Exit Interview: Peter Madden, Forum for the Future

[Editor's note: Peter Madden will be a featured speaker at Convergence Paris, June 26-27.]

For Peter Madden, chief executive at Forum for the Future, working with business is about being transformative. For the past eight years, he’s grown the UK-based team and led an impressive portfolio of industry collaborations that have helped move the needle on a range of environmental issues.

Madden, who is stepping down to take the helm of another potentially transformative group — this one working at the intersection of business, cities and sustainability — talked with me recently about his experiences at the Forum, its move into the U.S. market, and what it takes to effect change.

Joel Makower: Let’s start with the job you’ve had and what you’ve been doing?


Peter Madden: I joined Forum nearly eight years ago. I came from the Environment Agency, which is the UK’s version of the EPA, where I was in charge of cross-cutting policy. I’ve worked in sustainability all my life. In my 20s, it was much more from a campaigning and advocacy background. In my 30s, I was working as a political advisor and then as a regulator. In my 40s, I came to Forum much more to see if business could be the key to unlocking change on a sustainability agenda.

I took over the organization, which had been set up by Jonathon Porritt and Sarah Parkin, who were eminent British environmentalists, and it had been run sort of in a open, non-hierarchical way. I was the first chief executive appointed to the organization in order to provide a bit of direction.

Makower: One of the things that strikes me about the Forum is the breadth of projects — food, energy, finance, innovation, the future. It strikes me that it can be hard to do to do all those well. How did you manage that?

Madden: Part of the reason the Forum’s always done such a wide range of work is because we’ve provided a home for very talented people who want to work across a range of issues. But some of the tradeoffs for that is that you have to work on a wider set of issues than if it was a more directive organization. Whatever issue we’re working on, a lot of it is about bringing the Forum “magic dust” to bear. So, if we’re working in energy or finance or food or indeed anything else, the people in that sector and those companies will know more about the issue than we will. So, what we’re often bringing is a different way of thinking, supporting them in the process, bringing challenge. I think if you can do that well you can do it across a range of different topics.

Makower: How you decide what to take on?

Madden: When we look at the world, it’s what we see as important and in need of change, where we’ve got the strong relationships and where we find people to work with who are generally up for doing something transformative. So it’s a little bit of what we want to do and a little bit of where the opportunities are. I think part of achieving change is being opportunistic.

Next page: What does it mean to be transformative?