Category Archives: system change

Let’s be inspired by Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope.

‘Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope’ by Bill Sharpe is a tremendous book for anyone who works on profound change. Below I hope I can give you a flavour of it, and why I was inspired. My key takeaway:  rather than aiming for distant, definitive visions, we would be better to act from a shared awareness of the future potential in this present moment. Continue reading

Gigatonne Lab: Why? What? How can you help?

Climate change is one of the most profound challenges we face today. We need to reduce emissions urgently and our progress was too slow – even before the election of President Trump. I’m part of creating a Gigatonne Lab, the brilliant idea of the brilliant Zaid Hassan, because I think it would accelerate our shift to a low-carbon world. Here’s the why, what, how of the Gigatonne Lab – and an invitation to help.


Climate change is widely acknowledged to be one of the most profound challenges we face today.

  • The Paris Agreement sets a welcome, and hugely stretching, target: “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”
  • What is needed now is implementation. To even get close to the ambitions of the Paris Agreement we need emission reductions urgently, and we need all society to play their part.

UNEP Emissions Gap report 2016

But too little is happening.

  • Even if countries deliver on their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs, the emission reductions they volunteered in the run-up to Paris), then it is estimated we will see ~3.7C warming.
  • We risk living in a world of run-away climate change, with devastating consequences for many parts of the world, especially the Gulf nations and countries in tropic regions.

There are a host of brilliant initiatives…

Here are just a few:

  • Accelerating research and development:
    • Missions Innovation aims “to accelerate the pace of clean energy innovation to achieve performance breakthroughs and cost reductions to provide widely affordable and reliable clean energy solutions that will revolutionize energy systems throughout the world over the next two decades and beyond.”
    • Breakthrough Energy, which has $1b from Bill Gates, “is committed to investing in new technologies to find better, more efficient and cheaper energy sources.”
  • Addressing systemic barriers in US electricity sector:
    • eLab “focusses on collaborative innovation to address critical institutional, regulatory, business, economic, and technical barriers to the economic deployment of distributed resources in the U.S. electricity sector.” through three annual working group meetings, coupled with on-going project work.

…but there is still a gap on implementing rapid decarbonisation.

  • We believe that there are too few efforts at deploying existing solutions across many sectors that will have an immediate impact on global emissions.
  • This is a particular need right now, as the Trump Administration acts against addressing climate change.

Now is the time to make rapid decarbonisation happen.

  • We believe there is a needed for a new vehicle that:
    • tests and then invests in solutions that can make a significant difference now.
    • attracts attention through its ambition and impacts
    • provides lessons on what does and doesn’t work.
    • that demonstrates to others that they can reduce carbon emission where they are.

Enter the Gigatonne Lab.


An international collaboration to identify and launch a portfolio of initiatives to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e) by one gigatonne within a two-year timeframe.

  • Goal. Ignite emission reductions at the scale and urgency required to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels by demonstrating how to take 1GT out of the global economy in a short-time frame.
  • Outputs.
    • A portfolio of solutions which cumulatively reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e) by one gigatonne (a billion tonnes) within a two-year timeframe.
    • A database on insights into technologies, solutions and efforts to diffuse them, so that others can apply what does work and avoid ones that don’t.
    • Many people inspired and equipped to pursue emission reductions at scale and with urgency, because of the high-profile example of the Lab and the specific insights it has generated.

What the Gigatonne Lab would do

There are many possible configurations, and the specifics would vary depending on who gets involved. The current design can be summarized as:

  • Five teams. Each multi-disciplinary team of approximately 35 people would have a focus, either regional (e.g. US) or sectorial (e.g. shipping). They would be tasked with abating 200 MT in 2 years in that domain.
  • An open innovation pipeline. Each team would have a database of the most viable solutions for their area of focus. There would be an open invitation for others to suggest additions.
  • Fast stress-testing. The team would select the best remaining solution, and stress test it. What would need to be true for this solution to make a good-enough contribution? Are those conditions met? After a solution has passed or failed a stress-test, the team would move on to the next one.
  • Swift move to investment. If the solution passes the stress-test then a sub-team would move to implementing.
  • The Lab Fund. The Lab would have a fund of suitable size available to invest.
  • Wide pool of participating organisations. The solutions would be implemented within the wide pool of participants, who would be big corporations, cities, and other public bodies. These organisations would benefit from the finance to address climate change, and the lower risk profile of stress-tested solutions.
  • The secretariat. The five teams would be supported by a secretariat, who make sure guide the teams, make sure that lessons are being learnt and acted on, communicate and engage with the wider world as well as connect with the funders and other key stakeholders. 


