jueves, 14 de marzo de 2013

Forum for the Future: sustainability shouldn't focus on deprivation

14 March 13

Image: Shutterstock
If we want a more sustainable world, achieved through and driven by popularised digital technologies, we need to reframe the conversation and make it less about depriving ourselves of the things we like. This was the argument posed by members of a panel at sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future's "Is your business wired for change conference", held in conjunction with design consultancy firm Fjord.

Changing the conversation is key, but it's part of a bigger nut we've not yet cracked -- the human element that will turn big ideas into uptake and real change. 

"It has to be a better world, but everything [around sustainability] is about depriving yourself," said Carmel McQuaid, climate change manager for Marks & Spencer. "Less fun, less status, less success, that's the message. Less citizens liking you and voting for you because you're asking them to pay [sustainability-linked] taxes."

Until sustainability experts stop being "preachy" and focus on the human element that will ultimately define a particular initiative's success of failure, we won't get anywhere near that better world. Technology is not the solution, McQuaid argued, it's how that technology is positioned in a very human and approachable way that will generate change.

"As a retailer we learn by doing. Where we've always failed is thinking technology is the solution. We forget we need other elements -- marketers, psychologist and techie geeks in a room with sustainability people. And none of them get on; they're from different worlds. Marketers dream a better world and hackathons create [the things we need] -- we need different skill sets to work to a solution."

Highlighting her point about the human element, McQuaid pointed to the car-sharing schemes that have been around for years but fail to deliver real results. "I'm still standing in the taxi queue every day," she quickly added that she normally cycles (she's hurt her wrist), "and still nobody is asking each other [where they're going]; the station master isn't involved. We haven't cracked the human things that will make this all happen."

"People spend time on the internet looking at fluffy cats and jokes because they're human -- as long as we don't stop being preachy, we'll really struggle to connect with that."

Surely, with the advent of services like Hailo we can make car sharing a practical reality, argued Andy Hobsbawm, cofounder and CMO of EVRYTHING, an internet of things startup that used barcodes, RFID chips and QR codes to create a social network for everyday objects. Hobsbawm -- also the founder of Green Thing, a non-profit that encourages the public to make simple changes to their daily lives -- admitted that he still fluctuates between hope and despair over the state of the sustainability movement.

"I don't know why more hasn't happened," he said. "The reframing of it is a complex issue -- it is about saying it's better, but also about reframing what better means, because it can be about society and happiness and a smarter way to be. It's like when you feel there's a better party going on somewhere else -- how do we make it that. If you start talking to them in terms that trigger normal consumerism, that will instantly link with an association of how things are not how you want them to be. It's not an easy problem to solve -- it needs to be more systemic."

One audience member working in sustainability at the BBC added that since "we haven't really defined sustaining living -- how do we say this is what we have to do to be sustainable, as opposed to bit more sustainable."

McQuaid suggested getting the rhetoric wrong is also what holds up sustainability drives in big businesses: "if you keep talking sustainability rather than product quality or supply chain, those departments won't understand. You need to approach from a product quality or supply chain point of view -- then they get it."

Companies like Mastadon C and Sustaination attended the conference to explain what things like big data, sensor technology and hackathons can do for sustainability innovation in businesses -- and cost-saving. But McQuaid argued that from a business to business perspective, so much relies on data being available and accessible when sometimes it's just not there. Even basic concepts like social media are currently being held back from fulfilling their potential here because of departments within big businesses having a "turf war over who gives message to the consumer and through what channel" she said. "Knowledge is power, and not everyone has full visibility and power." We need more transparency, but "the idea of giving employees in stores access to the company Facebook page, people are scared of that. Those people are talking to customers everyday though, you just don't see it."

It's the business to business space that is most rife for change right now, argues McQuaid, and not the consumer space. Although there are popular initiatives that focus on the consumer, McQuaid said that for a company like M&S it's the less glamorous motors and compressors that suck up the most energy -- "but no one focuses on that, because they don't see the potential -- they're so focused on the consumer. We can drive change in the boring back bits."

"The biggest potential for change is at the business to business and government level, that's been bubbling for a long time and we're only just starting to tap into that. We need better decisions at a local level and proper, grown up science driven data to make the right decisions. A bunch of Masters' students saying they'll make some strawberry yoghurt in their kitchen is not the right answer to global change."

Other avenues the panel suggested need to be focused upon included education -- something that feeds into every aspect even, as McQuaid points out, within a company -- change at the leadership level, so companies are not waiting for competitors to take the lead, and finding a way to navigate issues of globalisation. "The economy is global, politics isn't," put Hobsbawm. "The problem is if you start complying with strict regulations, but another country doesn't have them, you're competing with people that don't have to follow the same rules."

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