Reskilling for Our Climate Crisis

July 7, 2020 | FEE Content, FEE Posts


by Bob Leonard and David Ross


The major problems we face today are global in scope including the COVID pandemic and its implications for the worldwide economy, but businesses must also prepare for the mother of all crises – our climate crisis. Our climate crisis ensures that we will be operating in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Uncertain (VUCA) environment for decades. It is crucial for organizations to determine what new skills will be required to develop and deliver the products and services needed to meet this global challenge.



Some of the skills are obvious – those needed to reduce carbon footprints of supply chains, manufacturing processes and the products sold. There is plenty of information available around that. We have decided to focus instead on the skills that will enable organizations to deliver innovative products for a new world – the carbon free world that we must transition to.


New Product Development


Our climate crisis is a global, extremely complex systemic problem. It cannot be solved by using siloed legacy thinking. Designing a low-carbon future requires unprecedented levels of collaboration, creativity and imagination.


Much of what we need to do to successfully alleviate our climate crisis is related to design. The 20th century was left brain, the 21st century is whole brain. The right brain leads with design, creativity and humanity. The left brain engineers and executes on the right brain’s design/systems thinking.


So many of the design decisions made every day have a climate implication: each one can help promote a low-carbon future that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. Those who create the products and built environments of everyday life have an important role to play.


Here we are in the 21st Century with much of the world built out, paved over, and with ever more overcrowded megacities. We have to redesign much of the built environment. We must make design/redesign decisions on transportation, housing, and highest use real estate retrofitting. We must take the leap to expedite seismic benefits to our organizations, our stakeholders, our economy and our well-being.


The companies that will really succeed are the ones – most likely in the technology sector – that create products or services that capture, drawdown or cleanse atmospheric carbon. Organizations that manage to deliver technologies that literally save civilization will be lavishly rewarded.


Successful organizations will:


  • openly and aggressively move to reduce their carbon emissions.
  • market that fact relative to their competitors.
  • create goodwill and market share by establishing leadership positions.
  • redesign all forms of industry, transportation and daily life from being powered by fossil fuels to being powered by clean, non-polluting energy sources.


This cannot be achieved using the existing skill sets inherent within organizations. Design skills are crucial, but they must be accompanied by soft skills. Organizations will need to teach their staff how to truly collaborate – in order to design for a future with those who will be affected – as well as how to share control. We also need to equip our staff to think beyond the minutiae.


Whole Systems Problem Solving 


Successfully addressing our climate crisis requires a holistic view. Our climate crisis is a manifestation of unintended consequences of past designs. Today we have the tools, research and science available to model our design decisions more intricately, limiting the instances in which the solution to one problem creates new problems. By analyzing whole systems and understanding interconnections, we can minimize the negative effects of the solutions we create.


Designers and engineers who use the process of whole-systems problem solving consider the relationships among complex systems, instead of focusing on individual parts of systems. This is important because our climate crisis represents a set of interconnected issues that can’t be solved in isolation. By taking a big-picture view and considering the whole system, the best opportunities often arise, and can be incorporated, early in the process.


That holistic view requires the development of soft skills – communication, creativity, collaboration and emotional intelligence. By involving a diverse set of key stakeholders, we gather and integrate a host of different perspectives. In that way, are able to develop elegant solutions that do not result in unintended consequences. These soft skills can be taught and should be core to any reskilling initiative. Emotional intelligence is a skill that we will explore in greater detail in our next article.


Holistic design sees a problem or a system as part of a larger, interconnected whole. Given that Nature is the most complex, integrated, holistic design humans have ever experienced, it is obvious that systems thinking and holistic design are core to the redesign of how we live – and how we work and operate. Reskilling, mentoring and coaching in these respects are vital.


Biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle Design


Nature produces abundance all day every day with no waste or toxicity. She accomplished this via 3.8 billion years of trial and error R&D. 