How can we get started?

Over the last few years, Zaid has spoken with tens of possible partners around the world. The typical reaction is: ‘wow, too ambitious; if it happens we’d love to join in’.

Now, a couple of things have shifted since those conversations.

  • The science is telling us more bad news about climate change.
  • The Paris Agreement has committed the world to a more aggressive reductions trajectory.
  • The Trump Presidency threatens to suck momentum out of action across the world.

I sincerely believe that the Gigatonne Lab will be much more challenging to start than to run. Once we have a big enough fund then the struggle will be dealing will the applications from people wanting investment. No, getting to that momentum will be tougher.

So, the key question is: how can we get to that position? My answer is to make a simple first step:

  • A global investigation. We believe we could run a series of workshops in different parts of the world which would aim to get the ball rolling.
    • Test our key hypotheses:
      • There are solutions that are can be unblocked through the vehicle of the Gigatonne Lab.
      • There are sources of funding which want to accelerate decarbonisation (and take the wind out of Trump’s sails).
    • Identify the best 5 segments (sectors, regions or technologies) to the GTCO2e.
    • Create the starting database of possible solutions.
    • Identify team members and participating organisations who bring the required expertise and attitude.
    • Create excitement and anticipation.
    • Estimate the size of investment Fund and operating costs required.

How can you help?

There are several ways you can join in:

  • Funding. So, we need cash. Obviously. There are small and large versions of what global investigation could be. The first dollop can bring in the next.
  • Brand. Credibility attracts others. Your brand could help us bring in other partners or more money.
  • Expertise. Our expertise is in running innovation processes that have systemic effects – not cliamte change solutions. We will need partners and people who can help us choose the right 5 foci, and then discover, test and scale the best solutions.
  • Insight. You can help us improve by giving us feedback. You can show that it is not needed (rather than needed but difficult). Or you can have suggestions on how to go forward from here.

How would you benefit?

Well, the long-term benefit is reducing the risk of runaway, civilisation-undermining climate change. In the short-term how about:

  • Early access to the innovation pipeline. You would know about which solutions are ready (and which not) before others, giving you a possible first-mover advantage.
  • Proof of high-ambition climate action. Many companies have made bold promises but struggle to make the internal investments to fulfil those promises. Supporting the Gigatonne Lab would demonstrate that you are a leader on climate action.
  • Financial eturns on climate solutions. We anticipate the fund will be run to give investment returns. You could make money on this deal.


Personally, I know that the Gigatonne Lab is a risky venture. But what is the point of working on climate change if you are not going to take risk? And, realistically, will we be able to address climate change without a range of highly-ambitious, individually-risky efforts? This is one of my high-risk, high-return projects in my portfolio. It could never get started, but with incredibly interesting insights along the way.

Or, it could start – and be part of putting human civilisation on a sustainable footing. That’s worth a bit of risk. THat’s why I’m delighted to be an Affiliate of Zaid’s business, Roller Strategies, trying to make the Gigatonner Lab happen.

Help please! Pro-sustainability industrial strategy

The world needs to shift to a sustainable footing, and I think industrial strategy is one of the levers to pull. I need your help to run a series of events, publish a paper and make some recommendations to the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. What are the key design questions in formualting an industrial strategy for a sustainable society? What are the current best answers, in practice and in theory? Who knows about them, and how to engage them? What am I missing?

