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Leaving Forum, Starting Something(s)

After thirteen wonderful years, I’ll be leaving Forum for the Future at the end of Oct. I’ll be exploring ways to advising, initiating and/or leading institutional interventions that accelerate the evolution of our global society toward a sustainable footing. But what on Earth does that mean?

Leaving Forum…
Monday 31 October will be my last day as an employee of Forum for the Future. I joined in March 2003, so that’s 13 and a half years.

A lot has happened across that time. The second Iraq war was about to start. The iPhone was still 4 years away. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan still thought that self-interest would make any financial crash impossible. Lord Stern showed action on climate change was economically a good idea. The field went from ‘just’ CSR to a growing understanding that sustainability is crucial to successful business – still observed more in the talk than the walk, alas. Forum went global, and pivoted from individual partnerships to shifting systems through collaboration and more.

Professionally, I went from green accountant to Director of Sustainable Business. I’ve worked with Boards all around the  world come up with ways they can be more successful by creating a more sustainable future, through their strategy and business model innovation, in sectors from retail to energy, hotels to telecoms. As a senior executive I’ve managed people, formed teams, co-created strategy, co-ran operations – feeling the burden and possibilities of leadership. Personally, I got married, had kids, became a home owner, lost both my parents, and grown a beard.

It’s been a privilege to do that in Forum. Forum has played – and, will continue to play – a vital role in my life and career. The mission has shaped my purpose, the experiences have grown my abilities and the people have inspired me for over decade. My sense of who I am, how I am to live and what I am trying to do – all this and more come from my time at Forum.

…starting something(s) new.
Over the last two years I’ve been a Policy Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) in the University of Cambridge. I started by asking ‘what is the role of business in the transition to a global sustainable economy?’. It gave me the chance to explore lots of different thinking, and reflect on my own experiences. I started realising that voluntary action by charismatic CEOs was not going to be enough.

My thoughts turned to ‘how can we generate the political economy we need (so that businesses and others have to be active in the transition)?’ Then earlier this year I did a three month sabbatical, exploring some different different ways to answer that question.

So, my personal theory of change has been iterating fast – and subtly moving away from Forum’s work. Forum is focussing on important issues that are becoming ready for action. I was getting more and more interested in trying to shift the wider landscape in which those specific issues exist.

I realised I was being drawn to something a bit different: advising, initiating and/or leading institutional interventions that accelerate the evolution of our global society toward a sustainable footing. Now that needs some unpacking! Here goes.

My purpose*. Part of a generation that puts global society on a sustainable footing, based on a ‘living system’ paradigm-in-action.

  • People have capabilities they need to choose how they want to thrive.
  • Social and planetary systems no longer over-whelmed.

My role*. Be part of the ‘innovation function’ we need to accelerate the evolution of how society is organised, meaning:

  • The interplay of economics, law, politics and more that set the operating context for activities, both formally economic and beyond, of individuals and organisations.
  • The dominant beliefs which are expressed in that interplay.

What’s next*. Make strategic contributions to institutional intervention(s) that accelerate that evolution by testing ways to put a ‘living system’ paradigm into practice.

By ‘institutional intervention’, I mean an organisation that is a systemic effort to evolve towards living systems-in-practice. It could be single issue or wide-ranging, large or small, existing or new. The key thing is that it is testing and demonstrating a way of being that is deeply rooted in a living system paradigm, and so, if successful, opens up a path to a sustainable footing.

And my ‘strategic contribution’ could be advising as a consultant, initiating as an entrepreneur or leading as a senior executive.

*=my current understanding, which I’m sure will evolve with experiences.


Now, I had a number of possibilities in this direction. These were increasingly difficult to develop while I was a Director in Forum. I had some days in Findhorn Foundation, which gave me a chance to do some ‘inner work’ on my own purpose and mindset. And then abit of money came in after my dad’s death. I realised I’ve had 2 jobs in 17 years. Now is the chance to try out some different stuff, at least for a while.

I’ve developed a ‘bushy strategy tree’ – Beinhocker’s phrase for having a variety of live options. In effect, I’m starting off as a freelancer with a number of different sorts of leads, some to stay as a freelancer, some to scale up a particular advisory organisation, some that are specific interventions in specific systems. (I’ll be writing more about each very soon.) The ones which fly, fly. In 6 months time I may be full-time on one thing, or still have a portfolio.

