Can you account for unknown unknowns in sustainability?
“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”
This has been much parodied since, but actually he was quite correct (not about Iraq, but that’s a discussion for elsewhere) – and these uncertainties apply to sustainability as much as anything other aspect of life.
Who knows what the world will be like in 10 years? Technology, resources, prices, economics, legislation, politics, demographics and societal pressures are all notoriously hard to predict individually more than a couple of months, never mind years, ahead. Throw them all in the mixer and you get a big soup of unknown unknowns.
So how do you handle future risks which we can’t predict? Here’s a few ideas:
- Do the right thing: an environmentally sustainable business model is more likely to be economically sustainable than business as usual, no matter what the future landscapes;
- Test your strategy against different scenarios: develop 3 or 4 different possible future scenarios and brainstorm what your business environment will be like within each (see the Urban Futures project for a good example);
- A more simple approach is to carry out ‘what if’ analysis on key assumptions;
- Build in flexibility and resilience: give generous margins of error and design systems to be easily upgradeable and adaptable;
- Make your own luck: invest in your business ecosystem (customers, suppliers, employees, stakeholders) to improve both their resilience and yours (a la Creating Shared Value).
Overall, I think its important not to get paralysed by fear of what might and happen and to see such uncertainties as part of life’s rich tapestry – part of what makes this job fun!