Prior to founding The Sustainability Laboratory, Dr. Michael Ben-Eli worked as an international management consultant, pioneering applications of Systems Thinking and Cybernetics in management and organization. Over the years, he worked on synthesizing strategy issues in many parts of the world and in diverse institutional settings, ranging from small high technology firms to multinational enterprises, manufacturing companies, financial institutions, health care and educational organizations, government agencies, NGOs, and international multilateral organizations.
In recent years, he has focused primarily on issues related to sustainability and sustainable development. He is author of the widely acclaimed Five Core Sustainability Principles, and has been working to help inspire leaders in business, government, community, and youth accelerate a peaceful transition to a sustainable future.
Dr. Ben Eli graduated from the Architectural Association in London and later received a Ph.D. from the Institute of Cybernetics at Brunel University, where he studied under Gordon Pask. He was a close associate of R. Buckminster Fuller, with whom he collaborated on research involving advanced structural systems, and issues related to the management of technology and world resources for the advantage of all.
Watch a short clip about Michael’s first encounter with R. Buckminster Fuller, and Fuller’s influence on Ben-Eli and on The Sustainability Laboratory.Download
The Sustainability Laboratory:
A Note from the Founder
In December 1963, as a first-year student at the Architectural Association in London, I attended a lecture that was to define the direction of my life for the years that followed. The occasion was a speech given by Buckminster Fuller to the British Association of Architectural Students. Fuller was advocating an ambitious program – the World Design Science Decade – calling for all architectural students and all architectural schools everywhere to collaborate on a ten-year program to “redesign” the world. This was vintage Fuller: preposterous in light of limitations inherent to academia-naïve perhaps-but bold, creative, and absolutely on the mark. The program anticipated, by at least a decade or two, what later emerged as the burgeoning sustainability agenda.
I was privileged to meet Fuller the day after the event, and although I was a youngster in total awe, we hit it off personally and I started to work on the program. Much of the rest of my time in school was devoted to working with Fuller, and when I graduated in 1969, I moved to the United States at his invitation, joining his group at The University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale and working on the World Resources Inventory, the World Game and other projects. It soon became obvious that I would not follow a straightforward architectural career, as originally intended, so while continuing my work with Fuller in the US, I started commuting to London in pursuit of a doctorate in Cybernetics, studying under Gordon Pask. England was a center of exciting innovations in the field at that time, and Stafford Beer’s pioneering work on Management Cybernetics became of central significance to me since it provided powerful tools for understanding and addressing issues of managing complexity. I found in it a potent context for viewing a complex world and contemplating the perplexities of emerging global challenges.
Having earned my Ph.D., I left Fuller’s operation and started experimenting with the application of concepts derived from General System Theory and Cybernetics in practical management situations-questions of “sustainability” had not yet emerged to the fore. In the years that followed, I was fortunate to be called upon to assist in projects of increasing scope and complexity with organizations of all types, working on issues of strategy development, organizational design and the management of change processes. By the mid-eighties the world was catching up, and I became involved in assignments that echoed Fuller’s earlier concerns. Regardless of the scope and context of these projects-some of which were large regional planning efforts-all required a systemic integration of strategies involving economic, social, environmental, technological, and other considerations. I began to focus on issues of sustainable development, working mostly with multilateral development agencies on projects in many parts of the world.
In the sixties, when Fuller was advocating his World Design Program, there were just over three billion people on the planet. There are now nearly seven billion, and another two billion people are likely to be added by 2050. There is absolutely no precedence for managing a peaceful, harmonious existence of nine billion people on the planet. The adverse impacts of rapid resource depletion and the reality of whole ecosystems overwhelmed by waste byproducts generated by human activity are alarming, yet they continue unabated. Broad-based awareness of the issues and recognition of the need for change are expanding rapidly, and today, there is a worldwide flurry of activity by individuals, groups and organizations of all kinds, all addressing one aspect of sustainability or another. Yet many key components of the biosphere continue to show serious signs of stress. Why? It appears that the world is trapped in a syndrome whereby a dominant but no longer relevant mindset-deeply embedded in the culture, in most existing institutions, in the established ways of doing things, in the very fabric of civilization itself-is unable to produce effective new solutions from within its existing frame of reference. Most current efforts are simply not conceived of at the level required for comprehensive transformation.
The required change is profound. It has to cover all key dimensions of the human experience. It has to involve comprehensive transformation in our existing mental models, in the competence and focus of our technology, in our assumptions about the purpose and structure of the economy, in our concepts of governance and how organizations work, in the manner with which we interact with each other, in the way we behave in the biosphere in relation to all other species, and in the fundamental values that we hold sacred. This is a tall order and an unprecedented challenge. It requires going beyond mere adjustments in existing patterns of doing things to fundamentally changing the way we manage human affairs. Effective responses will not likely emerge from the same ways, structures and mechanisms that produced the many problems besetting our planet in the first place. The capacity for radical innovations, for thinking in new paradigms and pursuing creative experimentations, free from obstacles imposed by prevailing self interests, is rare in the context of most established institutions-governments, international multilateral organizations, and large private sector entities alike. For the moment, the gap between the sustainability rhetoric and actual accomplishments on the ground remains very wide.
Free and unencumbered experimentation with new approaches and ideas is essential. Hence my commitment to establishing The Sustainability Laboratory and launching it as an independent, agile, creative network of activities that, without fear or prejudice, will pursue investigation and demonstration of groundbreaking new paths to sustainability. Work of The Lab will be based on a proactive, holistic, impactful, and science-based approach. The following provides a brief overview of this initiative.