Exploring how we can create systemic change in business for a sustainable future (OR what I’ll be doing on my sabbatical)

It’s nearly sabbatical time! I’m finally taking a brilliant benefits of working at Forum: 3 months off. I’m going to use it to explore some new ideas about how we can create systemic change in business for a sustainable future, especially on the digital revolution, climate change, innovation policy, and an enabling narrative. Any thoughts, additions and connections greatly appreciated – just get in touch!

There are many privileges to working at Forum for the Future – exposure to the cutting-edge from around the world, helping leaders go further, and having enough credibility to at least start a conversation on this strange thing ‘sustainability’. Another is that, after a couple of years, you can take a sabbatical (though there is a waiting list). I’ve never taken one, until now. I’m coming to the end of my two years as a Policy Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge, and so now is the moment.

When I started I had plans to do loads of blogging, but in the end it was just these three efforts. Real life got in the way of writing more, though I kept taking to others, reading, thinking and experimenting. The key purpose of the sabbatical is to end the Policy Fellowship well. I’m going to try to explore approaches on a couple of topics into a format that, while not ‘finished for ever’, will have some sort of milestone and output.

My starting question for the Fellowship was ‘what’s the role of business in the transition to a global sustainable economy?‘. Over the two years this has lead in a couple of directions, and some of the insights have gone into Forum’s own strategy, and its work helping organisations to create systemic change.

My broad diagnosis is the world is not on track for a sustainable future, but there are reasons for optimism: patches of great effort, opportunities from new technological and social innovations, and increasingly a top-level realisation of the big picture (eg the Paris Agreement which has us ‘pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels’). What’s needed now is giving each of those ‘patches’ the best chance to have a transformational effect, and have a coherence across many efforts so the total effect is more than the sum of the parts.

What I find myself drawn to more and more are the enabling conditions so business plays its part in any transition, along with other players in society.

Therefore I find myself drawn to a deep question: What is the political economy we need for a sustainable future? By ‘political economy’ I mean the way we organise ourselves in society – the interplay of economics, law, politics and more that set the operating context for individuals and organisations, and are expressions of dominant beliefs in society.


That’s a starting point, but it’s too big and abstract to investigate directly. Therefore, I’m going to explore how to create systemic change in our political economy by going into some specifics. Each of these is a different lens into the enabling conditions for business: technology-led change; an urgent issue; a policy domain;  and, an enabling narrative.

TECHNOLOGY-LED CHANGE: How can we surf the digital revolution to a sustainable future?

A strong finding from my 2 years is that profound social change and technological revolutions go hand-in-hand. (You can argue about which follows which, if you really, really want to.) It seems to me that the technological revolution of our time is digital. Either we surf it to a sustainable future, or we don’t reach a sustainable future. I think it’s that straightforward.

I’ve already written a piece for The Long View (Forum’s annual publication on the future).  Until that;s out in March I don’t think I can put up my thoughts (hint: digital revolution has 2 big hopes for humanity and at least 6 big questions to address). Over the three months I’ll be engaging the Silicon Fen to go further.

AN URGENT ISSUE: How can we bend the curve on climate change?

I’m increasingly convinced that climate change is the most urgent challenge we face, if only because gains in other domains could easily be wiped out by the impacts of climate change. We need peak emissions urgently. Also, climate change is a problem precisely because it is in the blindspot of the current political economy. It can’t be solved by individual choices in free markets framed by stand-off governments. The specifc economics, law, politics and institutions that get us going on climate change will form the core of the next political economy.

So, I’ve arranged for four sessions on bending the curve on climate change in Cambridge. They are hosted by Prof Charlie Kennel, an eminent scientist who set up NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth (which put up loads of satellites used for Earth system science). The sessions are aimed at moving into action by asking ‘where would you save the next Gigatonne?’. The first session will unpack what happened in Paris. Session 2 will look at engineering-type solutions (eg building standards). Session 3 economic and political interventions.

Session 4 will draw it all together through a panel, chaired by yours truly. I’m really excited about joined by Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees and Polly Courtis of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

A POLICY DOMAIN: What would be pro-sustainability industrial and innovation policy?

Industrial policies were out of fashion, until the recent financial crash. Now the OECD says the leading practice is best understood as ‘system innovation’. The fear is of wasting money by picking winners. Fine, let’s avoid that. But there is, in my view, an active role for government to enable the industries of the future and the innovations we need.

I’ll be speaking to experts like Paul Ekins of the UCL Green Economy Policy Commission. I hope the output here will be some sort of report governments might use for policy, but also businesses might use for creating their own innovation ecosystems adn to prompt some lobbying too. We’ll see.

AN ENABLING NARRATIVE: What is a way of framing sustainability to business that enables action?

Finally, my instinct says we need is an ‘enabling narrative’ for business – a story which carries people along. For instance, the environmental movement has been great at telling people “we’re all doomed!” but that hasn’t really worked, in getting people to change. Forum was set up in part to create an alternative – positive, solutions-orientated. Forum can claim success with leaders. But we need more than the leaders to act. So, what is the narrative which goes beyond the usual suspects?

I’ve already started to explore this with the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility, and with a small experiment using “Are you future-ready? #GetDisruptive” with BITC, SustainAbility, WWF-UK and others.


Oh, and there is other stuff. Fear not, I won’t only be ‘working’. I’ll also be going on a yoga retreat and a family trip to Lapland.

Right now I’m feeling very pregnant with ideas, and very excited about the months ahead. It all formally starts on Mon 15 Feb, and goes until Fri 13 May. I can’t wait (though I’ll have to, as I’ve got a few things to wrap up!).

If you have thoughts, comments, ideas or connections for me just get in touch. To the journey!


2 thoughts on “Exploring how we can create systemic change in business for a sustainable future (OR what I’ll be doing on my sabbatical)

  1. Pingback: Leaving Forum, Starting Something(s) | business and sustainability – a work-in-progress

  2. Pingback: Help please! Pro-sustainability industrial strategy | David Bent

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