For the last three days I’ve been at the IBM Summit at Start – 9 days of seminars, hosted by Prince Charles, looking at Sustainability issues, particularly as they relate to business.
There have been some amazing speakers, particularly James Jones the Bishop of Liverpool, Ellen McArthur, Larry Hirst, Stephen Howard… all offering an inspiring challenge to think big, get creative, redefine the rules of the game, challenge business orthodoxy… These have been contrasted with a few more circumspect views, starting from the point that businesses just need to get smarter and less wasteful at what they do in order the fix things, that the bigger questions about the foundations of the western economic project are not really up for discussion.
But one area of convergence has been around the topic of collaboration – pretty much everyone has talked about
- the need for greater cross-sector collaboration
- for a greater emphasis on open tools
- on the sharing of information related to best practices in sustainable business
- as well as online collaborative sharing spaces for businesses to share innovation and ideas.
All remarkable stuff, and it’s noteworthy that such suggestions are being made in this kind of event, but one has to wonder what the popularity of such ideas will be when so many people in business now see their IP as their most valued asset. If you make stuff, then the discussions around less wasteful ways of making that stuff are fairly safe, as the stuff you’re making is still yours to make. But if your main trading entities are ideas, then sharing those ideas to further the degree of understanding with your competitors may be a harder proposition to sell.
The key concept here to cut through that, it seems, is that of urgency – Toby Moores, CEO of Sleepydog, a company whose business is ideas, puts it succinctly ‘the future is too complex to go it alone.’ He recognises that an attempt to hang on to game-changing ideas stops them from being game-changing before you’re out of the starting blocks. Innovations at every level of business and industry are going to be needed for us to meet the immense challenges we face thanks to centuries of ever-increasing consumption and the catastrophic impact that has had on the planet and on the lives of its inhabitants, human or otherwise.
One vital part of the discussion that has begun here is the reframing of the language around future-business practice and human behaviours. The current terminology is rooted in a very particular industrial methodology, that specifically excludes a more holistic view of ‘sustainability’, beyond those things that show up on a share-holder report.
One such example was in the hugely inspiring talk given by James Jones, Bishop Of Liverpool, who said “In 100 years time, social historians will look back on now with incredulity at how we could so comfortably called ourselves “the consumer society”. The devouring society. They’ll say ‘didn’t they have the science? the knowledge? didn’t they know the damage done? Why weren’t they calling themselves with the knowledge they had, ‘Conservers’? why were they describing themselves with a suicide note, ‘Consumers’??”
That’s the kind of radical reappraisal needed for us to even start to think of the role of business as a pro-sustainability one, rather than as business as usual with a greener logo.
So, question: what kind of new terminology would be helpful in rescuing us from an unsustainable future as over-consumers?