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How can we solve problems without a solution?

Posted By Robin Jourdan, Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Robin Jourdan checks the possibility of solving insolvable problems in her new blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

Labor and environmentalism are often portrayed at odds with democracy and capitalism. Is labor environmentalism compatible with democracy/capitalism? For over a century, labor championed an evolving environmental movement. Labor promoted conservation of the national resources and opposition to industrial exploitation of public lands for profit. Since World War II, labor union members linked the dangers of pollution in the workplace with the contamination of the surrounding communities. Labor unions were also essential organizers of the first Earth Day. Earth Day has grown to become the largest nonspiritual celebration. More than a billion people take part every year, stirring policy changes.

 

By joining forces, labor and environmental organizations had increased business regulation to protect workers. Until the mid-1980s. Industry's response exposed workers by using claims that lost profits could result in layoffs or complete shutdowns. Such assertions change the conversation for workers and union representation. This results in pitting jobs directly opposite to safety, health and environment. Today's business hostility and centralized government ambivalence create a formidable front to environmental quality. A response is birth of the green labor movement. Itself a new model, it holds promise to disrupt political alignments.

 

Union environmentalism that protects members from unsafe conditions has risen. This outcome has also benefitted the natural environment as a byproduct. Increased use of machine workers, especially in dangerous and hazardous situations may result in a whole new thinking. Globally today, nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air. The United Nations Environment is focusing on tackling the growing yet overlooked threat of air pollution. To a large extent, this a response to accelerating carbon emissions via increased energy demands, especially in China, India, and the US.

 

Beijing has shown what is possible to reduce air pollution and are increasing their actions and ambition for the next 20 years: a model for others to follow. World Heritage sites will face heightened threats; especially crucial to nations who value their long heritage. Going forward, leadership will be judged on its capacity to resist temptations to manipulate the system, versus commitments, met as a proactive and responsible role model. A wildcard is recently surfacing in the US as a group of young people have begun lawsuits over climate change inaction.

 

Today's technocrats can take advantage of their ability to consider and grow in the face of issues such as proper workforce planning for health issues. As the number of active workers declines, elderly non-workers' health issues will increase similarly.

 

New Environmentalists, new hope? Global leadership who take on fighting inequality, including that induced by climate change, will be rewarded. Efforts reversing climate change will be challenged by a more significant influence of urban areas. Ignoring climate change will come at a cost in the Trillions of dollars antithetical to capitalist goals.

 

Is labor environmentalism compatible with democracy/capitalism? Approaching tipping points at work in today's short-termism world can provide specific incentives. For an economic incentive market truth offers the highest reliability. For example, in the future, holding jobs hostage over environmental concerns will diminish as AI and machinery take over dangerous front-line work and lowering costs. This change could cause the market into a full-court press protecting Spaceship Earth. Problems without solutions may be only a temporal issue. Given additional information and evolution, even the toughest solutions can be found.

 

© Robin Jourdan 2019

Tags:  change  environment  society 

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In a fully digital world will companies still need to account for the environment?

Posted By Paul Tero, Friday, July 5, 2019

Paul Tero a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the structure of business and the changing environment in a digital economy. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

There are a number of ways in which companies account for the environment. It could be a seasonal perspective in terms of the variations in goods and services brought to market, another is from an environmental perspective in terms of energy usage as well as production and packaging materials, and a third is from a shareholder and stakeholder perspective in terms of statutory requirements. In recent years the triple bottom line reporting framework has made its way into corporate practices. Where companies, for reasons due either to regulatory compliance or enlightened executives, report on profit, people and planet. That is in addition to their standard financial statements. Organizations are reporting on metrics related to their staff and their impact upon the environment.

 

Building on the acceptance of reporting on more than one performance parameter, there is a nascent movement to embrace the quadruple bottom line. Where this fourth performance parameter is "purpose". Defined as the ethics, culture and desires of the organization. The administrative policies and processes that are established by government bodies, and are used to govern companies and organisations, change over time. Long gone is the notion that business reputation is solely built on a profit and loss statement.

