A New Era Needs a New Architecture for Sustainability

Don Taspscott of Global Solution Networks highlights the new era we are entering.png

We live in an era of unprecedented pace and scale of change, but fortunately the way we organize for action is also evolving to be more adaptable and attuned to our times. Last Fall, NRDC organized a major conference at Yale University on the emergence of a new world of commitments to action on sustainability and the need for structures to support them and enhance their accountability. Now the conversation we kick started there has been reflected in an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs and furthered at an important gathering of business, academic, and civil society leaders at the University of Toronto's business school last week.

In his Foreign Affairs essay “The Unruled World”, Stewart Patrick calls into question the ageing pillars of the world’s post-war institutions. Patrick, who is the Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, observes that in the 20th century countries built the United Nations and other international institutions to negotiate treaties and global agreements in order to spur collective action on global problems.

However, in the 21st century, he argues that the traditional approach has proved incapable of dealing with complex global challenges such as climate change. Collective action on the toughest challenges of our time is no longer focused through the UN and its treaties, Stewart argues, but rather through a diversity of complementary partnerships and networks. This new model is based on a more ad hoc and adaptable architecture, with clubs of countries and organizations focusing on relevant issues and with partnerships among states and increasingly influential actors such as cities and companies.

Stewart makes a strong case that the UN climate negotiations are a “circus that will increasingly become a side show.” And while the annual climate meetings will continue, more tangible action is shifting to issue-specific partnerships and initiatives such as the Major Economies Forum. This new constellation of commitments to action is a contrast and complement to sweeping international treaties, and may ultimately serve to stimulate more concrete action.

Last week we participated in the Global Solution Networks (GSN) Summit on “Solving the World’s Problems Differently” at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. GSN is a major research effort to understand this new era of global governance in the 21st century. The GSN team is led by Don Tapscott, a renowned author, speaker, and commentator on the impact of new technologies on business and society. Don was recently recognized by Thinkers50 the fourth most influential management thinker in the world.

Don and his colleagues argue that our current model of problem solving is fundamentally inadequate. This traditional model started with the UN and the World Bank and placed nation states as the key pillars of the world. However, their work shows that our “fossilized” institutions and nation states are not appropriate for addressing the complex problems that society faces.

Don emphasizes we are entering a new era with “tectonic changes to the architecture of institutions.” This new era is characterized by dynamic networks with stakeholders beyond solely national governments and driven by the technology revolution that dramatically decreases the cost of collaboration across humanity. Don observes that many of our formerly rigid institutions are “unbundling” into networks, causing major shifts in the architecture of institutions.

The result is the emergence of GSNs that are quite diverse, but all share four common characteristics. First, GSNs are inherently multi-stakeholder and include governments, private sector, civil society, and individuals. Second, GSNs address a global problem such as climate change. Third, GSNs harness the power of the digital revolution and interconnectivity. Finally, GSNs are not controlled by governments or states, but instead organize themselves.

The GSN research team has identified 10 types of GSNs with different functions and have developed case studies on a number of GSNs. For example, 350.org is classified as an “advocacy network” that has engaged millions of people worldwide in action to address climate change and counter the power of the fossil fuel industry. The UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in September 2014 is classified as a “governance network”, with the UN encouraging leaders from government, business, and civil society to make commitments to take action on climate change. Global Forest Watch is identified as a “watchdog network” that improves transparency and accountability in forest management using satellite monitoring and visual mapping.

Thomas Debass, Deputy Special Representative for Global Partnerships at the US State Department, emphasized that governments need to embrace this new era and move from “pontification to partnerships.” He stressed that governments must reorient themselves as a stakeholder, rather than the stakeholder. Google also expressed their strong belief in governance by many stakeholders as exemplified by their work in the internet sphere.

The primary shift that both Patrick and GSN perceive is from hierarchical institutions to more distributed leadership and flexible structures. In today’s world, leadership doesn’t only have to come from the top, it can come from anywhere. And while networks have leadership, there is no one leader. Don Tapscott visualizes this new arrangement as analogous to a murmuration of starlings where every bird works together out of common self-interest and interdependence, with leadership but no single leader.

NRDC is working at the interface of formal intergovernmental structures and this new world of commitments to action involving all stakeholders, including networks and partnerships. We are encouraging the exploration of how best to integrate GSNs and other commitments to action into two major UN processes culminating in 2015: the next climate agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are optimistic that discussions around the climate agreement are going beyond negotiations of far off ambitions to the creation of platforms that encourage actions now. With regard to the SDGs, we have proposed a new architecture we call the “wired dome” to link global goals to national plans to commitments to action.

Our work recognizes that global problems require a global response, but in this new era the response cannot come only from countries and requires commitments to action from the full range of stakeholders. The challenge we have put to the UN and others is to look at all the building blocks at hand and construct a new architecture that includes and encourages action from everyone.