Category Archives: work in progress

Encountering nature, considering intention

This weekend I was on a retreat in lovely rural Kent with folk from the artistic and creative communities. We were enquiring into our relationship with nature. I started thinking of art as an instrument for change but made that thought seem outmoded. Instead, we encountered nature, each other and the qualities of experience that might help us move beyond modernity.

One weekend in Kent is not going to be the pivot in a many-decade transition. But it can – and has – reaffirmed my connection with my purpose, and with others of aligned purposes. As one moment among many, the weekend can be part of a frothing, bubbling wavefront of possibility, reaching out into a better future.


Starting from ‘art as an instrument for change’
For the last few years I have been worried that the sustainability movement had taken a turn to technocratic and managerial. Campaigning on legislation, getting companies to have better strategies – these are necessary steps. But they are not sufficient for the profound shifts in our lives, our economies and out societies. Still relatively untouched are the values we have and the stories we tell each other. The sustainability movement just hasn’t been reaching far outside the ‘sustainability’ bubble. Adam Werbach pointed out that environmentalists were winning the policy battles but losing the cultural war.

At the same time, I was wondering where the artistic response to the the shock of the Anthropcene was. Of course, there are specifics one can point to. But, for such an enormous, all-encompassing crisis that puts nothing less than the future of human civilisation as we know it at risk, well, there’s just not a lot about. If art is how society makes sense of what is going on, then we need more art that engages with the sustainability crisis.

So, last weekend I went on a retreat at the Quadrangle Trust holding a particular question: how can I foster more artistic engagement with the challenges of sustainability, in ways that can help society act urgently? I thought we’d get into actions, perhaps an art prize or something like that. How wrong – and worthy! – I was, and it’s a good thing. Instead we went deeper, in order to go further.


Encountering art as not just instrumental
The hosts of the weekend had curated a variety of experiences. We gave attention to our bodies through yoga and mediation. We touched the world as if the world was touching us through blindfolded walks in fields. We – 20 or so near-strangers – cared for each other as family by cooking together. We heard thought pieces from artists, writers and futurists. We walked around the local valley, wondering at the trees, the light, the landscape. We had a ritual of fire starting and whiskey drinking. Overarching all those was a care – love, even – for helping people have an experience which connected them with nature, with each other, with the best of the past and the needs of the future.

What I have realised – a much-forgotten insight – is that the artefacts of everyday life come from cultural values, and these in turn come from fundamental assumptions (following Schein’s process model). The sustainability crisis comes from the stories we tell ourselves, but these in turn rest on the assumptions of the modern world. That we can separate subject from object. That mind is separate from matter. That only people have proper mind, and so all the rest of nature is infinitely lesser. That we can nature is inert, and we can treat it how we like. That quantitative data from repeatable events is proper knowledge, and qualitative experience in context-specific situations is dubious knowledge. That we should make decisions rationally, not emotionally.

I knew this, of course, from reading Vandana Shiva’s Staying Alive, Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Peter Reason and Hillary Bradbury’s introduction in the Handbook of Action Research and more. I knew it, but I had forgotten. That is, I knew it as ideas, and had forgotten it as a more-than-rational reality, as a lived-in life.


Going forward with…
The effects on me were physical, intellectual, and social.

…greater energy
Physically, despite late nights and active days, I was energised. More alive-feeling than before. Reds looked more red, greens more green.

…a new bet on intention…
Intellectually I was stimulated by ideas about the base foundations of how we understand reality. The finger of blame i often pointed at philosophers like Descartes with his dualism and Francis Bacon hoping that nature will be “bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets”. Post-modernists of various stripes had reacted against that, with what some call the language turn, but their thinking is still defined by what it’s following than what it is enabling (the clue is in the name: post-modern). When it comes to finding a foundation beyond modernism, I have been attracted to Arnie Naes’ deep ecology, with his notion of self-realisation within the wider Self. Various folk brought other proposals on new foundations. For instance, that all of nature may be made of the ’stuff’ (so no division between people with minds and rest) but need not share an aligned purpose.

