Category Archives: talks

‘In shocking times, sustainability needs to pivot.’ Closing remarks to edie 2017 Sustainability Leaders Forum

As chair of edie Sustainability Leaders Forum 2017, I could close the event with my key themes: 1. the context is shocking; 2. there are leaders making great strides; and, 3. even so the corporate sustainability field needs to pivot. This piece was first posted on edie.

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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.

“If I had £1m to spend on a more resilient economic system I would…”

A couple of weeks ago Friends Provident Foundation asked me to finish this sentence “If I had £1m to spend on a more resilient economic system I would…” in a filmed interview. That’s not out yet, so here’s the 10 ideas I gave them.

“If I had £1m to spend on a more resilient economic system I would…” do 2 sorts of things: (1) address shocks that we can anticipate, and (2) grow our ability to bounce back better from shocks we can’t predict.

(By the way, below are the 10 ideas, organised under those two headings. I try to preface each idea with a diagnosis (“Right now…”) to set up the rationale. The ideas are informed by The Community Resilience Lab and Global Dashboard’s Brookings paper “Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalization: Risk, Resilience and International Order”.)


Let’s start with the shocks we can anticipate.

There are price shocks: energy, raw materials, and food. For each of these there are more people, more prosperous in more places driving demand, while supply is constrained by the natural world and societal/industrial bottlenecks. What can we do?

Idea 1: invest in assembling s network of player who can address the financial barriers to investment for resilience in:
-clean, secure energy supply
-reducing energy demand through efficiency
-get more value from using less physical stuff by creating the infrastructure for a circular economy

Idea 2: scope out how to shift to a diet that is less exposed to price shocks and also healthier (probably – less meaty).

Another shock we can anticipate is extreme weather events. This is a big, big deal but I hope the recent floods mean that government will address this.


Now let’s look at growing our ability to bounce back better. Think of Detroit. Why did it struggle over the last few decades? Because of a lack of diversity. It relied on 3 big companies in only one industry. When the industry changed, the risk and resources for response were both too concentrated. Therefore, we need to distribute risk and the ability to respond more widely, in order to bounce back better.
Right now – complex challenges tend to go up to senior leaders because organisations are arranged in hierarchical silos. Therefore we need to create shared awareness of the need for resilience at a senior level.

Idea 3: a ‘Leaders for the Future’ course. Mix together top civil servants (especially from the Treasury) with business people and beyond. Help them push the ability to respond further down their organisation.
Right now – UK towns are at the whim of globalisation and the sheer economic density of London.

Idea 4: Pick a medium-sized town to pilot ‘being resilient’. Throw a lot of resources at it, as a pilot that you can learn from and then scale.
Right now – assembling the necessary coalitions for specific challenges is expensive and slow.

Idea 5: provide core funding for semi-permanent platforms that are ready for co-ordinated action when the need arises.
Right now – risk of failure is usually carried by the weakest member of a supply chain (e.g. the smallholder producers of tea, rather than the multinationals).

Idea 6: create financial products that distribute risk according to who benefits and has the resources to respond, not according to who can dictate terms.
Right now – investment professionals are blind to the systemic risk presented by climate change. Our pensions could be wiped out, unless we take action.

Idea 7: get behind the carbon bubble / divestment campaign.

Idea 8: invest in making climate change a consideration in the ‘macro-prudential’ analysis that financial regulators are now focussing on.
Right now – the UK does not have the requisite variety of industries. We’re too dependent on The City for economic growth and tax take,

Idea 9: get behind efforts to create more entrepreneurs, especially ones which are have ideas that could mean we have fun within environmental limits.

Idea 10: get behind efforts to grow the ability to adapt in the young and the less-skilled (and therefore, more exposed) worker.


Finally, it’s also worth bringing resilience into your investment decision.  In practice that means:
-create a portfolio that create medium-term options
-learn as you go, and kill what’s not working
-leverage in the resources of others


No idea if Friends Provident Foundation will take any of these ideas. We’ll see!

Talk: What do we mean by a sustainable future for a creative economy?

Earlier in May I was a panelist talking at a University of Art London event. I had five minutes for a pretty complex question – what do we mean by a sustainable future for a creative economy? – but I boiled it down to 5 points.

It’s in the text of the talk below. Enjoy!

Let’s talk definitions
(1) A sustainable future is one where people can meet their needs without compromising the ability of people in the future to meet their own needs. This is the Brundtland definition of sustainable development.

It is strange that we are threatening our own ability to enjoy the future. It’s a bit like society is an habitual smoker.

How would we know if we were in a sustainable future? If people could realise their potential because their essential needs are met and there are the social and political foundations they need – all within environmental limits.