Below I give:
A. Background on why I’m looking at this topic
B. What I am doing
C. A draft framework to populate
D. How you can help

A. Background
A year ago, as I started my sabbatical, I started thinking about what a pro-sustainability innovation strategy would look like. It struck me then that it was a relatively unexplored lever for the shift to a sustainable footing. The reason was obvious: we’d spent decades convincing ourselves that businesses do innovation, and the best role for government was to get out of the way. A friend, James Shaw, asked me to pull something together for the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. He is co-leader and wants to have an economic policy which brings included an innovation policy for sustainability.

I did a bunch of reading, had first thoughts on diagnosis, direction and design of an industrial strategy. As I went further, I realised that writing an innovation policy means working through lots of other stuff: what sort of society are you trying to generate, how do you think the world works and so how do you try to shift it. My sabbatical went down into these, taking time from the specifics of industrial strategy. I went back to Forum, and my time and headspace was taken up.

But now I’ve left Forum and have the time and headspace to come back to it. In the meantime a rather surprising thing happened: the UK voted to leave the EU, and a new Prime Minister created a new department which has ‘industrial strategy’ in the title.

Whatever direction the UK government’s industrial strategy goes, the fact they will have one is a signal of change – one which I want to amplify. For one thing I need to fulfil my promise to James. For another, working through what makes a pro-sustainability industrial strategy will force me to connect my head-in-the-clouds ideas to feet-on-the-ground substance. There’s a chance to contribute to real change happening around the world.

But what do I mean by pro-sustainability industrial strategy? Well, its easy to get in a tangle, with this OECD publication spending 4 pages comparing and contrasting. For now, I’m going to tweak the one they get to in two ways. First, I’m not just thinking of governments, but also cities, companies, civil society organisations and more. Second, I’m making the sustainability component explicit. So, here’s my working definition:

Any type of intervention or policy that attempts to improve the business environment or to alter the structure of economic activity toward sectors, technologies or tasks that are expected to offer better prospects for economic growth or societal welfare than would occur in the absence of such intervention which contributes to putting the world on a sustainable footing.

B. What I’m doing
Obviously, I’m a generalist and there are many people who have been thinking and acting in this area for a while. The part I can play is bringing lots of great stuff together, and making it useable for James and others (without having to get paid – I’m a free resource on this!). I’m doing this as an Associate Fellow of the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) in Cambridge – which means I can access that network of academics and policy people.

What I’m planning to do:

  1. Have a draft framework of overarching design questions for formulating a pro-sustainability industrial  strategy and innovation policy. (DONE – see section C. below).
  2. Test and populate that framework (now-April):
    • Interviews with key thinkers and practitioners
    • Desk research
    • Events where people can give their answers to ‘What are the key design questions in formulating a pro-sustainability industrial strategy?’. CSaP has already agreed to run some for their practitioner network in London. I’m exploring having other events with other bodies to reach out to different stakeholders.
    • If I get time, figure out the technology, and if there is demand, I will try to have an electronic way people can populate the framework, wiki-like.
  3. Apply the resulting populated framework to diferent contexts, at least New Zealand but I hope others too (April-May).
  4.  Publish a paper for CSaP on the key design questions in formulating a pro-sustainability industrial strategy (May).
  5. Provide recommendations to James on New Zealand (May).

Simples! Well, not quite. I’d love your help  on who to interview, what to read, whether the framework is robust, what should populate it and who else might want to run an event populating or applying the framework (more specific requests in section D. below).

Also, more fundamentally, there are a bunch of leap-of-faith hypotheses (an idea taken from Eric Ries’ Lean Start Up – review forthcoming):

  • Governments have realized they need an industrial strategy.
  • They are willing to tilt that industrial strategy to sustainable outcomes.
  • There are forms of industrial strategy and innovation policy which can deliver on sustainability goals.
  • There is existing best practice and best thinking to draw together.
  • The people with that best practice or thinking are willing and able to share those with others.
  • It is possible to come up with New Zealand recommendations in London.
  • It is possible to write a generic tool which allows people to locate themselves in their ecosystem, and so come up with context-specific recommendations. And that a framework of ‘key design questions’ can fulfil that need.
  • Looking further ahead, to diffusion, there is a next wave of adoptees, in New Zealand or elsewhere, who would be willing to apply a framework.
  • There are institutions, places and events where the next wave of adoptees  come together to share latest best practice.
  • It is possible to bring the findings to these places.
  • I have the competence, connections and time to bring this all together.