So, I’m becoming an Affiliate Director at Forum, providing my expertise and insight where they need it. I’m becoming an Associate Fellow at CSaP. And I’m diving into the ‘institutional interventions’ that I’d only be dipping my toe into so far.

If you have an idea, an existing organisation or a project that you think fits the bill, get in touch. I can afford to do a few days work for free – as long as it is a really great idea!

I’m sure I will make many mistakes along thew way. But I will be learning to a social entrepreneur / systemic change agent / insert better name here. I will be testing my emerging theory of change, live in the world. I intend to play my part in the generation that puts global society on a sustainable footing.

Wish me luck!


We should all embrace ‘Embracing Complexity’

Occasionally you come across a book which says all that you wanted to, only better, and with more proof and analysis than you could hope to assemble yourself. Well, Embracing Complexity is that book for me. It brilliantly describes the technical background to complexity, then argues forcefully that we should adopt a complexity worldview. In this review I’ll summarise the writers’ key points, and pull out some implications of what I currently think of as a modern masterpiece.




Twenty years ago I was studying to be a physicist. I soon realised I didn’t have the deep maths to do anything valuable in the field, and so I moved on. Back then I had read about complexity. James Gleick’s book on Chaos had popularised many elements. Once I joined Forum I and a few colleague tried to bring complexity thinking into our work, but without great success. We knew we wanted to get beyond a mechanical approach to change but it wasn’t clear what complexity was, especially when compared to systems thinking, nor how to put the principles into action.

Enter Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence by Jean G. Boulton, Peter M. Allen, Cliff Bowman. As it happens, I know one of the authors, Jean, and was at the book launch back in September 2015. But when I read the book it really resonated with my past reading and current experiences of trying to create profound change. The effectively has a series of big claims, and then applies those claims to the domains of management, strategy, economics and, politics.

Let’s start with the big claims. The first, and the foundation stone for the rest of their thesis, is that we can treat complexity as a worldview, one which “sees the world as essentially interconnected, and rich with forms and patterns that have been shaped by history and context…[it] reminds us of the limits of certainty, it emphasises that things are in a constant process of ‘becoming’ and that there is potential for startlingly new futures where what emerges can be unexpected and astonishing”.

The primary contrast, of course, is with the mechanistic worldview we have inherited from Newton, that the world is just a clock that will predictably tick round. The other contrast is with a worldview inherited from a later physics, that of thermodynamics. Thermodynamics says the best way to understand a liquid or a gas is by treating the very large number of molecules as independent agents. Predicting an individual agent is hard, but the sheer statistics of their bouncing off each other like billiards balls, mean you can predict how the gas or liquid will move towards equilibrium. (In this sense, thermodynamics is Newton plus statistics, and is a subset of mechanistic worldview.) Beinhocker shows in The Origin of Wealth it is thermodynamics that inspired the orthodox economics that we know.

What do the authors mean by a complexity worldview? In a nutshell, they are saying the world is:

  • Systemic: the world cannot be understood through taking apart he bits and understanding them separately. Factors work together synergistically, that is, the whole is different from the sum of the parts. We live as part of patterns of relationships.
  • Path-dependent: history matters and the sequence of events is a key factor in giving shape to the future.
  • Sensitive to context: one size does not fit all, and the way change happens and the way the future emerges is dependent on the detail and particular events and patterns of relationships and particular features in the local situation. By generalising, we risk throwing out the very information that sheds light on why things happen and what might happen next.
  • Emergent, uncertain, but not random: although the future does not follow smoothly from the past, neither is what happens random. The world is neither chaotic not predictable but somewhere in between.
  • Episodic: things are becoming, developing, and changing but change happens in fits and starts. The intriguing thing about the world is that on the surface patterns of relationships and structures can seem almost stable for long periods of time, although micro-changes may be going on under the surface. And then radical change can happen suddenly and new patterns of relationships can self-organise and some completely new features that could not have been predicted may emerge.”


Individually and collectively, these aspects are strongly at odds with the mechanistic worldview, where the whole is the sum of the parts, where there is no past contained in a situation, just the current dynamics, where the same starting point should merely wind forward again and again. The authors claim that their complexity worldview is many ancients had already intuited and what Darwin recovered when he wrote about evolution. Their main descriptions of complexity rely more on ecology than on physics, perhaps because the maths is just too hard to translate into English.

