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Sensemaking in complexity

Dr Tina Karme believes business can drive the integrated solutions we need for a sustainable future
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Tina Karme

This article first appeared in our Earth Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 22 April 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

We often hear about the need to seek compromise – especially when there are multiple viewpoints – and can frequently end up engaging in debates that we call discussions, or worse: ‘dialogues’.

According to Dr Tina Karme’s research on sensemaking and sensebreaking, debates are neither discussions nor dialogues because most of the time they focus on convincing an audience that one side is right and the other wrong.

‘This type of exchange of viewpoints and understanding rarely helps a new sense or new understanding to emerge’, Tina tells us. ‘Most of the time, we enter and leave the debate with the same opinions and understandings that we had at the beginning.’

Tina’s research focuses on complex issues, and encourages approaches that move beyond compromise and towards integration.

‘Integration is a resolution to tension, where neither part needs to sacrifice what they see as important’, Tina explains. ‘In many sustainability-related complex issues, we need these types of solution; meeting halfway with poor solutions that are not working is not the answer.’

Is profit ‘bad’?

For Tina, we need more dialogue that is geared towards the discovery of integrative solutions – and she believes the business sector should help to sponsor and drive this shift.

Activities that nurture dialogue with different actors form the foundation of problem-solving, and for Tina should be seen as an investment rather than an expense.

‘Integrated solutions hold business opportunities but also attract talent and customers’, Tina argues. ‘But first we must dispel the myth that profit and money are ‘bad’ things. If you are doing good to both people and the planet and making a profit from it, few actors have a problem with that. Dissatisfaction comes only when you are causing problems for people and the planet and profiting from it.’

The ability of businesses to profit from unethical practices, such as human rights violations or environmental harms, are identified as real – and unacceptable –issues in the CSDD (the EU’s corporate sustainability due diligence directive).

‘It always puzzles me how we still today accept that organisations do not implement solutions to protect people and the planet just to make more profit’, Tina says. ‘Yes, more profit; it is not even that they would not make a profit otherwise.’

Moving beyond compromise

According to Tina, we sometimes encounter complex issues that have no solution. These issues require dialogue both in talking solutions and pathways into existence and also in recognising actions and activities that could make a sustainable future a reality.

Among our most pressing complex issues are climate change and biodiversity loss, because we are demanding more resources than nature can provide and dumping more waste than it can handle.

‘We are suffocating our liveable home, our planet’, Tina says. ‘It has been working as a volunteer for us, and we have shown little to no appreciation. We are reaching a point when our volunteers will start demanding a salary for all of their work. And I think it is fair; it seems to be the only language business speaks.’

For Tina this is a perfect example of a complex issue; if all the resources, waste and services provided by the Earth were to be given a price tag, it would cause massive shocks to the economies that generate welfare for societies.

But if we got it right, one step at a time, the monetisation of ecosystem services would provide significant benefits – both economically and for the planet, and therefore also for people.

‘To find these solutions we need to move beyond compromise’, Tina says. ‘This does not mean we need to avoid tensions; tensions are actually what enables integration to occur. This, in turn, is where innovation and problem-solving lie. By recognising good questions and seeking alignment on what we want to achieve in the future, we can discover new approaches where efforts are joined to get there.’

Nurturing dialogue

As a result of Tina’s findings, the 2022 Initiative Foundation decided to take action by launching a new collaboration model where businesses drive dialogues that could result in new integrative approaches and solutions.

Businesses are heavily impacted by polarisation in multiple negative ways, meaning it is in their interest to seek solutions and pathways that nurture a thriving society and innovations that serve multiple needs.

In order for a sustainable, thriving future to unfold, we urgently need to find new ways in which business is able to profit from solving problems for people and the planet.

Connecting business with youth

Due to its consultative status at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and UN ECOSOC, the 2022 Initiative Foundation has helped to bring Fridays for Future Most Affected People and Areas (FFF MAPA) representatives to different meetings organised by the UN.