As a former physicist, the most intriguing was Hardin Tibbs on a theory that tries to address the basic strangeness of quantum theory: how can something be a wave and a particle at the same time? The Transaction Interpretation says: by breaking our received notion of time. A source sends out a wave going forward in time, many receivers send out waves from the future going backward in time. There’s a ’handshake’ between the wave from a particular receiver and the wave of the source. Running time forward, that looks like a particle.

Mad? Well, yes. But no less mad than the many-worlds interpretation. Simply, there is no way to address what we know about activity at the quantum level which can fit with the ‘common sense’ that we’ve developed for our human-scale experiences today – for instance, that we are separate from an inert nature that is ‘out there’.

So, what if we don’t know, and can’t know, the base reality underneath our experience is really like, what are we to believe and how are we to act? How are we to live? Modernity gives us certainty that nature is inert, and predictable (if you have a big enough computer and enough computational time) – which also implies that we have no free will. But if that certainty is not justified, then what?

Transaction Interpretation opens up the possibility that the world is not deterministically going through the motions. What if the future can come back to the present, the present can reach out to the future, for a handshake? What if the sequential flow of time we experience is an illusion? What if, instead, intentions – conscious and unconscious, deliberate and accidental – help shape the future, ready to receive us proceeding forward? What if the universe was not just ‘out there’, but ‘in here’ too – being co-crafted by our will?

Of course, Transaction Interpretation is but one of several. It may not be right. But we know for sure that the Newtonian science  – that justifies the modernist assumptions of reality – has been replaced. Anyway, the specifics of the science don’t matter. What matters is whether it’s worth acting as if intention can make a difference.

Which gets us to a new version of Pascal’s Wager. The original says, better to believe in God than not. If God exists, the aetheist may have fun life but then goes to hell forever, while the believer can have a fun life (perhaps a little less fun), and then goes to heaven. If God doesn’t exist they can both have fun lives which both then just end. Why take the risk of being an atheist?

Do I believe I have free will? Well, if I don’t then I can only have the illusion of agency. Is it better to reconcile myself to that, or – in the vast un-knowability of reality – to believe there is a sliver of possibility that I might have agency? In which case, how might we use our free will? What is worse, to act as though the future possibility with the greatest potential energy has the greatest possibility of occurring, or to act as though it is certain we only have the illusion of freedom? Is it better to bet our knowledge of the physical sciences is complete, or is it better to act as though our intention and actions have meaning, have potential, have effect? What’s the downside of acting as if we are composed of inherent possibility that we can guide?

The implication: act as if your intentions – conscious and unconscious, deliberate and accidental – help shape the future.

…therefore the qualities of experience we evoke now matter
Our intentions are not just about outcomes, they also include the steps along the way. No longer can the ends justify the means (if it ever did), because the means is also a part-determinant of the ends. If we want a future with particular qualities, then these also need to be evoked in the experiences we have along the way.

Interestingly that mirrors one of the common features across the artists and creatives who were there. Many placed the biggest emphasis of their work on the process of creating an artefact (whether a sculpture or a theatrical performance), rather than on the artefact itself. I was at an opening night of a painter recently in my local gallery where he too was saying the art is really in the process. Which is fine, except the gallery wanted too sell me the picture, a very distanced experience of making constant judgements and adjustments that was his focus. The implication is that the form of art required is one where people can take part, and not just as receivers.

Outwith art itself, the wider implication for sustainability is to foster experimentation that is simultaneously in the nature of the artefacts – the product, service, business model, whatever – the values that underpin it, adn the assumptions on which those values rest. Efforts that are deliberately biased to trial and error, learning and improvisation in content and in form.

…a new cohort inspired together
The last effect I want to write about was social. By the end, we realised our hosts had created – and we had supported – a ‘place of encounter’. Yes, of nature, but of each other. BY the end I was amazed by the depth of everyone else’s efforts, affirmed in my own, and deeply appreciative of the chance to connect. In what some call The Age of Loneliness, I was no longer alone.

In a many-decades transition?
Believe it or not, there is a lot more I could write about from the weekend. But my final thought is about the longue duree, the long-term historical structures in which specifics occur.

