Saturday, September 29, 2007
Back earlier today from North Carolina, where I chaired the first meeting of a social impact and metrics group on behalf of Aflatoun (http://www.aflatoun.org/) at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. Wonderful to see how much progress Jeroo Billimoria and her team have been making. Among the outsiders taking part were Greg Dees, Sara Olsen and – from SustainAbility’s Washington, D.C. office – Namita Koppa (http://www.sustainability.com/about/profile.asp?id=18667), pictured emerging from the shrubbery in the last of this series of photos. On the last day, I was picked up by an old friend, Jim Salzman (http://www.law.duke.edu/fac/salzman/), had lunch with him and his wife Lisa, and then was driven out to the airport by Jim in his Prius.
Monday, September 24, 2007
My article on some of the business lessons we can draw from the life and work of Anita Roddick appeared this afternoon on the openDemocracy website (http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/globalisation/visions_reflections/outsider_rules).
I never really ‘got’ Henry Moore, except for his drawings of people sleeping in London’s Underground during the Blitz. But, having worked right through the weekend, I took Elaine across to Kew Gardens this afternoon for a late lunch and then we walked around the Henry Moore exhibition in glorious blustery, sunny weather – with great clouds of autumn leaves blowing this way and that. Came away vastly more impressed with Moore’s art, indeed his genius.
A SHIFT IN CLIMATE 2
Some more photographs from the 21st Century Trust event at Merton College.
Asian women flocked through the College in some numbers – some bearing oddities.
One of the dinners
One of the dinners (2)
John Lotherington prowls ahead of group photo
Who’s tallest? is the question as we go into line to select who stands where for the shot
No question, these are the big guys
After the shooting, the stage from my stair
Heron blurs by (in the boat’s wake)
Merton College grounds
Who holds the key to climate change?
John Lotherington pulls things together at the last supper
More than 80 heads of state and government meet in New York today to discuss climate change – and tomorrow’s third Clinton Global Initiative conference, also in New York, will inevitably cover many of the same issues. Today’s Financial Times quotes Bill Clinton to the effect that the US needs to unleash”the greatest concentration of economic activity” since the country mobilised for WWII to tackle the challenge.
All of this resonates even more strongly with me after having spent pretty much all of last week as a 21st Century Trust Senior Fellow, co-chairing (with John Lotherington, the Trust’s Director) a conference at Merton College, Oxford, on ‘Climate change: science, politics and the management of uncertainty.’
Speakers included leading people from the Carbon Group, the Carbon Trust, chinadialogue.net, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, IIASA, Oxford’s James Martin 21st Century School (including both Jim Martin himself and the School’s Director, Professor Steve Rayner), Nomura International’s New Energy and Clean Technology Ventures group, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, The Rocket Science Group, and the University of New Hampshire – in the shape of Professor Stacy Vanderveer.
The event was subject to the Chatham House Rule, but it’s worth noting that the successive presentations built up a palpable, plausible, deeply concerning case for accelerated policy and business change, that there was a sense that we are getting much closer in to a series of potentially catastrophic tipping points in the global system and that the Kyoto process – though the best game available – leaves much to be desired. In the wonderful words of one speaker, it has become a “polyvalent symbol” – with multiple interpretatations and expectations laid upon it, depending on the interests and political stance of those concerned.
China was very much in the spotlight, thanks to people like Isabel Hilton of chinadialogue.net, and I came away with a strong sense that I need to be doing a great deal more in this general space. In fact, I returned to London on Thursday evening for a session convened by a venture capitalist on one new business that will be addressing some key dimensions of the agenda, and returned to Oxford invigorated and raring to go.
More anon – and meanwhile here are some images from the various days of the conference.
View from my stair
Still exclusive in parts
John Lotherington’s head
Hot air passes above our heads
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Walking to Barnes station – under a strikingly beautiful sky – I was struck by how great the damage is now to the foliage of the horse chestnuts. A strange, premature autumn. We were off to pick up the car, whose battery had once again died. The garage were shocked to find there is only 27,000 miles on a vehicle we bought with 12,000 miles already on the clock – quite a few years ago. What we really need is one of those green-car-rental services found in places like Switzerland and California, then we could get rid of the thing entirely.
This afternoon Gaia and Hania arrived and we all walked across to the Barnes Wetland Centre for a memorial service for our neighbour Roger Poulet. A capacity crowd as we listened to the ‘Desert Island Discs’ he had chosen in his final days, ranging from Buddy Holly to Beethoven. A wonderful model of how to make such an event a real celebration of a life lived.
