Beyond ESG: system solutions for sustainability

Lecture series with TAI and Duncan Austin

The recent ‘shock of net zero’ has newly alerted the private sector to the scale and pace of transformative change now required to avert not just climate change, but broader ecological disaster. This shock has shone a harsh light on current efforts, prompting rising scepticism about the sufficiency of ESG, and the thinking that underlies it.

Systems thinking suggests alternatives. Systems thinking is powerfully in the ascendancy across multiple disciplines, though only just now reaching the fields of economics and finance. In revealing the innate limitations of our current efforts, systems thinking shows a way forward – sustainability may well be difficult but is not impossible. Much depends on the willingness and ability of individuals in business to cultivate a systems awareness that will position business to become a critical agent of change.

Over four sessions, the series will evaluate the progress we are making as a global society to become sustainable, explore the deeper solutions to which systems thinking points, and reflect on the actions business and finance might take to promote systems solutions to build a sustainable economy and culture.

Session outline

  1. Taking stock: ESG and the risk of ‘greenwish’ | 1 March (watch recording)
  2. A systems view of the economy: systems thinking can rescue the situation | 29 March (watch recording)
  3. The unintended trap of externality-denying capitalism | 3 May
  4. Building the economy of a sustainable culture | 7 June

How long are they?
Each session will be 1 hour 30 minutes, to allow time for introductions and an overview of the topic to be discussed before diving in. We will run the same session twice in each instance to cater for different time zones, and attendees should expect to attend all four sessions in the series.

How to get involved
If this series is of interest to you or a colleague, please let us know and we will sign you up for all four sessions. There will be more details in advance of each session which will be shared in Memo, our regular newsletter.

View notes for previous sessions
Coming soon

About the speaker
Duncan Austin has a degree in Economics and an MSc in Environmental Economics, and has worked as a sustainability researcher and writer since 2019. He was senior economist at World Resources Institute where he completed environmental economics research for both policy and private sector audiences. From 2004-2018 Duncan was investment partner at Generation Investment Management; working as a private equity analyst for Global Equity Fund and being involved with selected private equity deals.

Duncan’s latest paper, Market-led sustainability is a fix that fails…but it may have been the necessary ‘defence at first depth’ , explains why voluntary market led strategies are insufficient. Instead, we must apply systems thinking to deliver deeper forms of change.

Beyond ESG : System solutions for sustainability


Meet Duncan Austin

About the lecture series

Explore our full 2022 events agenda

Register interest for this event by emailing enquiries@thinkingaheadinstitute.org.

2022 research agenda
Sustainability hub
Culture, diversity and leadership hub 
TPA hub 
The Power of Culture study

The hope was that achieving a sustainable economy might be an appealing ‘green growth’ story, but it increasingly appears to be the mother of all restructurings

Duncan Austin

Summaries of sessions 1 – 4


Taking stock: ESG and the risk of ‘greenwish’ | 1 March 2022

Systems thinking can rescue the situation | 29 March 2022

Please note that in response to member requests, this lecture was brought forward to 29 March as session 2 of 4.

The unintended trap of externality-denying capitalism | 3 May 2022

Please note that in a change to the original schedule, this lecture will now take place on 3 May as session 3 of 4.


Building the economy of a sustainable culture | 7 June 2022