Thinking “3D” in a 3D World

by Aliza Ayaz

Aliza Ayaz

Moving from 2D to 3D

If someone is looking at a multi-chapter geography book, not knowing its contents, saying that it is just a geography book would be correct, but it neglects the internal layers; the interdisciplinary contents, the depth of subjects in nature, human effects, the many phenomena that take place in human and world geography or history to show those have happened. It is simplistic. This lesson can be applied to almost all types of information recorded into the collective knowledge base which we humans rely on, especially scientific literature. What is harmful about “2D thinking” is a blatant refusal to even attempt to incorporate deeper fields of data and therefore meaning into the study, rendering the study obsolete. It would be akin to reading a newspaper article about climate protests and then writing a full report on what little one gauged about climate change.

On the other hand, three-dimensional thinking prevents you from moving into the realm of convergent thought, a form of problem- solving thought. Three-dimensional thinking provides you with a format with which you can develop and orient your thoughts, thus leading to new ideas.

At the United Nations, time and time again, we are integrating what we call the “three Dimensions of Sustainable Development.” This is not just a framework, but also a tool.

We understand the integration of the economic, social, and environmental dimensions is key to achieving sustainable development. There is, in general, widespread acceptance of why the integration of these three dimensions is necessary; but there are also many questions as to “how” this integration is to be achieved. Policymakers still need to be assisted in addressing the question of how to achieve integration across the policy cycle and to assess levels of integration appropriate for solving real-world challenges.

Foundational concepts, such as systems thinking, have been introduced to underline the interdependence of the three pillars i.e, economic, social, and environmental perspective, the need for holistic thinking and the potential for “leverage points” for policy intervention.

Let’s take the example of education. While content knowledge is still a part of education standards, there is a lack of focus on teaching students how to engage with new knowledge, answer questions and solve problems, and make connections between the different scientific disciplines, as well as relating science to the real world. This is where three-dimensional learning comes into play. It empowers students to become real-life problem-solvers.

Multiple Capitals

The concept of multiple capitals, for example, is important to highlight the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development. This is different from the definition of 3D thinking, but very applicable in how we apply the 3D thinking concept in real life. The three siloed pillars require balanced investment in and across different forms of capital, thoughtfully incorporating economic, social, and environmental perspectives. Focus cannot be limited to only one form of capital - human, financial, manufacturing capital and so on are equally important for consideration. When we imagine different workings of capital and its foreseeable effects on different forms of sustainable development, our global society’s investments in different forms of capital needs to be taken into account. Only then are we able to visualise the feedback loops that are holding us back from making sustainable decisions. This would example 3D thinking and highlight inefficiencies, risk and thus opportunity.

Allow me to introduce a commonly used tool of integration here. Qualitative scenario building is a methodology that can support stakeholder learning, dialogue, and social innovation by visualising uncertain but possible futures. Scenarios provide narratives to describe what life in a particular region in the world might look like in 2030 if all the sustainable development goals (SDGs) were to be achieved. This method is no longer suitable for integrating the different dimensions of sustainable development since lack of systems thinking, and application of imagination in modellers, results in suboptimal outcomes.

We need systems thinking here: Any decisions and actions to advance any one SDG will likely affect the achievement of the others positively or negatively in any particular region. This builds a demand for the need to better understand the interactions between SDGs, in particular trade-offs, synergies and unintended consequences. For instance, a campaign used to achieve good health and wellbeing (SDG 3) is related to the environment-human linkages, for example, vector control (any method to limit or eradicate the mammals, birds, insects, or other arthropods which transmit disease pathogens), while other actions, such as vaccination programmes, is not. These environment-human linkages may be very influential in some spheres and not so much in others. So, it makes us think. What is a scenario of storylines that can explore interactions between such linkages? 3D thinking. Systems-thinking.

Bridging the Gap between Personal Education and Work via Decision Making

Specification of personal and organisational learning objectives is absolutely essential. The following concrete differences should become noticeable as a result of a student’s educational activities:

1. How may the student’s work portfolio be tailored so as to provide optimal support for the accomplishment of the learning objectives?