Damaged horse chestnut leaves
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Cycling alongside the Serpentine on my way to work this morning, and enjoying the sun, I caught sight of a herd of elephants apparently grazing the trees by the water’s edge. Dismounting, agog, I wandered among the 13 wickerwork animals, all life-size (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/gallery/2007/sep/04/conservation.endangeredhabitats?picture=330676449). An extraordinary demonstration of how art helps us reperceive familar things, familiar landscapes. Ths turned out to be a fund-raising exercise for Elephant Family (http://www.elephantfamily.org/iopen24/index.php). Further along, I passed the ‘Animals at War’ memorial in the middle of Park Lane, a reminder of what we have put animals through, from pack-mules and elephants to messenger pigeons, all carved in relief on the memorial wall.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Went to see Brian Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall this evening, with Elaine, my brother Gray and youngest sister Tessa. Had seen pretty mixed reviews for the first two days, so was slightly dreading it, but the handling of most of the old songs was tremendous – particularly songs (among them ‘Do You Want to Dance’ and ‘When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)’ from Beach Boys Today, an album I remember leaving on the turntable in the sun in the mid-1960s – and coming back to find it turning into something like a flowerpot.
The sun was at the heart of the evening, with a suite of songs built around the song That Lucky Old Sun. For me, that middle section was the weakest part of the show, with the audience reaction muted. It was like watching an absent-minded old man leafing through a son et lumiere version of his scrapbooks. Still, having grown up in the warmth of this man’s music, I’d forgive him virtually anything.
My contribution to the Anita Roddick love-fest was published in The Guardian today (http://business.guardian.co.uk/story/0,,2167323,00.html). The first paragraph: “I love her like fury, but it’s like being trapped in a brown paper bag with a bluebottle,” a relative commented of his wife – and that was Anita for me. Like all true entrepreneurs, she fired on all cylinders, all the time. Working close to her would have driven me mad, but working alongside her in an extraordinary nexus of ethical, social, environmental and international development movements has been one of the great privileges of my life.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Woke this morning to a blue sky – and found the papers brimming over with the sad news of Anita Roddick’s death last night, plus urgent requests from CNN and The Guardian to comment. After doing the Guardian piece, I sat down to compose a longer appreciation of the lives of three people who have died recently: Anita, Robert Davies of IBLF and Paul MacCready of AeroVironment. In very different ways, all three have had a significant impact on my thinking and priorities. The article has been posted on SustainAbility’s website (http://www.sustainability.com/insight/article2.asp?id=1036).
Monday, September 10, 2007
DALIAN IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR
A day after getting back from China, my thoughts on the World Economic Forum Davos-Dalian event are still processing – but three things are already clear to me.
First, China, Inc. has a long march ahead of it to ensure that its deteriorating reputation for safety, environmental and human rights abuses doesn’t materially dent its rise to economic power – and its ability to generate globally trusted brands of its own. The Mattel saga, with an astonishing series of toy recalls forced on the US company following the discovery of high lead levels in the paint used by Chinese suppliers, hints at the scale of the challenge.
True, as the Financial Times argued last week (Stefan Stern, ‘West must take some blame for tainted Chinese goods,’ September 4), the problems now emerging have a great deal to do with aggressive cost-cutting by western firms. As Professor Mary Teagarden, of the Thunderbird scool of global management, has summarised the problem: “Wal-Mart squeezes Mattel, Mattel squeezes its supplier, that supplier squeezes its supplier, and at the end of the chain you have a remote business far out in the countryside that takes a different approach. They don’t put lead in paint because they’re wicked, it’s just what works for them. China is so large, and industrialisation has been so rapid, that maintaining any control over multiple sites is extremely difficult.” [Quoted from FT article.] But this reputational challenge can only grow, now the seeds have been sown.
Efforts are certainly being made to turn the growing tide of health abuses and environmental destruction. Indeed, the first copy of the China Daily I picked up (September 4 issue) reported that more than 750 industrial firms had been shut down – or ordered to improve their environmental standards – following a two-months campaign by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). Pan Yue, the high profile deputy minister at SEPA who I have met a couple of times since 2005, was quoted as saying that: “The campaign was only run on a small scale. We still have a long way to go to curb the nationwide industrial expansion, which demands high volumes of energy and creates huge amounts of pollution.”
Second, as WEF President Professor Klaus Schwab stressed in his own summary of the Davos-comes-to-Davos event, we are seeing a growing focus on entrepreneurialism and on social responsibility and engarement, worldwide. You could hear that in all of the sessions and many of the conversations around the giant conference centre. The outputs of this latest summit are destined to feed back into the deliberations in Davos in January. But an equally interesting question is how this experiment (“adventure,” Professor Schwab called it) in developing a Chinese “summer Davos” will mutate and evolve in the coming years. My own guess is that it will change profoundly over the next decade – and, in the process, drive very considerable changes both in the Forum and in the Davos agenda.
