What follows are frequently asked questions by practitioners who are working with or starting to work with this approach. As more questions come up repeatedly, we will add them here...
Having a new set of social sustainability principles, what is the role of the needs lens?
The needs and SSP lens both give us valuable but different information. Meeting human needs is really the starting point for everything, both for how we organize our lives in an attempt to meet needs but also in terms of Brundtland´s definition of sustainable development - the idea that we can meet needs today and in the future. But when we satisfy our needs, the satisfiers we choose or create can be sustainable or unsustainable, or more accurately have negative impacts on the sustainability of the ecological and social system. The negative impacts on these systems are clustered into the sustainability principles, so the social sustainability principles are about negative impacts we are having on the social system.
The needs lens, especially when using Manfred Max-Neefs approach of needs and satisfiers is still very powerful, especially with audiences who are new to sustainability, to highlight that meeting our needs does not have to be done in an unsustainable way. The lens can help divorce the actual needs from satisfiers and help establish a creative tension between how we currently meet our needs and how might do so in a more sustainable way.
In theory, if SSPs are not violated could it be the case that human needs are not met?
You could have a scenario where you do not violate SSPs, but are not meeting needs. How we meet our needs is in many ways up to the individual. Some of us will still use pseudo-satisfiers or destroyers even when we could choose otherwise. So the final choice is up to the individual and therefore we cannot guarantee that all human needs will be met in a sustainable society.
The idea is that the SPs together create the opportunity for that to happen; that the ecological and social system function well enough to create that opportunity. The SPs do not mandate that this opportunity is taken up. An example: There is a social sustainability problem if there are structural obstacles to health for people say in a particular community. They want to be healthy but are hindered by the system. It is not a social sustainability problem if I or a group of people choose behavior voluntarily that undermines our health even though we could make different choices.
Is there a hierarchy in these SSPs? Is one a pre-condition for another?
There is no hierarchy in the sense that one always goes before the other; over time you need all of them. However, in individual contexts, some issues may be more pressing to address and therefore create priorities for action. Over time none of them can be neglected though.
Why is the term “structural obstacle” important?
Social sustainability is not about meeting all health needs or addressing all issues of influence. It is about removing structural obstacles to these things. And by structural obstacles we mean social constructions that are embedded in our systems that are in the way of people achieving these things. It´s not about utopia where everyone has perfect health. We would be never able to guarantee that because there are other things such as personal choice that might make that impossible. The SPs are about boundary conditions and constraints for re-design and they apply it all scales (are general). They cannot be framed in the positive, because a, e.g. European company might not be able to know how to contribute positively to a community around a production site in their supply chain, but they can at least remove their contributions to the obstacles that prevent the community from creating their own positive vision. But that positive vision would need to come from the community, not the organization sitting in Europe.
The boundary conditions allow for creativity within constraints, so for the community or anyone to create a positive vision, but within the constraints of the SPs. These positive visions or ideas for flourishing are important and drive commitment but cannot come at the expense of a larger systems perspective that also takes contributions to other systems into account.
So we are not aiming for contributing to perfect health in all of the systems we are a part of but to remove our contribution to structural obstacles in this regard. On the ecological side we would never forget about the “systematically increasing” part and for the same reasons we cannot forget about the “structural obstacles” piece on the social side.
A final note that structural obstacles could be “concrete” things such as laws and policies or more subtle elements, such as cultural mental models. E.g. discrimination, might not be in policy, but if company has a culture where discriminatory remarks are permitted this also a contribution to a structural obstacle.
What about the other levels of the FSSD. Now with a new understanding of the social system and social sustainability principles, are there any new insights in regard to those levels?
We have not yet been able to focus much on the other levels. We think that there is a possibility for more elaborate strategic guidelines from a social perspective, but have not yet had the time to think about these.