Here is their central tenet of complexity theory:

“it is in the detail and variation, coupled with interconnection, that provide the fuel for innovation, evolution, change, and learning.”

Any proposed worldview has to do a few things. First, how is it different and bette, than others? As well as the contrast to the mechanistic worldview, the authors contrast with systems thinking:

“systems thinking deals with stable patterns and history deals with the particularity of events, conditions and individuals – but complexity thinking marries the two and provides us with a sophisticated and unique theory of change.”

Which leads to the key weakness of systems thinking: “simple systems analysis are helpful in describing stability, they tells little about change – what may cause it, and what may emerge as a result”.

The other thing a worldview must do – especially one that claims to ‘include and transcend’ the previous ones – is explain how the others can give useful explanations. If the mechanistic worldview is built from the wrong foundations, why hasn’t it simply fallen over? Why can it be useful? Here is their answer:

“When things are very stable over a long time, the macro-characteristics of complex systems tend towards behaviour that looks machine-like and predictable”


Why does this matter for sustainability? Well, if you take the mechanistic worldview then we can solve the sustainability question one issue at a time. You don’t need to look for a deep layering of causes behind, say, climate change. And the way to solve problems is simple. You just reduce your emissions and move on to the next problem. Any attempt at change which has a list of things to do, in order, that can be written in advance and then never changed is subscribing to this worldview (though they may not know it). In a mechanistic worldview holistic is so much horseshit.

But people know intuitively that “sustainability is a property of a web of relationships means that in order to understand it properly we need to shift our focus to the whole, and learn to how to think in terms of relationships, in terms of interconnections, patterns and context” (Boulton et al quoting Evitts, S., Seale, B., Skybrook, D. (2010)). Developing an Interconnected Worldview: A. Guiding Process for Learning). That cannot be done within a mechanistic worldview. It needs something more.

What Boulton et al is that something more, the worldview through which we can address the sustainability crisis of our times.


The complexity worldview gives us two new lenses onto change.

First, it allows us to understand change as a cycle of an ecology. Let’s imagine there is an absence of order. From this period of chaos there is self-organisation, patterns of relationships between the different parts that emerge and sustain. These parts and their relationships start to co-evolve, that is changes in one induce in and are the response to changes in another. Over time the web of web of relationships becomes mutually sustaining. This is a period of self-regulation where incremental differences lead to incremental changes. Without further external shocks this moves to lock-in, as the  relationships become tighter, more rigid, more efficient. But they are so finely tuned that a shock from outside the immediate system leads to collapse. And we start again.

This cycle is familiar to anyone in an organisation as it starts, finds its niche, grows, standardises, becomes more rigid and then struggles to change until too late. The move to self-regulation is ‘needed’ for efficiency but contains the seeds of the organisation’s failure. My point of view on why there are so many business books on leadership and change is because lots of people find themselves in charge in that ‘self-regulation’ or lock-in phase. They are trying to do something about it, but it is hard, because the organisation is defined now by the self-sustaining, self-reinforcing relationships – by what made it successful until now. It’s why we shouldn’t expect the current incumbents to be the source of fundamental change.

Embracing Complexity says that the lock-in is not inevitable, it happens when the framing context is stable, and so no push to keep self-organising. The suggestion is to keep in changing more than the context might otherwise need you to, so you don’t become fixed. There’s an interesting parallel here with Taleb’s notion of AntiFragile, where things get better when stressed. His point of view is that change and shocks are inevitable, and so better to design situations to benefit from that, rather than merely recover (his take on resilience). Needless to say, any senior manager will tell you how much attention and sheer willpower is required to avoid useful ways of getting things done from becoming standardised routines of thought and deed.

The authors are keen to address one pervasive mis-understanding: self-organising “does not necessarily imply that the situation [is] just left to itself”. Self-organisation occurs when there are top-down intentions, as well as bottom-up activity. As such, enabling self-organisation is not just a case of senior managers or government getting out of the way.

Second there is describing change. This is a bit technical, but very much worth it. There are some definitions that we need:

  • “State space – a representation of the information in a situation or system through looking at the set of its constituent dimensions or variables rather than representing it in time and space. Contains a map of attractor basins and areas where there are less definite features.”
  • “Attractor basins (or attractors) – Stable configurations of interacting variables which show what combinations of factors mutually reinforce each other.”