Third, as astronaut Jerry Linenger argued in Dalian (see ‘A Bigger Picture’ entry, September 8), it behoves us all to stand back from what we are experiencing, to critically evaluate our first impressions. It’s easy to be seduced by China, for all sorts of reasons. But we should recognise how this is often achieved. Dalian, for example, made sure that foreigners coming to the city were well looked after in a number of ways that suggest the power still wielded by the authorities: Astonishingly, the schools were shut down for the duration and local people lectured on how to treat outsiders. My own attempts to find even fairly inoffensive overseas websites ran into a bunch of problems, as they either failed to appear or accessing them was so slow that one simply gave up. I’m still not sure whether WEF’s own site fell victim to some form of official unease, perhaps because of suspect words used on it, or whether this had more to do with slower-than-normal Internet connections.
While I was in China there was plenty of evidence – for those with the eyes to see – that geopolitics-as-usual continue to crank along. President Hu Jintao, for example, warned President Bush in Sydney that the situation across the Taiwan Straits has entered a “highly dangerous period.” And then there was the little matter of the new Pentagon report highlighting what it described as an aggressive push by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to achieve “electronic dominance” over each of its global rivals by 2050, particularly the US, Britain, Russia and South Korea (http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/the_web/article2409865.ece).
Of course, this may simply be a case of the Pentagon trying to crank up its own electronic warfare and countermeasures budget, but evidence is also emerging of repeated efforts by the Chinese to hack into government and military computer networks in the West. (I’m sure we’re up to the same tricks.)
My final word? Well, I have been reading an extraordinary account of the real Long March by Sun Shiyun (The Long March, HarperCollins, 2006) as I travelled. Given the horrors and abuses of the period – and of Mao’s subsequent rule, chronicled by Jung Shang’s extraordinary Mao: The Unknown Story (Jonathan Cape), which I am still inching through – it’s stupefying just how far China has come in a few short years. I can’t wait to see more of the country and to explore what SustainAbility can do to help.
Make no mistake, I hate what has happened in Tibet, what happened to the students in 1989 and what is currently happening to NGOs that are trying to bring acceptable standards of transparency and accountability to this giant country. But, like it or not, we all now have a vested interest in China’s future. And a blustery Dalian session chaired by a blustering (others’ description, not mine) Tom Friedman, who argued that China is failing to pull its weight in international affairs, particularly on issues like Iran’s nuclear stance, left me feeling that the West should be very careful to have its own house in order before it lectures the Chinese.
Very sad to see news of the passing of Paul MacCready, the pioneer in human and solar-powered aircraft (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_B._MacCready,_Jr), whose obituary appeared in Saturday’s Times (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article2409565.ece). The man was one of a small but growing number of geniuses who have applied their talents to the sustainability challenge.
I wrote about MacCready’s work in my book Sun Traps: The Renewable Energy Forecast (Pelican, 1985). Had always wanted to meet him and visit his company AeroVironment (http://www.aerovironment.com/), but somehow never quite made it work. A warning that I need to get on with such things, rather than waiting for time to sort things out.
One of their most extraordinary ideas was the SkyTower, using Helios, an evolution of the Solar Challenger to provide a much cheaper alternative to satellites. A solar-powered aircraft able to stay aloft in a circling mini-orbit in the stratosphere, the idea isthat Helios could serve as a platform for providing cellular, video, and/or broadband wireless Internet access from what, in effect, would be equivalent to a 12-mile high tower (see http://images.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://www.etopiamedia.net/emtnn/images/http://johnelkington.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/heliosaloft1.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.etopiamedia.net/emtnn/pages/bwaw/bwaw1-5551212.html&h=482&w=730&sz=275&hl=en&start=6&tbnid=RKn3Agn810puHM:&tbnh=93&tbnw=141&prev=/images%3Fq%3DAeroVironment%26gbv%3D2%26ndsp%3D20%26svnum%3D10%26hl%3Den%26newwindow%3D1%26sa%3DN).
Sunday, September 09, 2007
Summing up the Inaugural Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, WEF President Klaus Schwab noted that: “In this meeting, we were all bound together by the same spirit. The spirit of entrepreneurship and the spirit of social engagement.” Which is quite hopeful in terms of the theme and timing of our new book, The Power of Unreasonable People. This will be published on 5 February, just after Davos 2008, though we are hoping to be able to get a copy into the hands of everyone who comes to the summit. A series of blogs on Dalian I posted can be found at http://www.sustainability.com/insight/article2.asp?id=1010, the first time SustainAbility has had a blog on its home page – and something I’m keen to develop.
