Within the space of just a few decades, the term sustainability has made an astronomical rise to fame, going from the fringes to the mainstream as it has become one of the defining features of 21st-century reality. Today the term sustainability encompasses a whole paradigm shift in our understanding of the world and our place within it. This new paradigm of sustainability is set to have a fundamental and pervasive effect on how we manage and design systems in the 21st century as it affects all aspects of our economy. The vision presented by the paradigm of sustainability places us in a world at the center of which is a fundamental set of contradictions between how the global economy operates and what is feasible or viable given our environment’s carrying capacity. In the face of this, inaction or incremental action is unviable, and thus it necessitates a transformation in how we design and manage systems in the coming decades.
In this paper, we will look at what sustainability is and how our economies will be shaped along a number of dimensions as it rises in significance. Here we identify sustainable development as one of the megatrends transforming postindustrial economies into a more complex form. This is because the challenges presented by the environmental crisis and sustainable development are of a kind that we have not seen before, and we do not currently have solutions to. As we will discuss in this paper our existing industrial age institutional infrastructure is not designed for the kind of complexity engendered in the challenge of achieving sustainability; as Einstein would say we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. If we are to gain real traction on the core global issues presented it will require a transformation in the deep institutional infrastructure of our existing socio-economic systems to exhibit new functional capabilities.
Although the issue of sustainability today crosses all areas we can though identify the rise of sustainability as a direct response to a fundamental change in the relationship between human civilization and its supporting natural environment. Within the space of just a few decades we have gone from a small world on a big planet, to a big world on a small planet and this has fundamentally changed human relationship with the natural environment. For millennia human economic activity remained small-scale, piecemeal interventions into natural ecosystems, in a world where social systems were maintained by traditional cultural and community structures. However today these interventions are no longer piecemeal but have become systemic in nature.