These two terms help us unpack three types of change (examples are mine, which means they might be wrong): within attractor basins, between existing ones and evolution of new ones.

  1. “Unfolding change” staying in the same attractor basin. Through the 90s Tescos simply beat Sainsburys in being an out-of town supermarket, with a mix of brands, a mix of price points and a great variety of choice.
  2. “Self-organisation – in to a new attractor basin. giving different configuration of relationships but no new dimensions.” Lidl and Aldi have a different formula compared to the existing grocers: low cost, all own-brand, less variety.
  3. “Evolution (or emergence) – the process of variation, self-organisation and selection that leads to emergence of new qualities and types.” On-line retailing is a massive disturbance, adding new factors to include in what makes you successful (i.e. new dimensions in state space), which means that new configurations of mutually reinforcing factors (i.e. new attractor basins) are there to find. These new attractor basins will also affect the supply chains and the customers, who will all co-evolve as the basins do.

Another way in to this (again, my example) would be Brian Eno. In the early 70s he started treating the studio as a musical instrument, not just a passive way of recording other instruments. This change the number of dimensions in the state space: different sounds were available, as were different compositional structures and very different results. I’m listening to one of those results as I type, Music for Airports. This is widely credited with forming a new genre – ambient. In the terms above, in the new, enlarged state space there are new configurations that work – new attractor basins. He found one of those with this album, and then others followed, further developing (i.e. self-organising) the genre.


What are the implications?

The authors have a list of principles for how project mangers should behave, given this worldview. But I think it could apply to anyone:

  • Aspire
    • Take a wide, systemic view of emerging trends
    • Articulate long-term goals and intentions and use these to prioritise actions, and determine which opportunities to seize
    • Judge whether to persist when there is little evidence of change
  • Anticipate
    • Think a few steps ahead during implementation. What might be the consequences of actions…or events in the wider context?
    • Thank through where critical junctures / possible tipping points might occur
    • Scan for changes in the context
  • Adapt
    • Adapt to unexpected events and unintended outcomes as they happen
    • Seize opportunities, making choices in line with the long-term goals
    • Plan activities and projects but review progress regularly, take note of changing circumstances and modify if necessary
  • Customise
    • Take account of contextual and historical factors in developing plans and programmes. Do not expect there to be a universally applicable best approach
    • Experiement – plito approaches, learn from what works.


When it comes to organisational strategy, the fundamental insight is to remain ambidextrous: “An organisation needs both to be effective in competing in today’s market with today’s economic and social and political conditions, but also to have the ability to make judgements about the future in order to be able to adapt to any changes as well as to, in some cases, catalyse change.”

But attending to both today and tomorrow is tough. Their conclusion is the importance of constantly testing how dynamic your contest tis. If it is stable, then you can bias toward effectiveness (mostly today, and a little of considering tomorrow). If it is fluctuating, then develop a core competence of entrepreneurialism, anticipating future trends and tastes. If unstable then build for emergence.

For all these, it is crucial to keep experimenting, seizing opportunities, learning and adapting to circumstances — it’s just a question of degree.

The implications for economics get the most hefty treatment from the authors. Neoclassical thinking is attacked for requiring an equilibrium which will never come, for seeing futures as independent of the past, of relying on a super-rational decision-maker (Homo Economics) that is a dangerous fiction, and for separating economics from society, and growth from development.

They stress two things that come from ecology. First, that in nature there is both competition and collaboration:

“Ecological competition is a common feature of the bio-economic relax, but so also is inter-dependency, cooperation, symbiosis and division of labour. Moreover, competition is not the fundamental ‘organising principle’ in the economy of nature, as many theorists have asserted. The touchstone is the problem of earning a living an reproducing – adaptation – and both competition and cooperation are subsidiary phenomena. The are contingent ‘survival strategies’.”

Second, that evolution is “about the survival of the fittest ecology rather than the survival of the fittest individual. The evolutionary process becomes ‘variation—self-organisation—selection’, rather than ‘variation—selection’.”

