I have long been an admirer of Forum for the Future so it was a no brainer for me to take the chance to meet with them as part of The Purposeful Enterprise Summit. Although this is a multi-faceted organisation with a deep reach into the future of sustainable enterprise, this time last year I was most interested in Forum for the Future’s Net-Positive programme which had launched the year before. For me Net-Positive came at a time when I was desperately looking for new, interesting models to move the sustainability agenda forwards. I felt there was a need for something that was better than ‘better than bad’, and even circular didn’t seem to encompass both social and environmental needs. Net-Positive was one of the most positive developments of 2015, so I was keen to explore it with the organisation’s pioneering CEO Sally Uren.
Where are we in global terms on the sustainability agenda? What’s your view of global organisations and where we’ve got to?
I think we are very close to a tipping point. I think there are an increasing number of global organisations, not just in Europe, that understand that proactive response to big environmental, social issue is a way towards value creation.. They understand that looking beyond the profit and value of their business to create additional value through social and environmental action is the future of business. They’re not the majority, but they are growing in number. We’ve had success in Paris and the way in which business has adopted the UN Sustainable Development Goals has surprised me at the level that organisations have embraced them.
You mentioned in a Guardian article that the window for action to create action is closing. Do you still feel that or has the UN SDGs changed the landscape?
It has changed the landscape. The combination of Paris and the UN SDGs have done a lot to persuade business that haven’t been engaged with sustainability that there is something there. The simplicity of the SDGs has done a lot to encourage interest that their future success includes deliver of the SDGs as part of their remit. Whilst we have interest, and a set of goals and agreement, actually doing it is something else. The science around climate change is clear, we have to rapidly decarbonise, there’s no time for compacency. If you look at some of the broader issues such as access to food and our basic needs, so whilst Bill Gates stands up boldly at the WEG with huge investment, inequality isn’t going away. It saddens me to see here in the UK and in the US the number of foodbanks are increasing, so I think inequality could be one of the biggest barriers to face. What the Paris and SDGs has done should act as an accelerator.
Where have been the successes of applying the Net Positive model to date?
We at Forum noticed that we were working with a number of partners ho weren’t describing their approach as net-positive, (Kingfisher did), others of our partners didn’t have that language but were wanting to approach sustainability in a way that was about more than doing less bad. That coincided with a time when WWF UK, The Climate Group and Kingfisher were also noticing the same trends in their partner base. We felt that as NGOs we would slow down the rate of progress if we did everything separately so we joined forces. We first published the principles behind Net-Positive, then went on to look at how you measure it and then how you communicate it. We’re now building a much bigger Net-Positive coalition with Harvard Business School. Harvard had looked at lot at the social side of Net Positive. So we’re partnering together and hoping to launch a much more detailed roadmap in June (2016).
In terms of the transformation of business to date – that takes time. The Net-Positive approach takes time. Understanding the areas where you can make the most difference can give you confidence and act as an accelerator. If you look at what Kingfisher is doing on the sharing economy, and how Ikea is transforming energy use in the business – this is giving others more confidence that this is the right thing to do. We have now a wave of businesses that are really keen. We’ve been talking to smaller organisations too including small startups. Whilst they don’t have the resources to invest in tools and approaches, what they can do is take that thinking and integrate it into the business from the very beginning. What we believe is that Net-Positive can be the next wave of corporate sustainability, the next evolution of CSR.
What are the kinds of shifts and changes an existing organisation should consider?
The biggest indicator is the willingness to look outside the boundaries of the business, and understand how as a business it might solve a big environmental and social challenges in a way that creates value for the business. There are other business that are active in a net-positive way like Unilever. The ones that are doing well and will thrive are those that look outside the boundaries and understand how by solving issues like child malnutrition, you can create value for the business. To be net-positive, you have to be a big systems thinker, you need to understand the systems around you. You can call it shared value, circular, system innovators, net-positive, whatever you like – it’s all about looking outside the business, choosing issues that are relevant to the business, looking what’s our purpose could be in delivering a solution through our business in a way that deliver growth and value.
When you first set up the key impact areas for measurement of Net-Postive, have others emerged?
By working with Chime who are the part of Harvard who did a lot of work on the social side of . net-positive social benefit. The way into this is where do we make the biggest impact and how do we show that we are making changes. Ultimately I think we will end up with a whole suit of metrics that allow you to show you are making an impact on a key area of your business – carbon, biodiversity, living wage, digital access, community access – it just depends where you can make the biggest differnce, a shift and do things differently.
