freedom is the ability to set your schedule, to decide on the work you do, to make decisions.

Responsibility is being held accountable for your actions. It might involve figuring out how to get paid for your work, owning your mistakes or having others count on you.

Freedom without responsibility is certainly tempting, but there are few people who will give you that gig and take care of you and take responsibility for your work as well.

Responsibility without freedom is stressful. There are plenty of jobs in this line of work, just as there are countless jobs where you have neither freedom nor responsibility. These are good jobs to walk away from.

When in doubt, when you’re stuck, when you’re seeking more freedom, the surest long-term route is to take more responsibility.

Freedom and responsibility aren’t given, they’re taken.

In the environmental field, for example, we wish people to be responsible, to be held responsible for impacts. However, we also want to encourage innovation, change and progressive solutions – the types of creativity that are often assisted by freedom.

Quite often the debate is polarised – today’s problems and our future sustainability and environmental repair requires both.

An adaptive agreement for a complex dilemma

Over more than 20 years we have been trying to put in place a meaningful climate change agreement. Extraordinarily, in Paris 196 countries just managed this. Or did they?

The scale of what has been achieved is immense.  For example, the Climate Institute’s CEO, John Connor says this agreement “signals to communities, investors and companies around the world that the shift to clean energy is now unstoppable”.

By the numbers, the world and Australia made a significant step with more than 100 countries banding together as the “High Ambition Coalition” to call on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees in addition to the 2 degree target.

There is, however, plenty of realism. George Monbiot points out “with 2C of warming, large parts of the world’s surface will become less habitable… wilder extremes: worse droughts in some places, worse floods in others, greater storms… Islands and coastal districts in many parts of the world are in danger of disappearing beneath the waves.”

James Hansen is more direct: “It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’

So is it a fraud? This agreement features pledges for action? There may be 3 very well validated principles at play.

Climate change is a dilemma – the sort of problem where there can be a tragedy of the commons in which high emitting countries damage the world’s ability to provide resources and life support services for us all. However, Nobel prize-winning research, led by Elinor Ostrom and many others, discovered this tragedy is only valid in very limited special circumstances. Three conditions are necessary, but not sufficient, for effective answers. Firstly, the resource must be important and prominent enough for the users to create new managing institutions. Secondly, the users must not be constrained  from creating and setting their own rules. Thirdly, at least some of the users must be able to communicate with each other and bargain.

These conditions appear to be some of what the Paris agreement enables – multiple different centres of action pledging reductions, reviewing and communicating about implementation and holding ourselves to account.

We have an adaptive agreement – one in which action can change (and will need to) as knowledge about the impacts increases. A 2C target, for example, does not provide certainty. Rather, it is a level at which a range of dangerous outcomes are less likely to occur. Encouragingly, the agreement seems to mirror human experience backed by decades of research. Our societies can and have answered very similar, albeit smaller issues, under the right conditions.

Pic: Climate Insititute. For background and references on commons dilemmas see Common pool resources, A climate for change: An exploration towards Integral Action Loops to apply our knowledge for sustainability success. Chapter 5, The University of Adelaide.

A Climate for Change

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 12.00.00 PMDeveloping and implementing successful sustainability interventions to tackle pressing environmental and society challenges is of paramount importance but complex.

I have worked in this field for decades and the challenge – to comprehend sustainability and change – led me to a PhD. I’m delighted to say I completed this last year and have just received the 2014 University of Adelaide’s “Doctoral Research Medal for outstanding research at a PhD level“.

In my thesis, I argue it requires understanding the many different ways in which people make sense of the problems, working with, and designing for, current circumstances and opportunities, while simultaneously seeking to enable desirable futures.

To manage across the complexity of sustainability, the investigation explores meta-theory and a particular type of it, integral theory. It does this to navigate through multiple theory lenses. These represent perspectives commonly applied to interpret circumstances and implement successful interventions. Furthermore, the examination of multiple theories is tested empirically against two multinational companies that are regarded as sustainability leaders. In doing this, several powerful lenses are looked at in some detail. These include action logics to examine how individuals make sense of sustainability. Additionally, principles associated with centuries of successful community protection of common pool resources, plus organisational stages that mirror a person’s action logic, are correlated with effective sustainability outcomes.

A new framework, called Integral Action Loops, was the ultimate outcome from analysing these lenses and many others. It offers an evolutionary approach to consider the subjective and objective facets of sustainability and multiple theories of change, filtered through a single, double and triple loop learning scheme. Integral Action Loops promise a way to dynamically steer towards sustainability, facilitate more effective interventions, and holistically engage and value the input of many for sustainable, flourishing futures. Beyond this, the framework may assist across other fields of progressive human endeavour.

A climate for change: An exploration towards Integral Action Loops to apply our knowledge for sustainability success is available here (and through The University of Adelaide).


A couple of pointers that are hopefully useful (by way of orientation) for anyone reading the whole thesis. I’m very aware that this is written for an academic audience.  If you’ve not spent the last 7 years reading this type of writing there are, I hope, a couple of more accessible points.

  • The reviewers do a fabulous job summarising the research and extending into potential for it. The reviews are here>>>

As a guide around the thesis:

  • The first chapter says what I intend to research and why.
  • The last chapter (nine) is relatively short. A fair bit of this last chapter provides the back story about why I thought I wanted to write and research sustainability. It should give you some context before the deeper parts.
  • The sustainability action logics chapter (four) almost stands alone. If you’re familiar with stages or action logics it’s probably a reasonable entry point after 1 and 9.
  • Similarly, the common pool resources chapter (five) is relatively self contained. If you are reading this one you’re possibly interested in voluntary collaborations (there are lots of them) that successfully answer society challenges and dilemmas. These have often delivered outstanding results protecting the environment for centuries. Many of the principles that describe success in such situations are seen in business sustainability efforts today.
  • If you would like a longer summary of each chapter this summary is at the end of chapter one.