2. Which possible adjustments of the student’s hours invested into studying may enable him/her to allocate adequate time and energy to additional educational matters revolving around the environment? Dialogues between student and educational leaders should be repeated at regular intervals so as to adjust and optimise expectations. Another tool often used for the integration of SDGs is Action Research. One of the main challenges in Action Research is that no recipes or solutions can be provided in advance. The main task of the research that can be translated into action is, first, to identify organisational problems worthy of joint attention and then try to make positive changes through a series of minor experimental action sequences. The research calls for continuous planning adjustment in order to match the organisational development process resulting from the research itself. System thinking and 3D thinking frees the decision space to account for a wider range of scenarios. If we reorient from process focus to outcome focus, we can remove plenty of impactful processes that create waste, be it physical waste, time waste or unnecessary repetition amongst others. For instance, by choosing to stay focussed on the desired outcome (optimised via broader decision space), and moving backwards from the outcome, the processes that are needed can be produced with far greater clarity. Simultaneously, it brings cross functional teams together and helps bridge fragmented specialisms for processes that are no longer competitive but become symbiotic, thus sustainably viable. This is “changing ends and means” – adjusting as participants get feedback from their own actions, providing them with an improved platform for moving on in the research process. Action Research is shaped through a series of cyclic interventions, each intervention paving the way for the next.

Broadly speaking, it is my experience that a well-designed curricular Action Research project implemented by the student in her home organisation offers a unique opportunity to get the best of both worlds: involvement and commitment, to the point of entanglement, combined with observational distance and reflexivity allowing clarity and a broader vision to emerge. We must encourage our students to form Action Research teams or duos. Eco projects are ideal; a green space for students to grow organic vegetables or using a school composting site that could be used to help green spaces flourish. Even statistical mobility studies assess how people travel each day and campaign for more public transport by sharing this research. Ideally, this furnishes the Action Research project with a combined, mutually enriching insider perspective (commitment, something at stake) and outsider perspective (coolness, clarity, curiosity). Applying scientific standards of rigor, transparency, and quality in analysing your own work environment and your role within it, is often experienced as a fierce challenge by our students. Yet, they also recognise that the unfamiliar perspective is what helps them achieve a more nuanced understanding of themselves as organisational change agents. Unfamiliar is unconventional – it is “outside the box”. It is intriguing to students because it opens up pathways to work on something that has not been done before, something that will not be boring or a replica. Something that challenges what is happening. For example, it should be a practice for students to be able to ask, but “why is this the only solution? Has anyone thought about X? I understand that it sounds impractical, but can I try it?” Beyond that, the next step is to think “How will a change here affect over there?” Helping students think about the right variables that matter for a holistic economic, social, and environmental purpose and instilling in them the process to comprehend the impact of and between distant or competitive decisions – This is how we can move away from 2D decision-making to 3D.

A university level master’s program, for example, holds up a mirror to the students in their capacities as individual actors and team players. Their student position lends them the opportunity to experiment and make controlled self-and-other observations in their day-to-day work setting, while at the same time working hard to succeed in their daily tasks. Action Research methodology helps them gain knowledge of the interactive processes lying behind and facilitating – or blocking as the case may be – organisational productivity. Emerging literature shows that organisational productivity has been falling for many years. This could be partly due to the fact that Action Research - like all man-made processes - is two-dimensional, ignores feedback loops, and systems thinking. However, systemic thinking is not an approach to action research, but a grounding for action research that may broaden action and deepen research. By this action, we can broaden the decision space. Insights are gained about the functioning and learning capacity of the organisation. This knowledge is brought about and shared by groups of people in the workplace. It is our hope that the procedures of joint reflexivity, that are exercised in the workplace context while the program is running, can take root and be maintained (i.e. transferred) even after student graduation. This is why it is often expressed: “Educating a student is educating an organisation”. But our modern-day systems still fail to bridge the well-researched and evidenced skills gap between college and the workplace.

Quality and Efficacy

Since students lack practical managerial and problem-solving skills, an educational strategy based on the theoretical ideas should consist of the following elements:

1. Active bridge building between educational context and student’s workplace:

  • Enhanced cooperation and boosting of learner intentionality through recurrent dialogue between the student and his/her seniors and supervisors as well as other relevant representatives of their workplace. It is important to note the influence of parents and school teachers in the personality of these now-grown students.
  • Ongoing individual coaching through which the student is helped to translate academic learning outcomes into concrete practice in the workplace. It is essential that a student has been able to do this across his/her journey via curricular and extracurricular activities.

