Defining the “Positive Impact” of socio-technical systems for absolute sustainability: a literature review based on the identification of system design principles and management functions

Malte Gebler*, Max Juraschek, Sebastian Thiede, Felipe Cerdas, Christoph Herrmann

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

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Abstract

Socio-technical systems represent complex interactions of humans with ecological, social and economic systems. A system’s design and its operations determine whether its impact is “negative”, “neutral/zero” or “positive” over the system life cycle with regard to its contribution to sustainable development. But coping with exceeded planetary boundaries and social challenges requires more than “net-zero” approaches to achieve biosphere resilience and healthy societies. While negative and zero impacts are widely studied, the term “positive impact” has just recently gained importance to describe the outcome of design, planning, operational, organizational or engineering processes. Various case studies, reviews and conceptual proposals exist—mostly applied in a specific context—but a clear definition is not yet detectable. Based on a review of existing literature, this paper: (i) analyzes current perceptions of negative, zero and positive impacts of socio-technical systems on absolute sustainability, (ii) summarizes the current state of knowledge on positive impact concepts for sustainable development, (iii) identifies relevant socio-technical system design principles for positive impacts on biosphere, society and economy, (iv) derives management functions and organizational prerequisites within socio-technical systems to enable positive impacts, (v) proposes a guiding framework and a definition for “positive impact of socio-technical systems for absolute sustainability”, and (vi) discusses briefly potential applications and further research demand. This review intends to synthesize existing knowledge from an industrial and engineering design perspective, and delivers an overview on the subject from a global sustainability level to the operational level. The derived insights provide a basis for method development, system design processes and new business models.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages17
JournalSustainability Science
Early online date17 Jun 2022
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print/First online - 17 Jun 2022

Keywords

  • Absolute sustainability
  • Positive impact
  • Socio-technical systems

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