Planning for a sustainable future: Q&A with Helen Clarkson

Image courtesy of Forum of the Future

[Editor's note: Helen Clarkson will speak on Feb. 28 at the GreenBiz Forum San Francisco about future techniques to drive change.]

When it comes to talking about sustainability over the next century, not everyone has the same vision. For many, it's hard enough to think about or maintain the same vision over a year, month or even through the end of the week.

Enter Forum for the Future, the independent nonprofit that specializes in promoting long-term thinking, sparking innovation and transforming systems and business models for future generations.

To learn more about the role of long-term thinking in the business community, we turned to Helen Clarkson, director of Forum for the Future US. As Clarkson says, her organization's mission is really to help organizations to think big and think through what the future might look like through new sustainable business models.

Cindy Cesca Yoshiyama: When we talk about today's sustainability challenges, what do you think is the key to future change?

Helen Clarkson: I think the key to change -- and the key challenge -- is for us to find solutions that are systemic, rather than tackling one problem at a time. I get frustrated hearing about 'low-hanging fruit.' Yes, there is some stuff that's easy to do, but the real change that we need is so much more fundamental. I think a lot of time has been wasted going after easy stuff, which doesn't have much impact, whereas we all need to push much more aggressively on the hard stuff.

CCY: Can you give me an example of how creating a future vision can result in a successful conduit for future change?

HC: Our work with the shipping industry is a great example. Ninety percent of the world's trade goes by sea, and the industry accounts for 3 to 4 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But there wasn't a lot of scrutiny of the industry, and unlike aviation, not much going on to address the issues.

In 2011, we worked with a group of industry leaders to create a case for action, which set out the sustainability issues facing the industry, and created a strong impetus for a combined response. The second phase was to create a shared vision for the industry. This meant continued working with the vertical slice of the industry leaders that we had brought together -- shipping companies, but also ship-builders, retailers, ports, insurance companies, regulators -- to come up with a shared vision for 2040.

After launching that vision, we brought together four workstreams to actually start to deliver on parts of the vision. For example, there's a group of companies now working together to look at new financial mechanisms to finance upgrades to ships to improve environmental performance, tackling split incentives. Creating the vision not only helped companies understand what they needed to do, but also created the space to work together and the shared drive to create change.  

Image courtesy of Forum of the Future.

CCY: What is your vision for innovation? How do you see that vision manifesting itself into reality?

HC: My vision is threefold. Firstly, to get really good at innovating the big stuff in a way that focuses on outcomes rather than big kit. Secondly, to ensure that every single innovation that happens takes us in a more sustainable direction. And thirdly, to see different sorts of innovation brought together to create more impact on systems.

Today's Boeing looks quite a lot like it did in the '70s and we have not made any radical progress in the way we interact globally. We need radical innovation in plane technology, but more importantly, we need a technological and societal shift that makes flying less attractive than videoconferencing or telepresence. For global connectivity we have the technological solutions, but we need to combine that with more trusting cultures, fewer perverse subsidies and sophisticated use/culture change to ensure that we can properly do business at a distance.

CCY: You work in the sectors of food, energy and finance, helping organizations to navigate risk and seize opportunity. Of the three sectors, which would you say has seized the most opportunity with regard to scaling up for the future and why?

HC: There is a big drive in food. The shared challenge of feeding 9 billion people seems to resonate with people and we're already seeing the impacts of extreme weather and water scarcity impacting prices, which is driving the need to change. Those pressures, combined with lots of small-scale innovation, could lead to a big shift. And the big producers like PepsiCo and Unilever are really starting to embrace this agenda and look for more radical innovations. This needs to be marshalled into a big change by bringing lots of these initiatives and actors together, which is a key part of our role. That's when we will really start to see scale.

CCY: When diagnosing the current situation of an organization, which types of interventions have produced the greatest impact? Which have produced the least impact?

HC: We've definitely found futures to have the biggest impact, which is why we're discussing it here. Also benchmarking -- showing what competitors are doing -- can be very powerful, and starting at the top of an organization with the board and working with them on the case for change. Trying to create change within an organization without senior management on board -- that's a difficult way to get anything other than slow incremental change.

Image courtesy of Forum of the Future.

CCY: In analyzing trends such as population growth and climate change, what results have galvanized the most action from your experience? How do you convince an organization to sustain that action over time?

HC: The trends that resonate with people will definitely vary from person to person, but we often see what we call 'a-ha' moments when you give a futures presentation. I think mostly it comes when you relate those trends to their particular business model and start to unpack how many hidden assumptions there are in it that the future is a linear continuation of today. That's particularly around things like resource use: The take-make-waste paradigm is so built into business models, and when you get companies to see that they might be literally throwing money away, that makes people sit up and listen.

CCY: What would you recommend to others wanting to take this approach? What are some steps they can take to realizing the future in the present?

HC: First off, it's definitely worth doing. If you are just starting out there are three things I would recommend:

First, create the time and space to do it properly. Rapid futures processes can be worthwhile, but the really transformative projects have allowed people to really step out of their day-to-day concerns and cogitate, discuss, digress, explore.

Second, involve others. Futures projects don't reach their full potential if they simply reflect back an 'official' organizational future, group-think etc. It's better to bring in people from outside the organization, or from the margins, where new or different ideas might be developing.

Finally, set up to succeed. You can never know the outputs of a process in advance, but you can create the vehicles to ensure that whatever they are they can be implemented and have an impact. So align with established strategy cycles, appoint an implementation team at the outset, and set expectations for investment and sponsorship.

Image courtesy of Forum of the Future.