[00:00:33] Tom Garrison: Hi and welcome to InTechnology. I’m Tom Garrison your host along with my co-host Camille Morhardt. And today, our guest is Dr. Wayne Visser. He is author of 41 books, including most recently Thriving: The Breakthrough Movement to Regenerate Nature, Society and the Economy. He’s a Cambridge Pracademic, writer, and speaker on thriving, regeneration, sustainable transformation and integrated value.
His work has taken him to 77 countries. Wow. Welcome to the podcast, Wayne.
[00:01:09] Wayne Visser: Thanks so much Tom. Great pleasure to be with you both.
[00:01:12] Tom Garrison: Yeah. So first, what is a pracademic?
[00:01:15] Wayne Visser: Well, it’s a practical academic; it’s somebody who remembers that ivory towers don’t help the world very much. Some might say it’s a way to not be fully respected by either academia or practice, but it’s a line that I’ve trod for many years, trying to always apply theory or conceptual thinking to practice by working with companies.
[00:01:06] Tom Garrison: Well, it sounds like with your extensive experience and your practical academic background, you’d be a great guest for this topic, which is around sustainability. And before we get too far down into the, the, the conversation, you know, there’s so much, that’s always being set around sustainability and companies that are marketing themselves as sustainable this or sustainable that, but without a real clear definition of what is sustainability. So can you give us, uh, your definition of what sustainability is?
[00:02:13] Wayne Visser: Yeah, it’s, it’s interesting that after more than 35 years, since it was officially defined by the United Nations, uh, the so-called Brundtland Definition that we’re still not clear. Right.
And that’s, that’s evident in all the conversations I have with people in business and elsewhere. But my definition is quite simple. It’s how we turn breakdowns into breakthroughs through market opportunities to regenerate nature, society, and the economy. In a sense that goes a little beyond what most would understand as sustainability of just being able to endure, but we have to aim higher than surviving, right? We have to aim for thriving. And that means that not only do we have to take care of the impact, the damage that we’ve done, but we also have to repair, restore and revitalize that.
[00:03:05] Camille Morhardt: One of the things that you mention in one of the many articles that you’ve written is, well, you mentioned sort of six trends or six evolutions that are happening. And one I’m really interested in it s convergence–where you’re talking about a bunch of different kind of tipping points and thresholds coming together at once. And you claim, I think in that article that we are undergoing that right now. Can you say a little bit more about what that is and what different arms it entails and evolves?
[00:03:36] Wayne Visser: Yeah. This is one of the scientific principles underlying complex living systems. And I call it one of the keys to thriving. And convergence is what happens in a complex system–such as a global society or economy, or even in nature–when we get what’s technically called positive feedback loops; all that means is trends or forces that reinforce one another and hence accelerate a change.
And we are seeing this, uh, in many areas. You get negative tipping points that you might reach where things actually fall apart, they collapse because for example, uh, unchecked exponential growth of the economy on a finite planet, just doesn’t add up; that results in a breakdown. But you also get convergence that results in breakthroughs. And I talk a lot in the book Thriving about the role of technology in that, which we’ll explore a bit more today. But there is a convergence around, I would say four major factors right now in terms of sustainability. One is technology; it’s the innovation and breakthrough that’s happening at a very rapid speed now.
The second is, uh, the policy environment. And we’ve seen a number of breakthroughs, not least in the United States with the Inflation Reduction Act, but also in Europe, in Australia. So we’re starting to see an enabling policy environment for sustainability.
The third is that we really see market opportunities. So we see companies breaking through. More and more we see unicorn companies, billion dollar companies where their core business is sustainability–Tesla being the obvious one, but there are others. And we also see social movements, the power of whether it’s the climate strike movement with the tens of millions of young people every week on the streets or the Black Lives Matter movement; all of these are accumulating to create those positive feedback loops. In other words, incentives that accelerate the change in a positive direction. And for that reason, I think a lot of the changes will surprise people. Things will get better a lot quicker than people expect.
