Matthias Müller: Motivated for the future – with the help of target visions

By Matthias Müller, 21.04.2017

Antoinette Hunziker-Ebneter

Matthias Müller is President of the non-profit organisation S2 Sustainability Strategies, The Natural Step Schweiz. He is a consultant, coach, lecturer and publicist on the topics of human-centred design and sustainable development/future fitness. He compiled two studies with his team in 2016: "Das Ende der Nachhaltigkeits-Strategie" (“The End of the Sustainability Strategy”, commissioned by HPO, a Swiss company providing revenue-oriented strategy and performance services) and "Zielbilder für eine planetenverträgliche, zukunftsfähige Schweiz – eine Einladung zur Diskussion" (“Target Visions for a Sustainable, Future-fit Switzerland – an Invitation to the Debate”, commissioned by the FOEN).

It would seem obvious to assume that a strong sustainability assessment is the hallmark of truly sustainable companies. However, anyone who reads the report on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index of 2016 will be surprised to discover that the “Group Leader” for “energy”, the company Thai Oil, achieves a total of 99 out of 100 possible points for the sub-target “Climate Strategy”. This positive assessment is based on the progress made by Thai Oil compared with its past activities and its competitors.

But does the company offer a promising, future-fit business model? Although Thai Oil is in transition, the opposite is actually the case today: its core business contributes to climate change and is facing increasing competition from alternative energies, which are attracting more and more interest from investors. From a system perspective, Thai Oil’s current business model cannot be considered future-fit. The ecological damage it causes is too extensive. Hence, the sustainability assessment clearly does not stand up to scrutiny.

The big picture

This is the challenge when it comes to measuring success and benchmarking in relation to sustainability in the context of the economy: attention is mainly focused on the measurement of incremental progress and comparison with competitors, which sometimes perform better and sometimes worse. The “big picture” is often ignored, that is the objective of an economy that operates in harmony with the rest of the world and, hence also, the systems that supply it with the necessary resources.

Why an orientation based on target visions is important.
© Kendall

This may still sound somewhat abstract. For this reason, attempts have recently been made at casting the concept of future-fitness in the mould of target visions. These target visions contain descriptions of design principles, concrete features and solutions that could present a desirable vision for the future. Based on the existing literature and normative considerations, S2 Sustainability Strategies developed potential target visions for the living, mobility and food sectors on behalf of BAFU and presents them as a basis for debate. 

The system check

Based on various current scientific data, these features and principles were summarized and presented in a tangible and comprehensible form.  To ensure that it all did not appear purely speculative, the insights were subject to a system check: do the target visions measure up to the normative, scientifically-founded concept of FSSD, which is based on planetary boundaries and future-fitness?

Some criteria of the «system check” – based on FSSD and the Future-Fit Business Benchmark.
© Future-Fit Foundation/S2

This approach led to some solutions and talking points which were validated and further developed by the experts attending the Swiss Resource Forum 2016. Example, mobility: this will increase further but its infrastructure should not be allowed to consume even more land. Accordingly, the target vision consists of an integrated mobility concept managed using control systems, in which the majority of the transport modules are common property or rented for use.

Example, construction: modular construction presents many advantages: easier separation of materials, no waste arising from production and operation, demolition/repurposing can already be mapped out during the planning phase. Within this target vision, houses will not consume more energy but produce energy.

Tomatoes from the office

Example, food: central to the target vision is the requirement that the soil or land is not exposed to either physical activities or the spreading of synthetic substances that impair its performance capacity. Diversified agro-ecological systems with their greater resilience to pests and diseases could fulfil this requirement. Because land is a resource whose availability will not increase in a future-fit economy, in view of population growth,  soil-free cultivation and cultivation in areas where it would not normally be expected (office, building façades) will arise.

These examples may sound somewhat apodictic. The main intention behind the report compiled by S2 on behalf of the FOEN is to inspire scrutiny of the target visions and, hence also, of a future we perceive as attractive and full of possibilities. New information arises on an almost daily basis. Pioneering innovations are eagerly awaited and they will improve and complement these target visions, or even prove them to be obsolete. The aforementioned workshops at the Swiss Resource Forum made two things clear: 1. The target visions require ongoing debate and development. 2. This debate can succeed if experts, business representatives, citizens and consumers contribute creatively to it.

Future-fit business benchmark

How can the “big picture” be generated at company level? A recently publicised approach, the future-fit business benchmark, requires companies to measure their performance in relation to 21 normative goals that define their state in terms of future-fitness – and are largely consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals. Companies should understand their social and ecological break-even points and attempt to fulfil them. “Costs” and “benefits” should be made to balance so that the companies are seen as future-fit and hence attractive to their stakeholders, that is customers, investors and society as a whole. The very latest efforts assume, among other things, that this future-fitness can be calculated and visualized in the form of scorecards.

And you?

What do you think of the target visions? How useful would it be for you and your organisation to explore the normative principles of future-fitness? Could they provide a tool that will enable us to avoid detours and wrong turns and to stride more purposefully into the future?

Your feedback is welcome at all times, we are delighted to receive it! You are welcome to use the comments field below or to contact us directly: or

S2 Sustainability Strategies

S2's vision is one of a society and economy that flourish within the natural boundaries: with a view to attaining this goal, it provides advice rooted in a scientific approach (Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, FSSD) to organisations, communes and individuals.  Its activities are also focused on training, research and publications.


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Last modification 26.04.2017

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