This second version is important. It’s not about hairshirts and sandals. It is a liberal, market-based democracy position. I’m saying you can have fun, as long as you don’t harm others. I’ve put this in terms of Sen’s capabilities. Forum has turned this sort of thinking, with funding from the Technology Strategy Board, into the Horizons tool.

But how do we get there?
It can be easy to talk in terms of hard, technological solutions. But as a society we will need to be learning:

-open to the data of new experiences
-make sense of a complex world
-gain novel insight
-act on that insight
-and repeat

Therefore (2) getting to sustainable future is a creative act.

What I see in my day job
I work at Forum for the Future to help leading businesses go further, faster on sustainability.

Why are they acting? Because sustainability issues are shaping the context they operate in. Doing nothing represents real risks. Acting now opens exciting opportunities. It is in their long-term interest to act.

What are they doing? I see leading companies doing two things. First, shaping the context so we’re on the path to a sustainable future. Second, innovating to win along that path.

Now, NESTA defines the creative industries as ‘using creative talent for commercial opportunity’.

Therefore (3) there is a massive need and opportunity for the creative economy, in order to:

  • Make sense of complexity through art and culture
  • Shape expectations and desire through advertising and the media
  • Make it easy for individuals to act through design, architecture, and innovation

What does this mean for you?
Bad news: the need for sustainability is unavoidable over the coming decades. So, it is unavoidable in your careers.

Good news: (4) you can make a difference, whatever your role in the creative industries. There is a contribution you can make.

So, what do we mean by a sustainable future for a creative economy?

(1) A sustainable future is one where people can meet their needs without compromising the ability of people in the future to meet their own needs

(2) getting to sustainable future is a creative act.

(3) there is a massive need and opportunity for the creative economy

(4) you can make a difference, whatever your role in the creative industries. 

Which brings me to my final point. Past generations have had enormous challenges to overcome, fascism, communism and more.

So, (5) Building a sustainable future is the task of our generation.

It will be tough – and a great life’s work for us all.

Thank you.

Careers in sustainability: talk to students of Exeter College

At the start of December I gave a careers talk to students of my old college. When I tweeted about it Oxford Careers Service asked me if they could add to their list of occupation areas. Below are my reflections, what it means for occupation areas and then the talk itself. 

I’m glad I’m not looking for my first job.
When I spoke with the current students they were all worried and downcast. One said to me that he’s been rejected from every application he’s made so far – and so has everyone else he knows. Today’s economic stagnation is a massive contrast to the boom times when I left university in the mid-90s. “You’ve got a warm body and you went to Oxford – here have a job!” I exaggerate a little, but it was pretty easy to get one of the  standard milkround jobs of ABC (accounting, banking and consultancy) plus the civil service.

So, it makes complete sense for any of the current students to choose ‘any port in a storm’ – get some time working under their belt, building transferable skills and experiences. I don’t envy their position at all.

Sustainability and occupations: embedding in existing, creating new specialists, and ‘new’ generalists
I sit on the Sustainability Committee of the ICAEW, Europe’s largest accounting institute. It is taking years of persistence from the in-house team, but sustainability is getting into the core of the institute: the exams; the curricula; the post-qualification training; the communications to members; the rhetoric on what business is for; and so on. I know of similar attempts in advertising, engineering, law and management consulting.

There is a process of embedding into existing occupations which goes a little something like this. First some sustainability issues impinge on the existing domain of an occupation. Some pioneering individuals realise it is going to be important, but most don’t know that they don’t know about the issues. There’s a frustrating period where the pioneers are pushing ahead but no one else thinks it is important to follow. Then there are enough people with enough awareness of issues that are relevant enough. Suddenly, things begin to take off. (See the Six Steps of Significant Change for more on this process.)

My 4 years with sat on the sustainability committee of the ICAEW fits with this pattern (except, perhaps, the take off hasn’t quite happened yet!). Also, my experience of leading businesses is that sustainability is taken up / pushed to the people in the important functions around the company (marketing, operations, supply chain etc), and the central ‘sustainability’ function becomes a coordinator of change.

Different occupations are at different places. But pretty much all will need to embed the relevant bits of sustainability over the coming decade.

Then there are new specialisms popping up. These tend to be deep technical skills on a relatively new area – a solar PV engineer, a climate change policy wonk, or a sustainability behaviour change marketeer. (I’m told of one leading company that has a team of at least 10 of that latter specialism.)  We can expect more specialties within occupations to emerge.

Finally, there is my job (and my Forum colleagues). I have specialisms (qualified accountant, sustainability and business strategy). But the focus of my role is using those specialisms to create change for sustainability in the round. So, I’m expected to be on top of a massive range of issues and thinking, and help people understand how the latest developments affect them. This makes me a sustainability generalist. Perhaps Forum for the Future is a unique place, and there are few other roles in the world that require a sustainability generalists (which puts me in both a strong and weak position). I suspect there will always be a need for someone to join the dots on sustainability, even if that need is not always acknowledged or paid for.

