Organizing for Sustainability: A Cybernetic Concept for Sustainable Renewal

20 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2016

See all articles by Markus Schwaninger

Markus Schwaninger

University of St. Gallen - SoM: School of Management

Date Written: February 22, 2016


Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to propose a holistic structural framework for a sustainable renewal that embraces all relevant contexts – individual, organizational, local-regional and worldwide. This should help humanity achieve a future in which society, economy and ecology are united in an evolutionary process based on multiple symbiosis.

Design/methodology/approach: An integrative concept for sustainable renewal is presented, based on Beer’s Viable System Model (VSM). The core of that concept is a recursive structure, which organizes the tasks necessary for such renewal. The approach is both analytical and synthetic, proposing a design for the levels of recursion, making up a coherent whole.

Findings: A structure is developed that enables agents at all recursive strata to generate variety in balance with the complexities they face. The organizational architecture based on the VSM, applied to each one of those levels, ensures the necessary and sufficient structural preconditions for the sustainability of the system under study.

Practical implications: The concept proposed here is ready to be used as a blueprint for organizing the efforts for sustainability. It can help decision makers understand that the quest for sustainable renewal is a recursive issue involving all planes, from individual to global.

Originality/value: The quest for the ecological sustainability of planet earth at this stage is not at all successful. The cybernetic model used here organizes the efforts for sustainability in a more effective way than conventional approaches. It also delivers powerful clues for sustainable renewal that are new, in particular a key to the sufficient structural preconditions for sustainability.

Note: This paper is an extended version of the Ross Ashby Memorial Lecture delivered by the author at the European Meeting of Cybernetics and Systems Research, Vienna, 24 April 2014, under the title “Organizing for Sustainability”.

Keywords: Sustainability, Systems approach, Viable system model, Organization design, Organizational Cybernetics, Recursive Structure, Ecological Renewal

Suggested Citation

Schwaninger, Markus, Organizing for Sustainability: A Cybernetic Concept for Sustainable Renewal (February 22, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Markus Schwaninger (Contact Author)

University of St. Gallen - SoM: School of Management ( email )

Dufourstrasse 40a
St. Gallen, CH-9000

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