The possibility is that the modernity we are used to is fraying, exhausted. That we are on the cusp – in the middle? – of a many-decades, perhaps even century-long profound transition. In my view, we can’t know exactly where we’re going or how to get there. The way forward I can see is to foster experiences with the qualities we believe are key to a better future. Amongst those are connection in many ways (between your mind and body, your inner and outer arcs of attention, you and the world, you and others, you and the past and future, and so on), conviviality and changes as process (not output). Art has a crucial role to play in those experiences, but thinking of it as an instrument feels too…modern now.

One weekend in Kent is not going to be pivot of the world. But it can – and has – reaffirmed my connection with my purpose, and with others of aligned purposes. As one moment among many, it can be part of a frothing, bubbling wavefront of possibility, reaching out into a better future.


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.

WIP: accountants and what companies say they need to take the next step on sustainability

Last week I was asked to part of a research conference advisory panel for the ICAEW, Europe’s largest accounting institute. To give feedback on their conference idea, I thought about accountants and what companies say they need to take the next step on sustainability. Here is  my work-in-progress (aka ‘WIP’), which concludes we need to help the senior executives in leading companies be ambassadors with quantified evidence that reassures the next wave of adoptees.

It’s worth thinking in terms of two groups: the leaders who want to go further, and the potential next wave of companies who are realising they might need to act.

For the leaders the key challenge is how to deliver on their ambitions. Leading companies have set long-term goals (e.g. double financial revenue while not increasing environmental impact) plus have a high-level strategic case for action (e.g. “in order to grow in emerging markets, we must address constraints like access to water and poverty plus we need to signal to regulators and civil society that our success is good for their country”). This brings with it a host of execution problems that are pertinent to the finance function, like:

  • how to make ambitious targets relevant to day-to-day decision-making in products and business units;
  • how to nurture innovation of product, service and business models;
  • how to monitor financial performance at micro-level (eg product, business unit);
  • how to allocate financial capital between initiatives which have different financial returns and contribution to sustainability goals; and,
  • how to measure progress towards sustainability targets (especially when those targets are societal outcomes like O2 UK’s “10 million people have easier, more sustainable lives”).

For the potential next wave the key challenge is why should they act. What is the strategic case for their company (not for society as a whole, or for a business in general)?

What they need is evidence from the leaders that sustainability pays. Currently there are anecdotal (often self-serving) stories but few credible numbers. They need assurance that they are not taking a big risk, that the costs of action are bounded and that the rewards are large enough to be worth trying.

What does this mean for accountants and change agents? Well, I can imagine a sort of conveyor belt, of experimentation becoming standard practice.

At one end the leading companies are coming up with novel techniques on capital allocation for sustainability and the other challenges. The pioneers might be copying a technique from somewhere else, or adjusting something that already exists. Eventually these techniques will be more tried-and-tested, and ready to pass on to the potential next wave.

But, right now what needs to be passed on to the next wave is what the leading companies were doing a few years ago: the strategic case for action. The difficulty here is the leaders were able to act based on qualitative evidence and prospective vision, while the next wave need quantitative evidence and historic performance. That’s one of the reasons the companies fall into these two camps. Put another way, I think that if a company was going to be convinced by a visionary argument they would have been convinced by now.

So, what the next wave need from the leading companies is not the original why. Instead, it is the subsequent performance – was it worth making the decision? So, it would be great to have senior executives from the leading companies going to their peers in other companies with the financial results of their sustainability activity.

But, for the most part, this is not happening. Why? I suspect that it’s because those leading companies haven’t been measuring the financial performance of sustainability very well. They didn’t need it to make the decision and they haven’t needed it to do the project management. Why should they bother to spend money  doing financial analysis that is for others, potentially for competitors?

I can think of two business reasons to bother. First, to help the next wave adopt serious sustainability targets will help the leaders achieve theirs, by providing more potential collaborators and so on. Second, even the leaders will need to increase their level of investment going forward. Next time the big decision will so big they will probably need quantitative evidence and historic performance.

My conclusion? Let’s help the senior executives in leading companies to be ambassadors with the quantified evidence to reassure the next wave of adoptees. 