 

Into this governance implication let us now draw two threads of previous thought: the structure of business and the changing environment. First, we know that the process business engages in to make a profit will change in the decades ahead. Pervasive digitisation will drive an increasingly ubiquitous phenomena of process automation and forms of cognitive processing. Limiting the typical set of tasks available for the human workforce to those requiring people skills and/or thinking skills. Secondly, while this trend of digitisation gathers apace the climate and natural environment in which business and the digital economy is beholden to will still be changing. There are two responses to these macro changes. The first, described as a pathway of current and common ambition, is to succeed in humanity having a light footprint on the environment. On the other hand, the pathway of lackluster ambition necessarily leads to outcomes that are less than optimal for all life forms.

 

There is currently a broad acceptance of the concept of a global carbon budget. Therefore, one can envisage that, over the course of the time horizon we are concerned with, this principle of a global budget being established in corporate governance practices. Where economic entities are given a "profile" to work within. Thus, realising a transition from triple bottom line reporting through quadruple to quintuple. That is adding "profile" to the currently recognised profit, people, planet and purpose.

 

With respect to the triple and quadruple bottom line reporting the sense is that these governance outcomes are the result of internal motivations. The result of what the business decides to do. With the "profile" metric, the sense is that the reporting is on the outcomes with respect to the environmental budget that any business is given to work within. This "profile" metric, a response to a set of imposed environmental limits, is relevant to both climate outcomes. Through either an enforced collaboration upon all businesses to ensure a continued light footprint, or a set of rules to limit the damage upon our common habitat.

 

The image of this future for business, the government and the economy is where the operational milieu of business is characterised as an expanse of intensely interconnected entities that are data and computationally rich. Where the description has morphed from being called a digital economy into an intelligence economy. Where the wisdom of the quintuple bottom line enforces the boundaries of all behaviour.

 

In a fully digital world companies will not only need to account for the environment. They will be required to.

 

© Paul Tero 2019

Tags:  digital economy  economics  environment 

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Narratives Which Inspire Better Futures

Posted By Administration, Friday, November 9, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Polina Silakova, a member of our Emerging Fellows program devotes her eleventh blog post to the possibility of building better futures by narratives with an eye on New Zealand. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

The address by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at 2018 UN Assembly caused an eruption of applause. She devoted a lot of her speech to a call-for-action on climate change: “Our action in the wake of this global challenge remains optional, but the impact of inaction does not.” This is a very good point, indeed. This type of challenge requires strong political leadership across the globe with a clear, long-sighted shared vision. And yet, despite the destructive impact of human activities being obvious by now, we still are not doing enough to change the course. Why?

For Jean Tirole, the winner of the Nobel prize in Economics, this is a no-brainer. “It is the result of two factors” – Tirole says – “selfishness with regard to future generations and the free rider problem. In other words, the benefits of reducing climate change remain global and distant in time, while the costs of that reduction are local and immediate.” Although there are attempts to internalise the negative externalities, for example, by means of carbon tax, they are far from perfect. For example, carbon leakage – moving contaminating production from a country with stricter environmental regulation to a country where it’s cheaper to pollute – makes it clear that only a truly global solution could slow down climate change.

It is hard to motivate yourself to solve a problem which you don’t see at this point in time in your immediate environment. Moreover, as studies show, our brains are biased towards more positive images of future and can even influence our perception of facts. Neither are helpful political systems based on short-term election cycles. They often make politicians prioritise the immediate outcomes promised to their electorate over the long-term improvements, the benefits of which might not be even seen by the current voting generation. But this is not the case everywhere.

For starters, China, allegedly, is halfway through its 100-year strategy. The strategy consists of nine steps, based on lessons from history, which are supposed to make China the world’s leading superpower by 2050. Another example of long-term planning comes from indigenous people of North America. In Mohawk nation, historically based in present-day New York area, the chief is appointed by the clan mother for life. As part of his role, he should be making decisions based on the interests of the community “seven generations from now”. Should the chief not be acting in the best interests of people, after three warnings the title can be taken away from him.

