Going slowly in an age of acceleration
How wrong can you be? Years ago, in mounting disbelief, I watched a weasel in the Alps, behaving as if possessed by demons. Its antics were so weird that I concluded that it must have a virus in its brain — or an acute form of epilepsy. Only later did I discover what had been going on.
This, it turned out, was a weasel "war dance" designed to mesmerize prey, like rabbits. Now the 45th President of the United States of America is performing the same routine. This time, we are the rabbits.
If you don’t believe me, take two minutes to watch this YouTube video. As you do so, recall Donald Trump’s antics — before and after what he insists was the best-attended Inauguration Day Parade ever.
Many sustainability experts assume that we’re on a straight-line trajectory to the achievement of our global goals by the 2030s. As an example, a Japanese automaker recently took me through a slide deck on their environmental strategy out to 2050. Every trend headed inexorably upward, invariably in straight-line projections. Dream on, I said.
The world is experiencing the accelerating collapse of the latest Kondratiev economic cycle — and the beginning of an increasingly exponential transition to the next one. That means that we are in one of those periodic U-bends in history where pretty much everything shakes loose socially, economically and, as we increasingly see, politically.
One book I have been savoring in recent weeks is "Thank You For Being Late" by the incomparable New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. He sums up: Whether we are nation states, businesses, communities or individuals, we must learn to be:
… fast (innovative and quick to adapt), fair (prepared to help the casualties of change), and slow (adept at shutting out the noise and accessing their deepest values).
That slow bit resonated. It also reinforced my excitement about three events we were co-hosting in Washington, D.C., Düsseldorf and London to get a sense of how the sustainability agenda must be reconfigured for this new age of populism. These events were early attempts to channel Friedman’s conclusion that in an "age of accelerations," we owe it to ourselves — and to the future — to periodically hit the pause button and reflect on what we think we are seeing.
The Washington, D.C., event was sparked when the World Resources Institute (WRI) read our latest report, "Breakthrough Business Models" (PDF), produced for the Business and Sustainable Development Commission. Their question was, "Could we help pull together a group of leaders to consider how to respond to the new business environment?"
With WRI links going back 30 years, we were delighted by the synchronicity. WE helped pull in the United Nations Global Compact and its executive director, Lise Kingo. The compact may be determinedly apolitical, but many of its corporate members are spooked by the new normal.
In her comments, Kingo noted the need to restore trust in globalization by giving a "human face to markets." (Friedman, incidentally, speaks of the need to restore the "topsoil of trust," which chimes nicely with our emerging agenda.)
Our Washington event coincided with the Senate hearings on Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. The meeting was subject to Chatham House Rule, but in addition to sustainability sector leaders, it also attracted senior participants from companies including BASF, Citi, Dell, DuPont, Google, Hilton, Intel, Michelin, Microsoft, Unilever, UPS and Sumitomo Chemical. A summary of the outcomes can be found here.
WRI CEO Andrew Steer probed the wider political context in his Stories to Watch 2017 session, immediately preceding our joint event. The big question, he said, is whether the disruptions signaled by the Trump Administration, the Brexit process and looming national elections in the EU are merely "speed bumps" for progress toward a more sustainable, equitable world, or whether they signal a much larger retreat?
A timely agenda
Participants in our "Breakthroughs in Tomorrow’s Markets" event were in no doubt that the world was shifting on its axis. But there was also a sense that, despite the huge risk to earlier achievements, these unlooked-for disruptions could herald — indeed trigger — an overdue reconfiguration of the sustainability industry.
Our Düsseldorf session followed hot on Washington’s heels. It was hosted by Covestro, convening members of the company’s top team, including CEO Patrick Thomas and small teams from Futerra, the Future Fit Foundation, Innovation Arts, SystemIQ and Volans. The spotlight this time was on the potential for a new business-led movement focused on "carbon productivity."
First introduced in 2008 by the McKinsey Global Institute, the concept has catalyzed new thinking at Covestro, now experimenting with a modified version of the well-established business metric, Return on Capital Employed (ROCE), focusing on the Return on Carbon Employed.
This aligns very well with the thinking of people such as Bill McDonough, whose recent Nature article argues that carbon "is not the enemy," and Paul Hawken, who is writing a book celebrating carbon. Now, as we build toward a Breakthrough Leadership Summit in September, convened by the Global Compact, we are planning several Basecamps — the first co-hosted by Covestro on the carbon productivity agenda.
Our third January convening was in our own offices in London. This one was more personal, although it was suggested by our long-time friend and colleague Martin Wright, formerly of Forum for the Future. We pulled together 20 key figures in the London sustainability ecosystem, drawn from such companies as EY, HSBC, Swarovski and UBS, and change agencies such as the Crowd, Forum for the Future, Futerra and We Mean Business. The theme: how does the sustainability agenda — and industry — need to evolve in the age of populism?
Apart from a sense that we are all still in some degree of denial, two key issues surfaced during the evening. One revolved around the tensions between the global and local dimensions of the sustainability agenda. The other revolved around whether we should all accelerate to warp speed, responding to every Trump tweet, or instead, step back, exploring and communicating the bigger picture and taking a degree of comfort in the fact that extremes tend to revert to some sort of norm.
Which brings us back to weasels. I take some comfort from the story of the stone marten (a type of weasel) that found its way into the world’s largest machine, the Large Hadron Collider, with zillions of volts in play. The animal briefly knocked out the power to the collider, but paid the ultimate price. Its semi-incinerated corpse can be viewed in a museum in Rotterdam. Similarly, today’s populists may seem all-conquering, but when they collide with global realities, more than sparks will fly.