What I say to right-of-centre climate sceptics [WIP]

‘Tis the season for Christmas parties, and meeting people who you might not otherwise bump into.  On Saturday I spoke with a senior civil servant who plays a role in financial policy (I’ve kept it vague to keep them anonymous.) He was saying his right-wing political master is, if not quite a climate sceptic, then someone who wants to keep it a low priority. During our conversation, I realised I had about series of arguments for right-of-centre climate sceptics. Below are my main lines of argument. They are still a work-in-progress (hence the [WIP] in the title) – some are too confrontational, and I haven’t got all the right references in others. If I wait until I’ve got them all perfect then I’d never post them. Do let me know your arguments, or ways to improve these.

1. The climate science is strong. “That humans are causing global warming is the position of the Academies of Science from 19 countries plus many scientific organizations that study climate science. More specifically, around 95% of active climate researchers actively publishing climate papers endorse the consensus position.” See here for more detail.

The various ‘scandals’ of the last few years are the equivalent of deleting two sentences from the massive four volumes of the IPCC report (as explained here). Remember, the IPCC volumes have been picked over for years. The minor quibbles are the biggest errors the sceptics have found. All in all, the volumes have as low an error-rate as humanly possible. We’d all love to have our local hospital as accurate.

2. Struggling for who to believe? Try the Ministry of Defence or the US Department of Defence. Both organisations have to deal with the world as it is, not they might hope it should be. And both take climate change seriously. Here in the UK, the Met Office is a “Trading Fund within the Ministry of Defence”. You can find their climate change publications here, including the eye-opening pair on Informing Choices.

The US DoD has looked at the strategic aspects in the Quadrennial Defense Review (quoted here)

Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program, composed of 13 federal agencies, reported in 2009 that climate-related changes are already being observed in every region of the world including the United States and its coastal waters. Among these physical changes are increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the oceans and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows.

3. Just like with smoking causing cancer, vested interests have sown doubt to delay action.The strength of the climate science is as good as the strength for smoking causing cancer. Tobacco companies were successful in delaying change by sowing doubt; we’re part way through the same process on climate change. The climate change deniers have used the same tactics, and even the same PR firms (see this post on a book called Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warminghere on Amazon).

This is one of the arguments that may be too confrontational. I only use it when people can’t understand why there can be scientific consensus but popular doubt. What I like about the argument is the sense of inevitability: there’s popular consensus on secondary smoke.

4. Inaction in the face of doubt creates greater risk. There are massive risks of inaction that come from waiting until the science is perfect. The science will never be perfect (and if people are not convinced by the current consensus when will they be?). Crucially, the science says that emissions today will have a global warming effect for decades to come. Waiting for some future crisis to prompt action will lock-in a great deal of climate change.

5. Ignore the anti-capitalists who were first to talk about it, and look at the business leaders who are convinced now. The first to draw your attention were anti-business left-wingers, and you might question their motives. But look at these senior business leaders who are calling for action on climate change like Rupert Murdoch and GE CEO Jeff Immelt. Some 400 companies – including Anglo American, EDF, Vodafone, WPP and many more – have signed the Cancun Communique, where businesses call for an ambitious, robust and equitable deal on climate change. You can’t doubt their commitment to a market economy.

6. If you believe in markets and democracy, use them now or governments will have to step in massively later. Governments had to buy up the banks and companies in the financial crisis. Governments will have to step in ten times more if people fear for their future because of the effects of climate change. Taking from a report I was involved in called Climate Futures:

Some of the strongest objections to addressing climate change have been that we will constrain markets, and hence our freedom, at too high a cost. People have feared that climate change was a cover for rolling back the market reforms of the last decades. But in our scenarios, liberal market-based solutions seem much less attractive as time goes on than statist responses. This puts a different light on how to defend freedoms from market reforms. Advocates of liberal markets should act as soon as possible, pushing for a global agreement with teeth, national measures that use financial incentives, and the removal of market distortions that encourage unsustainable and wasteful resource use. The result may be a more constrained market system than today, but the long-term alternative could be a desperate turn to big government and protectionism.