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

[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.  

Next page: A vision for innovation

Image courtesy of Forum of the Future.