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'What if…?' questions for 2015 pave the path to a better future

Have you heard the story about a wise person who asks travelers what kinds of people they expect to meet during their journeys? One traveler responds “kind people.” Another expects quite the opposite. In both cases, the reply is: “I believe that you are right.”

The point is simple and clear. Expectation and experience can be inextricably intertwined. Be careful, therefore, of what you expect.

Reflecting on this tale at the front edge of 2015, it seems judicious to set forth with positive, even hopeful, expectations that move us all toward a more thriving, flourishing and sustainable world.

In this vein, I have been thinking about 2015 in terms of a few "what if" questions. Here is my list.

What if we all expected to openly share the innovations and IP that could make the world a better place, at scale?

Open sharing of intellectual property already is happening, even expected within some companies. It is just not widespread. What if it were?

For example, pharmaceutical company GSK supports “open innovation,” in an effort to catalyze “innovation targeting diseases of the developing world — where there is not the same potential commercial return as in developed countries.” In recognition of this context, GSK has “changed the way we think about intellectual property and the way we work with others.”

Tesla S charging

When auto maker Tesla shared patents for its EVs, the company made the practice of sharing IP more attractive to other businesses.

In addition, electric vehicle company Tesla is sharing its patents “in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.” Toyota recently followed suit, sharing patents related to the hydrogen fuel cells and fueling stations of its FCV, the Mirai.

Among other breakthroughs, apparel and footwear leader Nike has shared the Materials Sustainability Index (MSI).

Clearly, though, IP sharing — in general as well as related to addressing public health, climate change and toxics, among other sustainability issues — is not yet the norm. And sharing alone is not a panacea. For example, the GreenXchange was stalled by issues including insufficient engagement as well as realization that IP is most powerful when accessed in tandem with the people — the innovators — as laid out in a study of the pitfalls (PDF).

Despite these challenges, breakthrough insights and new IP related to sustainability clearly do need to be shared — both through detailed technical specifications and in discussion with the innovators themselves.

Therefore, I have decided to expect 2015 to be the year of openly sharing IP that enables leapfrog shifts toward a more sustainable world.

What if we expected to collaborate to change systems, with a focus on recalibrating for sustainability?

A growing number of companies have been calibrating systems thinking about sustainability — and systemic change — into their thinking about the appropriate scale to addressing the issues, challenges and opportunities that face business.

Consider the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which includes a group of leading companies as members that collaborate toward a vision of “an apparel and footwear industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities.”

With a focus on a different issue, the Clean Cargo Working Group is “made up of leading cargo carriers and their customers, dedicated to environmental performance improvement in marine container transport through measurement, evaluation, and reporting.”

Logo for Green Chemistry Challenge from LAUNCH website
In addition, companies have come together to address cross-cutting issues. For example, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, PG&E and Unile­ver together worked on sustainable refrigeration.

Cross-sector collaborative initiatives also exist, such as LAUNCH, with the humble tag line of “collective genius for a better world” and its “open innovation platform.” It was co-founded by NASA, Nike, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State “to identify and foster breakthrough ideas for a more sustainable world.” Specifically, “LAUNCH aims to move beyond incremental change and make an impact at a system-wide level.”

So, in light of the need for systemic shifts, I will expect that 2015 will be the year of greater collaboration related to sustainability and systemic solutions — among companies as well as across the public, private, NGO and academic sectors.

What if we expected investment in both gray and green infrastructure?

While corporate leaders are investing in operational sites in many ways, it often is focused more on human communities and less on the ecological communities and watershed structure and function. The corporate fence line thinking remains a barrier for many companies to considering investments to address deteriorating ecological and hydrological systems around their facilities (and upon which corporate operations often rely).

Some companies are, however, cutting holes in those mental fences or even taking them down entirely.

For example, Pepsi has invested in rainwater harvesting ponds in India to improve groundwater recharge of aquifers. Coca-Cola has invested in watershed restoration in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains to improve watershed function above one of the company’s bottling plants. And a jointly issued publication — from Unilever, the Dow Chemical Company, SwissRe, Royal Dutch Shell and TNC — makes a clear case for investing in green infrastructure and hybrid green/gray infrastructure to improve business resilience. If designed appropriately, these investments can be climate-smart, water-judicious, and business-smart.

Therefore, I expect that 2015 will be the year of significantly increased private sector investment in well-functioning green infrastructure.

What if we expect that all decisions — including corporate decisions — weave compassion into the process and shape the final call?

Aligning personal values and compassion with professional lives is more widely discussed than before, particularly around corporate sustainability issues. Often, it is simply described as becoming authentic in who we are as people and what we do for a living.

A recent voice on the highly personal side of the issues is that of Tim Cook, CEO of Apple. He issued a statement on how his decision to come out as gay was inspired by photographs that hang in his office of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Cook explained that his coming out enables “me to look at those pictures and know that I’m doing my part, however small, to help others. We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.”

In the face of all the factors that go into decision-making processes, I will expect that 2015 will be the year that compassion becomes intertwined within corporate considerations, including return on investment. And, inspired by the frame put forward by Cook, I will expect that 2015 is the year in which we thoughtfully will identify and lay down our own "brick" on the proverbial path to a more just and sustainable world — normalizing the process and creating the forward movement needed.

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