2. Action Research as only a component of educational strategy:

  • The student makes his/her own organisation subject to combined research and intervention processes. The participatory research methodology involves workplace members in defining goals, intervention strategies and success criteria for the Action Research process. Hence, a community of learning is created.
  • Action Research helps the students acquire general managerial skills such as awareness of their own learning processes, as well as skills in situational leadership. But work must be done to reorient Action Research to challenge the linear processes and thinking, equipping students for more than just theoretical work. To establish the above two points, I will be sharing three colloquial-style case studies to break the scientific or technical narrative of this essay. Let us talk in real world examples: the first case study regarding education, the second an example of a powerful corporation seemingly leading climate action and the third – views as a responsible, global citizen. Each of these help us reflect on “3D” and about the depth of systems thinking.

Q1. How do we inculcate a sense of comfort in students, parents, researchers, and authorities to be able to ask each other questions about the status quo?

Case Study: “We don't need to Educate our Parents...”

As a school leader, that phrase, “We need to educate our parents” always jarred. We would make a change that impacted their kids and then that phrase would pop out. I would always think, “Really? The ones I have met seem pretty well-educated already”. So, when it comes to parents, some new perspectives are necessary.

The MINE School is a truly inspirational start-up in Quito, Ecuador, where the founders are the leaders and the teachers, and the vision is clear and bright. It is “MINE” as in “Mine, Yours, Ours”. MINE is a school built, literally, on the wish lists of children. From the get-go, we have worked with parents in very different ways: to connect to their own personal learning stories, and from those to send messages to teachers, “Dear Teachers, please remember that...”. Positive, insightful, constructive messages in Spanish and English. We have asked them, “If MINE is the answer, what was the question?” and “What would you like to give your child that your own schooling never gave you”. We all want to give our kids something better. We have had moving, authentic conversations, and left the evening exhilarated and affirmed. At MINE, we call them our Learning Families. Names matter.

Similarly, with the leaders at the International School of Arizona, we have unpacked the Common Ground Collaborative’s (CGC) 3 Cs of Learning, i.e., Conceptual, Competency & Character, with parents, based on their own professional or parenting expertise; The concepts and competencies they have built, and the character traits they want for their children. We showed them the objectives we had in mind to fulfil the demand of skills in this world, and asked, “Is this what you want for your children?”. Again, heartfelt, affirming answers.

With the leaders at the Pan American School of Bahia, we used Parent Focus Groups to solve problems and map new directions for the school genuinely and deeply. Into those groups we invited highly intelligent, critical parents, not just the obvious friendly faces. Smart, perceptive people. We need them.

We are building Learning Cultures and it is only a culture if everybody owns it. So, we do NOT need to educate our parents. We DO need to co-create our Learning Cultures WITH them. Simple. Systemic.

"We need to reach across traditional boundaries and talk to people in all parts of the system."

Q2. Are we seeing truly impactful solutions to the climate crisis?

Case Study: Environmental Social Governance (ESG) and Notes to Self

Future historians may name this time in ESG evolution the “cognitive dissonance phase”, after the mental conflict that occurs when behaviours and beliefs do not align. Why?

In ESG there are two types of behaviour (paraphrasing Jane Goodall): 1) “pointing fingers” – engaging in moral purity contests; 2) “finding ways ahead” – using finance to solve problems. Today, many investors engage in finger-pointing even if they say they want to find ways ahead; we know what works in ESG, yet on a massive scale we engage in agendas that do not work.

The pension fund Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP in the Netherlands, frequently referred to as ABP, has a fossil situation which serves as a good example: recently ABP announced it will divest from fossil fuels: pointing fingers. Yet in an interview three weeks earlier, with the ABP and Pensioenfonds Zorg & Welzijn (PFZW) chairs, titled “We can sell fossils… but are we really making a difference?” shows it wants to “find ways ahead”. Here is the dissonance:

We know climate change is not (only) a supply problem – demonising energy suppliers will not fix it. We must reengineer the global energy system and develop new technologies allowing us to meet growing demand. To quote directly from the abovementioned interview: “[We can] sell the whole thing in one fell swoop … Fine. But are we really making a difference?” What do we do? Announcement: “Sell the whole thing”.

  • We know active ownership is about more than setting ultimatums and walking away if they are not met. Active ownership is about playing a role in the governance, holding management to account, supporting management when it faces challenges and needs informed and professional investors at the table. Interview: “It's more effective to exert influence, to stay at the table, to be that critical friend to the companies”. What do we do? Announcement: “We walk away from the table.”
  • We know ESG shouldn't be about moral purity contests. Interview: “We don't see this as a competition; we are not in the business of … outdoing one another.” What do we do? Announcement: “this (Dutch civil service scheme ABP to exit fossil fuel firms) is a big step; this is a beautiful and important step”. We imply that we are “leading”, and others should follow.
  • We know governments are crucial to meeting the Paris goals and smart investors can find ways to inform public policy and work with governments, e.g., through blended finance. Interview: “high on our wish list … is stable policies for the energy transition; public-private partnerships are not getting off the ground in the Netherlands; that requires the government to take the unprofitable top; We (ABP) would like to be at the table to see what can be done”. What do we do? Well, nothing, it seems. The announcement does not even mention “government” or “public policy”.

