by Antonia Sore

Nov. 7, 2019

Antonia Sore

Symbiosis in Development (SiD) is a systemic sustainability framework, developed by Except since 1999 with the help of dozens of experts in the field. It's a powerful, agile, and proven framework for building transformation roadmaps and solutions for organizations, developing systemic solutions, and aligning teams and processes. Its helps to understand and map system dynamics, to develop innovative ideas, and laying out efficient pathways to implementing them. The collaborative process of SiD utilizes a range of different concepts found in systems-thinking, network theory, and life cycle analysis to create holistic and multidisciplinary approaches to solve problems and develop symbiotic and sustainable solutions for almost any process or project.

Summary of SiD

Symbiosis in Development (SiD) is an innovative framework to build systemic sustainability strategies, roadmaps and solutions. It is holistic in nature (whole-systems approach) while marrying it to practical methods and processes for systemic design and systems thinking. The framework is intended to facilitate understanding and decision-making within the realm of complexity that comes with sustainability problems, while being easy to implement, manageable and deliver on time.

Key points of the framework include:

  1. Systemic Approach: The SiD framework approaches issues from a systems perspective, taking into account the interconnections and interactions between various elements within a system. This approach is designed to allow for a more thorough understanding of complex issues.
  2. Holistic Perspective: The framework emphasizes the importance of looking at problems holistically, considering social, environmental, and economic aspects simultaneously. This perspective is rooted in the belief that only by addressing all facets of a problem can a truly sustainable solution be achieved.
  3. Design for Sustainability: SiD provides a toolkit for those wishing to design for sustainability. The book includes various techniques and tools to facilitate this, including methods for visualizing complex systems, techniques for problem analysis, and methods for developing sustainable solutions.
  4. Symbiosis and Interactions: The concept of 'symbiosis' is central to the SiD approach. This refers to mutually beneficial relationships between different parts of a system. The framework helps explore how these relationships can be leveraged for sustainability.
  5. Actionable and agile: SiD isn't just theory. It was born from practice and is aimed at practical implementation with agile processes and smart development methods. In the SiD documentation you can find dozens of case studies, examples, and actionable strategies to integrate sustainability in various fields - from urban planning to product design.

In conclusion, "Symbiosis in Development" presents a systematic and integrative approach to sustainable development. The SiD framework offers a new lens through which to view sustainability, focusing on the interconnections between social, environmental, and economic systems, and providing practical tools and techniques for creating sustainable solutions. There are hooks and processes to integrate any of the existing ESG frameworks an reporting standards, such as GRI, ISSB or using the UN SDGs, while providing an overarching umbrella for the development of a complete strategy.

The framework has been documented in various media and formats, including video training. The framework itself is available for free and under Creative Commons licensing. The most complete documentation is the SiD omnibus book, the digital version available for free on the website.


Why are frameworks like SiD important?

We are running out of time, and for many things, we already ran out of time. We need the best of our intelligence, with the best of processes, and the best execution, to succeed. Initiated at the threshold of our new century, SiD has sought to collect, combine, and structure the constellations of sustainable development. Finance, design, engineering, policy, science, management, communication all matter in achieving change. SiD enables these fields to connect, evolve, and enable change. To have more impact. To be regenerative. To be faster. Because we don't have time to spare.

Why is systems thinking important for sustainable development?

Systems thinking is a way of understanding and analyzing the interconnectedness and interdependence of various elements within a system. This approach recognizes that small changes in one part of a system can have significant impacts on the overall system, and therefore helps to identify potential unintended consequences of actions.

In the context of sustainable development goals, systems thinking is crucial for understanding the complex relationships between different elements of sustainability, such as economic growth, social equity, and environmental protection. By taking a systems approach, it is possible to identify trade-offs and synergies between different goals, and to develop strategies that are more holistic and integrated.

For example, systems thinking can help to identify the potential negative impacts of rapid economic growth on the environment, such as increased greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. It can also help to identify the potential benefits of investing in renewable energy and sustainable agriculture, such as increased employment opportunities and improved food security.

Overall, systems thinking is an essential tool for achieving sustainable development goals, as it allows for a more comprehensive and integrated approach to decision-making and problem-solving. It can help to identify potential challenges and opportunities, and to develop strategies that are more effective and resilient in the face of complex and dynamic challenges. SiD enables this approach in a clear and comprehensive process.

SiD systems indicators diagram
The philosophy behind SiD is that we can only realize sustainability once the ideal combination of harmony, autonomy and resilience is met for each unique application..

