The New Sustainability: Surviving While Waiting To Thrive

The New Sustainability: Surviving While Waiting To Thrive

Not many months ago it was not good form to make serious comparisons between the current global economic recession and the Great Depression. Now it is becoming almost fashionable. In December, for instance, Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund who now teaches at Harvard, and colleagues published an analysis and comparison of major banking-induced economic crises -- including today's crash.  

Rogoff shows that some of the current indicators are already worse than in the 1930s, such as the fall in housing prices, while others, such as unemployment, are nowhere as bad, at least not yet, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which recently predicted unemployment will exceed 9 percent in early 2010.  The agency also expects the recession will continue into 2009 before making a slow recovery in 2010. If so, then this recession would be considerably shorter than the global average of six years.  

One of the good parts about the bad news, however, is things have now clearly become bad enough for economists and politicians to consider serious action. Barack Obama said recently he wants to double renewable energy production in three years, improve energy efficiency in most federal buildings, make medical records electronic and expand broadband networks, among other initiatives. Across the Pacific Ocean, China, Japan and South Korea are devising green stimulus measures.  

This sounds encouraging and many other nations are talking in a similar vein. If the various policies implemented work, then the question for business -- and just about everyone else -- is how to hang on and survive until better times return?

The keys to survival will be adaptability and an understanding of how markets are changing in surprising ways at unusual speed, especially market proximity. This in turn will require heightened communication, with much more being incoming messages, not just outgoing. As a recent article from Harvard Business Publishing put it, two-way 'circuits' should be developed rather than conventional one-way 'inert channels' -- sales conversions will come from conversations rather than just a sales pitch.

There are some interesting online tools that can be used by any kind of business to develop circuits and conversations, including social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, all of which are better suited to business needs. Business blogging is also on the rise. But since these tools can be time-consuming, green businesses should look to bio-intensive agriculture as an appropriate metaphor for using these tools effectively. This style of growing optimizes every square foot of soil to maximize production by working with the flow of nature, paying careful attention to detail, choosing crops based on micro and macro conditions, and by operating extremely quickly and efficiently.

One of the keys to being quick and efficient -- and understanding the micro conditions -- is how a business analyzes feedback, which can include the normal incoming messages from social media or using other techniques, such as online surveys. Online surveys can be a powerful and relatively inexpensive tool, though they need to be deployed and used with care since they cannot usually meet the rigorous methodology of conventional telephone and in-person surveys.

As noted, this need for dialogical communications is likely to mean a considerable increase in the amount of time spent in personalized communications with the customer and client. However it is done, it will require sensitivity to local culture and a lot of background knowledge -- a high level of general education will be an advantage along with vibrant, warm and engaged conversation.

Furthermore, these dialogues will need to include dynamic analyses of customer needs and the building of narratives -- not just compelling narratives around unique selling propositions but narratives of engagement and response to give context and meaning to the two-way content.

In all of this potential experimentation, it is obvious that any money spent on customer conversations, including surveys, will need to see a speedy return on investment. The upside is that developing the communications of rapid adaptability will greatly help companies both survive the hard times and be ready to thrive whenever new opportunities arise.

Julian Darley is a writer and speaker on policy responses to global environmental degradation. He is the author of the book "High Noon for Natural Gas: the New Energy Crisis," and the founder of Global Public Media and Post Carbon Institute. Julian lives with his family in San Francisco, where he is researching the reflexive relationships and influence that occur between business, government and the public in pursuit of sustainable change.