As per Lean Start-up, I will be testing these hypothese as I go. I’ll also have regular ‘Perserve or Pivot?’ moments, to give myself licence to do better things, not just do things better.

C. A draft framework to populate
Below is my first stab at the overarching framework that needs to be populated. I’m seeing it as big questions (e.g. what does sustainability mean in this context?) underneath which there will be a number of sub questions (e.g. which of the Sustainable Development Goals are most applicable?).

Screenshot 2017-01-11 11.50.32.png

D. How you can help
As I say, I see myself as a generalist pulling things together. If it’s already been done – wonderful! I can get on with something else! Please point me in that direction. If it hasn’t been done, then I need help on content and process.


  • For you, what are the key design questions in formualting an industrial strategy for a sustainable society?
  • What are the current best answers, in practice and in theory?
  • How can I improve the framework to populate?


  • Who should I interview?
  • What should I read?
  • Who else might want to run an event populating or applying the framework?
  • How can I test and improve my leap-of-hypotheses?
  • How might I need tp pivot, to do better things not just do things better?

If you thoughts on these, or anything else, just stick them in the comments or contact me via twitter, email or other channels.

Thank you in advance!

Book review: Alex Evans’ The Myth Gap is brilliant, prompting big questions on how to transition to #sustainability

Alex Evans new book, The Myth Gap, argues that, to address the challenges of sustainability, we need to go beyond technicalities to the very stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s brilliant, urgent, timely. We definitely do need global constellation of myths of a larger us, a longer now and a different ‘good life’ which together shift our collective values base.

But missing for me was the waft and weave of the practice of acting on the ‘myth gap’. How can we learn from experiences of people who’ve already been trying? How else might we generate the stories we reach for to explain the transition we’re facing, especially without requiring a globally agreed assembly of myths or using stories which rely on deadening destinations? 

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around” Terry Pratchett, quoted approvingly in The Myth Gap.

For the last decade or so, anyone who wants a progressive but clear-sighted view on development and international relations could do worse than read Global Dashboard. One of its founders, Alex Evans, has been an active practitioner in development as a New Labour special advisor to DfID, in international policy setting with as a secondee into UN Secretary General’s office and an academic too. He also co-wrote the super, short think piece ‘Towards a Just and Sustainable Economy’ – one of the best summaries I’ve read.

So I was excited to learn he’d written a book. This review starts by outlining Evans’ arguments, the why, what and how of the myth gap – most of which I basically agree with. But I found that there were more areas to explore, which I cover in the final section.

“On one hand, we’re poised right on the cusp of a genuinely global us – with a global social media network, a global library of knowledge, a global economy, global  governance institutions, a global sense of who we are. On the other hand, we’re also on the verge of an unprecedented  disaster in which we allow climate change – or other areas… – where our technological know-how risks surpassing our ability to use technology wisely….And, while I’m basically optimistic, an extremely bleak outcome is obviously possible…The single factor that will do most to decide how we fare, as we face this test, may ultimately be which stories –  myths –  we reach for to explain the transition we’re facing.

Continue reading

Can addressing the productivity crisis address ‘limits to growth’?

Earlier this week I was at the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth. Its mere existence is a sign that the subject is no longer taboo. I left with worries – will it get lost in defining terms? how will it get credibility beyond the usual suspects? are we trapped? – and one big hope. There’s a tantalising prospect that solving the productivity puzzle might tickle the Treasury’s fancy, and require a shift to a sustainable soci-technological basis. 
Let’s start with Prof Tim Jackson’s very useful summary of where the limits to growth debate has got to, and then move on to the wider reflections.

Tim Jackson and Robin Webster had written a short report called Limits Revisited for the launch, which considered the limits to growth debate some 44 years after the original Club of Rome report. It has three ways that limits to growth is relevant to today.

1. Resource constraints. The original argument is that, as resources are used up, there is ever-extra effort to get hold of what you need, which has a lower quality anyway. You find yourself over-allocating productive resources to getting more resources, rather than into new or different resources. Economic collapse comes when you can no longer get at the quality resources you need at a level of effort you can sustain. The report talks of oil and minerals.