Klaus Schwab sums up
Saturday, September 08, 2007
Some photographs taken during this trip:
View from my bedroom window in Dalian
People were polishing everywhere
Brought to you by …
Part of reception area
Sign of the times
A tiny fraction of the security screen
Sat in on filming of BBC World Debate
Having written for the Encyclopaedia Britannica many moons ago, and having been paid in a set of volumes that seemed in danger of reaching across the street, I watched with interest as encyclopaedias got intermediated both by CD-based technologies and now by things like Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales, who founded Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/), was in the ‘Philanthropreneurs’ session I moderated this afternoon. As someone who uses Wikipedia constantly, I wondered what he would have made of our publisher’s reaction to Wikipedia references in our new book, The Power of Unreasonable People. They see the Wiki thing as inherently untrustworthy.
True, I have come across some bizarre entries, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that in terms of overall accuracy, Wikipedia now rivals the Encyclopaedia Britannica. More importantly, it’s available at a few clicks of the mouse, it’s much more up-to-date and it links you out effortlessly to a bunch of other useful stuff. Wales noted that the process of disintermediation has only just started. Gulp.
A BIGGER PICTURE
By far the most engaging session I sat in on today was by Jerry Linenger (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_M._Linenger). A former NASA astronaut, he spent five months 250 miles above the Earth’s surface in the Russian space station Mir. Deeply affected by his talk, I mean to track down a copy of his 1999 book, Off the Planet (http://www.known.com/orderofftheplanet.lasso).
To get a sense of the Big Picture, he said, you really have to step back – and it helps enormously to step right off the planet. He wishes that everyone in the world could be lofted into space for five minutes, an experience he thinks would transform them, just as it did him.
He used the microcosm of the space station – in which any misdeeds, including missteps with urination, ended up “in your face” – as a metaphor for the macrocosm of Earth. And he’s now actively engaged in a new initiative dedicated to tackling the global freshwater crisis (http://www.circleofblue.org/). Emerged from the session determined to do whatever I can to help.
THE GLOBAL WAR ON BABY GIRLS
Had breakfast this morning with Frances Cairncross, now Rector of Exeter College, Oxford, and her husband Hamish Macrae. Hamish, I recall, commissioned my first article for The Guardian (for which I wrote off-and-on for almost 20 years), that time on the financial page, way back in the late 1970s. Between the three of us, we have four daughters. And the thing that sticks in my mind was their mentioning someone also here in Dalian, demographer Nick Eberstadt, who holds a Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Among other things, he is focusing on what he calls ‘The Global War on Baby Girls.’
Can’t say I see eye-to-eye on the AEI on many things, given that in my mental map they are skewed way over towards the right-wing end of the spectrum. Indeed, it has been one of the ironies of SustainAbility, Inc.’s evolution that we shared an office building in Washington, D.C. for several years. (I always thought of them as occupying the backside of the building.) In any event, here’s one issue we do agree on as an increasingly urgent priority – the intense pressure in some societies to produce boys rather than girls, evidenced by the missing millions of girls in countries like China and India.
Hamish wondered whether this male skewing would make for a more militaristic China in future, though he then noted (on the flip side) that the removal of large numbers of men from Germany’s population by WWI didn’t do much to pacify that country in the following decades.
On its website, AEI makes the point that since 9/11 “the American public has received regular updates on what we have come to call ‘the global war on terror.’” But, he stresses, a “no-less significant global war – a war, indeed, against nature, civilization, and in fact humanity itself – has also been underway in recent years. This latter war, however, has attracted much less attention and comment, despite its immense consequence. This world-wide struggle might be called ‘The Global War Against Baby Girls.’” Eberstadt has done a short publication on the story (http://www.aei.org/publications/filter.all,pubID.25399/pub_detail.asp).
BAD LUCK, HOLLYWOOD
One of the people on the first panel I moderated today, on green technology, was Zhang Yue, Chairman & CEO of Broad Air Conditioning (http://www.broad.com/index-eng.htm). I began by asking the audience whether they had read the March issue of The Atlantic, one of my favourite magazines? No-one had. Pity, I said, since it contained a fascinating profile of Zhang Yue, noting – among any other things – that he has built himself a home modelled on the Palace of Versailles (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200703/fallows-zhang). I was pretty sure he was the only person in the auditorium to have done so, adding that while it was clear he was extremely interested in profit, he also seems energetically committed to environmental and sustainability issues.
The session was off the record, but I think I can mention something that David Hobbs, a VP and Managing Director, Global Policy, at the energy consultancy CERA said to me after the session. He had passed on the opportunity to say a few final words, because of the pressure on time, but what he had wanted to say was that if Zhang Yue has his way and managed to radically shrink the scale of the ventilation and air-conditioning plants modern buildings need, Hollywood will lose one of its main plot lines, where heroes and heroines scurry through ventilation and A/C pipes in their attempts to escape, while bad people hose the ceilings with machine-gun fire.
