A few weeks ago I had two enjoyable visits to Ashridge Business School. On Tuesday evening I set 20 senior executives a tough question: how can we pursue the opportunity of supporting companies as they shape their context for a sustainable future? On Friday morning I had three presentations. This is what they said.
If you ever get the chance to go to Ashridge then you should go. The gothic revival entrance is gorgeous enough for Hogwarts. The grounds are green. And the teaching excellent (on this last, if you can get someone else to pay so much the better). I was there twice in a week to set a challenge to a group of senior executives on the Fast Track Advanced Management programme. They grilled me over dinner on the Tuesday evening and I returned on Friday morning to hear presentations from three groups.
Last week in Chennai, we asked a roomful of citizens, community leaders, researchers and government officials what they think their city will look like about thirty years from now. We heard a variety of answers, but perhaps most telling were from the wastepickers present. Essentially, they said they can’t (and don’t) think about decades in the future because they’re busy simply trying to survive day-to-day.
Photo courtesy of McKay Savage via Flickr (CC)
In the face of such uncertainty, how can we plan for the future?
That’s a question we’ve been mulling over for a while at Forum – not least as it sits at the critical junction between food and energy.
Pic courtesy of debs-eye via Flickr (CC)
But before it can be answered, lots of other questions have to be considered, and these too, spawn a multitude of further queries.
Take the role of bioenergy for example. An answer to the question “how much biomass is available for energy production?” is anything but simple. First, we have to negotiate a way through the longstanding food vs. fuel debate (but this itself remains a huge simplification of a complex dilemma. Not all ‘food’ ends up equal for starters – why, for example, is a doughnut inherently better than a kilowatt-hour..?)
In our fourth blog exploring the products and services the UK consumer of 2030 could be using, we imagine how two consumers of the future - Serena Patel and her daughter Zainab, 13 – could be using water in twenty years’ time…
Serena, can you tell us how the way you use water has changed since you were young?
This is really a tale of taxis and trying not to arrive too early – but we’ll get to that later. Yesterday we had our first Forum Network event of the year – focusing on digital technologies and sustainability.
Change is happening around us – altering how we live, what we consume and what we value. But, it’s not necessarily enough of the ‘right’ change – you know, the sort of change we urgently need to make sure that the world is still comfortably viable for the 9 billion of our species that will want to use it in a few years’ time.
As you take a swig from that plastic bottle, consider this: in the UK we use two million plastic bottles every day. That’s 600,000 tonnes of plastic every year.
Pic courtesy of Marc E Marc via Flickr (CC)
And although we have made huge advances in recycling plastic, we still only recycle half of that total – and most of that goes to Asia.
That’s a lot of energy and resources wasted. And due to littering, and the fact that plastic is seen as having relatively little value, too much of that plastic finds its way into the natural world, especially into our oceans.
Some companies are trying to address this. Pespico launched a 100% recycled bottle for 7Up last year. Levi’s is recycling plastic bottles into its jeans. And Ecover has just announced a great initiative to recover plastics from the sea, with the help of the fishing industry, and use these to make more sustainable packaging.
How can 9.5 billion people live well with the resources of one planet? This is how we think about sustainability at the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) where we have a mission to accelerate business-led innovation to improve quality of life and grow a sustainable economy. Given this aim, we asked ourselves what a ‘sustainable economy’ should look like and embarked on a journey with Forum for the Future to really understand this. The result is Horizons.
My colleagues Sally, Madeleine and I were musing this morning about how it’s nearly a year since Dairy 2020 has been launched. As some of you may remember, Dairy 2020 was an industry-wide sustainability collaboration facilitated by Forum for the Future, which resulted in a collective vision and a set of guiding principles for a sustainable dairy industry in the UK.
A number of key industry players are the signatories of that vision – from Asda to Volac to WWF to the NFU – and since they inked their names on paper, many of them have been busy trying to bring that vision to fruition.
In late February I was part of a Guardian Sustainable Business Roundtable, made possible by Forum partner Kyocera, on the power of disruptive technologies. Here are my takeaways from what was a pretty wide-ranging conversation.
Disruptive technologies are part of what we need, but only part.
The pace of technological innovation is an important driver of wider change, so harnessing that is crucial. But not all problems can be solved by technology, and some are made worse. The digital revolution is helping to widen inequality, because those who have world-class skills can win at a global scale, while those who only have mediocre skills no longer win in their local market (think how pop music is dominated by a few global stars, compared to 100 years ago when there were many, many more local performers) We won’t get to a sustainable future by pushing disruptive technology alone.
How easy do you find it to think about and plan for the future? If like me, English is your mother tongue, you have a good excuse for finding it difficult. Research released last week by a Yale behavioural economist has an interesting take on what determines whether you make provision for your future or not. "If your language separates the future and the present in its grammar that seems to lead you to slightly disassociate the future from the present every time you speak” (Keith Chen, Yale University). In English, apparently, we just don’t have the grammar to be future-focused, whereas Mandarin speakers do.
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