A responsibility mindset – a focus on compliance – is not a strong narrative for change.
David Bent is Director of Sustainable Business at Forum for the Future. He is also a policy fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge.
15-20 years into my career it is the right moment to to ask the big questions, and the right question after working with business for 10+ years on becoming more sustainable, it seems the right time to ask “what’s the role of business?”.
Business as political actors
The more we found better ways of representing cost on how much effort it would take for a company to move from its current position to being sustainable, the less likely they were to use that information to do anything about it – for one thing, you were telling them off, and the other, you were making the opposite of a business case…we were framing it all wrong. We were starting with a responsibility mindset, the business has a negative impact on the world, what can we do to make that impact less. The switch now, is the world has an impact on the business, what can the business do to be successful in a world dominated by sustainability. That opens up a whole new terrain of things you can do, including looking at the opportunities, and framing things as strategic risks, that if you do nothing about then your entire industry is at risk.
A responsibility mindset – a focus on compliance – is not a strong narrative for change.
How can we create change by helping leading businesses go further, faster?
Our system innovation approach is deliberately aligning all of our work to create change at a system level
How can we help individual companies play their part in the transition to a sustainable global economy?
A move away from framing things in terms of responsibility- which rather traps you in ethics and duty and you have to hope that people share your value set – to a frame based on sustainability, how will you be successful in the long term?
How can we scale up what seems to be working? What can we do to scale up innovation so there is system level change? How do you scale up impact?
Our (Forum for the Future) founders had had a long time campaigning, and post-Rio 92 they could see that campaigning by throwing mud wasn’t enough, people where saying “yeah, I get it, it’s important, now what should we do?”, so Forum was founded on the basis of partnership and long term working
One of the primary things we provide is being a critical friend
Part of what the change agents in the companies are looking for, is someone who can bring the difficult truths to a conversation. That does lead to delicate balances: “what is the most this organisation at this time can handle, with a view to them being able to handle more in a years time?”.
With the best will in the world, even with the pioneering organisations we’re working with, they are to some extent dependent on the status quo, and we’re trying to change the status quo and create disruption in the interests of people who don’t yet exist in the form of future generations, and it’s very difficult for future generations to pay current wages.
Sustainability is not a collection of individual things, but it’s a relationship between all those different things.
We meed to maintain a transdisciplinary systems view…to see the connections, and to see the dynamics, and to play out and see what the unintended consequences might be requires seeing the connected whole.
What historical examples are there in our shift of energy sources that happened at a global scale and happened quickly? The one that gives me hope, bizarrely, are the shift from coal to oil…and the abolition of slavery, a move from a seemingly free resource with negative impacts occurring on people the political elites of the time didn’t care about – in that case people who were slaves, in our case people in the future. It took a generation, but it is possible to make those massive changes…the political elite can see a viable alternative. A third parallel is the transition to the welfare state.
(Michael Jacobs four conditions for creating the Welfare State) Massive crisis – opportunity for change…business elites could see a viable path…that someone has laid the intellectual groundwork…and a popular movement.
We had the crisis – the global financial crisis – and that disproved the intellectual foundations for the previous two decades – that if you leave companies alone they won’t be so stupid as to hard themselves…it turns out the bankers are that stupid. We had a popular movement, a spasm of anger – who got us into the mess and who is paying for the mess.
…but in London there weren’t enough people who feared that they would down-grade their current and their children’s prosperity…the interesting thing about austerity, is to what extent are people giving up hope that the future is better than today. At the moment, the way people are reacting to that in the UK and across Europe, is they are turning to nationalist parties.
The facts don’t back up (nationalist) story, but nevertheless the story speaks to people being very much afraid, feeling that globalisation is taking things away from them, and losing hope for the future and turning nationalistically- turning inwardly to deal with it rather than turning outwardly.
Part of the story has to be making ourselves more resilient by distributing the risk and ability to respond across many different nodes, and acknowledging interdependence – what happens way over there affects us here. It is in our enlightened self interest to make sure that things don’t get really bad in Africa. I want the people in the tropics to have the capability to choose how to live their own lives rather than being subjected to have to respond to e vents far beyond their control.