The talk to students of Exeter College, Oxford.

Hello and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you! I’ve been asked to tell you  about the work I do and why it’s intellectually/personally/professionally satisfying, so you can avoid falling into the standard ABC of accounting, banking and consultancy. I’m particularly pleased to speak about this because I was involved in the first ever Alternative Careers Fair all the way back in 1996 [Note: can’t find any internet links!]. So, a topic close to my heart.

Let’s start with what I do today.
I work at Forum for the Future, a sustainable development charity that works in partnership with companies and government bodies to create a sustainable future. I believe that ‘sustainability’ issues are already huge and will become more important. We will spending the next decades creating a low-carbon world. Sustainability issues are driving the context in which all of us have to forge our careers. They will dominate your working lives.

My story goes a little like this.
I did a Masters in Physics at Exeter College but spent most of my time on what were then known as development and environment issues. I was part of Third World First (now called People and Planet) and of that first Alternative Careers Fair.

Then I had a bit of an alternative careers fail. I didn’t want to be a burden on my parents, and I wanted a solid professional qualification. So I became an accountant with  PricewaterhouseCoopers. My friends accused me of selling my soul; I said I had mortgaged it.

Not surprisingly I didn’t enjoy my time at PwC. I realised that, fundamentally, whoever does the accounts or audit should come up with the same answer. And that means training people to conform, and avoid too much critical thinking or creativity.

I needed a path out, so I did a Masters in Responsibility and Business Practice at the University of Bath. *So many people found the course to be life-changing – generating an invaluable set of skills and connections – that we wrote a book. The course has relocated under a slightly different name to Ashridge – see here).

In the last weeks of that course no fewer than eight people sent me a job advert to be a green accountant at Forum for the Future. I applied and go it. In the last 8 years I have had a new role in Forum every two years – sustainability accountant, Head of Business Strategies and now Deputy Director.

What do I find satisfying.
One quote from someone I worked with PepsiCo can explain:

“I could not be more thrilled with our experience with Forum. It was the first time at PepsiCo that we have taken such a formalized and rigorous long-term view of our business risks and opportunities.

Forum helped us see what we knew in our heart…that the magnitude of the global crises we face cannot be solved in the short-term. Similarly, companies that will be successful in 20 years are those who recognize and respect the long term trends, and who are nimble enough to address them.

The design and activation of Forum’s process is, in a word, comprehensive. They leave no stone unturned during their expert interviews, desk research, and field validation. We now think strategically, LONG term, thanks to Forum.”

I’m satisfied by: making a difference; contributing the sum of human knowledge; and breaking new ground in a vital area.

What does it mean for you?

  1. You can mortgage your soul (that is, it is possible to use corporates for training and credibility) but you need to be careful you don’t get sucked in, with ever-narrowing horizon and dependent on the salary.
  2. Follow your passion, with an eye to what your future self might want.
  3. Sustainability is an immature field, so there is no established career path yet. This is both a blessing and a curse – you can forge something new but the onus is on you to make that new path. There is greater professionalism on the way, with specialisms and associated qualifications.
  4. Everyone has a choice about whether to go deep and specialise or go wide as a connector and intellectual omnivore. Your choice will depend on your skills and personality.
  5. Internships are common routes for credibility.
  6. the normal rules of job hunting and career development apply.
    1. what are you good at and what value is that to anyone else?
    2. what weakness do you need to make sure you get to a minimum level?
    3. how does your next step build the options you want?

Finally… There has always been something to be done. In the last century people fought fascism, rebuilt Western Europe  and saw off communism. Building a sustainable word is the task of our generation. It will be tough, but it will also be a great life’s work for us all. Thank you.

Jeremy Rifkin and the problem with grand narratives

Last Forum co-hosted Jeremy Rifkin as he launched his new book, The Third Industrial Revolution, in the UK. Rifkin paints a grand narrative of human history, with the next phase a revolution to a distribute energy system run like the internet. Much of the content was intriguing, but the overall effect wasn’t strangely dis-empowering. I left realising that I didn’t have a credible way to use his insights because they were too certain.

A few months ago the grapevine said that a truly startling book was on its way. Jeremy Rifkin had finished the Third Industrial Revolution. It proposes that each industrial revolution is a coming together of new energy and new communications technologies, which replace the old order with new economic activity – plus evokes a new, expanded consciousness. The first industrial revolution in the 19th century was steam plus printing (and heightened literacy) for mass production; in the 20th century electricity plus the telephone and television produced mass consumption. Now renewable energy sources and the digital technologies were already combining to produce an ‘energy internet’. This revolution is changing the nature of power,  in his words from ‘vertical’ to ‘lateral’. The greater connectivity will change people’s sense of empathy to create a biosphere-wide consciousness (building on his previous book The Empathic Civilisation). An intriguing grand narrative; I wondered what was in the detail.