Helena Lindemark, the founder and CEO of the 2022 Initiative Foundation, also played a crucial role in bringing the high-level UN conference Stockholm +50 to life, and has experience in connecting business with FFF youth.

‘We can see the positive atmosphere these dialogues can contribute to’, Helena explains. ‘When we facilitate a safe space where business and youth can come together and share their experiences, desires and knowledge, ideas are often formed that transform the world and accelerate sustainability. Dialogue is the key element where we discover solutions and bring people together to find solutions that could help to make a sustainable future a reality – step by step.’

Opening your heart

The importance of good dialogue has not gone unnoticed, and it’s something the UK’s Reboot the Future has experienced, too.

The organisation’s Imaginal Conversations bring together high-level business leaders and climate activists to discuss questions about the things that break hearts; the goal is to generate connections between groups of people and actors who are traditionally seen as highly polarised.

‘We found that when we connect on things that matter and open up to one another, we can enter a dialogue rather than a debate’, says Anthony Bennett, CEO of Reboot the Future. ‘The participants came back to us and said the experience was transformative. The key lies in opening your heart and bringing people together.’

The art of listening

Tina highlights the need for deep listening, a concept also recognised and used by Reboot the Future. We are open to new ideas and solutions when we listen with an open heart and mind.

Naturally, this requires some sensebreaking to occur as we seek new pathways or senses.

‘A broken heart – or opening your heart to what is happening in the world – is a powerful way of creating sensebreaking and, therefore, the need to discover something new’, Tina shares.

The 2022 Initiative Foundation is using multiple tools for this purpose, but as its spearhead it uses a compass, which sets the foundation for the dialogue and recognises that we all have a role to play in creating a sustainable future.

‘The 2022 Initiative Foundation allows businesses to participate in UN events and brings together different voices and actors’, Helena explains. ‘2022 Initiative Foundation recognises these actors and creates the space for dialogues that set the foundation for integrative pathways.’

Bringing voices together at UN events and supporting meaningful dialogues to seek new sense in the story and actions that follow will bring value to all involved.

‘In many cases, sensemaking is linked to sensegiving’, Tina explains. ‘New sense occurs when actors engage in sensegiving and receive this information to make sense of complex issues. These events and dialogues are efficient ways of doing exactly that – and an efficient way of giving sense and information to actors you might otherwise not have a chance to interact with.’

Studies have found that this is essential; Tina’s research reveals that the inclusion of different actors is one of the main challenges in forming new understandings, but that it also represents the most significant opportunity.

Sustainability as a business decision

The 2022 Initiative Foundation has a network of actors who are willing to enter these critical dialogues, as well as a group of facilitators, such as Reboot the Future, that have both the tools and the expertise to support them.

The foundation is now calling on businesses to step up to the challenge and sponsor upcoming events that will make it all possible.

‘We had amazing experiences during Stockholm+50 when business stepped up, invited youth representatives from FFF MAPA to participate and facilitated dialogues between different actors’, Helena remembers. ‘Business representatives have given positive feedback on this and showed gratitude for what we did. This made us think we should expand activities beyond Stockholm+50. 2022 was the year businesses stepped up to sponsor dialogue between different actors; now we hope more businesses will do the same – and we’re here to help.’

In search of integration

Complexity provides countless opportunities if we move beyond resolving tensions through compromises. New thoughts and pathways emerge in a sensemaking process, and the more inclusive and diverse we can be in finding participating actors, the better we can explore alternative pathways.

Complex issues require us to lead with uncertainty and show curiosity towards unfolding and emerging solutions.

This breaks the approach of managing and assuming that the solutions and answers are simply within one actor or business.

Sustainability is more than a reporting exercise; it is a business decision. The sooner businesses accept this, the better for their profits, for people and for the planet.

‘It is not about making a profit or saving the planet and its people’, Tina says; ‘it means profiting and saving the planet and its people. This is an integrated solution.’


Tina Karme is a Doctor of Business Administration with a Master of Science (M.Sc) degree from Finland in Business Management and a M.Sc degree from the UN Institute of Training and Research collaboration program with Franklin University Switzerland on International Management and Sustainability.

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