Exit Interview: Peter Madden, Forum for the Future

Exit Interview

Exit Interview: Peter Madden, Forum for the Future

[Editor's note: Peter Madden will be a featured speaker at Convergence Paris, June 26-27.]

For Peter Madden, chief executive at Forum for the Future, working with business is about being transformative. For the past eight years, he’s grown the UK-based team and led an impressive portfolio of industry collaborations that have helped move the needle on a range of environmental issues.

Madden, who is stepping down to take the helm of another potentially transformative group — this one working at the intersection of business, cities and sustainability — talked with me recently about his experiences at the Forum, its move into the U.S. market, and what it takes to effect change.

Joel Makower: Let’s start with the job you’ve had and what you’ve been doing?


Peter Madden: I joined Forum nearly eight years ago. I came from the Environment Agency, which is the UK’s version of the EPA, where I was in charge of cross-cutting policy. I’ve worked in sustainability all my life. In my 20s, it was much more from a campaigning and advocacy background. In my 30s, I was working as a political advisor and then as a regulator. In my 40s, I came to Forum much more to see if business could be the key to unlocking change on a sustainability agenda.

I took over the organization, which had been set up by Jonathon Porritt and Sarah Parkin, who were eminent British environmentalists, and it had been run sort of in a open, non-hierarchical way. I was the first chief executive appointed to the organization in order to provide a bit of direction.

Makower: One of the things that strikes me about the Forum is the breadth of projects — food, energy, finance, innovation, the future. It strikes me that it can be hard to do to do all those well. How did you manage that?

Madden: Part of the reason the Forum’s always done such a wide range of work is because we’ve provided a home for very talented people who want to work across a range of issues. But some of the tradeoffs for that is that you have to work on a wider set of issues than if it was a more directive organization. Whatever issue we’re working on, a lot of it is about bringing the Forum “magic dust” to bear. So, if we’re working in energy or finance or food or indeed anything else, the people in that sector and those companies will know more about the issue than we will. So, what we’re often bringing is a different way of thinking, supporting them in the process, bringing challenge. I think if you can do that well you can do it across a range of different topics.

Makower: How you decide what to take on?

Madden: When we look at the world, it’s what we see as important and in need of change, where we’ve got the strong relationships and where we find people to work with who are generally up for doing something transformative. So it’s a little bit of what we want to do and a little bit of where the opportunities are. I think part of achieving change is being opportunistic.

Makower: You talk about being transformative. That’s a bold but vague term. Is there some overriding criteria that you choose to decide what to take on?

Madden: If it’s with an individual company — for example, a Unilever or a Marks & Spencer or whoever — the process more often than not is one of looking the senior people in the eye and having a discussion with them about whether we feel there’s opportunity and commitment to make a difference. And if it’s helping to transform an individual company. We don’t want to take a judgment about whether a company is implicitly inherently good or bad. It’s more that whether by working with that company are we going to move it significantly in the right direction, and by doing that help to provide some lessons for the wider business community.

Makower: You've mentioned the word transformative a couple times. What does it mean to be transformative at this day and age?

Madden: It is a difficult word to define. I think it’s, “Are we going to help produce some kind of step change or noticeably move a sector or a group of companies from one place to another?" Can you put the metrics around transformative? I think that’s probably quite difficult. When we’re doing wider system- change issues, we spend quite a bit of time mapping the dynamics of the issues, of the system that we’re working in — whether it’s energy or food or finance or whatever — and looking at where the power relations are, who the main players are, who they interrelate to and what resources we have at our disposal. And after that we try and pick what are those interventions, though it’s more usually a series of interventions, that we need to make in order to shift that system onto a more sustainable equilibrium.

I think that if we were to point at what’s the most obviously success and transformative work over the last couple of years it would be the work with the Unilevers, the Marks & Spencers, the O2s, the Kingfishers.

Joel Makower: How so?

Madden: I’m not saying that it was just us but we played an instrumental role with those companies with things like moving sustainability from a PR issue that would be handled by someone junior in the communications department to something that really is at the core of those companies’ strategies, or helping those companies see sustainability as not just a risk issue or regulated issue to be managed but genuinely as a source of opportunity and future competitive advantage and benefit. I think that the partnership role we helped in developing those strategies made those strategies stronger and helped those companies go further.

Makower: Give me an example of a project that you feel has been transformative.

Madden: One we’re in fairly deep into at the moment is the Sustainable Shipping Initiative. Global shipping, as you well know, is an industry that’s fairly poorly regulated. People are flagged in Panama and the Bahamas and so on. We began a few years ago working with the Danish company, Maersk, which is the biggest shipping company in the world. It has to work at home with the Scandinavian sustainability standards, but it’s competing abroad. We started working with them saying, “Here’s a whole industry that needs to move forward.” It has major environmental sustainability impacts and we couldn’t really see any mechanisms for changing that.