Still, on the basis of what I have heard about the penetration of such technologies in China to date, I’m again pretty sure most Hollywood moguls won’t be shivering in their shoes any time soon.
Thursday, September 06, 2007
The most moving, indeed almost overwhelming part of the Gala Soiree this evening, at least until I left with my bat-like hearing overwhelmed by the thunderous noise of a kung-fu martial arts section, came from the China Disabled People’s Performing Arts Troupe. For sense of what this was like, click on the title line of this blog. More than 20 young artists, all of them deaf and mute, created a series of astonishing, scintillating, ever-shifting forms, many of which looked like some unbelievably beautiful sea anenome. No wonder that they recently were named the UNESCO Artist for Peace (http://portal0.unesco.org/es/ev.php-URL_ID=38976&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html).
STRONG ON CHINA
A non-flash image of part of the Gala Soiree
One of the more extraordinary people I talked to at this evening’s WEF Gala Soirée (where the acts ranged from trick cyclists to a version of Swan Lake that was literally out of this world) was Maurice Strong, who turned out to be on our table. He, it hardly needs saying, was one of the godfathers of the sustainable development movement (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_Strong). His Wikipedia entry may be a mixed bag, but there is no question but that he has been an extraordinary eminence grise, or verte, and over many decades.
Among many other things, Maurice was the organiser of the first UN environment conference, held in Stockholm in 1972, and then founder-executive-director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Happily, UNEP have been a long-standing partner in SustainAbility’s work on what has variously been called environmental sustainability and/or non- or extra-financial reporting. This work has now branched into three strands of work programmes: (1) ‘Global Reporters’ (http://www.sustainability.com/insight/global_reporters.asp); (2) Engaing Stakeholders (http://www.sustainability.com/sa-services/engaging-stakeholders.asp); and (3) the searchable online ‘Learn from the Leaders’ database on sustainability reporting (http://www.sustainability.com/insight/article.asp?id=732).
Later still, Maurice was a member of the Brundtland Commission, which reported in 1987 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brundtland_Commission), a few months after we founded SustainAbility. Their report, Our Common Future, established sustainable development as an emerging global priority. Always an early bird, he moved to China a while back, sensing that this is where the future was happening. It will be fascinating to see whether these two great interests of his – sustainability and China – can co-evolve.
WEN JIABAO: SUSTAINABILITY IN MANDARIN
Arriving late after facilitating another session, I found so many people crowded into the Plenary Hall to hear Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wen_Jiabao) deliver his speech on a growing China’s ambition to embrace a “Bright Future” that the supply of simultaneous translation headphones had run out. So, in a space that seemed to have a couple of thousand people packed in, I propped myself against a wall and listened to him in full flow—in Mandarin. A bit like watching one of those airline films with the sound turned off, though in this case you could hear the regular rounds of applause. And it was interesting to see the languages offered, had I had headphones: English, Mandarin, Japanese and Russian. Luckily, the World Economic Forum then supplied translations of the speech, which—to my mind at least—turned out to be remarkably candid.
The Premier welcomed the fact that the World Economic Forum will now hold an annual ‘Summer Davos’ in China. He underscored the relevance of the Forum’s continuing overall theme of the ‘Shifting Power Equation’ and the focus of this Dalian summit on the ‘New Champions.’ And then he switched on the candour, speaking, among other things, of “problems such as unstable factors, imbalances and lack of sustainability” that are impacting China’s development and future prospects. These include, he said, “excessively rapid economic growth, acute structural tensions, the inefficient pattern of growth, depletion of resources and environmental degradation, mounting pressure on prices and entrenched structural and institutional obstacles.” Given all of which—and this has been an observation made by many I have talked to here in Dalian—is quite remarkable how far China has come in relatively short historical order.
While my fingers are crossed that this century will see Wen Jinbao’s vision—“of a “prosperous, democratic, harmonious, civilized and modernized China” making an “even greater contribution to maintaining world peace and promoting world progress”—coming to fruition, it’s very hard to imagine a future without some major demographic, health, environment and/or military discontinuities. Having said which, there is something about China’s extraordinary focus on the future and the ambition to get things right which I find remarkably energizing. And, like many visitors to this extraordinary country, I worry increasingly about Europe’s capacity to respond to the competitive challenge posed by a society that is developing such momentum.
