How Can We Meet John Ehrenfeld’s Challenge to Flourish?

Perspectives and Updates

FEI as flourishing

by | Dec 10, 2023

We gave the Flourishing Enterprise Institute a name that we often have to explain—the idea of flourishing as “beyond sustainability” is not yet widely known, even after 25 years. Our use of flourishing is based on John Ehrenfeld’s concept developed through years of new thinking since leaving MIT as a founder of industrial ecology. John was in attendance at our special C4FE relaunch event on November 15 for the presentations on systemic management innovations. His participation revitalized my own thinking, as I’ll explain.

I first met John Ehrenfeld when he accepted the invitation to keynote at RSD6 in 2017 in Oslo. He had been working with Chris Laszlo’s CWRU team—on flourishing enterprises—and it emerged that we were working in parallel on similar ideas but at different levels of action. We are working with organizations and leaders on their practices while learning together on this path. John’s books have enlightened the individuals in companies and groups.

John’s keynote video is preceded by a brief manifesto:

The modernist bundle of beliefs and norms, which has powered Western societies for centuries, has begun to misfire badly in both the human and natural domains.

“Sustainability” is not the answer. To return to a positive trajectory, the critical first move is to choose to flourish as the normative design objective for artefacts and institutions. Flourishing, as an existential feature of living systems, is a valid indicator of achievement of human and non-human potential, as contrasted to current economic and psychological metrics.”

John’s latest book, The Right Way to Flourish, from 2019, reinforces the idea of “Flourishing Lives in Another World.” We will enter that new world as we learn and choose to live with care and attention to the complexity of our real natural world.

Following our engaging conversation in one of the break-out sessions during our Nov C4FE session, we discussed the language of the new systemic management frame. The FEI has developed an entire category with the SMI concept that is still in R&D. John suggested the SMI category can sound like control-based management tools and innovations, as there is a long history ranging from TQM to re-engineering, from value engineering to digital transformation. He has critiqued that the left-brain, managerial-control mindset would not enable flourishing but only “sustain” business as usual. The SMI is a new category, so we don’t want to start by making a category error; so we might say the main idea of the SMI category is to classify highly-validated “complete systems” of organizational learning and systemic processes that offer the potential to adapt any strategy toward flourishing. None of the SMI systems are by themselves a “flourishing toolkit”—and that’s not the intention. But these are not simple concepts, and we have a task in better framing and connecting to the aims of flourishing.

The Strongly Sustainable Business Model program that preceded the FEI was centred on the concept of flourishing, since its inception in 2014. We named the FEI to make that connection so salient that we would have to explain it until everyone understood its meaning. When we share the real intent of flourishing, which is moving human relations with nature and our societies toward a future that doesn’t exist today, it demands we refresh that stand on John’s vision almost every time.

Sketchnote: Playthink.com