What elements of this long-term thinking can Western capitalistic societies adopt to represent the voices of yet-to-be-born generation in decisions we take today? Back to New Zealand which also seems to be inspired by its local communities. Learning from Maori’s concept of guardianship – the idea that we have a duty of care for the environment that we pass on to future generations – New Zealand is aiming to become the best place in the world to be a child. This encompasses not only young Kiwis’ childhood experience but also the prospects for their future, the country, and the environment today’s generation hands over to them.

While other countries are working on policies and strategies aiming for similar outcomes, the way New Zealand communicates it seems to be different. It unites various strategies under one inspiring goal which reveals a deeper meaning and images of the future behind the dry targets. Supported by strong engagement, it might become a powerful strategic narrative. It has an exciting potential to mobilise people’s agency towards achieving a goal they can relate to.

Business has already started adopting narratives for strategic decision-making. To mature further, these narratives need to incorporate systemic thinking. A switch from pitching benefits of individual initiatives towards a better understanding of how pulling one trigger can influence another area could get us one step closer towards understanding how our actions impact our children’s future.

In isolation, the narratives won’t do the job. We need a united global action, internalisation of externalities and more systemic approach. This will only happy when all key parties will take a conscious decision to take these steps. But what a good narrative can do is to make a shift in thinking and inspire these actions that our future kids so desperately need.


© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  decision  environment  New Zealand 

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Welcome to Earth, the Sub-Optimized Planet

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his sixth article written for the program. In it, he explores the potential of sub-optimized ecosystems. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.

What role can – or will – innovation play in the future of the real economy? To begin, let’s start with the simplest definition of innovation. Innovation is “creating results by doing new things.” The “doing new things” part is fairly self-explanatory on the surface. It is the process of doing something in a way in which it was not previously done. Although, often, we may have done something, then stopped doing it, then started doing it again either aware or unaware of having done it in the past. But the “creating results” piece of the definition is less clear. What, precisely, is a result? A positive outcome? And, if so, a positive outcome for whom? We can say that, today, an innovative result is one in which we either save money, make money, or provide some sort of social or environmental good. But are those the results we should be aiming for? Do we care, or even understand, how these results impact and influence other components of the global system? And, for our purposes here, how will our definition of “results” evolve in the future? The point here is not to focus on types of results reporting, such as triple bottom line or happiness index-type measurements. The purpose here is on the deeper structural challenges to “real” innovation.

There is no question that what we might call “innovation-offset” occurs across a system or multiple subsystems. How often does an innovation in one area generate an offsetting process inefficiency or product redundancy in another? Put another way, if you innovate in one area, to the detriment of another area, are you really innovating at all? And how would you even know?

Two common terms used to describe this phenomenon are sub-optimization and shifting the burden. Sub-optimization commonly refers to silo-type thinking within an organization. This leads to non-value added activities, redundancy, or diminished returns. Shifting the burden, on the other hand, is a term generally meant to describe a tendency to focus on resolving surface-level, symptomatic issues, pushing costs and negative externalities onto others.

What we might call “sub-optimization ecosystems” are now a vital part of the real economy, not only the maintenance of them, but the perpetual attempts to circumnavigate them. By focusing on the self-interest of the firm at the expense of the larger system, we are inherently sub-optimizing. We ostensibly innovate within a department, across a division, across a firm, across an industry, across multiple industries, then across whole economies. There is no escape.

Our attention has been focused on what we can call the migratory patterns of money. How its shapes and structures tend to manifest. And here, we see a profitable innovation ecosystem, where activity and expenditure is its own reward. But wait, isn’t innovation inherently messy? An iterative process of trial and error. “Fail fast to succeed sooner”?