This has big implication for innovation. We should not look to individual companies for innovation. Instead, innovations come from the competition between, and collaboration within, whole ecosystems of organisations. These innovations are driven by the factors pushing on an ecosystem, whether that is competition from another or an incentive from a customer or a regulation from government or more. Innovation is not manna from heaven, or the result of one lone genius. I’ll be returning to this when I write about Grubb’s Planetary Economics, and when thinking about a pro-sustainability innovation policy.

It also has big implications for competition policy. “One thing Smith seems to have concluded is that this process [of self-organising] works best when the players in the system are of similar size, where there is equal power and diversity of choice, and potential for interconnectivity.” When that is not the case, then we move into a situation where the big can use their dominance to get bigger. If business leaders are told that the purpose of private enterprise is to make profit, then they will use their dominance to remove risk, “to simplify their markets and make suppliers and supply chains and even consumers act in the way that suit them. Indeed, an unregulated market…tends to allow ‘lock-in’ – the big get bigger, and the dominant more dominant.such dominance can ‘win’ in the short-term or even in the medium-term, such organisations are less able to adapt to changing circumstances. They be more efficient but they are less resilient”.

Hence the need for all those books on change, leadership and innovation. Hence, also the case for an active government: “Regulation is needed to counter the tendency for the big to get bigger, the powerful to get more powerful, the risks taken to get more risky, and economic forces to win over concerns for equality and sustainability.”


What does all this mean for growing the political economy we need for a sustainable future?

There’s a lot to unpack and explore. Some things that come to mind now, and doubtless will develop and change:

  • I’ll try to use ‘state space’ to describe the possible ways of 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 is, the political economies).
  • The complexity worldview provides a theoretical basis to my experience and intuition that the mechanistic worldview is part of the problem, and needs to be replaced with something that allows for humans acting as part of nature, not separate.
  • We need to organise ourselves for evolution, to create a variety of ecologies that can self-organise, then select on the basis of ‘fit’ and then develop further. It all points to the  importance of learning from experiences, plus using and developing what is there already. We need to accept there is no single, perfect answer but there are always unintended consequences.
  • That will require removing the existing lock-in – which crowds-out the evolution in the short-term but makes the chance of collapse higher in the medium-term.
  • Part of the existing lock-in is an inner dynamic of ‘big get bigger’ (what in system archetypes is called Success to the successful). The implication is a need for all players to have relatively similar power, rather than a small number who win big.
  • One of the dimensions in state space for us to play with is the type of actor that is important in a political economy. Political economy has traditionally considered actors of nation-states and individuals 9then, depending on your flavour, perhaps class). My thinking has been that we’re seeing the emergence of a different sort of political economy, made up of collaborations between non-state actors. Don Tapscott calls these Global Solution Networks, and claims these are new multi-stakeholder models for global cooperation, problem solving and governance. In the language of Embracing Complexity these are ecologies that are evolving, and which then frame the behaviour and incentives for businesses, other organisations and people.  They may be the vehicle to promoting well-intentioned send-organisation, and fulfil the author’s call-to-arms: “We have a responsibility for ‘seeding the system with good ingredients’, for shaping intention, for surfacing values, and for spotting where the powerful are ‘winning’ at the expense of the less powerful — and by so doing locking-in resources and locking-out competition”.
  • We’ll have to address the profit motive. I’ve had a belief up until now that what matters is outcomes, not motives. So, if someone made the pro-sustainability investment for commercial reasons or ethical reasons, what matters is they made the investment. Embracing Complexity says that’s not good enough. Jean in particular (in conversation with me) has said that the end can never justify the means as it is the means that are added to the system and we may never reach the end. Putting that into practice means, I think, accepting the starting motive someone has as inevitable, but trying to change that motive – and the beliefs underlying it – over time.


I’m sure that list will be longer by the time I finish my sabbatical! There are also two ironies I’m aware of. The first is one core message of Embracing Complexity is to avoid universal claims, while using a complexity as a worldview is to have a universal claim. The other is that the authors warn “we should not assume that the patterns that emerge at a one scale will necessarily be repeated at a larger scale”. Just because science can ‘prove’ the natural world is best understood through complexity, doesn’t mean that automatically it is the best way to understand the human world.