There’s a wonderful little anecdote here. There’s a photograph of New York City in 1900. And it’s all horse drawn carts on the street and there’s one automobile. In 1913, the same street is all automobiles, one horse-drawn carriage. That’s how quickly change happens when you get convergence and technology plays a key role as an accelerator there.
[00:06:21] Tom Garrison: So you you’ve mentioned technology a few times and obviously for our podcast audience, most of our audience lives within that sort of technology world. And I thought it would be good to start at a high level. And of course we’ll dive in more here, but, when you say technology, what does that mean in the context of sustainability in this conversation?
[00:06:42] Wayne Visser: Yeah. Well, I paint that picture quite broadly. So it it’s any technology that we’ve created that, uh, doesn’t just exist. Most often we’re talking about hardware and software, machines of various kinds that can improve our lives. That’s really what I’m looking at. But technology in a sense is, is neutral. We can use it for ill or for good; you know, you can use nuclear power to blow up a city or to power a city. So what concerns me is when, and to what extent are we using technology to enable the breakthroughs rather than exacerbate the breakdowns?
Uh, there’s an old formula that was derived in the 1960s by an American, uh, called Paul Ehrlich, an economist, and he talked about impact being population x affluence x times technology. He was talking about environmental impact, but what that tells you is that more technology implies more negative impact on the environment.
And that has been the story since the industrial revolution, by and large; we’ve increased the power of our impact, our resource use. There’s something called the great acceleration, which happens since, uh, the 1970s, roughly where everything is just increasing exponentially in terms of our consumption of resources. But, uh, Ray Anderson, the CEO/Founder of Interface, the carpet company once put out the challenge and said, “could we not change that formula so that technology becomes what you divide population and impact and affluence by?” In other words, it becomes the thing that reduces our impact. So that’s our challenge.
And for me, it can incorporate everything from all the technologies of the 4th industrial revolution that are so popular now–whether it’s artificial intelligence or 3D printing or big data, many of the things that are in your world, of course, but it can also be some of the more, let’s say standard technologies like green hydrogen to power our cement or our heavy industry, or how we use renewables to help us with the energy transition.
[00:09:06] Camille Morhardt: Are we not seeing as a part of the 4th industrial revolution an aggregation of resources among the wealthy or tech-enabled? And how are we accounting for considering this divide that seems to be coming greater and greater, even though I know that, you know, in your book, you mention a variety of different innovations that can be very distributed and not require wealth. I, I don’t know that I’m seeing those really grow at the same rate.
[00:09:39] Wayne Visser: It’s a very good point. And it’s, it’s back to the definition of sustainability, because if you ignore the social equity issues, then you actually don’t have the full sustainability picture. So, you mentioned there are six great transitions that, uh, I talk about in the book as well, of which one is this technology transition, which is from disconnection to rewiring through a digital economy.
Another one is actually dealing with the social issues. It’s from disparity to responsibility, through an access economy and “access” meaning making the economy more accessible to everyone. Now at the moment, as you say, we actually have a digital divide. Uh, we have inequality in the access to technology.
In some areas, there is a good attempt to address that. If you look at, uh, let’s say a company like M-Pesa in Africa using mobile phone services to give people access to financial services. But, uh, while many in the world are busy catching up, even with getting online, right?–still roughly half the world’s population isn’t even online, still 2 billion don’t have a mobile phone, half a billion, not in mobile phone signal areas. So while they’re catching up, some parts of the world are steaming ahead on the 4th industrial revolution. So if you look at whether it’s 5G or the other technologies, in fact, uh, between China and the United States, they’re really in terms of investments and market capitalization of the companies that are driving this revolution are leaving the rest of the world behind even other developed countries.