The obsessions with measurement is a symptom of linear thinking, an indication of less systemic thinking. When I hear people say we can’t measure it, so we can’t manage it, I think ‘really?’. It can be a reason not to get involved with the journey of transformation. We live in a complex system. We live in agile adaptive systems. If we stop to try and measure anything, things will carry on changing and we won’t keep pace or be able to manage them. The need to measure everything can be an inhibitor.
Have the pioneer group managed to show that it is possible to make a shift to net-positive from an existing business?
It’s definitely easier for startups. At its heart being net-positive, being a systems shifter, is about having clarity of purpose. We’re not here to grow our EBIT, not here to generate higher ROI, not here to sell more stuff, we are here to do something positive. It might be access to shelter, access to food, access to education. If you are a small organisation, you can choose to do that. Large organisations can transform but their pathway is very different. Experiments at the edges of the organisation might be going on, or a group may set sail with the support of a very senior manager. Large organisations no longer have that startup entrepreneurial flair, where they are very agile and adaptive, and able to take risks. There is an established hierarchy, and there are people who keep their hand on the tiller, they’re people who can manage data and people. Big businesses can’t experiment easily because they’ve hired for a different set of skills. Hiving off experiments is the way to do it, because large organisations have lost the skills to innovate because they haven’t been the skills they need.
Are you working with startups or are you focusing on established organisations?
We have the relationships with larger organisations, and they have the ability to access the kind of investment needed to make the shift. Once we have done more work on the vision, once we have made the notion of net-positive more accessible, we will be communicating this into the entrepreneur market. We will need to access some foundation capital which I think we can do. But right now, we want to be able to have an impact at scale. We want to encourage startups to put that net-positive purpose at the heart of their businesses too. That’s how big change happens – from academic theory and multilayer perspective; you need to encourage innovation from the niche. To create change you need to change the regime – that’s why Forum has never been either or.
What we’ve discovered over the years is that mindset change is critical. Last year at the end of a 5 year plan, we looked back at all the projects we’ld done to see what characterised the most successful projects and it was mindset change. It was where you had a CEO or an influential individual or a cohort where we had had an opportunity to change people’s minds.
What can business education do to advance sustainability or the shift to net-positive?
I think it’s fair to say that business schools have been slow to adopt change. It’s quite a strange situation to find that businesses are experimenting with new models of doing business but business schools aren’t. You can take an MBA without doing anything about sustainability at all. Business schools are very conservative. I was looking at a course from INSEAD in Singapore – the first time they had tried to take sustainability to a business audience in Asia. At the moment MBA education is stuck in the 1980s, it hasn’t caught up with practice today. With our own Masters, the 20th cohort graduate this June and it will be the last one. We’re developing a new programme for Systems Thinking. When we set up the Masters 20 years ago, it was the first of its kind. There are many more Sustainability Masters today. Forum needs to be ahead of practice, for the last year we’ve been developing a learning programme concept which is at its heart a way of tooling up early to mid career people to act as systems thinkers.
Activating Purpose is taking more prominence. What is driving this renaissance of purpose and how does it support net positive?
One of the drivers is that large businesses are employing Millennials who are going to be the biggest part of our workforce by 2020. it’s really important to them, their identity, their lives and what they do. Having a purpose is critical. For many organisations it’s about attracting the best talent out there is one of the reasons. Given the sheer complexity of the way we operate, those companies that use their brands to cut through with clarity really well, have an advantage. This is what Unilever does well – purpose that resonates really clearly with individuals. Lifebuoy is about access to sanitation, Dove is about access to self-esteem. Net-positive is about having a big positive impact in an area where you are having the most impact as a business. In order to understand what those areas look like you need to be clear about your purpose in the beginning. So for Ikea it’s about environmental solutions for their customers, for Kingfisher it’s about forestry regeneration because they use timber the surface area of Switzerland every year. Purpose is really important in making the link between, understand why you’re doing less bad.
Given the extent of the global challenges we face, Net-Positive seems like a no brainer.What is at the heart of resistance to change? What more can be done to accelerate The Big Shift?
The biggest barrier is short termism. It’s the difficulty of operating a casino economy where billions of dollars are transacted on a second by second basis. The barriers are totally systemic, they are a symptom of a very dysfunctional global economy. For many businesses, CEOs say I would go further, faster, but investors don’t understand and I will get a really hard time on the markets. If we could do something about economic short termism, so that allowed us to fine-tune the economy better so that the economy rewarded those companies that invested in the long term, we would have a partial solution.
Sally Uren is CEO of Forum for the Future, an international non-profit organisation working with business, government and civil society to solve complex sustainability challenges.