The authors do address this head on in one chapter, and draw the conclusion that although humans are not molecules, the extra features we bring (like intention) can be brought into a complexity worldview. Of course, when considering beliefs it is impossible to stand back and make an objective appraisal. What are you now standing on, from which you compare mechanistic vs complexity worldview? There complexity one has a couple of things in its favour. One is that it can explain why the mechanistic worldview works where it works, and also why it doesn’t in other circumstances. The other is that a ’experiment-and-learn’ approach at complexity worldview’ core means it is not fixed, but constantly being tested and refined. Therefore, it contains within it an inner dynamic to adapt with experience, not passively stay the same.

As such, I want to experiment with it for now. Over the coming weeks I’ll be applying it directly to questions of bending the curve on climate change, a pro-sustainability innovation policy, an enabling narrative for business, the digital revolution – and how we can grow the political economy we need for a sustainable future. It’s going to be fun!

Big Bang Data: frightening but familiar

Today I went round the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House. It raises really important questions – many with frightening implications – but I left without many new insights.


At the start of the Big Bang Data exhibition in Somerset House, you are warned that by buying a ticket you are giving permission for video and photos of your visit to be used. It’s in quite big type, in the ticket foyer. I imagine – but don’t know for sure – most other public events have similar conditions, but tucked away. Here, though there is a stinger in the tail, one you only realise right at the end.

Mostly we don’t read the terms and conditions of using the internet, whether that’s our phone we browse with, or the website we sign up to, or the app we download. Alex Hern, a technology reporter at The Guardian did, and it made him want to die.

The exhibition shows just how much data we all produce, and how many different uses it can have, how many different ways it can be represented, and how much power accrues to those who can access and make sense of it, how much threat we are under from Big Brother gathering our Big Data.

If that sounds familiar, then it is. Anyone who has been working on the consequences of the digital revolution has had to start thinking about these things. For instance, that we talk about the internet as if it is all information, but it is anchored in the real world through cables, and ugly server buildings and energy use. (For me this echoes Cartesian Dualism, that somehow mind and body are separate. This belief is deep in the Western psyche, and, for some sustainability thinkers, the key to our separation from nature and so why we treat it so badly.)

Also, that there are issues of privacy. One artist has matched hacked photos with hacked music, to give a public slideshow where no permissions were possible. Another has turned all the sexual encounters he had with his wife into a infographic that looks very tasteful until you read the key.

There are moments of beauty, like the globes in the my photo above. Each of these is a different infographic, bewitching and somehow drawing you forward to touch them. There is a staff member there just to stop you spinning the globes.

My main feeling, though, was of having the overwhelming sense that known, huge problems are going under-addressed. There was a section on ‘Data for the Common Good’, with various examples of positive attempts to use the inevitable data tsunami in ways that help humanity. But these felt small and late compared to the efforts represented in the rest of the exhibition to apply the Big Data for private profit and a creepy form of security (yes, a public good but we don’t give the police our house keys ‘just in case’ that will be useful, so why give them the data that describes our lives?). I didn’t leave the exhibition with many new insights on what to do about it.

Contrast with Jaron Lanier‘s Who Owns the Future?. Not an easy book by any stretch, and my sense is Lanier is trying to write in a a different register to shake the reader out of analytical norms – which makes it difficult to evaluate. He has fears about Siren Servers, who concentrate wealth in the hands of the few who control the data centers and processing capability but don’t have to pay to get the data in. But he also has proposals about what to do about it, a two-way linking system that would point to the source of any piece of information, creating an economy of micropayments that compensates people for original material they post to the web.

My two take aways from the exhibition were:

  • The Big Data bang is happening, and inevitably with expand and grow further.
  •  What matters now are the ways we organise ourselves in society to get the from it all.

So, that takes me back  – with due respect to confirmation bias – to  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, namely the political economy that I’m considering in my sabbatical.

What are the new sorts of institutions and regulations and norms and so on that we can provide that get the bang we need? It seems unlikely these will be initiated by, or hosted by, the nation-state. So, we’ll have to create our own. And there were flashes of this in the exhibition, for instance the Open Data Institute.

And the stinger? Well, it wasn’t that your image might be used later in some promotional material about the exhibition. You were tracked as you went through the exhibition. When you got to the end there was a live display of how people were moving around. It wasn’t data in the abstract; you were the data and the data was live.

It did reinforce the frighteners – and the sense that we need new ideas, soon, on how to adapt.


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!

