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Two Steps Forward

What's your sustainability moonshot?

Despite all the mindboggling technological advances of the past half-century, there’s still no better term to describe extraordinary efforts to achieve audacious goals.

There’s a story about the 1969 Apollo moon landing that I haven’t been able to confirm. It may well be apocryphal. But it’s a good story, nonetheless.

The story as I heard it took place soon after President John F. Kennedy gave that historic speech in May 1961, four months into his presidency, committing the United States to "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth" by the end of the decade. Soon thereafter, the story goes, NASA brought together its employees to host a kind of mock victory celebration, saying, in effect: "We did it! Now, how did we do it?"

The idea was to start this ambitious project by homing in on the desired end-state — what success looked like. It was a "future-back" approach to strategy that, unlike the "present-forward" nature of most strategic-planning processes, doesn’t assume that tomorrow and the day after will be pretty much like today, according to Scott D. Anthony and Mark Johnson, partners of the Lexington, Massachusetts-based innovation consulting firm Innosight.

The event was a clever way to ensure that among thousands of little goals that needed to be achieved in succession between launch and the lunar surface, some 240,000 miles away — with margins of error that were slim to none — the NASA team never lost sight of the big goals: a moon landing; a moonwalk; and most of all, a safe return home. 

At least, that’s the story I’ve heard. I’ve plumbed the internet but have been unable to find any evidence that such a "victory celebration" actually took place.

Still, that story has been on my mind lately, as we approach this week's 50th anniversary of humanity's first moon landing. I remember clearly the 1969 event. My parents and I watched Neil Armstrong emerge from his capsule and take those first historic steps onto the lunar surface — "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" — via the grainy images on my family’s black-and-white TV. (You can re-live the video of it here.)

I also remember feeling chills when it happened.

Half a century later, that event still stands out as a singular human achievement. And we still talk about ambitious goals as "moonshots."

In technology, a "moonshot" has been defined as "an ambitious, exploratory and groundbreaking project undertaken without any expectation of near-term profitability or benefit and also, perhaps, without a full investigation of potential risks and benefits." Curiously, despite all the mindboggling technological advances of the past half-century, there’s still no better term to describe extraordinary efforts to achieve audacious goals.

Despite all the mindboggling technological advances of the past half-century, there’s still no better term to describe extraordinary efforts to achieve audacious goals.
That’s true in sustainability, where "moonshot" is often used (and sometimes overused) to describe ambitious goals. A sampling:
  • In its 2014/15 Sustainable Business Report, Nike said it would double its revenue while halving its environmental impact. "This bold announcement was meant to spur progressive thinking within our organization," the company stated. “Since then, this moonshot ambition has served as a North Star for our work in sustainability, guiding our efforts in the near-term and informing the development of our long-term commitments." (Never mind that the company mixed celestial metaphors.)
  • Last year, at its annual shareholder meeting, Starbucks declared "a moonshot for sustainability to work together as an industry to bring a fully recyclable and compostable cup to the market, with a three-year ambition."
  • Google’s R&D unit, X, which has taken on some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges, calls itself "the moonshot factory."
  • Last year, Waste Management said it was giving itself 20 years to achieve a "moonshot" climate goal of offsetting four times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that it generates from operations.
  • Meanwhile, Hewlett Packard Enterprise branded its most energy-efficient data servers the Moonshot System.

We’ve certainly used the word plenty on the pages of GreenBiz.

All of those efforts are necessary but insufficient. Clearly, we need a lot more sustainability moonshots.


How do we frame moonshots? I’ve long said that my favorite questions in sustainability all begin with the words "What would it take." The rest of the sentence can be almost anything, from the personal ("What would it take to have more impact in my job?") to the planetary ("What would it take to reverse climate change?").

We’ve embedded the spirit of this question formulation into the Summit Series we hold at our GreenBiz conferences. The summits are invitation-only, half-day events for 100 or so people, designed to bring together the ecosystem of players needed to solve a big challenge. Among the questions we’ve asked at this year's summits:

  • What would it take for companies to transition to circular packaging models while maintaining and enhancing brand integrity and market share? (Circularity 19)
  • What would it take to align corporate reporting with investor needs in order to accelerate investments in low-carbon solutions? (GreenBiz 19)
  • What would it take to improve the social responsibility of supply chains to ensure human rights, fair labor practices and diversity and inclusion? (GreenBiz 19)

All of these are big, gnarly problems that require a multi-stakeholder, systems approach to solve. Reasonable minds will differ, but I submit that these qualify as "moonshots," at least for the companies and industries involved.

Solving climate change may be the greatest moonshot of our time.
So, too, do the Sustainable Development Goals, 17 indisputably audacious goals — ending poverty and hunger, ensuring good health and clean water for all, achieving gender equality globally — that certainly qualify as "ambitious, exploratory and groundbreaking projects undertaken without any expectation of near-term profitability or benefit."

Solving climate change may be the greatest moonshot of our time, along with many of the measures it will take to do so. Everything from massive reforestation to 100 percent renewable energy to the Green New Deal has been bestowed with the moonshot moniker.

Three ingredients

What makes for a good moonshot? According to Innosight's Anthony and Johnson, it has three ingredients:

  • First, it inspires — it moves or raises the spirit.
  • Second, it is credible — before Kennedy made his man-on-the-moon speech, he had Vice President Lyndon Johnson do a detailed assessment of underlying technological trends to ensure that the goal had a reasonable chance of success.
  • Finally, it is imaginative — not simply an extrapolation of today but a meaningful break from the past.

None of which is, um, rocket science, but the lack of those ingredients could risk that a moonshot initiative will never get off the ground.

So, what’s your moonshot, your "What would it take" question? It all begins with taking on the seemingly impossible challenges we face. Of course, asking is one thing, doing the hard work to create a plan, let alone implement it, means reaching for the stars.

But that’s the kind of vision and big thinking (and doing) that we need — the imagination and determination that will help us create the next "giant leap" for humankind.

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