So we pulled together the Sustainable Shipping Initiative and brought some major players in the industry like across the world, from China Navigation to Carnival to Maersk, and brought them together as a group. And then used a process of getting them to look at the future and scenarios of what their industry might be like, and what they wanted it to be like. They came up with a roadmap. Out of that roadmap came an action plan. Now they’re putting serious sums of money into tackling what they and we have jointly indentified as the systemic barriers to change in the industry.

So, to give just one example, the retrofitting of ships. Most ship users don’t own their ships. They hire their ships. People hire ships and they’re generally quite old. So you have a situation where there’s lots of manufacturers of ship engines and equipment sitting there with a kit that will make things much more efficient. The systemic barriers in the system don’t allow the investments to happen, don’t allow the sharing of the benefits. So that’s the kind of thing that we’ve been cracking. I think we’ll have a real change on how the industry functions.

Makower: What’s the upshot of that going to be?

Madden: It’s going to be that it becomes much more financially viable for ship owners to invest in retrofitting in their ships. Therefore, you’ll have a higher-quality fleet producing way fewer carbon emissions because we’ve helped to get the right players in the sector together — the banks, the ship owners, the ship users and so on — to tackle a problem together that none of them would have tackled on their own.

Makower: In the last few years you’ve made a conscious move across the pond to the United States. What’s the need that you saw in the U.S. that wasn’t being met by any number of other organizations?

Madden: We saw an international need, that there were many parts of the world where the sustainability opportunity and market was much greater than in the U.K. The U.S. was an easy first step for us as an organization because of similarities in language and culture. But we look around at where the big sustainability challenges are happening, and the U.K. is a very mature economy and society. We’ve built pretty much everything where we’re going to build in this country, give or take a 5 or 10 percent. It’s difficult to make change happen. Also, a lot of the big sustainability challenges are in other parts of the world. So that was behind the thinking of going overseas. We we had 15 years of making mistakes and learning and doing things in the U.K. and I wanted to bring that experience to bear in places where there was a need and there was interest.

Makower: How’s that going in terms of making inroads in the U.S.?

Madden: It feels like it’s going very well. We set up a small office in New York and we’re working with the likes of Nike and Levis and Kimberly-Clark and Target on their sustainability strategy. Now we’re starting to move into what we ultimately would like to be doing: wider and more collaborative projects.

Makower: Are you competing with the consulting groups in helping these companies with their strategy?

Madden: In some ways, we might offer some of the things that consultancies offer. We’re probably close to firms like SustainAbility, BSR and GreenOrder in some of the work that we do.

Makower: What have you learned about U.S. companies that’s surprised you?

Madden: I think the thing that surprised me most in the last year about working in the U.S. is just how polarized with the whole sustainability and the climate debate is. We’re coming from Europe, where there’s quite a lot of cross-party consensus and — certainly across our major businesses at the most senior levels — acceptance that climate change is happening and an issue that needs to be tackled, even if people aren’t sure exactly how to do it. I think the thing that struck us most coming to the United States was that there’s a lot more division in society and that division plays through often into senior management in companies as well. I think some of the debates around climate change and how to take that forward were a little bit different than we would have expected.

But I would say in general, for the progressive companies, I think that the learning circle now is such that companies are attending conferences, working with organizations like GreenBiz or Forum for the Future, speaking on the circuits, learning from best practices. But actually amongst the progressive companies there’s a huge amount of cross-learning and probably less difference in sustainability practice between what is happening in London or San Francisco.

Makower: So you’re moving to an organization where it sounds like you’ll be doing even more collaboration, and not just across companies but with cities and academia and civil society as well. Give me the short version of what you’re going to be doing next.

Madden: I’ll be setting up a new innovation center on the future of cities. The future of humankind is in cities and we’re going to have to find ways to manage and run those cities effectively and sustainably. Obviously, that’s for the good of humanity but also the huge potential business benefits from doing that. The companies that develop the goods and services that allow cities to function effectively will over time put themselves in a very strong position. So the idea of the center is to help businesses, the best of academic thinking and cities come together to innovate solutions.

Makower: Do you think that businesses outside of a relative handful like IBM and Siemens and Cisco see that opportunity yet, or is it still opaque to them?

Madden: I think an increasing number of them see it. I’m not sure that even the Siemens and the IBMs and the Ciscos necessarily have turned it into a successful business model yet. That’s partly to do with the way that cities function. A lot of cities across the world are still very finite in their mentality and don’t necessarily see their way to investing in joined-up solutions that work across the whole city. I think more and more companies, more and more cities, are starting to find the need for this but we don’t quite know how to do it yet.

Makower: Well it’s safe to say that you like to take on big challenges.

Madden: I like to take on big challenges but I also like to do jobs that are going to in themselves be immensely rewarding and fun and stimulating. What was so great about working Forum for the Future was the kind of people that we got to collaborate with and the work that we did was enormously rewarding in itself, as well as what it delivered. The new innovation center I’m going to build is going to have some of that same feel, that the day-to-day work is going to be something that I jump out of bed for.