Organizing for sustainability: a cybernetic concept for sustainable renewal

Markus Schwaninger (Institute of Management, University of St. Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Publication date: 1 June 2015



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.


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.


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.


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. 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”.



The author is grateful to Dr Felix Gress, Senior Vice President Communications and Public Affairs, Continental Corporation, and Franz Hermann, Mediationsforum Gastein, for providing insights into the structures and history of their organizations. The author also wishes to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments, and Professor Raúl Espejo for his editorial guidance.


Schwaninger, M. (2015), "Organizing for sustainability: a cybernetic concept for sustainable renewal", Kybernetes, Vol. 44 No. 6/7, pp. 935-954.

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