Video diaries of my first policy fellowship visit

Last week I had my first visit to Cambridge as a policy fellow. As I explain here, I have two years to explore: what is the role of business in the transition to a global sustainable economy? Here are the video diaries I kept for the 3 days I was there.

There will be more video diaries and blog posts in the coming weeks. For now – enjoy!

Day 1. Wednesday 21 May 2014

Day 2. Thursday 22 May 2014

Day 3. Friday 23 2014


Reflections on a week of nurturing and using relationships for change

Last night I was struck by just how much of my week was about fostering, nurturing and using connections. I was struck again by how central this ‘relational work’ is to creating change, and had six reflections I wanted to share.

This week I’ve done a few things for the first time: going to Wimbledon to see the tennis; meeting HRH Prince of Wales at St James’ Palace (see this Forum blog for more detail);  and, blagged a ticket to a big event.

On Thursday afternoon I was called by an innovation consultancy: could I be an interviewing in one of their projects?  (Answer: yes, how much will you pay Forum?) No sooner had I put the phone down than I got a call from a different brand consultancy, could I help them put together proposal? (Answer: see above. ) What’s more for the proposal they needed some background research on a specific change initiative. I know the person who get that initiative off the ground, so I was able to introduce them. Then on Friday I had an email from an old friend working in a government department. Her boss was impressed by a project by one of our partners, could I introduce them?   (Answer: of course, no fee.)

And that’s not all. I went to a really rather brilliant book launch and caught up with old acquaintances. Over breakfast on the next day I gave another friend feedback on the first draft of her book. (sidebar: I know a lot of people writing books.) I invited a different friend’s social innovation consultancy to give a talk in Forum on their methods, and then we tried to figure out how we can collaborate.

In between all of these I’ve had meetings with colleagues in Forum, moving projects along. I’ve had meetings with Forum’s partners (what other organisations might call clients), trying to understand how we can help them and vice-a-versa.

So, a hectic week of fostering, nurturing, connecting, encouraging, dissuading, persuading and influencing.

Pretty much all of this activity was based on relationships made and cultivated over the last decade or more. The innovation consultancy called because of a recommendation from a former Forum intern for 2005. The brand consultancy came from a connection through the Bath Masters in Responsibility and Business Practice (though we were in different years). And so on.

Last night a phrase floated up from my memory: relational work. During that masters in 2002 we were given a paper to read – Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work by Joyce K. Fletcher, PhD. Basically most of my week fostering, nurturing etc was relational work.

According to this website, in the paper:

Fletcher proposed that relational work, the work that builds, energizes, and maintains projects, teams, and one’s own professional growth, is essential for successful organizations. At the same time, Fletcher who based the book on a study of female engineers, also found that relational work is disappeared in organizations, that is, relational work is not acknowledged or rewarded and in fact is sometimes actively devalued in the work setting because of its gendered nature [i.e. it is seen as what women do]. While relational work is disappeared, it is also essential to productive organizational life.

 A couple of reflections follow from this.

First, I think there is a much greater general acceptance of the need for relational work today than the late 90’s. For one thing, we’re accustomed to the notion that your ‘social network’ is important to your well-being, career prospects and so on. The network metaphor is, if anything, rather over-used.

Of course, the Old Boys network has been around for a long time. But I think what Fletcher means by relational work involves a more generous approach to your connections than what my impression of those elitist, male institutions.  

Second, that this is the week Sally Uren has become CEO of Forum for the Future (announced on twitter here). Anyone who knows Sally knows that cultivating positive relationships is at the heart of her style. This is true of my other senior colleagues, and of course Forum’s founders. Partnership is key to Forum. So, it’s not surprising that Sally is the new CEO, or that a great part of my week was given over to it.

But, third, even at Forum we do sometimes accidentally ‘disappear’ the relational side – keep on pushing a concept or theory regardless of feedback, struggle to find time for conversations that are not task-orientated, or try to get to action before the relationship is ready.

My fourth reflection is: I don’t think of relational work as ‘female’. My way of nurturing will be different from my female colleagues, but I bet it’s different from my male colleagues too. If you want outcomes then you need relationships. For me its not a gender thing. Perhaps this marks a generational shift.

The fifth thing: diversity is key, and diversity takes time. It takes a long time in a set of different (but probably adjacent) fields to get all the different connections. And then each connection needs a little bit of time to give it attention.