Symbiosis in Development: a Versatile Framework

SiD is an adaptive systems-thinking tool designed for a multitude of different purposes and guides any process or design such as but not limited to:

  • urban development
  • industry
  • supply chains
  • agriculture
  • policy-making
  • knowledge management
  • business strategy.

SiD began in 2001 when sustainability pioneer Tom Bosschaert started working on developing sustainable innovation, and found a lack of alignment between the sciences and established frameworks. Left with nowhere to turn, he began to develop, design, and continued to hone SiD into it's current form, which has grown to be a complete framework for sustainable development, including theory, methods, practical processes, application and cocreation methods.

SiD is versatile, broadly applicable between policy, industry, design, and strategy, and continues to prove its value time and time again in developing more holistic thinking and sustainable solutions. It does this by adopting circular economic principles, bio-based design, resilience thinking, climate adaption, and social justice to help provide comprehensive solutions to address our most complex challenges. 

Over the years of expansion and refinement, it has been utilized in over 700 projects around the world, and taken on knowledge and input from hundreds of sustainability experts.

This article provides an introduction to SiD, why it exists, how it works, and the solutions it can provide.

  • "SiD is the foundation of Except's cooperative and sustainability-driven evaluation and innovation processes. It has been applied and achieved successful results with over 500 projects worldwide since its development in 2001."

SiD: a Free and Open-source Sustainability Tool

SiD's 480-page Omnibus book has always been and will forever remain open-source under creative commons BY-SA-NC licensing. Except, along with a variety of organizations have utilized the SiD framework for workshops and training across the world.

Click here to access and all related SiD resources.

Click here to visit the Except Integrated Sustainability Foundation.

What Does SiD do?

SiD guides you and and your team in a step by step process towards long term sustainable organizations, cities, products, and industry. SiD unravels the complexity of sustainability, develops long and short term strategy that realizes short term results, and long term positive impacts for the issues of our time.

SiD translates and simplifies knowledge, expertise and compiles some of the inherent complexities of sustainability into a more manageable and practical process. It combines both classical and complex system thinking, design thinking, co-creation, and stakeholder management into one process.

SiD has been applied to visions, strategies and roadmaps for multinational companies and national an local governments. Likewise, it has been used for regional, city, and neighborhood design and is currently used by many sustainability professionals on a daily basis.

Sid_20190920 Except XX lr-9930.jpg

Why We Need the SiD Framework

The concept of SiD arose from our dissatisfaction with existing methodologies and their blind spots when defining a system and developing truly sustainable solutions.

Rather than try to adopt several different programs, which took too much time and never got the outcomes we needed, we designed a tool to actively address this problem.

SiD guides designers and decision-makers in incorporating problems beyond material and energy use to include a range of social, ecological, economic, and political issues. If we ever hope to achieve true sustainability, we must optimize our processes to simultaneously consider the needs of an entire system.

SiD's Definition of Sustainability

Before formulating our overarching theory, we first had to rewrite the definition of sustainability, a historically ill-defined and misunderstood term that results in many issues when working towards it.

We aimed to develop a more precise, clear, and actionable definition that will not only help organizations preserve our environment but also provide new avenues for adopting sustainability's fundamental principles.

  • "Sustainability is a state of a complex and dynamic system. In this state, a system can continue to flourish without leading to its internal collapse or requiring inputs from outside its defined system boundaries. When applied to our civilization, this state is consistent with an equitable and healthy society, thriving ecosystems, and a beautiful planet."

    The SiD Definition of Sustainability

A vitally important part of the definition is the first sentence. It suggests that we look at sustainability as a property found in a system. Because of this, the main analytical components of SiD are focused on understanding, visualizing, and developing systemic relationships rather than physical objects.

Click here to learn more about SiD's definition of sustainability.

SiD’s Theory on Systems

A. System Dimensions: Time, Space, and Context

sid_impact_intensity for action(1).png
SiD's impact intensity for action helps us better understand the inherent "nesting" of levels in a system and how object-driven solutions often fail at addressing wider systemic problems.

SiD recognizes the need to simultaneously investigate the context, time, and space of a system and uses several approaches to accurately understand and develop analytics and creative assessments to represent it. Each dimension is investigated on various scales:

  1. Long term vs. short term
  2. Near vs. far
  3. Across multiple levels of connectivity.

B. The SNO Hierachy: System, Network, Object

"SNO" is SiD's recognized structure of a system: System (boundaries of a system), Network (relationships/connections between objects), and Object level (physical objects).

SiD recognizes three levels at which we can take actions and can have significant impacts on any system, whether that it be an activity within a community, the design of a farm, or any internal process within an organisation.