I’ve always found this an under-whelming argument, and still do. Fundamentally, yes, the Earth is not an infinite source. But this is the sort of threat that our current system should be able to respond to, though doubtless with much pain for incumbent companies and dependent countries. Past oil shocks have been because producers wanted to constrain supply deliberately or we were constrained by refining capacity, not running out of oil. Rising prices pushed people to use more efficiently (e.g. shift in car sizes), invest in expanding processing capacity, invent ways of extracting previously too-hard sources (e.g. shale gas), look elsewhere (e.g. the Arctic), or find substitutes (e.g. move to solar). The Simon-Ehrlich Wager shows we cope.

Also, thinking in terms of traction, this is a non-starter. Some people have been saying “we’ll run out of X material in Y years” for decades, and have a record of being wrong. The original Limits to Growth Report wasn’t guilty of that, and said these effects start in 50-100 years time. But I think this angle, for better or worse, is discredited.

2.Planetary boundaries.  We cannot treat the Earth as an infinite sink. We’ll run out of the ability to deal with pollution and waste before we run out of stuff to turn into pollution or waste. The key example is the greenhouse gas effect. We’re releasing more greenhouse gases than the climate can handle. Result: temperature rises and, potentially, runaway climate change.

For me, this is the scary one because there are no price signals until the impacts hit the economy, by which time it is too late. My memory of the 30 year update of the original Club of Rome report, has soil erosion as the key cause of collapse. The increase in food production uses the soil faster than it can regenerate, and pollution erodes it even further. This fundamentally reduces the scale and quality of food production possible, and so reduces the scale and complexity of global civilisation that is possible.

3. Secular stagnation. This did not feature in the original report, and has come to prominence from mainstream economics in the last few years. One part of this says that growth since the 1990s relied on borrowing, which popped so spectacularly in 2007. Another part says that in the past there were General Purpose Technologies (GPTs) like steam, electricity and internal combustion engine, which increased labour productivity and therefore growth. These have run their course and there are no new ones to replace them. That’s why labour productivity has been going downing the US and UK, why wages stagnated, why people had to borrow to increase their standard of living. The emerging technologies might even decouple economic activity from jobs, which then undermines a broad mass of people having wages with which to buy stuff. We may be going ‘post-growth’.

This where I think there is juice. I was at a Cabinet Office event last year on the Future of Productivity. The all-powerful Treasury is worried about where productivity is going to come from, are most Western governments. So, addressing this challenge at least stands a chance of being heard, while the other two just bounce off people’s cognitive frames (regardless of evidence that the planet is not an infinite source or sink).

There are two explanations in play. The lesser, but still useful, is that we’re measuring the wrong thing. GDP is calculated from the financial value of transactions in the formal economy. Famously it misses the informal (like childcare) or things that aren’t in prices, like environmental externalities. That hasn’t mattered too much to policy makers in the past.

But many emerging technologies have near-zero marginal cost, which means the financial value of formal transactions is basically nil even though they are helping people live their lives. Once you put up your solar panel, you don’t pay the sun for its rays. When you have fun on-line you pay very little (especially if you are the product, meaning the company is getting value from the data about you) compared to the off-line activity you would have been doing 20 years ago (think YouTube vs cinema trip). So, GDP is under-stating the welfare from new technologies.

Also, people pay a lot of attention to labour productivity, but almost none to resource productivity. In the past that might have made sense. Going forward, we have many people but not enough planet. So attention needs to shift.

Reforming GDP has been the least successful change effort in recent times. Everyone knows its at best partial, if not downright misleading. The standard sustainability-related arguments have had no impact. Perhaps the productivity crisis – which governments do care about – gives a chance to augment GDP.

The second – and much more important – explanation for the productivity crisis: it’s exactly what you would expect if we are the trough before new technologies are properly taken up. I have to thank the European Futures Observatory for this insight. An established order has grown around the established technologies, including physical infrastructure, skills and schooling, regulation and more. So moving from one GPT to another is painful. You have to dis-assemble lots of how stuff gets done economically and socially before then be able to reassemble around the new GPT. These cycles are known as Krondatiev waves and have been much studied by Carlotta Perez.

