A silvery robot whirrs towards you proferring a red pill and a glass of water to wash it down with. You take the pill, and it throws you thirty years into the future. So began a futures workshop in Lima recently, a part of the Rockefeller Foundation's Informal City Dialogues.
The idea is copied from the film The Matrix of course, the classic scene where Neo must choose between a blue pill (to return to a virtual reality delusion) and a red pill (to find out the truth).
In a piece on the Guardian website, Jo Confino invoked this scene, saying (I paraphrase) that business leaders must take the red pill and face up to the current unsustainable reality. He argued that the environmental movement has failed to create a compelling vision of the future and that "most large companies do not talk about transformative change because it creates too much fear".
Luckily, you don't need to take pills to deal with future uncertainty - though a nice cup of tea often helps. We have the tools to get to grips with the future and plot the path to sustainability, and more and more in the field of sustainability are using them – to create their own vision of a sustainable future rather than adopt one from the environmental movement.
The tools are simple. They include horizon scanning, in other words monitoring change in the world and spotting emerging new issues ('weak signals'). They include scenarios, or stories of different possible futures, usually produced working in groups, big or small, with single or multiple organisations. And of course they include visions of a sustainable future that motivate and inspire.
These tools give people a toehold on the future, they help to demistify it, and reduce the fear. People fear the unknown, and though we can do only a little to reduce the uncertainty about what the future might hold, we can do a lot to give people a process, and eventually a way of thinking, that helps them embrace that uncertainty.
The 'transformative change' then comes from asking, why does the future need me, or my company, or my product? What can I contribute to a sustainable future? From there we can begin to imagine the radically different businesses, places, relationships, products or services that could help people lead fulfilling lives within environmental limits, and work hard to make them a reality.
At Forum, for example, our Tea 2030 project has brought together companies from across the tea value chain to get a grip on the future using scenarios, and then work together to forge a vision of the tea industry's role in a sustainable future. The next step is to pinpoint the areas where innovation would have most impact, and make those innovations a reality. We've done the same with the global shipping industry and now we not only have a group of companies who share a common goal to become more sustainable, we are working to implement some great ideas that will help the industry overcome the 'lock-in' of mutually reinforcing unsustainability, and move forward together.
I agree with most of what Jo Confino writes. Yes, business leaders must face up to the reality of unsustainable development. Yes, many large companies - though not all - don't talk about transformative change. And yes, we need a credible vision of a sustainable future. But we do have the tools to create that vision, the tools are being used, and the vision is emerging, piece by piece, in organisations large and small around the world.