So the answer is it’s, it’s a real problem and we don’t get sustainability without intentionally addressing that problem in the same way that for example, artificial intelligence, we find in some research, uh, has racial bias. So unless you address the unintended consequences, the social implications of technology, you don’t get sustainability.
[00:11:49] Tom Garrison: So I’d like to take us a little deeper into the conversation and specifically around the way companies are sort of cloaking themself in greenness. You can’t really open an article or anything where companies aren’t somehow advertising themself as green. And yet it occurs to me that that’s a very qualitative measure, meaning it’s subjective.
And, you know, my background is in engineering. I love quantitative. Where are we in being able to realistically compare and contrast companies with facts on how sustainable are they and when do you think we’re going to get a point where we can get away from some of this chest pounding that’s not necessarily based in fact, and more factual based.
[00:12:41] Wayne Visser: Great question. We’re a long way further down the road than we were 20, 30 years ago already on this agenda. So when I started out more than 30 years, it was common to see companies basically putting out fluff pieces, PR pieces about how green they were.
For most large companies we’ve got beyond that and they have to have a credible sustainability report that has some data in it. That doesn’t mean that they automatically are sustainable just because you’re reporting on some metrics; but there has been a huge amount of progress in those 30 years. I mean, the first sustainability reports were actually, uh, coming out of Europe in 1993 under the Ecomanagement and Auditing scheme. So it’s not a new agenda, but we’ve had a lot of standards being developed since then the Global Reporting Initiative being one of the first and the most widely adopted from 1999 onwards, but then more and more others that go further, that challenge more. One of the best, I think, is the Future-Fit business benchmark. But most recently we’ve seen, uh, the World Economic Forum coming up with stakeholder capitalism metrics in an attempt to get some consensus between all of these standards on what is it that we really need to measure? And they take the framing of ESG–environment, society and governance–which is partly where greenwashing has once again, reared its ugly head because some of the financial companies have got ESG funds, which it turns out, you know, have either been rigged or really are not giving us an accurate picture of companies that are more or less sustainable.
So we have a lot indicators, metrics; where we haven’t got to, I think, is complete standardization in the same way that financial metrics are standardized. Remember it took more than a hundred years to get to GARP, the Generally Accepted Accounting Practices. I’m hoping it’s not gonna take as long for this. There is a consensus emerging. There are also new methodologies being developed. The big four accounting firms are sitting together with some big companies through something called the Value Balancing Alliance to see whether we can attach financial values to social, environmental, and economic impacts, which would allow more comparability.
But, uh, the, the truth of the matter is we are not there yet. At the moment. we’re still just promoting that companies should report. And so we have to also use a bit of common sense here. And when you look at a company and what they’re reporting, I always say that the simple test is admission and ambition. So the first is are the admitting that there is a big problem? And that they are part of that problem? They’re contributing to that problem because all businesses industry is creating impact. But then do they have the ambition? Because if in their report they’re saying we’re just gonna reduce our waste by 5% or our carbon emissions by 10%. They’re not part of the solution that’s business as usual. And, uh, the problems will get worse.
So do they set the ambitious targets? Halving carbon emissions by 2030, Net Zero by 2050, for example. And that starts to give you a way to navigate through the greenwashing, which is where companies over- promise and under-deliver.
[00:16:20] Camille Morhardt: So when you’re describing change, it’s, we’re talking about World Economic Forum and some major accounting firms, and I’m wondering: a couple decades ago, we were looking at, uh, potentially having a triple bottom line as opposed to profit as the only measure for publicly traded companies.
And we’re now looking again at change, but it’s changed from within the same structure, the same system that created the profit as the bottom line. Can you explain how that change will happen from within the same system or does it actually need to happen from external or from a complete revolution of the existing system?
[00:17:04] Wayne Visser: Yeah, you’re, you’re absolutely right. You know, triple bottom line, which John Elkington introduced in 1994, he actually withdrew as a failed management concept 25 years later in an article in Harvard Business Review. And the reason was because it hadn’t really been applied in the way that he had hoped, which was as a transformational concept. At best companies, we’re seeing it as trying to get a balance between social, environmental, and economic. That’s still not transformative.