If this is true, then the way to solve the productivity crisis is by shifting to the new technologies, especially around digital and renewables. For instance, on energy we keep building a grid for a small number of large generators. That model has had several decades of learning effects; any improvements are incremental at best. We won’t get the full benefits of solar until we we build for a large number of small generators. Because it’s new, it has decades of improvements to come. But it requires incumbents shifting their production basis, or getting out of the way. Frankly, they find it easier to lobby government for the status quo.

That’s not to say digital revolution is a straight win. There’s lots of difficult questions – how to have worthwhile jobs to what does it do to our identities – which I’ve written about elsewhere. Given that its inevitable (try putting that genie back in the lamp) we need to answer those questions, and we need to surf it to a sustainable future.

So, there’s a tantalising prospect that solving the productivity puzzle might tickle the Treasury’s fancy, and require a shift to a sustainable socio-technological basis.

But there there are worries too.

Will it get lost in defining terms? Part of the evening was spent saying how people didn’t like the presentational effect of the term ‘de-growth’ but that some sort of reducing the scale of some sectors was necessary. I liked what Kate Raworth said: we need to move going for growth, with a side-effect of whether people thrive or not, to focusing on people thriving, whether or we’re growing or not. It’s important to find a framing that will speak to where people are starting from. I worry about the need of some (not, I think the secretariat of the APPG) for purity.

How will it get credibility beyond the usual suspects? There are lots of fixed positions on growth. To caricature only slightly: environmentalist say its always bad; economists say its always good. A lot of pro-sustainability folk saying that sustainability is important may be satisfying but it will have no effect. So, the APPG will need to reach beyond the usual suspects. Can it bring in the best and interesting business voices? What about influential commentators? The FT’s Martin Wolf was been important in broadcasting the Stern Review. In his new book about the recent financial crisis he says he “lacked the imagination to anticipate a meltdown of the Western financial system” and praises heterodox economists for getting it more right than the mainstream.

Are we trapped? The final worry is not about the APPG, but about our global situation. Through the debate two things became clear:

  1. There is no path forward which has growth as we’ve known it within planetary boundaries
  2. There is no path forward for the required de-growth within the politics we have.

Basically, we’re trapped into a civilisation-degrading pattern at a global scale which will take a massive crisis before we act with the urgency and scale required. That is frightening, and depressing, prospect.

The mere existence of Group is a sign that we’re realising we’re in this trap. The Group might be able to spread understanding and acceptance amongst a crucial audience: MPs and senior policy-makers. That is a very worthwhile thing to do. And there is so much more that we must be doing too.


Talk: How digital innovation will have a profound and disruptive effect on society and our environment

This is the text of the talk I gave at Forum for the Future regular energy drinks. My brief was to describe how digital innovation will have a profound and destructive effect on society and our environment in 10 minutes. It’s one part of my sabbatical effort to understand how we can surf the digital revolution. Here goes.

Let’s start with the bold claim. If we are on track for sustainable future in 10 years time it will be because we have figured out how to surf the digital revolution.

Behind this bold claim is the idea that digital technologies are a general-purpose technology. To quote McAffee and Brynjolfsson, they will do for mental power walk the steam engine did from muscle power. We can expect the impacts to be as profound. And the Industrial Revolution had some consequences! We moved from farms to factories, stagecoaches to locomotives, local time to timetables, villagers knowing each other to towns and cities of strangers. All this illustrates how social change and technological revolutions go hand in.

But it is still difficult to grasp what that means for us now. So, let’s imagine again my life in say 2020.

I wake early and my phone has registered disturbed sleep. It tells my yoga app and my health insurer. Over breakfast I reward my son who has had a good end of term report with Amazon’s points. He wants to spend them on the force re-re-awakens.

Citymapper tells me that my commute is disrupted so I don’t work in a local cafe. I paid in ‘Brocks’, the local currency in Brockley South East London that I earned from my solar surplus into the local electricity grid. I commute in on the Elizabeth line what used to be called crossrail.