Through Forum I got galley copies of the book and tried to read it. Now I like big themed-books; my shelves groan with their weight. But I confess I struggled to get through the foreword of this one. He claimed two things that just made me put the book down: the EU is making lightning fast progress on the Third Industrial Revolution; and it was doing so because he was advising so many leaders. The first claim just didn’t match my experience. If second is true, how come I hadn’t come across this jargon or Rifkin more? Why haven’t I heard about it from newspapers, journals and lots of other people?

So, I went into the lecture at UCL with questions about Rifkin’s credibility as a change agent. His lecture almost overcame those questions. He gave a number of cities which are putting in place the 5 pillars he says are necessary to catalyse the Third Industrial Revolution:

  1. Shifting to renewable energy (‘generate’)
  2. Converting all buildings into power plants (‘collect’)
  3. Hydrogen and other energy storage technology (‘store’)
  4. Smart Grid Technology (‘the nervous system’)
  5. Plug-in, electric, hybrid, and fuel cell-based transportation (‘convert’)

There’s much to like in these pillars: they feel rounded and feed-off each other. Rifkin claimed that when they happened together there would be a continent-wide roll-out “like WiFi”. It is, he said, a practical plan. There are questions about the details of each – all buildings? really? – but Paul Ekins had the bigger questions. Do all 5 pillars need to happen at once? Rifkin: yes. But Rifkin didn’t have the missing link: what is the plan to make the 5 pillars happen?

Rifkin himself says that the revolution will challenge the status quo. From personal experience, I would say that today’s energy companies can only really think in terms of a huge power station pushing power out at lots of users; they cannot get their heads (or assets or skills) around a distributed energy system. They will resist the 5 pillars a great deal. Without a plan to get the 5 pillars to happen, it is difficult to claim the Third Industrial Revolution is practical. Put it another way, it is like NASA saying their practical Mars plan starts with “When we get to Mars we will…”.  But, how did you get to Mars?

A number of people asked variants of ‘how to do create all the pillars simultaneousness?’ from the floor. His answers were reiterated (or rather, repeated and repeated) the grand narrative that leads to the Third Industrial Revolution. Lots of intriguing insights into the history of civilisation. Just no useful hand holds for a change agent scaling the cliff-face. I didn’t hear no strong tactical or strategic pointers on how to deal with the incumbent energy companies. Do we try to bring them into the new system? Ignore them? Appeal to their emerging global consciousness? Legislate against them?

Rifkin’s answers the second type of question – ‘what about x counter-trend?’ – were also revealing. The examples were sort of squashed under the steam-roller of the inevitability of our changing consciousness.

Now, there is no doubting that we in the UK have a much broader sense of who we care for today than 60-odd years ago. Chamberlain could come back from Munich in 1938 and say that Czechoslovakia was a small country, far away. For a host of reasons – cheap long-distance communications being one – we didn’t treat Sri Lanka or other Asian countries like that when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit in 2004. But anyone who glances through the Daily Mail knows there is a strong current in our culture of saying we should empathise only with those like us, nearby.

Also, the new energy-communications nexus is having paradoxical effects on power. Knowledge is widely distributed, but we are using centralised ‘gates’ like Google and Facebook. As the internet goes into The Cloud, it is simultaneously spreading access to information and narrowing control of the infrastructure. And so on. The broad brush stroke of an emerging global consciousness is like saying Americans are more can-do than the English. There’s a grain of truth but it doesn’t really help you very much day-to-day.

Ultimately, I found that Rifkin’s certainty in his own grand narrative was too much. Let’s imagine he had presented the success in those cities as experiments that proved a distributed energy system was feasible at the city-level and, gosh darn-it, maybe beyond. let’s go find out. Well, I could have responded to that, seen my role in that, had something to contribute to that (through my actions and even adding to the thinking on how to make it happen). But he didn’t do present in that way . Instead he implied the Third Industrial Revolution was inevitable – so why do I need to do anything? – and the only way of understanding all of history.

I hope that something akin to the Third Industrial Revolution happens. If it happens, perhaps Rifkin will be credited. But I suspect such a change will happen because many different people do many things. On Tuesday (and in the book) Rifkin had the chance to help those people understand their role in a Third Industrial Revolution, and feel part of a movement. His certainty in his own ideas gave me no way to be involved, and grated against my experiences.

Ironically, given his enthusiasm for lateral power and the prominence he gives to empathy, I felt dis-empowered by his top-down style. An opportunity missed.