A decade of Sustainable SYSTEMS | The Schumacher Institute holds a celebratory conference in Bristol


NOTE: Text, photographs and graphics by Asitha Jayawardena (http://uk.linkedin.com/in/asithaj) as part of his Sustainable University One-stop Shop Experiment (http://www.sustainableuni.kk5.org/). Logo of the Schumacher Institute is from its website.


The Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems held its tenth anniversary celebratory conference in Bristol on 24 May 2018.


Titled ‘From Systemic Collapse to Civilizational Transformation’, the event comprised a keynote and three other talks, two thematic discussion sessions in groups and an overview on the Institute’s work and achievements, along with the launch of its SYSTEM CHANGE journal and its reader-attraction mechanism, Café SYSTEM CHANGE magazine.


Welcome & Introduction


In his welcome, Ian Roderick (Director, The Schumacher Institute), highlighted the Institute’s endeavour to seek a transformation through a systemic approach in response to the sustainability crises that society is facing.


Providing an introduction to the event, Dr Jenneth Parker (Research Director, The Schumacher Institute), outlined that, although the Institute intended to showcase a decade of its work at this event they would like to hear from the participants.




Dr Nafeez Ahmed, award-winning investigative journalist, bestselling author, transdisciplinary academic, documentary film-maker, science fiction novelist and musician, delivered the keynote, Breakthrough change at the crisis threshold: Toward an adaptive response in the shift to our inevitable post-carbon, post materialist future.


He warned that there exists escalating rupture between human civilisation and biophysical environment and one of the key reasons is the fact that humanity’s rate of consumption is overshooting the rates of renewal of nature.


He observed that the present system is dying and will be dead by the end of the century, warning that civilisation may collapse and may require millennia for recovery. He also drew attention to the fact that new system will present humanity with many opportunities and our task is to plant seeds now to build a better world after the demise of the current system.


Dr Ahmed’s comprehensive keynote was based on his 2017 book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems – Bio-Physical Triggers of Political Violence. He is also the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation – And How to Save It (2010).


Three sessions: Human, technological and socio-ecological systems


The event featured three sessions on systems, each with a talk:

  • The Human System
  • The Technological System
  • The Socio-ecological System


The Human System


Dr Lucy Ford (Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford Brookes University) spoke on How might eco-psychology help in the transition to a sustainable future?


She reminded the audience that Earth is our only home and we are deeply connected to and dependent on Earth, adding that our physical and emotional health fundamentally depends on the living integrity of Earth.


She stated that, as eco-psychology puts it, there is a connection between healing ourselves and healing Earth and urged, as Schumacher has said, “Let’s put our inner house in order”. She also drew from Buddhist philosophy, stating that many things that Sigmund Freud told had been stated by the Buddha – some 2500 years ago.


She also outlined that humanity’s third revolution in the making – i.e. Sustainability revolution/ Great Turning (the first two are the Agricultural revolution and the Industrial revolution) – and also the accompanying transition from Industrial Growth Society to Life Sustaining Society.


The Technological System


Hilary Sutcliffe (Director of SocietyInside) spoke on Can technology work better for people and planet?


She observed that, as new technologies, such as gene editing, robotics, nanotech and artificial intelligence (AI) will transform our world, we should involve people to think through the ethical issues to make them work better for us all.


Because technology is created by humans, she said, that what is most influential is the ‘backstory’ – genetic inheritance, lived experience, beliefs, tribes, what’s right/wrong – which in fact is not at the back but at the front of everything we do.


Moreover, she said that, in the context of technology, responsible innovation and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), emerging is a changing role for civil society and also of the view that SDGs are much more than a glimmer of hope and tech companies have a positive attitude towards them.


The Socio-ecological System


Dr Susan Canney (Research Associate, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford and Director, Mali Elephant Project) spoke on How can humans and nature live together?


Her talk drew from the Mali Elephant Project, an innovative approach to elephant conservation through engagement with the wider social-ecological system rather than turning to conventional conservation.


She observed that a good thing about systems thinking is that it provides multiple ways of solving a problem.


Highlighting the fact that whole human life is based on the health of nature, she quoted a villager in Mali: “If elephants disappear, it means the environment is no longer good for us.” She also believed that both humanity and nature should benefit from each other.