Consider what percentage of global GDP is dedicated to activities that solve problems by creating new problems elsewhere. Cycles of pointless zero-sum innovation. At a time of complexity, instead of adopting the tools of social innovation and systems change, we have doubled down on the mercurial dark arts of sub-optimization, masked as real innovation.


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  innovation 

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Growth or sustainability: Which response to the wicked problem will we choose?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, April 12, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s fourth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores sustainability and the wicked problem of the limits to growth. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Grow not stop. Where shall we put the comma in this sentence? For a long time, growth has been the key focus of countries’ GDPs, business plans, and individual’s bonus schemes. But is it really a good way to measure our progress towards a better life? What is a “good life” anyway? And what does our good life mean for its key enabler – the Earth?

A group of British scientists recently tried to answer some of these questions, namely: is it possible for everyone to live a good life within our planet’s limits? They defined a good life very modestly – the satisfaction of basic needs – yet the result of their analysis of 150 countries is quite disheartening. Put on a map, the countries we know as well developed (Germany, Australia, Sweden, US, Japan) are clustered in the dangerous corner, having surpassed multiple biophysical boundaries. Moreover, if we were to try to equally distribute this modest standard of living for every person on the planet – without putting the very planet in danger – we would need to use up to six times more resources than what we currently consume. Quite a sobering calculation, isn’t it?

This study is not the first to address issues concerning our growth-oriented society. Back in 1987, the Brundtland Report called for changing the quality of growth. It stated: “Sustainable development involves more than growth. It requires a change in the content of growth, to make it less material and energy-intensive, and more equitable in its impact.” The report alerted that growth combined with acute inequality can be worse for a country’s development than the lack of growth. Currently, in 2018, we are obviously a long way from either reducing inequality or growing sustainably.

A contemporary economist, Kate Raworth addresses the same growth-related issues and warns about the obsolescence of the economic theory taught in schools and universities. In her book “Doughnut Economics” she urges us to shift the focus from the growth in GDP towards creating a more just society instead. To treat natural resources as an integral part of economics, not some loosely related externality. Although her book was shortlisted by the Financial Times as one of the best business books of 2017, Ms. Raworth points to the challenges of getting outdated academic views replaced by a more accurate and holistic understanding of economics. In an attempt to make this change happen, Ms. Raworth invites us to start a guerrilla campaign to fight against the invalid economic dogmas in a non-traditional way.

At the same time, students in Oregon, US have chosen to act even more radically to ensure their voices are heard. They took the federal government to court for “profoundly damaging our home planet by subsidizing fossil-fuel production which violated [the government’s] public-trust responsibility and threatens the plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty”. This accusation probably goes beyond any other environmental case so far. The outcome of this case is still pending, but other similar cases initiated by plaintiffs between 10 and 20 years old may start to see some success around the world.

What is an appropriate response when the traditional structures are so imperfect? When teens who compete to study in the best universities, hoping to get the knowledge they need to change the world, graduate from their courses to be disappointed by the obsolete theory they were taught. When representatives we elect to act on our behalf go astray, blinded by the short-term goals linked to their terms of power; is it a revolt like the one in 2014 organised by economics students in 30 countries against a curriculum disconnected from reality? Is it a guerrilla campaign to stealthily re-draw diagrams in university books like Kate Raworth proposes? Do we have to go as far as taking to court the very government we elected, like the boys and girls from iMatter and other environmental groups do? What actions should citizens take to make sure that the voices of future generations are heard at the tables where big decisions are made?

Something that each of us could do is at least to make sure that our own children get a systemic, big picture view of the world, as opposed to narrow opinions dictated by short-term capitalistic values. Knowing what the choice actually means of a comma’s position in the “grow not stop” sentence might become a much more important knowledge in our kids’ life than many other things in their curriculum. The question remains though – is it enough?


© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  government 

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War: What Is It Good For?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 6, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

This is Craig Perry’s third post for our Emerging Fellows program. Both of his previous articles centered on questions about war. With this latest post, he continues to give readers much to consider. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Anarchy is a feature of our international system. Not a bug. With no supranational authority capable of policing relations between sovereign states, competition for resources and influence can naturally lead to conflict. Great powers will sometimes resort to war—despite the risk and expense this entails—when their other, nonmilitary instruments of national power come up short. As Carl von Clausewitz famously observed nearly two centuries ago, war is simply a continuation of politics by other means—namely, acts of violence to compel opponents to fulfill one’s will. The nature of war hasn’t changed much in the intervening years, even as armed conflict has become less endemic in world affairs.

If we were to construct a taxonomy of reasons great powers wage war, it might closely resemble Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Regime survival in the face of an existential threat is the most fundamental excuse for conflict, followed closely by the protection of national sovereignty or territorial integrity. Great powers may also go to war to preserve or expand their spheres of influence over less-powerful neighbors, while the defense of allies against a mutual adversary lies higher up the proverbial pyramid. At the top of the hierarchy, we would find enforcement of international law and humanitarian intervention, arguably the most enlightened—or rather, least indefensible—pretexts for war.

Whatever its causes, however, war is always an ugly business, and great powers have long sought to constrain its excesses by codifying laws governing armed conflict. In the aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allied Powers even resolved “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” once and for all by establishing the United Nations, whose charter provided mechanisms for the pacific settlement of disputes and maintenance of international peace and security. Yet the UN Charter also enshrined the inherent right of states to defend themselves from armed attack, and granted the great powers of the day—in their roles as permanent members of the UN Security Council—sweeping authority to determine when a state of war exists; intervene militarily to restore the peace; and prevent the UN from acting against their interests. Such concessions were necessary to gain buy-in for the UN project, but this design flaw has guaranteed that future generations would continue to experience the scourge of war.

The question of what, exactly, constitutes war has taken on increased urgency in recent decades, as combatants have found ever more innovative ways to wreak havoc. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, for example, commits NATO members to consider an armed attack against any one of them as an attack on them all. Yet the only time in its history the Alliance has invoked this provision was not in response to a conventional military assault, but rather after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2014, the Alliance further warned that cyberattacks could also trigger Article 5 if they reached a threshold that threatened NATO’s prosperity, security, or stability. Meanwhile, NATO has quietly dropped the qualifier “armed” when describing its Article 5 obligations in most of its communiqués—a tacit admission, perhaps, that war can come in all shapes and sizes.

Indeed, while all the great powers maintain formidable forces capable of conducting offensive military operations, they are also fielding new tools and techniques to compel opponents to fulfill their will short of armed conflict—that is, without egregiously violating international law or crossing a collective-defense threshold. Consequently, future wars may not reflect the thinking of Clausewitz so much as the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, who wrote: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”



© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  politics 

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A Path to the a Circular Economy

Posted By Administration, Thursday, March 1, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

This is Maggie Greyson’s first post for the Emerging Fellows program, and she starts with a strong piece about the circular economy. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Thembi Mtshali, a young Zulu girl, was born into poverty in rural South Africa. Her grandmother showed her how to make a doll from clay, and when she was done playing with it, to return it to the land. This circle of life image transcends time as a powerful instruction to future generations – take what you need and restore it to the earth for others to use.

Iranian architect Nader Khalili designed emergency shelters out of sandbags. These disaster-resistant structures are formed by coiling sandbags into giant beehives and stabilizing them with barbed wire. Although they can be a permanent housing solution, they can go back to the earth, too.

The Canadian province of Ontario included a regulation in the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act 2016 which requires tire producers or automotive dealers to recover unusable tires so that Ontarians don’t burn them or send them to landfills. This mandate was created as part of the provincial-wide system to fight climate change. In January 2018, proponents of this act called for a 90% recovery of all components and higher value recycling outcomes such as turning the end-of-life tire into rubberized asphalt roads. With some concerted effort, the stakeholders in the system will create jobs, reduce waste, and achieve the target.