  • The object level (direct)
  • The network level (indirect)
  • The system level.

Each level of impact has separate indicator sets that are influenced by physical elements throughout the network they belong. Once we develop parameters at a systemic level, then sustainability can be seriously evaluated and designed.

A Systemic Focus for Sustainable Solutions

SiD focuses on optimizing the power and leverage found at the systemic level. In most cases, analyzing systems through this lens ensures much more impactful analysis and more sustainable solutions when compared to focusing on the object or network

C. Full-spectrum Analysis of Externalities

The SNO hierarchy helps to simplify complexity and offers a complete overview of the category system, indicators and parameters across SiD's three recognized levels of a system.

SiD's framework includes full-spectrum analysis tools that consider a system's externalities - effects that are not usually considered when evaluating a system.

Externalities can be positive, negative, or neutral. When not addressed, these can cause insidious and far-reaching problems that can result in many well-intentioned plans producing disastrous and unforeseen side-effects.

However, these external factors can also offer opportunities and alternative solutions, which is why it's essential to recognize them. SiD's methods mean it's better at recognizing these externalities than most other development and sustainability tools.

SiD ELSI: Energy & materials, Life, Society and the Individual

ESLI is SiD's most important tool. It helps to thoroughly, and fairly quickly, understand all parts of a system, recognize points of leverage and design effective and sustainable solutions.

Although SiD focuses more on the system level, we still need to understand facets of a system, including physical objects and relationships between them (the network).

The object-level indicator hierarchy adopted in this program is called SiD ELSI. It is one of, if not the most used tools in the process and helps users identify and measure the performance of an object without removing it from its context within a system.

ELSI replaces the Triple Bottom Line "people, planet, and profit," one of the original concepts used for assessing systems and sustainability. The "three p's" are limiting as they focus too much on a system's objects.

Object indicators help describe the relationship between objects and how they affect the system as a whole. Understanding this relationship is key to sustainable thinking and the success of the SiD methodology.

There are countless object indicators and depend on the specific industry, structure, community, or process you are assessing. For example, some common indicators in a construction project could be energy efficiency, cultural value, carbon footprint, recyclability, cost, and ease of use.

SiD ELSI is purposely broad and adaptable to address the multifaceted nature and complexity in system dynamics and covers any physical object found in our universe. Its versatility ensures it remains practical and relatively straightforward to create indicator sets, impact mapping, and full-spectrum analysis.

Click here to read more into the workings and specific uses of ELSI.

SiD's Core Components

An visual representation of the four key components of the entire SiD methodology.

SiD consists of four core components to help users better understand sustainability, how to effectively approach a holistic assessment and redesign of a system, and several essential tools to help guide the process.

The SiD Theory

The SiD theory lays down the reasoning and approaches to its environmental, social, and ethical foundations. It defines sustainability, what a system is, and how to recognize complexity. It helps explain why we must approach problems from a systemic level and the importance of achieving more sustainable cycles. It further expands into environmental philosophies, network theory, and other necessary components for addressing complexity.

The SiD Method

The SiD methodology consists of a detailed step-by-step approach to system-level goalsetting, analysis of systems, optimization, and system-level synthesis and evaluation.

The SiD Process

The SiD Process details how the method unfolds over time and how different disciplines, stakeholders, and third parties cooperate to find shared and systemic solutions to a problem. The SiD process simultaneously combines bottom-up and top-down approaches and fosters a collaborative and iterative workspace.

The SiD Tools

The SiD tools are a collection of new and existing strategies applied within the process. They help perform valuable functions, such as a life cycle assessment (LCA), network analysis, and a range of other strategic, process-based, and software tools. A large part of any SiD process will utilize a range of crucial and system-focused tools to help better collate data and assess results.

The SiD Method

The SiD method is a practical way of finding pathways to developing sustainable systems. In can be applied to any question and intended to be used within a diverse team.

The SiD method brings people together from different disciplines by providing a platform and process for effective and often unrealized but vitally important collaboration. SiD's practice consists of action phases and cycles to help fully understand a system and realize an entire innovation cycle. These methods can be started at any point and are usually processed several times during any particular project.

The process is usually executed through using innovation labs, or as we like to call them, SiD sessions. These sessions take place across five consecutive days and involve several experts across different roles and expertise. This dedicated time and space helps them to better envision, analyze, map, understand, invent, and evaluate complexity reasonably quickly.

This vital process of the SiD approach gives unique insights into a problem and provides positive outcomes that otherwise wouldn't have been realized.