My first meeting is assessing the work that has come back from researchers. We put a request out to our crowd, and people have sent back their findings. They get paid a little bit for effort but more if we like the insight and decide to use it. Just before lunch my phone tells me an old friend is now by and we have and impromptu get-together.

In the background lots of things happening that I don’t need to take any part in. My home concierge is turning devices on off to get the cheapest energy. Someone borrows our lawnmower and pays in ‘Brocks’. My digital assistant is dealing with my emails; I only see the ones that I’ve taught it I really need to see.

In the evening there are leaving drinks for some back-office staff. I taken either home driven by an unhappy former black cabbie.

All this illustrates a couple of points:

– My life will rely on digital
– People will be paid based on how well they work with robots (to quote Kevin Kelly)
– Individuals with more exposed and, paradoxically, have more power
– It will support an exhilarating energy revolution, Through local small groups and smart buildings
– There will be alternative models: the access economy; the sharing economy; the circular economy; the gig economy; the local economy.
– Life will be faster more automated and more bespoke

There are two great hopes of digital revolution:

– The productivity gains will mean we can meet all material needs.
– Because we can meet nonmaterial means in nonmaterial ways, we will need less stuff to have more fun and we can come back within planetary boundaries

But alongside those hopes come some big fears:

– How will people have worthwhile work?
– How will people get value from data about themselves?
– How will we address the ‘winner-takes-all’ dynamic that is driven faster by the ’network effect’ of digital technologies?
– What will be the institutions in a digitally-enabled world that are worthy of our trust?
– How will we evolve our selves to always-connected, ever-accelerating lives?

More fears can be devised and there is much we cannot know. We can know is the digital will have a profound effect on society and our environment – and so on our lives. Because networks are at it’s heart, digital technologies hold out the promise of us organising like a living system (which I think is crucial to a sustainable future – see here). If we can do that then we could have a society where people can choose how they live within planetary boundaries.

Getting this to happen will be tough. It will require us to come up with new institutions new regulations new values in fact a whole new political. But we must.

Because if we are on track for sustainable future in 10 years time it will be because we haven’t figured out how to surf the digital revolution.

Naive starting point on a political economy for a sustainable future

This is one of the foundations of my sabbatical. I have three months exploring how we can create systemic change in business for a sustainable future. This post gives my naively simple starting point on the political economy we need.

First a step back, why am I thinking about ‘political economy’ anyway? Well, after 13 years at Forum for the Future and 2 years as a Policy Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge, it is clear to me that we cannot rely on ‘business-as-usual’ to get to a sustainable future. There are patches of great effort and potential, but I don’t think they will scale with the urgency we need.

As much as I think business has a role to play, we cannot be dependent on charismatic CEOs and the usual suspects. We need to change the enabling conditions for business — and others — so that all are playing their part in creating a sustainable future.

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.

Over the coming 3 months I’ll be investigating what new political economies are emerging in the domains of climate change, innovation policy, the digital revolution, and the narrative for business.

But before I got too deep into that, I wanted to articulate what I thought so far. From several decades of reading and practice, what would I guess is the political economy we need?

So, what follows is my starting point for the rest of the sabbatical. I call it naively simple because I hope to start here, go through some mess, and then end up with something profoundly simple. So, the below is definitely ‘wrong’, but it still is the best summation I can pull together of what i think (and what i think others think) right now. The next few months will be about testing, sharpening and improving.

The political economy today.

One part of this has to be what I think is the political economy today. Now, there is lots of variation, but I think the there is s set of beliefs that have been dominant. According to David Harvey these have been critical in the US, the UK, China and elsewhere since the mid-70s. He — a Marxist — calls them ‘neoliberalism’. John Kay — an economist who is a commentator in the Financial Times and absolutely not a Marxist- critiques the American Business Model. But they are talking about pretty much the same thing, with these core beliefs (here following John Kay in The Truth about Markets):

  • Greed is overwhelmingly the most important reservation in economic affairs
  • You should impose as few restrictions and limitations as possible in the operation of markets
  • A successful business needs a minimal state
  • There is an overriding need for low taxation

The political economy we need for a sustainable future (naively simple version)

Below I put the simplest version I can in one place. I haven’t put all the references, you can see a bibliography at the bottom. I’ve chosen to structure it according to Donella Meadows ‘Leverage Points — places to intervene in a system’. I had thought that would make it easier, but playing around with it all today, I’m not so sure. Anyway, here goes

Simple table.001

Let’s unpack that just a little, shall we?