I think it might be better if we leave the cognitive dissonance phase of ESG behind us as soon as possible.

The contrast between ABP’s interview and following announcement is a reality that should pierce the bubbles of civil society, current students, parents, and world leaders. Whether it is a lack of understanding or a lack of responsibility, either way, wealthy companies like ABP must indulge in systems thinking. In the context of increasing ESG ambition, their approach looks ‘lite’ compared to emerging ‘full’ impact strategies which intentionally target positive societal and environmental effects with the associated measurement to demonstrate the additional real-world effects.

Let us ask ourselves, which investment organisations will become the truly sustainable super firms of the future? I think it will favour organisations that are collaborative – with research relationships across wider fields (like climate change), data relationships, distribution relationships and index provider relationships, i.e., 3D thinking. It will certainly also favour those organisations that manage to evolve the highly imperfect ESG data sources into decision-useful forms via effective data governance and culture.

Q3. What would a young student tell you about their approach to world problems? As a young student, here is my take.

No Certainty in any World View?

What does it mean to be a world citizen in these times, in a world that is in a state of fragility, with climate change, trade tensions, geo-political unrest, uncertain prospects for the global economy, and the list goes on? For me, it means looking through a long-term lens and taking responsibility, both individually and collectively, to make a positive impact on the health of the planet and of its inhabitants.

For a start, I strongly believe that the solution to the vast majority of the world’s challenges resides in people, or human capital. With the right, sustained investments in education, training, and health, it should be possible to realise the full potential of a productive, more inclusive, and healthier society.

In any country, we must apply these insights through a collaboration platform set up by leaders from the business, cultural, health and environmental worlds, to work together with the aim of shaping a better future.

We must share our knowledge, expertise, and network to support and scale-up a broad range of initiatives that help connect people and ideas, based on the “pay-it-forward” principle – repaying a good deed to others instead of to the original benefactor. This means going forward, systems thinking, to shift the narrative from focusing on the problems to material practical action.

I am also convinced that businesses have an important role to play in addressing global challenges. How many businesses have a clear “North Star” approach? A fixed and guiding vision of making the world healthier and more sustainable through innovation, with a goal of improving the lives of X amount of people a year by 2025. How is an institution fully embracing sustainability principles not only because of the benefits for society, but also because it believes that it is a driver for innovation and value?

A “sustainable,” “forward thinking” programme can only be delivered on the commitment of creating value for their audience/customers through sustainable products and services, leading by example in their sustainable operations, and driving sustainability through our supply chain.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), whether it is Sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12) or Climate action (SDG 13) – they all provide a fantastic lens through which to unite stakeholders and shareholders in a long-term approach, but are seen in silos, and not interdependent. This is yet another great idea but executed in a suboptimal manner. Action in one affects the many. Where is the thinking in 3D?

Final Words

We have witnessed many different tools (to integrate sustainability in an apparently holistic manner) being championed, but that itself suggests fragmented specialisms, which is at the root of the lack of practical, optimal progress that we currently endure. In this essay, I have presented a vision for educational programs aimed at bridge-building between the academic world of theory and research and the professional world of practice – all multidimensional and multi-layered. Stakeholder co-operation that involves the workplace and the student alongside the academic institution is seen as the future hallmark of successful vocational training. In my view, no single educational stakeholder can be solely responsible for guaranteeing that a developmental learning process will have long-term effects in the workplace, this means steering away from 2D or linear processes. Continuous learning in the workplace must be a joint venture; it requires the shared commitment of all major stakeholders. Stakeholder cooperation involves curiosity about the other parties and mutual recognition of the diverse motivations that make them all engage in the learning process. The ideas presented in this article have been actively guiding us for a period of about three years. Informal evaluation is going on all the time. So far, the results seem promising. This essay should hopefully challenge the criteria on which formalised program evaluations are usually based. Future empirical research should strive to evaluate the effects of converging academic courses and workplaces. The potential of educational programs for making an impact on organisational development may thereby be substantially enhanced via 3D thinking appropriate for this 3D world.