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The Elkington Report

And the winners are: How awards can celebrate past achievement and spur future innovation

To kick off the 2020s, the "Exponential Decade," Volans launched the Green Swan Awards for exponential sustainability Jan. 10 at our Tomorrow’s Capitalism Forum. The extraordinary response from those present suggests that the idea has both legs and wings — indicating considerable potential for positive impact.

Co-hosted by Aviva Investors, the forum reported out on our work on the Tomorrow’s Capitalism Inquiry, attracting a capacity audience of over 300 people — and heard from companies including The Body Shop International, Covestro and Neste, business federations such as the Confederation of British Industry and the Green Building Council, plus a wide spectrum of NGOs, social entrepreneurs and impact investors.

I’ll talk about the award winners in a moment, but first a few wider thoughts on the role of awards and prizes in driving innovation.

One of the most overused terms in recent years has been "award winning." You hear it when people talk of their "award winning products," "award winning companies" or "award winning leaders." Fine, we all love to win awards, but such assertions always make me wonder: Who gave the award, for what, how long ago, and what aspects of the wider change agendas were not covered — or overlooked?

How can such approaches be used to mobilize innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and policy-makers to drive the sort of innovation needed to tackle the climate emergency?

In my mind, awards can serve two distinct purposes: to celebrate past achievement or to spur future innovation. Ditto in the world of accounting, where you have backward-looking accounts of corporate performance, which is where the bulk of the accounting industry currently focuses, and forward-looking accounts — posing tougher challenges, but also where the industry needs to move next.

In the second category, I have been interested in challenge prizes since schooldays — when I did a fascinating project on how the Longitude Prize, offered in 1714, triggered John Harrison’s innovation in shipboard time-keeping, revolutionizing navigation. Three hundred years later, in 2014, the British public chose antibiotic resistance as the top challenge for the 21st century version of the Longitude Prize to spotlight.

As the son of a World War II Spitfire pilot, I also have long been fascinated by how the Schneider Trophy helped spur the evolution of that iconic aircraft. The obvious next question: How can such approaches be used to mobilize innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and policy-makers to drive the sort of innovation needed to tackle the climate emergency and address the United Nations Global Goals?

To that end, and for well over a decade, I have followed the mind-bending challenge prizes launched by the XPRIZE Foundation — admiring their work so much that we even recruited their former chief scientist to our own board.

The thinking behind the Green Swan Awards is as follows. My latest book, to be published in April by Fast Company Press, is "Green Swans: The Coming Boom In Regenerative Capitalism." While "Black Swans," a concept introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, often trigger negative, downward spirals, "Green Swans," as trailed in GreenBiz in April, have the potential to trigger positive, upward spirals. 

Black Swans, then, often take us toward breakdown, while Green Swans can take us toward breakthrough — in relation to challenges as various as antibiotic resistance, plastics in the oceans or the climate emergency.

The Green Swan Awards, for which the trophies will be cast in bronze in a few weeks, blur the boundaries between celebrating and spurring future ambitions. When the first call for nominations and applications is launched later in 2020, we will focus on ideas, individuals, initiatives or institutions whose work is designed to trigger and support exponential trajectories towards positive impact.

Green Swans can take us toward breakthrough — in relation to challenges as various as antibiotic resistance, plastics in the oceans or the climate emergency.

The central idea, flowing from my 2018 "product recall" for the Triple Bottom Line, is that the spotlight must expand from the long-established "responsibility" agenda to the question of how key actors in the private, public and citizen sectors can spur the transition towards more resilient — and increasingly regenerative — political, social, economic and environmental systems.

One possible future candidate for an award would be Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, for the launch of the 1 trillion-euro EU Green New Deal early in 2020. 

To get the ball rolling, we launched two prototype awards at our Tomorrow’s Capitalism Forum in January. They went to Sir Tim Smit, founder and executive co-chair of Eden Project International, and Sacha Dench of Conservation Without Borders. 

The Eden Project transformed a vast china clay pit in Cornwall into a world class attraction that has introduced sustainability thinking and practices to over 20 million visitors — in the process injecting over 1.5 billion pounds into the regional economy. Truly, a masterwork in regenerative capitalism. To show the scale of the challenge Eden team faced, here’s a picture of the site before its regeneration.

China clay pit in Cornwall

We asked Smit whether he had any advice for those aspiring to follow in his wake. "My only tip would be to accept every third invitation you receive," he said. "The sheer randomness of it means you will meet the people you didn’t know you needed to meet and [that's where the] magic lies. I promise it is life changing. You could come up with exhortations to work hard, be truthful, keep believing and so on, but it’s bull****. Magic comes from following your instincts and giving fate a helping hand. I don’t do links and/or social media. If people are worthy of help, they’ll find you."

The second award went to a woman dubbed the "Human Swan." Sacha Dench is a pilot with a mission: "Connecting Science, People & Planet." Her groundbreaking expedition, Flight of the Swans, involved flying 4,350 miles by paramotor, in all weathers, from Arctic Russia across 11 countries to the United Kingdom to help draw attention to the plight of the Bewick’s swan. She also holds the record for the first woman to cross the channel by paramotor.

We asked Dench the same question, whether she had any advice for those wanting to change the world. "The impossible becomes inevitable when taking no action appears as the riskier strategy," she advised, "whether for growth, reputation or survival. So present your ‘impossible’ ideas in that light. More importantly, don’t sit on your impossible ideas. Release them and embrace the critics. Picture them as throwing sticks at your flame. Their comments will only help your idea grow stronger." Her next challenge: to do what she did for Bewick’s swans for ospreys. 

Both Smit’s and Dench’s acceptance speeches were filmed at the 2020 Tomorrow’s Capitalism Forum and will be posted on our website shortly. But their stories to date underscore the crucial role of individuals in driving system change — and the way that people such as Greta Thunberg can help make the seemingly impossible virtually inevitable. By studying the progress of those nominated or applying for the awards, we hope to get a much better sense of their recipes for effective, breakthrough change.

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