Although SustainAbility is now determined to develop a physical presence in India from 2008, there is no question in my mind that we also have to be on the ground in China before long. In the session I facilitated earlier today on ‘Managing Regulatory Risk,’ I was very struck by an Indian participant’s observation that India’s weakness is its democracy, while China’s strength is its lack of the same. The net result, he said, is that it takes India ten times as long to do anything significant. Then he paused, before adding that he though longer term democracy would serve India better than any alternative system. In short, we are embarked on a vast, global experiment to test which of several competing political and economic models will dominate—and facilitate—sustainable human evolution.
Which is one reason why I have been so excited to be involved, in my capacity as Chairman of The Environment Foundation (http://www.environmentfoundation.net) in a two-part conference on ‘Democracy & Sustainability,’ to be held at London’s Science Museum on 23 October and in London’s Living Room, atop the GLA HQ building by Tower Bridge, on 24 October. I will chair the first session, Lord Patten the second.
SustainAbility—largely, I suspect because of my own aversions, formed during early work in the early 1970s—has tended to shy away from politics, government and public policy, but increasingly these domains will be central to the definition and delivery of sustainable development. And SustainAbility and I are thus now jointly pushing into that space to campaign and advocate with business leaders and others for the policy frameworks we need to support sustainable development goals – whether related to climate, water, or human rights. I feel rather like Bill Gates must have done when he finally woke up to the power of the Internet—with all the associated risks and opportunities in terms of Microsoft’s till-then successful business model. And we are going to have to learn to handle all of this in Hindi, Mandarin and—who knows—even in Russian.
QUEEN BEE & THE DRONES
OK, the title is a stretch for a World Economic Forum session, but I’ll explain that in a moment. The background is that I managed to squeak my way in to a second session in the WorkSpace this afternoon, called ‘Building a Sustainable Company.’ Fascinating, with participants encouraged to think out of the box by viewing the sustainability agenda for business through the lens of a number of biological metaphors.
WorkSpace, for those who haven’t encountered it, is a bit like a giant olive oil press used to encourage creativity in busy people and to squeeze out their best thinking in short order. This WEF offering (http://www.weforum.org/en/events/AnnualMeetingoftheNewChampions/IssuesInDepth/index.htm) is delivered by The Value Web (http://www.thevalueweb.com/), alongside Forum staff. Having led a couple of sessions on the future of cities in variants of the WorkSpace, one in Davos in January and a second yesterday, focusing on WEF’s evolving SlimCity initiative, I recommend it highly.
So back to the WorkSpace today. I was part of Group 1, which focused on the prairie as a metaphor, while the other six groups variously took the human body, meerkats, lions, tropical forests, coral reefs and bees as their guiding stars. In the case of prairies, a key text came from Kevin Kelly’s wildly wonderful book Out of Control – specifically Chapter 4, ‘Assembling Complexity’ (http://kk.org/outofcontrol/ch4-b.html). I love his work – and managed to track him to his lair in California early in 2005 (see 13 April entry under http://johnelkington.com/weblog/http://johnelkington.com/september-2007/).
I found the metaphor particularly engaging because I still have the diaries of a great-great-whatever grandmother who crossed the prairies (the ‘Great American Desert’ as some then called them) several times in prairie schooners in the 1840s. Those would-be settlers generally experienced the prairies as harsh, unforgiving environments, whereas those they rudely elbowed aside had come to see them as richly nurturing. I also have the patchwork quilt she made on one of those trips, stitched together from fine gowns she had worn out east, but thought she would have little need for in the west.
But one of my favourite stories, once the family reached Colorado, was the way, once they had set up a trading post in the hills above Denver, a store where many of the miners paid in gold dust, my great-great-whatever grandmother would dig up the dirt floor at the end of every week and pan it – successfully – for gold. They ended up founding a bank, which I believe still exists.
From such small seeds companies can grow, even in fairly hostile environments. But today’s session was an attempt to divine the characteristics that enable businesses to sustain themselves over time. In the case of our prairie metaphor, the answers included diversity, deep roots, symbioses, grazing and excretion, fire (whether lit by lightning or man), growing shoots tucked far enough below the soil to escape incineration, and so on.
But when it came to the report-backs, the best presentation – by far – came from my co-author Pamela Hartigan and her group. Unlike the other teams, that reported back in ones and twos, she brought her entire group (otherwise males), focused on the honeybee metaphor, spotlighted herself as the Queen Bee and her colleagues as worker bees, and has us all in stitches. Which led me, in the final discussion, to underscore a point David Christie – one of the organisers – had made right at the beginning, that unless you’re having fun you’re not going to change very much.
And that, in turn, put me in mind of the early days of SustainAbility when, instead of panning trampled dirt for specks of gold, we were looking for specks of green in the grime of capitalism. At the time, we called ourselves ‘The Green Growth Company’ and had just three missions in life: (1) to make a difference, (2) to make a profit (because that provided the wherewithal to do (1)), and (3) to have fun in the process. No, twenty years on, it’s all got a little more complicated, but apparently simple things – as many of the early pioneers viewed prairie ecosystems – often mask great complexity, diversity and resilience.
