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Sustainia100 and the politics of positivity

Despite the doom and gloom of the mainstream media narrative around sustainability, there is more positive activity — and business opportunity — than is typically reported. If you’re curious what an oasis of practical solutions in a desert of dreary projections might look like, you can find one in the just-released Sustainia100 guide.

In anticipation of Sustainia100's 2013 edition (download), published yesterday, I spoke with Christopher Sveen, Director of Business Development for Sustainia, the Denmark-based nonprofit behind the publication. Sustainia's mission is to work across sectors to promote a tangible approach to sustainability.

Here are the basics: The guide features 10 sustainability solutions for each of 10 sectors, deployed in 128 countries and chosen from more than 500 submissions. The Sustainia website tells a compelling story of the organization’s broader mission to reframe the narrative of sustainability and drive faster adoption of scalable solutions across markets. (Sveen will discuss this further when he speaks at our upcoming Convergence Paris event later this month.)

The guide features a broad spectrum of ready-to-implement tools, technologies and trends relevant to a diverse range of audiences and spanning the gamut from cities, buildings and transportation to food, energy and IT. Each sector has an accompanying icon, stamped next to the individual solutions proportionately in size with the impact it has on each sector. Many tote several icons, reflecting their cross-sector influence, and each has a brief description of how they benefit at least two of the three triple-bottom-line components.

The solutions are as immediate as water and energy management software that can be used today in a home or office, and as large-scale as urban designs for climate-resilient neighborhoods and bioreactors on building roofs that can be modeled and adapted by region. It’s not just the clean design and stunning images accompanying each solution that make the guide a truly visceral read.

For Sveen, it’s all an injection of some much-needed positive energy around sustainability. “People see these pictures of exhausted climate negotiators or frustrated activists, melting icebergs and people on the run from flooding — images that have become symbols of climate change,” he explained. “We see how so many have started to give up or grow frustrated, losing faith in the ability to actually change our collective future.”

The first Sustainia100 guide launched during last year’s Rio+20 sustainability summit, itself a prime example of the political gridlock global leaders face in advancing a needle-moving agenda. “That’s the place from which Sustainia is developing a new approach to sustainability,” said Sveen. “We’re reversing the narrative of doom and gloom by looking instead at the tangible solutions readily available in the marketplace — telling a different story of what we can actually do.” Among the criteria for choosing the 100 solutions are being readily adoptable, financially viable, scalable, making positive environmental impact and improving quality of life.

Inspiration is a central theme at Sustainia; Sveen mentioned the word over a dozen times in the first few minutes of our conversation. I was curious why inspiration was so important when what we really need is action.

“When Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream,’ he didn’t say ‘I have a nightmare. Let’s overcome my nightmare and talk about it,’” Sveen responded. “It was about his dream.” Sveen said Sustainia places an emphasis on positive vision: what we’re working for, not just against. Sustainia is based on the premise that inspiration and motivation are fundamental drivers of behavior change, and that action is achieved most effectively by enabling awareness of the most promising tools and technologies already out there.

Beyond positivity, Sustainia seeks measurable outcomes, “whether it’s business leaders that can implement these solutions within their value chains, policy makers that have new reference points for decision making or citizens looking to improve our own homes and communities,” said Sveen. He said his group will measure success through validated proofs of concept, expanded pools of money and increased financing, and the market disruption for which they together generate traction and champions.

But don’t underestimate the power of simple awareness. More than a million people around the world engaged with the online guide during the first year, says Sveen. Each year, Sustainia picks one of the 100 to honor with a Sustainia Award; last year’s winner, Azuri, an innovative off-grid solar solution, leveraged the recognition to garner new stakeholders and attain market recognition that ultimately enabled it to raise new funding and scale deployment in countries across Africa.

Sveen believes examples like Azuri are just a beginning. “Right now we’re in development with several strategic partners to explore how we can facilitate project-based financing and impact investing, forging of stakeholder alliances and ultimately real market penetration.” His hope is that being included among the Sustainia100 solutions will bring new capital and partners that further scale and amplify their impact — creating, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophesy.

After all, even the most brilliant ideas are only as impactful as the opportunities that enable their realization.

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