Paradigm — the mindset out of which everything else arises

  • People are complex and should be give the chance to flourish in their own way, without impairing others chance to flourish, now or in the future. Therefore, we should act so the following are true:
    • Ensure people have the capabilities they need to make their own choices.
    • All fundamental needs are met
    • Avoid concentrations of power that crowd-out chance for others to flourish
    • Have diverse ways of flourishing, to avoid being reliant on accumulation of material things for as everyone and anyone’s goal.
    • Economic growth as a means which allows more people to have more ways to flourish.
  • Complexity worldview: our world is systemic, path-dependent, sensitive to context, emergent and episodic. Therefore, we should act so the following are true:
    • A stoic attitude: seeing change and shocks as inevitable challenges to rise to.
    • Be long-term: our intentions, methods and outputs now will effect on flourishing of future generations
    • A systemic understanding: history and the pattern of relationships are better ways to understand what’s happening than looking at individual elements of the whole..
    • A proactive learning stance: long-term success more possible from failing fast and cheap, loving the insights that gives, and applying them to do things better, do better things and choose a new ‘better’.
  • We are part of the natural world (not separate to it), and we are dependent on it. Therefore, we should act so the following are true:
    • Model, and be inspired by, natural processes, whether on the ‘human-rest of nature’ interface or within the human sphere.
    • Interdependences and interconnections between individuals, their local context and the world Some call this empathy, or compassion or love.
    • Competition is only part. There are important limits to what can be achieved through competition or everyone trying to ‘win’.

Goal — the purpose of function of the system

  • Meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Self-organisation — the power to add, change or evolve system structure

  • Social technologies’ that have a track record that deserves of our trust. Therefore, we should act so the following are true:
    • SDG16. Institutions — Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
    • SDG17. Sustainability — Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
  • People who have the skills to act. Therefore, we should act so the following are true:
    • There are sufficient creative and critical thinkers
  • Organise for experimentation and change. Therefore, we should act so the following are true:
    • Look to learn and adapt as you go: 1. go slowly at first; 2. try things out; 3. collect results and welcome them either way; 4. act on the insights to do things better; do things better; choose a new better.
    • Allow for customisation so we can reach common goals in local circumstances
    • Build readiness in: create situations that benefit from shocks and variability.
    • Avoid collapse by preventing rigidity: open up new and different channels through which we can change incumbents and power structures
  • Apply evolution and other natural processes through markets and more. Therefore, we should act so the following are true:
    • Use markets where they can accelerate evolutionary progress (variation, selection and amplification)
    • Diversity of approaches: sometime better to start small, or have a portfolio of options,
    • Allow variability now rather than be overwhelmed by shocks later. Support risk-takers now (rather than be overwhelmed.
    • Requisite variety: Organise for functional redundancy not for efficiency
    • Circular economy: the waste from one process in the human sphere is food for another process (whether in the human sphere or in the rest of the natural world).


I know this is wrong. I know it needs to be better. There’s so much more in my head, but I can’t quite get it out right. And I’ll spend the next 3 months on this.

But I would be delighted to hear from you, if you have thoughts, ideas, improvements, disagreements, agreements or whatever. Just comment below and I will get back to you (unless you’re a troll, but you know what I mean).

Selected bibliography

Beinhocker — The Origin of Wealth
Boulton, Allen and Bowman — Embracing Complexity
Meadows, Randers, Meadows — Limits to Growth 30 year update
Porritt — The World We Made
Taleb — AntiFragile
Forum for the Future — Sustainable Economy Framework
Forum for the Future — EU Innovate scenarios and analysis (not published yet)

Note: this post has been updated to make it slightly (!) easier to read. None of the content has changed.