At a tools level, there are lots of measurement or indicator tools for social issues (such as the social hotspot database, etc). None of them are specifically built on indicators derived from SSPs, but can be pieced together to give a better picture of current challenges. There are also lots of tool to support actions in different contexts, for example there are lots of grassroots tools to create more inclusive processes or bring marginalized groups into a democratic process. But in some ways they are context specific and cannot be labelled as general tools within the FSSD. The Future-Fit Benchmark is one tool that is specifically built on the FSSD, including the new SSPs. You can get more information about it here.
There has also been the idea to create a handbook for practitioners in different sectors (business, municipalities), that could list specific tools to use under each SP. Maybe you will see an invitation soon to help me co-create this handbook.
What do we need to think about for the application of this new approach? What steps would we take to assess an organization´s contribution to social sustainability?
First of all, it is important to always take a nested-systems perspective. Every organization, be it a business or otherwise is nested in and connected to other social systems. Businesses, e.g. are located in a community, in a country, connected to other businesses across different countries in supply chain. We need to keep all of these systems in mind when thinking about an organization´s potential contributions.
So the first question we should ask is “What are the social systems connected to your organizations?”. You can find out by asking the following questions:
- What are the inflows and outflows of your organization?
- What are the stakeholders connected to each of those flows? (Full value or supply chain)
- What systems are these stakeholders embedded in (communities, countries, etc)?
The next question would be “What structural obstacles exist in these systems?” Again, to break this down, you could ask the following questions:
- What structural obstacles (could) exist internally in each of the value/supply chain organizations?
- What structural obstacles (could) exist in the larger social systems?
- Is the organization contributing to them directly or indirectly?
Remember that structural obstacles are political, economic and cultural systems/structures so more concrete things such as policies and procedures, but also values and norms, which may be more subtle.
Often you are asking about whether the structural obstacles could exist, because sometimes you don´t know. There are lots of tools that gather data on social issues at a country level, but you may not know whether they necessarily apply at the local level. However, even without knowing for sure, because either you don´t know or the organization you are working with does not know, just raising the questions is helpful to raise awareness.
A note: for many organizations located in the western world, the contributions might be more indirect. We might be taking advantage of structural obstacles because we choose to outsource activities to countries were, e.g. production is cheaper which often means that there are also worker issues. But indirect contributions are just as important. An organization almost never single-handedly creates structural obstacles, but contributes them (similarly to how we don´t single-handedly create systematic increases in Co2 emissions, but contribute to them).
When you refer to “supplier”, should it be all suppliers or only core suppliers?
In theory one should take all suppliers into account. In reality, you are mostly working with your core suppliers and maybe make sure that your suppliers also have processes in place to look at their suppliers. But it´s important to even just ask the larger supply chain question, even if we don´t get concrete answers. Core suppliers are important, but we also need to take the larger system perspective. There is a risk that if you don´t take the full system into account, you can say it´s not our responsibility because it´s not close enough to us (we don´t have influence here). If you only focus on things that are closest to you, it´ easy to say we are “socially sustainable” if you are located in the west, because we outsource the problems with our products or lifestyles to other countries. It has to be practical to work with but can´t exclude the core issues an organization might contribute to. Remember you can´t really be a socially sustainable organization if you are nested in larger social systems that are not.
Can the new SSPs be used as a scientific theory to predict events?
The FSSD is not considered a predicative theory, but rather a framework theory. It cannot be applied as a predictive theory, the way say, the law of gravity can, to precisely calculate what will happen in the future. It serves as a heuristic model to help us make sense of certain things and allows you to use certain tools more effectively by giving them a larger frame and highlighting strengths and weaknesses. It also allows you to give a larger frame to important scientific insights from various disciplines in the social science and will hopefully help to make that knowledge even more useful.
With the new social SPs, are you now saying that there are 8 SPs or still 4 SPs with sub items?
From a scientific perspective there are 8 principles, all with equal weight. However, there are different conversations under way about how to best communicate these findings and different people have done so differently. Most likely it will depend on the context you are presenting them in, which may even influence whether you introduce ecological or social considerations first.