Most companies actually still give the dominance to the economic factor–to the profit factor– and then just do a little bit on social and environmental. So it didn’t work. What we really need is a nested system, because the economy is wholly dependent on society and society is wholly dependent on nature on, on the environment. So that’s how we should really be measuring and, and behaving. And that’s back to one of the standards. I mentioned the Future-Fit business benchmark, the only one that really tries to take into account that dependence that we have actually planetary boundaries that we can’t exceed if the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down. Likewise, we have social foundations that we want to get to for everybody.
I’m very skeptical and maybe even concerned about turning everything into a financial metric. I think that’s playing into the hands, as you say, of, of those that define the world in terms of only money or only profit. And that’s a little bit the danger of ESG as well, by the way; ESG is, is the way that the financial sector has framed sustainability. It’s little more than a reporting framing really. And we’re in danger, I think of, uh, losing the big picture there.
So I think what we’ve gotta do is we need a mix. We need a mix of qualitative and quantitative ways to measure things, and we need to recognize that not everything is measurable, but we can still know what’s important. If I ask you, you know, how much is your relationship with your son or your daughter worth? Give me a dollar amount. Well, it’s a ridiculous question. Right? So what we are talking about here is the importance of societal norms. You know, when slavery was around, uh, it was very profitable. It didn’t stop because it was unprofitable, it stopped because societal norms changed and said, this is unacceptable. So that’s why I’m emphasized the importance of social movements. We need the social movements to tell us what’s acceptable and what’s not; then we need the government to start to standardize that, to say, this is the new playing field, and these are the rules for everyone; and then we need business to within those sort of boundaries to create the opportunities and create the value that we need.
[00:20:0 4] Tom Garrison: It seems to me, the way you’re describing this, society plays a huge role. And I’m a believer that the companies are doing sustainability, partly because they wanna be good human beings and, you know, world citizens, but mostly because they see this is a way for them to make more money. And so that needs to translate, at some point, to the demand coming from their customers. As you said, companies will transform when society demands it. So where are we?
[00:20:35] Wayne Visser: The bad news is that customers tend not to lead– the same as governments tend not to lead. They tend to follow in the same way that, you know, they detect shifting norms. You get the pioneers, you get that section of customers that are seeing what needs to happen and, and prepared often to pay a premium for a more sustainable product. And that creates the initial demand. But our long experience in something like Fair Trade, for example, is that if you just leave it to the so-called ethical customer, you’ll never get more than about 10% of the market going for that. In most cases, you reach 1% of the market. That only changes when they become part of the movement. So those, uh, customers start to sense that something else is changing. The legislation is changing, the expectations, the peer pressure is changing. The education they’re getting in business schools is changing the kinds of jobs that are available that are exciting, which are often in sustainability are changing.
So it all adds up to the social movement of which customers are one small part; but I always caution companies not to wait for customers. The problem we’ve had is that we’ve made sustainability niche. We’ve made it about something for rich folks who care. You know? When in actual fact, what we need to do is to mainstream it; it just needs to become the new normal. And to get there, we need support from government incentives and, and others. We need innovation, but most customers will not sacrifice three things; they won’t sacrifice quality, they won’t sacrifice convenience, and mostly they won’t sacrifice price either. And the strategy of most companies until now has been to say, “well, if we do sustainable, we can charge more.” And that has a very limited future.
In fact, what we need to do is to learn through the initial pioneering work, which might command a premium price, get the feedback from those customers, but then we have to standardize it and we simply have to do frugal innovation, which is about making it actually lower cost to be sustainable and more convenient and more high quality.
[00:23:06] Camille Morhardt: So if customers or society isn’t leading edge and governments, aren’t leading edge, who is?