Writing on the wall
Meerkats at work
Queen Bee and The Drones
BUSINESS AND CITIES WILL DRIVE AGENDA
After my SlimCity session yesterday (http://www.sustainability.com/downloads_public/other/WEF-session2.pdf), I have been wondering whether I took a wrong turn in the 1970s? My postgraduate degree, at UCL, was in urban planning – and in 2007, the year that the human species becomes predominantly urban for the first time, cities are very much in the spotlight. Over breakfast this morning with Peter Head of Arup, deeply involved in a number of major urban development projects in China, among them Dongtan (http://www.sustainability.com/downloads_public/other/WEF-session2.pdf), we concluded that business and cities are likely to become even more powerful salients of sustainability in the coming decades.
Strikingly, on the hill across from the restaurant, there was a rather grisly geodesic red-and-white structure, rather like a massive football, but enough to remind us both of one of the towering figures in our space, Buckminster Fuller (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckminster_Fuller). Fuller was one of the great inspirations of my life – and I was lucky enough to have breakfast with him in Reykjavik in the late 1970s. Given that Peter says that the Chinese are awarding some extraordinarily ambitious urban projects these days, it would have been wonderful to see what ‘Bucky’ could have done here.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
As I watched the sun go down over Dalian last night, I found myself reflecting on the turbulent history of this region – most notably the siege of Port Arthur, the port and naval base of Lüshun in northeast China, now part of Dalian. The Russian defeat in January 1905 was a catastrophe for them, further destabilising the Tsarist regime. The trench warfare and use of heavy artillery during the siege of Port Arthur prefigured the horrors of WWI and also, in retrospect, heralded the defeats of over-confident westerners in the early stages of WWII. Studied all of this in school History classes, but then it all seemed a long way away. Makes you wonder what the world will know in 2109, an equivalent period into the future, that it would have been useful to know today.
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
GRISTLE AND RUBBER
Once upon a time, they used to say that when General Motors sneezed America caught a cold. These days, I reflected as our China Air 737 banked out of Beijing and began the long climb out of the smog that blankets the city – and as a man behind me sneezed convulsively, continuously – the modern variant ought to be: When China sneezes the rest of the world probably ought to run for cover. The country’s innumerable pig and chicken farms, and its shudderingly awful wild animal markets, are all potentially powerful incubators of pandemics that (as recent influenza outbreaks and the SARS story have shown) all-too-easily burst out into the wider world. Over the coming decades these problems can only be amplified by the growth of the country’s (and the world’s) swarming megacities.
The epicentre of the 2003 SARS outbreak turned out to have been wild game markets. Yet, as Time magazine put it that same year, “It turns out that few people actually enjoy the taste of pangolin, a scaly anteater whose flesh is a blend of gristle and rubber. The same goes for the nocturnal civet, which has a gamy aftertaste that even the thickest brown sauce can’t mask. And who really enjoys camel hump, which tastes just as you’d expect a blubbery lump to taste?” But, as Hannhab Beech put it in her article ‘Noxious Nosh’ (Time, June 2, 2003), “flavor isn’t what really matters to many of the diners tucking into China’s wildlife menagerie.” Instead, she quoted a Shanghai-based restaurateur – who had specialized in cobra and other wild animals until SARS knocked the stuffing out of wild-flavour cuisine – to the effect that business men were eating the stuff simply to display their wealth.
So it’s welcome news that an array of health issues will take centre stage this week at the inaugural Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian. “Finding innovative solutions to the challenges of infectious pandemics and chronic diseases is key to ensuring long-term economic development and the well being of nations worldwide,” as the World Economic Forum puts it. “More than ever it is critical for all stakeholders, including the next generation of leaders, to join forces to address global health issues such as rising healthcare costs, the devastating effects of AIDS, the rising burden of chronic diseases and innovations in healthcare,” says Jean-Pierre Rosso, Chairman of the Forum’s Centre of Global Industries.
The health side of the Dalian agenda is due to cover such topics as: the business case for tackling AIDS; the future of healthcare and pensions in China; the prevention of chronic diseases; healthcare innovation in emerging markets; and new frontiers in biotechnology and nanotechnology. The fight against AIDS has been a key area of focus for the Forum for many years – and the issue is particularly relevant here in China, where infection rates and the number of reported cases have seen a steep increase.
Key issues here, though I wonder to what extent they will be publicly discussed, include transparency (or the lack of it here) and the way in which NGOs are viewed. This was underscored for me a few moments ago when I tried to access the websites of two highly respected organisations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, from my hotel room – and both showed as inaccessible. Uncomfortably, part of wishing China well also means that we ought to wish NGOs – both home-grown and international – well, as they try to provide the information and political impetus needed to ensure effective, timely action.