Sixth, this is a lot easier in London than elsewhere in the UK, and maybe easier than most places in the world. There are more people, and more diverse fields to draw on.

Finally, relationships are crucial to outcomes, but, for me, the outcomes must hold the ultimate trump. A friend who worked in the High Commission in India got very frustrated with his colleagues because they would stop him trying to get things done just in case it harmed the relationship. An option has no value if you are never going to call it.

It’s too early to say what the outcomes will be from all my relational work this week. But most of it was done with a near-term outcome in mind.

With that, I’ll sign off. I’ve got a friend’s 40th birthday party to go to. And yes, she works in sustainability, so there may well be some relational work tonight, as well as fun.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation: catalysing a slow-maturing field

Last week I was the inaugural Schmidt-MacArthur lecture, delivered by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. He was robust, but even more impressive was the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They have really catalysed what had been a slowly maturing field – and I think they have a big decision ahead of them. 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) is an independent charity focussed on the circular economy. It’s young – only founded in September 2010 – but has grown quickly in its impact. A lot of that is down to the charismatic founder, Ellen MacArthur, the former round-the-world sailor. The story goes she had an epiphany while on that trip: we can all live within the limits of what we have (as she did on the boat) as long as we have a circular economy.

From what I can see the EMF change model has three parts: a clear mission, 3 areas of intervention and star power.

  1. Clear mission that is holds well the tension between specific and ambitious (“aim of inspiring a generation to re-think, re-design & build a positive future through the vision of a circular economy”)
  2. Three areas of intervention, each of which is multi-faceted and that combine together well:
    • Education, primary, secondary and higher. Illustrative initiative: Schmidt-MacArthur fellowship, “post-graduate students and their academic tutors from a select network of some of the world’s top universities to innovate for a circular economy.”
    • Insights and analysis. Illustrative initiative: McKinsey reports on the straight business case for circular economy.
    • Business Innovation: Illustrative initiative: Circular Economy 100, a global platform bringing together leading companies, emerging innovators and regions to accelerate the transition to a circular economy over a 1000-day (3 year) period.
  3. They use Ellen MacArthur’s star power to convening leading thinkers and companies. The lecture was the climax of the Circular Economy Summit, “the largest ever gathering of thought leaders and practitioners to discuss the transition to a circular economy”.. Through the day there had been sessions from McDonough, Braungart, Stahel, Benyus, and many more. There were 250+ folk there. 

Here’s what I am impressed by:

  • The scale, pulling power and speed to having a global reach. EMF have gone from nought to sixty very fast. EMF has been a massive catalyst in a field that had been maturing slowly for decades.
  • Assembling an innovation ecosystem on circular economy: big incumbents and niche; tapping into universities; creating clusters of advisors (McKinsey were very prominent). There is potential for strong re-inforcing feedback loops between the McKinsey reports (on where the biggest opportunities are), the CE 100 (who aim for those opportunities), and the Fellows (who could do the technical innovation).
  • Top-level collaborationsThey’ve put effort into relationships with top mainstream institutions (eg global top universities and McKinsey). 

I was less impressed by the facilitation and event design – the lecture concluded with a panel of 7 prominent people. That is never going to work. But really, that is a very minor criticism of a successful event.

The interesting thing is what EMF choose to do going forward. I’ll bet a lot of their time has been taken up with making this first year of the Fellowships work, and then getting the Circular Economy Summit to be great. Now they can turn their attention to what’s next.

As I see it, they have a big decision to make about what their role is in the innovation ecosystem they have created:
(a) nurturing and growing only, and letting others to do the nitty-gritty; or
(b) nurturing and growing plus doing the nitty-gritty themselves. 

If they choose (a) then they will have a ‘cleaner’ role, holding the space for others and then bringing the best insights into neat packages (for education) and connecting people together (for innovation). The challenge here will be the value proposition can feel woolly (“I pay you to hold the space? What?”) and people in the organisation can be itching to use insights directly.

Hence why EMF might drift to (b), being an advisor as well as holding the space. The challenge there is why will people share insights if you’re going exploit them?

So far Ellen MacArthur Foundation have been a brilliant accelerator in what had been a slowly-maturing field. So, I have to presume that they will make the next call well – that’s the track record. Whatever decision they make, let’s hope they are successful. We need to push the pedal to the metal on creating a sustainable future, and a circular economy is vital to that.