An integral approach to sustainability and vision-driven work from the perspective of co-ownership is the key to a sustainable organisation - Blog post by Yves De Weerdt, Research Coordinator Sustainability Transitions VITO


The key is not to choose between making a profit or sustainability, but to conceive solutions that are sustainable as they create added value on a number of levels: economic, social, ecological, ...

The current, urgent global challenges require fundamental changes to be made to the social systems that perpetuate these problems. Transition research helps understand the complexity of these challenges. It shows how social transitions can be supported in order to achieve fairer, sustainable and more resilient societies. 

Transitions are processes of radical and structural change in society and society's various socio-technical subsystems (for example, energy supply, mobility, spatial planning, food supply, etc.). They can involve fundamental transitions that lead to other ways of thinking, acting and organising. It is therefore not a matter of 'making things a bit better' (thinking optimisation), but of 'doing better things'. A concrete example here is not reducing the energy demand for the production of nails, but developing a biobased circular adhesive that can take over the 'role' of nails. 

Transitions and transition management are the core concepts within VITO that we are hoping to use to help achieve the transition to a sustainable society . Our focus is on developing transformative knowledge and technology. This means challenging the status quo, contributing to fundamental change and thus bringing about sustainable innovation. 

Transitions, by their very definition, are protracted (think about the world in which your children's children will live) and also complex processes. In order to be able to understand these and be able to give these shape and direction, it is important to start working with these on a manageable scale: in project form, these are known as transition experiments. From here, we can then develop a learning process that can, in turn, lead to new projects and activities. We are now also using transitional thinking in order to achieve our ambition of a climate-positive VITO internally by 2030. We provide a more detailed explanation of what exactly this approach will entail below.

An integral approach to sustainability

Sustainability challenges are too often approached from a limited viewpoint. If you are only hoping to eliminate the emissions from a fleet of vehicles, you have a number of different options for resolving this. If you realise that mobility is also an energy issue, it is highly probable that you will make other choices. Those who realise that the mobility issue is not just an environmental issue but also a traffic (or congestion) issue will not be satisfied with a solution that only prevents emissions.

The traffic on the Antwerp ring before and after the introduction of the electric car (fictional example)

Anyone with a view to achieving drinking water savings without being familiar with the business model of the water companies runs the risk of primarily affecting those who are less well off (we will leave it up to you to think about how we reached this conclusion). And anyone who doesn't think about the fact that solar panels are the property of the home in the current climate should not be surprised that social resistance will occur at some point as a result of the socially unequal introduction of the technology. 

It is therefore necessary to look at sustainability in a comprehensive manner. Only in this way can you avoid creating another problem or simply putting off a problem by coming up with a solution. This means that we should also always have [...]  for the different dimensions of sustainability, often known as the three P's for convenience: people (the social impact), planet (the ecological dimension) and profit (the economical trapdoor). We strive to create added value in each of these areas when carrying out our activities. Engaging in activities that generate a large amount of money can give us the opportunity to play a strong social card in other areas, for example.


For VITO, this vision and ambition is very clear: we are aiming to be a climate-positive organisation by 2030. Our researchers work with sustainable technology on a daily basis. They are therefore highly motivated to apply this knowledge in their own organisation. And by applying themselves, the researchers, in turn, learn more about the applicability and relevance of their research. We are also trying to define new research projects based on the sustainability actions. As a result, sustainability will become an inextricable part of working at VITO. The development of a sustainability dashboard for VITO ensures that we become aware of where and how our impact is generated and gives us the opportunity to assess the effect that our actions have. It is therefore also an integral part of the learning process.

Working on the basis of co-ownership

All One Planet initiatives are always driven forward by employees themselves. Vision building therefore goes hand in hand with co-ownership. Our own VITO organisation therefore offers an excellent environment for getting to work from an integral sustainability approach. We can launch our own initiatives and develop ideas with which we can also have an impact on a larger scale, by also gradually including and involving other players. We therefore offer levers to other organisations so that we can achieve the transition to sustainability together. We make space within the company for initiatives that are based on the interests and motivations of the employees and we discuss expertise available internally as far as possible first before we seek external support. 

Small or larger innovations can only form a genuine alternative for the existing sustainable ways of doing things if they are managed by sufficient players. If they can 'survive' by themselves as they achieve a specific scale for their economic survival, or because they intervene in the activities of other companies or organisations. In concrete terms, for VITO this means seeking partners who have the ability to make new practices viable for specific solutions, on the one hand. At the same time, we always want to keep an eye on larger-scale, possibly international applications that have a major impact. 

On the other hand, we will sometimes also need to intervene in the service 'channels' that we draw upon and devise new channels. For example, the supply of cotton rolls of hand towel at VITO was in a channel that was unsustainable for a variety of reasons. We backed this up by addressing our internal knowledge regarding life cycle analysis (LCA), which showed that from a sustainability perspective, the transition to the air blowers was a no-brainer. The repayment time of approximately four years also makes this economically viable. By purchasing air blowers, we have therefore 'reshaped' the channel and transformed a piece of 'unsustainable profit' for the suppliers into job quality for the maintenance personnel. That is therefore an example of an integral approach to sustainability. Researchers of SEB and MRG contributed their expertise, technical departments made suggestions regarding practical feasibility and the purchasing department supported the procurement of the equipment. This is a positive step in the direction of what we in transition terms know as 'co-creation': by agreeing to incorporate different fields of expertise, you receive more integral solutions that provide added value on several dimensions of sustainability, which, as already stated previously, is a factor that is constantly being striven for in transition practice.

Find out here: How do we approach the transition to sustainability in concrete terms at VITO? 

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