She summed-up her systemic approach as follows:

  • Identify the vision.
  • Seek to understand your system; context is key.
  • Identify assets (e.g. people, features of the environment, institutions, laws) and join them up – adaptive solution.
  • Continually sense the state of the system.
  • Review, adapt, experiment when something isn’t working well or when the context changes.


Two thematic discussion sessions in groups


The conference offered the participants to engage in discussion through two thematic group discussion sessions in parallel, titled around the four themes of the Schumacher Institute:

  • Thematic Session 1: Making Sense and Inclusive Sustainability
  • Thematic Session 2: Living Futures and Prepare for Change


Ian Roderick, Dr Jenneth Parker and Martin Sandbrook introduced the themes and facilitated the groups along with other colleagues from the Institute, including Michael Clinton and Richard Hellen.


Making Sense


Systems sciences are essential to make sense of our interconnected world and to inform effective strategies and plans. The Institute promotes systems thinking, and associated tools and methods, through its learning programmes, seminars, conferences and communications. Its initiatives include the Systems Learning project, Systems Forum workshops, and the open access online journal SYSTEM CHANGE.


Inclusive Sustainability


The Institute wants to champion inclusivity and diversity, recognising that all people matter. This theme is about developing understandings of people’s needs and how they can be met through the design of the built environment, infrastructure, institutions and economy – all with the concept of working with a human scale. The theme is cross cutting with implications for all the institute’s activities and represents an important ethical position.


Living Futures


This theme is about making change happen towards sustainable and resilient futures, including the idea of convergence, i.e. living equitably within planetary limits. The Institute applies systems ideas to identify opportunities for change and its work on new economics, valuing living processes, earth system governance, convergence and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) sits within this theme.


Prepare for Change


This theme is about identifying and preparing for future threats and opportunities and involves horizon scanning – the collection of opinions, assessments, forecasts and predictions about the challenges ahead. The Institute runs foresight workshops to think through the systemic consequences and responses to major change. It is about resilience, ways of coping, adapting or transforming in response to major stresses and shocks.



The Schumacher Institute: Ten years


Ian Roderick began his ten year overview of the Institute with E.F. Schumacher (1911–1977), who proposed a form of economics as if nature and people mattered, along with human-scale, decentralised and appropriate technologies.


He said that Schumacher was a critic of: Economic growth as a measure of progress; conventional aid for development as disempowering; chemical-driven green revolution; nuclear energy; and scientific reductionism, and that it was his seminal book Small is Beautiful (1973) that made his ideas popular worldwide.


He also stated that during the four decades since Schumacher’s death, the Institute has gradually built on and expanded his vision, observing that Schumacher himself would have changed his position by now on certain matters.


Finally he presented a root definition for the Institute: A system owned by the ‘public’ where fellows and others change the perceptions, decisions and actions of people towards greater social and environmental justice because the world is facing multiple crises but there is great resistance to altering ‘business as usual.’


Launch of SYSTEM CHANGE journal and its magazine


The conference saw the launch of the Institute’s online open access journal SYSTEM CHANGE (https://systemchange.online/):


Also launched was the accompanying research magazine, Café SYSTEM CHANGE, which parallels the journal articles in simple and engaging language, aiming to attract more readers to the journal.


Café SYSTEM CHANGE (Issue No 1 for Journal Issue No 1): http://www.schumacherinstitute.org.uk/download/pubs/cafe/CafeSCmag-01-180522-NEW.pdf


The Schumacher Institute


The Schumacher Institute, a Bristol-based independent think tank for environmental, social and economic issues, studies the sustainability of complex systems – in the long term and in harmony with natural processes. It invites policymakers, practitioners and communities to join its endeavour of working towards a world of reducing inequality that provides for everyone within the limits of the planet.


The Institute builds on the ideas of E. F. Schumacher, particularly appropriate technology at the right scale, local actions, peace and non-violent approaches, simplicity and the sense that all people matter.


E.F. Schumacher


An internationally influential thinker with a systems perspective of the world, E.F Schumacher developed a series of connected ideas in energy, work, technology, development, organisation and ownership, education, traditional wisdom and spirituality. His seminal book, Small is Beautiful, was published in 1973.




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