[00:23:14] Wayne Visser: (laughs) It’s the system. So that’s the tricky thing, right? In every one of those different segments, you will get the pioneers. And this is back to how do systems change? What do you need to get to in order to have a tipping point? And some of the research that’s been done suggests that in any random group, you only need between 5% and 25% of that group moving together in a unified direction to sway the whole group. This is based on the phenomenon of “flocking” that we see in nature. Beautiful word for that: murmuration.
So, the point is we don’t have to get to 50%. We don’t have to persuade everybody. What we need is to link up those influential minorities and for them to start to reinforce one another and then it ripples through the system and you get those convergences and you get the tipping points.
You know, I lived through the transition in South Africa to take a different angle on this; from apartheid, discriminatory system to democracy. You know, it took a 40-year fight, full of blood and, you know, really nasty struggle for that freedom. And so it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t quick, but when the change happened, the whole thing happened in about five years. Very, very rapid. And that’s how systems change.
You get lots and lots of resistance. You don’t think anything is changing, but things are accumulating in the system like a flywheel. Then it reaches that tipping point. And the interesting thing is once it does, then that what in innovation terms, we sometimes call the “early majority” and the “late majority” and the “laggards,” they flip with the system because nobody wants to be an outlier. We are social animals and we wanna fit in. And so when the system changes, everybody changes.
[00:25:20] Camille Morhardt: You know, I did think it was interesting when I was reading your book that you mentioned STEAM. And I was like, “Ooh, is that a typo?” Cuz I’ve heard of STEM, but I’ve never heard of STEAM. And then I read the “A” is Art, you know?
[00:25:34] Wayne Visser: Yeah. Thanks for noticing. It’s absolutely crucial. And often the technical fields go very well together with the arts, because you need the creativity for the innovation. And it’s often the arts that bring the inspiration. They bring a different lens on the world, a different perspective. And so I’ve always tried to integrate the arts as much as possible into all of the work I do with business on sustainability, including, uh, throwing in a poem here and there. I have been a poet for a long time. I find it gets a different response. It accesses a different part of the brain or that maybe it accesses the heart. And if we’re gonna motivate people to change, it can’t be just at the level of the head. This is not an intellectual exercise. This is an existential journey we’re on. And so we need to get people motivated in their whole being, uh, that includes the heart, the spirit, if you like. And I find that, uh, the arts are very effective in that.
So, if you’ll indulge me, then I’ll read a little poem, which links to our theme today around innovation. It’s called “It’s Time.” It’s time to redesign, to reconceive the world we leave for those who follow in our wake for each child’s sake. It’s time to spark and innovate to syncopate with new ideas beyond the fears of failures past.
At last it’s time to rise with fire burning in our eyes and change our ways to giving, for life and for the living. It’s time to realign, to reassess the mess we make. When what we take is more than need is greed. It’s time to halt life, slow decline. The heinous crime of ecocide, the plastic tide, the skies of smoke, the choke it’s time to heal the dying soil, to ease the worker’s toil and make new waves of daring with love and with great caring. Yes. It’s time to redefine, to resurrect the hope that springs with wings of acting boldly now, with minds that beam. It’s time to dream of future’s green to reinvent our fate to help the earth regenerate where waste is food renewed. It’s time to turn from death, to take a breath, to start a fresh and make a mighty pivot for life and all who live it.
[00:28:06] Camille Morhardt: Oh!
[00:28:05] Tom Garrison: That was great. Wayne. I’d like to thank you for coming today onto the podcast, educating us on what is sustainability and how we can expect that things will evolve over time.
[00:28:19] Wayne Visser: Well, thanks for having me. And, and I hope that at least we got across the idea that this is an exciting time to be alive. I mean, we are coming with many of the solutions and many of those solutions are through technology if we pay attention. And so, we’re in shortage of hope right now, but we have every reason to be hopeful if we understand how change is happening and how fast it’s happening.