Could we model our own product designs on Nature’s? A tree produces thousands of blossoms in order to bear fruit, yet that abundance isn’t wasteful. It’s safe, beautiful and highly effective. The blossoms fall away to biodegrade and enrich the soil. If not picked, the fruit is eaten by birds and seeds are distributed to produce more trees. Products might be designed so that, after their useful life, they provide nourishment for something new – either as biological nutrients that safely re-enter the environment, or as industrial nutrients that circulate within closed-loop production cycles, feeding the manufacture of other goods.


That would minimize the extraction of ever more resources from the earth. 


Nature has her own waste disposal solutions. In nature nothing is wasted. All things that were once alive eventually become part of the earth again, returning usable resources. So why not study how nature produces abundantly without waste?


Bill McDonough, the architect and designer, has formulated a design principle which he lays out in his book Cradle to Cradle. He demonstrates that our current production systems are based on a ‘cradle to grave’ design model that dates to the Industrial Revolution. This process casts off as much as 90 percent of the materials it uses as waste, much of it toxic. Mr. McDonough challenges the notion that human industry must inevitably damage the natural world.


There’s an established science that analyzes nature’s ideas and adapts them for human use. It’s called biomimicry. So far, most biomimicry breakthroughs have been designed and deployed to build better products – lighter, stronger, faster, etc. What if biomimicry scientists (biomimicists?) tackled Bill McDonough’s closed loop, zero waste, cradle to cradle design challenges?


We want to continue (and expand) our current quality of life, so we should borrow design and production techniques from Mother Nature. But we don’t have a lot of time. Today, design teams are leveraging technology to rapidly iterate among thousands of potential design solutions before arriving at the optimal one. The same thinking can be applied to the design of climate solutions – continually iterating and optimizing designs until we have the best solution to grow to the scale we need.


At the core of all design and redesign projects will be several tenets:


  • approach each design problem from a holistic perspective using systemic design principles,
  • lower greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and completely as possible in every facet of the supply chain and production processes,
  • restore as much of the natural world as possible through clean-up, restoration and conservation,
  • create direct linkages between what people do and the consequences they unwittingly create,
  • replace quantity with quality… retire “planned obsolescence”,
  • look to Nature for elegant design solutions,
  • design all products to have a long life of utility, and to be easily disassembled and reintroduced into the production life cycle when their useful life is over.


By relentlessly applying the principles outlined above (engaging more people in the design process, understanding the impact of our decisions, and rapidly iterating until we arrive at optimal designs) we can create elegant solutions to our climate crisis.


We are up to the task, but our timeline is short, and civilization is at stake. We must evolve, transition, upgrade and reskill. We must make existing alternative energy sources such as solar and wind more efficient and cheaper. We must invest in R&D for fledgling technologies like atmospheric cleansing, molten salt reactors, green hydrogen and more.


New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman framed our climate crisis as an issue of economic competitiveness and innovation. The businesses that are more successful at producing new energy technologies and zero carbon products will thrive. The rest will fall behind.


Leadership in the corporate sector has a massive role to play. Far swifter and more meaningful change can come from within a business than when it’s mandated by government regulations. Business models need to be forward-thinking, not relying on traditional methods of production, and must change company cultures in the process.


It’s for this reason that Griffith University researcher Ben Fenton-Smith believes “there is no question that social scientists are going to be in huge demand in the next 20 to 30 years. As our use of data, technology and information increases, we are going to need social scientists to make sense of it.”


Complex problems have complex solutions. Design thinking, systems thinking, cradle to cradle and biomimicry design methodologies, communication, collaboration, creativity, data analysis, social science and emotional intelligence are the skills needed to successfully navigate and mitigate the VUCA world our climate crisis is delivering.


Delivering these skills, however, does not occur in isolation. It requires effectively interacting with other individuals, teams and stakeholders. It requires working with people who have their own ways of doing things, or different values, which can lead to conflict and resistance. Consequently, our next article will focus on the importance of emotional intelligence to minimize these issues, enable workers to successfully address them between themselves, and to maximize harmony. 





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