SiD's Phasing Tools and Action Cycles

An outline of the action phase cycles involved in SiD. Embedded in the fourth phase is the cyclical SiD method.

SiD processes consist of a string of tools that form a comprehensive project plan. Each process is unique for each project, and individual strategies are strung together and arranged to follow one or more method cycles.

Each SiD process contains four phases:

  • Formation phase: builds the team and the process planning.
  • Intelligence phase: consists of trend analysis, precedent research, stakeholder analysis, data analysis, and a summarizing systems analysis quick scan.
  • Innovation phase: includes the repetition SiD method during co-creation sessions.
  • Development phase: concludes with collating results and developing practical and realistic actions.

Other aspects of the process, such as stakeholder involvement, peer reviews, prototyping, and testing, are considered modular and can be used when needed.

More of SiD's Unique Qualities

15-025 - SiD Session 2 - Presentation - Group listens.jpg
SiD's 5-day process incorporates research, ESLA and intense brainstorming sessions to explore systemic links, develop new mapping and come up with innovative and sustainable solutions.

SiD has resulted in many new and innovative solutions that have proven superior to other outcomes developed with more traditional systems and sustainably-driven thinking. SiD is so impactful because it provides a process that allows users to see past any preconceptions or biases and objectively look at the real world.

People-focused and Community-driven

By placing systems analysis before co-creation sessions, we look with fresh eyes at the world before us, meaning we better see long-term opportunities and risks and their relationships to each other.

This practice leads to more pleasant and healthier places to live, attracting more emotional investment from individuals to their immediate situations. It helps us feel more connected, inspired, and empowered to protect and preserve what we already have.

For example, in the redevelopment of the social housing neighborhood in Schiebroek-Zuid, the Except team applied SiD in a co-creation process with over 100 different stakeholders, residents, and project partners.

When the concept development stage of the project was complete, we had a comprehensive outline for the redevelopment of local energy production, water supply and to support the emergence of a waste-neutral neighborhood. All stakeholders effectively took ownership of the project, helping it withstand the many varied challenges that often get in the way of developments.

Nature as a Sustainable Resource

Nature offers an abundance of ecological-based services that if managed well, can often provide free, clean and reliable resources.

Nature has inherent value beyond its materiality and delivers services that can be self-maintaining, renewable, and effectively free. The processes in SiD force us to consider natural systems as potential engines of positive and efficient redevelopment.

Using SiD ELSI, the tool for developing object indicators, we can evaluate biodiversity, ecosystems, and their capacity for adding value to a process. A prime example is Except's Merredin Spirulina project.

Thanks to SiD, we were able to identify the spirulina algae as a naturally derived product that could help solve a range of environmental, economic, and social challenges in a remote Australian town. It would have been challenging to bring this solution to the surface without the SiD process.

Closed Loop Metabolisms

SiD aims to eliminate waste by closing resource loops and creating circular economic and social systems. Circular economies are desired by many governments worldwide and play a pivotal role in ideals like the Blue Economy, which is a framework for sustainable marine activities and technologies.

SiD's systemic approach allows users to accurately map systems and perform analysis leading to a realization of a range of zero-energy, circular-waste, water-neutral, and toxin-free solutions.

20190920 Except XX hr-3936.jpg
Environmental engineers, business developers, an ecologist, communication specialist, planner, physicist, and designer working with SiD ELSI and a great example of SiD's multi-disciplined approach.

Encourages Innovation

Because SiD evaluates challenges in their real-world context, it is excellent at finding unique solutions to every situation. Given the same challenge in a different place, SiD will develop alternatives for the most suitable way forward and automatically lead to context-specific and optimized innovations.

For example, with the Transbay Center project in downtown San Francisco, the best solution for redeveloping the original transport hub turned out to be a significant public rooftop park, capable of recycling rainwater, building biodiversity, and boosting real estate values in the neighborhood.

In a similar context, this time in Shanghai, the city's live-ability was boosted through developing food-producing skyscrapers using cutting-edge vertical agriculture and a mixed-use circular program for the complex. Each location had countless differences that allowed specific solutions to work better in one place than others.

Want to Know More?

We hope this overview has given some insight into the general structure of SiD and its working processes. A more extensive explanation of SiD and all its components can be found by clicking the links below to:

The SiD website

The SiD Definition of Sustainability

The SiD ELSI Categorization System

The Cog in the Machine (systems vs object thinking)

We regularly organize SiD workshops for companies and happy to discuss developing a workshop for your organization or community

Contact Us directly by clicking here

Antonia Sore
by Antonia Sore

Nov. 7, 2019