We know a lot about the boundary conditions we have to live within…then there’s the social and political foundations – give people the capability to make choices in their own lives…that’s moderately well known: a degree of equity; interdependence; you need access to energy, health care water, sanitation … those end goals and the boundaries are like the table on which you can put your coffee cup of sustainable economy – that’s well known. What we don’t have a good grasp on, is how we make the transition from here to there. There’s a couple of things that make that really difficult. One is that it has to be economically viable at each step of the way – the current ways of making profit have to finance the things that drive us in a different direction, we have to allocate capital away from stuff that is familiar and currently turning out profit…and put that investment into things that are a bridge into the new future. The other problem is that every step along the way has to be politically viable…without knowing how that is going to happen we’re adding decimal points on the end of a universal constant, it doesn’t make any difference.
Businesses need to make a reason for change….seeing that the long term success of their businesses, their shareholders is in creating a more sustainable world.
The buy-in of a certain group of the business elite is there, we now need more unusual ambassadors.
Humans have evolved brilliantly to respond to things that are urgent that we can see and touch and feel – if you’re a monkey in a tree that’s absolutely what you have to be good at – and what we have in the crisis – the slow, grinding, unfolding crisis that we have – are things that our actions today affect the world in 25 plus years, climate change experience of the next 15-20 years was set in train by accumulative behaviour up until about 1990.
Our evolutionary heritage, and our political systems are really badly set up to deal with climate change – in many ways that’s why there is a crisis, it’s in the gaps of how we deal with things. If we could deal with it, we would have dealt with it, but we can’t deal with it and that’s why it’s ongoing.
Rational argument hasn’t carried the day, so in some ways we need something that will loosen people’s ties to the status quo. We missed the opportunity of the financial crisis…we didn’t have a strong enough intellectual alternative, equivalent to Keynes, then may be we could have replaced laissez-faire markets with something else.
A resilience narrative gives agency, it gives them stuff to do in their locale, it gives a way of thinking more into the future. But the thing I don’t like about it – its shadow side – it accepts that some sort of crisis is inevitable, that we can’t really avoid some sort of downside in order to create action, and there’s still an eternal optimist side of me that says, with enough workshops and podcasts we’ll be able to act before we’re in that situation, but that was probably five – ten years ago.
So there’s something appealing as well as appalling in the resilience narrative that could bind people together to act.
(Motivation?). Social justice and creating change for social justice.
I am annoyed when there’s persistent injustice, in particular where’s nothing the people at the end of that can do anything about it. We’re at a complicated moment in history – fairness always means different things: fairness of outcome, fairness of process, fairness of opportunity. There’s a mixture for me of fairness of outcome and fairness of opportunity, and we have to acknowledge that at the moment we’re not set up for that – and for me this makes what are seen as environmental issues are really social issues. If we take climate change – it’s been caused by the emissions of rich countries, it’s going to affect poor countries, and affect choices and take away the ability to have to have the life that people want to lead in the tropics in the first instance, and that’s not even remotely their fault, and that’s the social justice question. The environment is the means, but the real motivation for me is the social justice question. And what gets me out of bed in the morning is creating change to avoid those injustices.
(Activist?) No. For me an activist is someone who’s primary way of trying to create change is protesting outside the castle walls. For me, we need the activists at the gate, banging and causing elites to understand that there’s need for change, my role is the advisor inside the court that helps the barons do something about it. You need both parts of that movement, you need the activists and you need the ones helping those with resources and power do something about it. And that help might include getting out of the way. Inside the gates and therefore not activist.
(Challenge) How can we take advantage of the windows of opportunity that come along? To avoid the worst and get the best.
(Miracle) Smallest thing that might make the biggest difference. Extend the time horizon of decision makers – to 10-15 years planning horizon, you would have enlightened self-interest – thinking about not just your entity, but all the things your entity relies on and all the things it impacts on. Once you have that time horizon then you start thinking about who else shares those goals to create a good context for my entity.
(Advice) There is always something you can do wherever you are. It is easy to think these challenges are so enormous that there’s nothing you can in any situation it’s about what “they over there should be doing. Well they should but there’s also things that everyone can be doing
If everyone does lots of little things, they do add up.