I remember reading in a slightly weird book called The Celestine Prophecy that the way that you know that things are about to change in a fundamental way is that the number of coincidences you experience goes off the scale. True or not, there were a fair few as I made my way to Dalian. First, I bumped into David Rice in the Terminal 4 lounge – he used to run the human rights side of BP, and was on his way to Azerbaijan. Then the person in the next seat on the flight to Beijing, again quite coincidentally, turned out to be Chris Luebkeman of Arup, who I had first met in Davos.
Beijing’s airport was totally civilised when compared with Heathrow, though I confess to having suffered a certain nervousness when it came to flying China Air to Dalian. Their safety record has been so bad that David Rice noted, as I left him at heathrow, that when he was at BP there was a company-wide ban on using the airline. Still, we arrived in one piece and were severally bussed to our hotels in the city.
Flying in to the airport had been instructional, however, with great clods of geriatric industry sprawling across the landscape, including refineries, shipbuilding yards and power stations. We even flew through the plume from at least one smokestack. The predominant colour of much of the airport approaches seemed to be rust red. Many of the apartment blocks we flew over were reminiscent of those you find in parts of Eastern Europe and Russia, and some were located surprisingly close to the runways.
Still, Dalian is now more than rust-belt city: it is a high-tech centre. The temperature was 27 degree Celsius, the welcome warm and the city’s air decidedly cleaner than Beijing’s, where the horizon was invisible through the murk, a combination of haze and smog. Heading across to Dalian, the 737 took 30 minutes to break out into the blue.
Monday, September 03, 2007
EN ROUTE TO DALIAN
Well, if I’m not stalled by climate change protestors gumming up the works at Heathrow, I should have left for China today, en route to Dalian, where I am due to facilitate four separate sessions at the inaugural Annual Meeting of the New Champions. The event, which runs September 6-8, has been organized by the World Ecnomic Forum in partnership with the government of the People’s Republic of China. This time round, my involvement focuses on four broad themes: (1) managing regulatory risk in emerging markets; (2) the evolution and management of the cities of tomorrow; (3) green technology; and (4) entrepreneurial philanthropy (for further details on these sessions.
And the background? Klaus Schwab, the Forum’s Founder and Executive Chairman, explains, “The idea was born out of talks the Premier and I had two years ago during a visit to Beijing. The meeting is already well on track to becoming, alongside our Annual Meeting in Davos, the foremost meeting of global leaders from all sections of society, from all areas of business and from all regions of the world. Indeed, some are already calling it a ‘summer Davos’.”
Whatever the outcome—and I have heard the view whispered that this initiative is designed to head off the potential threat of China developing a World Economic Forum of their own—this isn’t a new area of interest for the Davos crowd. In January, for example, the Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos was entitled ‘The Shifting Power Equation’ and discussion focused on various aspects of the changing business landscape: the growing prominence of the emerging economies, the increasing power of individuals and small groups over large institutions and the stronger impact of consumers upon producers.
2007 marked my sixth Forum summit. The first—early in 2002—was held in New York, in support of that city in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. And the agenda has moved on substantially since then. Issues that were still frankly marginal in 2002 have thrust into the mainstream, among them climate change, the risk of global pandemics, poverty and the future impact of emerging economies like China and India.
According to the Forum, participants from 90 countries have already signed up and more than 1,700 participants are expected to take part.” At the core of the “new champions” are a new generation of companies that will fundamentally change the global competitive landscape. “We call them Global Growth Companies,” the Forum says. “These business champions come primarily from rapidly growing emerging markets, such as China and India, but also include fast movers from developed economies.”
Global Growth Companies are businesses that have demonstrated a clear potential to become leaders in the global economy based on such factors as a company’s business model, growth record, leadership and the markets it serves. Some of the typical indicators of these companies are that they:
– Are expanding outside their traditional boundaries
– Experience strong growth rates
– Have revenues typically between US$ 100 million and US$ 5 billion
– Have demonstrated leadership in a particular industry
– Have an outstanding executive leadership
TIME TO JOIN THE NEW CHAMPIONS IN DALIAN
Fly to Beijing today, then on to Dalian, where the World Economic Forum is holding its inaugural ‘New Champions’ summit. More details at http://www.sustainability.com/insight/article2.asp?id=1010. As background, am currently reading The Long March by Sun Shuyun (HarperPress, 2006), which provides a fascinating account of how powerfully the events of the 1930s shaped the mythology, culture and politics of today’s China. She has a wonderful way of personalising the great tides of history and conflict.