In each example, the cycle of creation and destruction has a lower environmental impact than many alternatives. A children’s doll can be returned to the earth and leave no trace. The sustainable construction uses mostly local resources and can house millions in temporary structures. Ontario can become a global leader in higher value recycling for a circular economy.

Native American ecologist Chief Seattle said, “Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints,” in 1854. Around the 1990’s global standards began to emerge encouraging people to rethink production and elevate the practice of sustainable fishing, forestry, architecture and so on. Michael Braungart and William McDonough’s wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things in 2002. They created a framework to evaluate production activities at all phases from raw material extraction, production, and distribution, use and refuse. They suggest that all the things that we design should come from the earth without impact, and return it safely when it is no longer needed as compost, or provide the path to reuse the raw materials.

We see attempts at a cradle-to-cradle design, or C2C, a trend in clothing manufacturing, buildings, and sewage. Although today this framework is 16 years old, it’s in its infancy. Critics point out that a production cycle will always be impacted by energy use, transportation and speed to market, which may always prevent a product from obtaining a perfect Life Cycle Assessment score. There could be a more conscious effort to consider how humans use Earth’s resources today and leave positive options for future generations. While we make an effort conserve en masse, we need to be reminded of the scientific Law of Conservation of Mass. This law describes a system of energy and matter that does not increase or decrease over time. A perfect circular economy would do the same where we extract the maximum value of each component at the end of each service life.

If we are to live within our planetary boundaries we need to nurture a well thought out system in which we decrease man-made junk and increase our natural healing agents. How might our production methods differ if we design technology using the right kind of matter and energy for the needs of the 12 billion humans who could be living on planet Earth by 2050?



© Maggie Greyson 2018

Tags:  ecology  economics  environment 

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Travelling along the scale of scarcity and abundance (and back?)

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Polina Silakova is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is her second article written for the program. In it, she explores a few options for enforcing environmentally sustainable behavior in times of scarcity and abundance.

It was a hot, late spring day from my childhood in Moscow of the early 1990s. My grandmother and I simmering in a long, slowly moving, queue in front of a grocery store. For a couple of months, the stalls have been nearly empty, with just very, very limited food available. In the pre-internet age, it made our “trips of hope” to the nearby stores a daily routine. That day we were lucky: they had cheese, hence such a hustle.

Towards lunchtime the queue started moving faster, testing my excitement. When it was our turn, I noticed with surprise that the door was defended by a bulky store assistant in a uniform, acting like a gate-keeper. The gate-keeper, who happened to be equipped with a pen, left some sort of autograph on my grandma’s hand, amplifying my confusion. Then we left. On the way home, my grandmother explained that the store was closing for a lunch break and the autograph was, in fact, our number in the queue, so that we could re-join it an hour later.

What happened after that has vanished from my recollection of that day. Although various forms of queues are still a common practice, the experience of being quite literally numbered in a queue to satisfy a most basic need left a more profound imprint in my memory than whether we actually had cheese on the table that day.

Today, in many countries consumer experience is opposite to that of post-Soviet Russia: the abundance of products make brands hunt for consumers. They spend billions of dollars on media budgets, packaging, new product development and the purchase of our data, trying to make us healthier, smarter, better people and simplifying the journey from our need to their product.

The trends of recent years indicate that additional variables have already started impacting consumer decision-making. Brands have to adapt their strategies to stay competitive. Consumers increasingly see their purchases as a statement about their identity, portraying an image they want to be known for. This raises expectations from the brands to improve transparency, become greener and more efficient if they want to recruit more consumers to their team. Companies like Method, Lush and Everlane are already actively exploring the new area of purposeful marketing, while the agency enso.co is publishing a World Value Index which ranks brands not in terms of their business success but based on what they do for the world. Will this be enough to create a positive impact at scale? Or will other factors remain the prevalent drivers of our purchases until something else will radically change our perception of our responsibility as consumers?

While enso.co is rating brands, the Chinese government (although not necessarily driven by sustainability agenda) is rating its citizens. China is undertaking a massive project of implementing a social credit system. Once rolled-out in 2020, it will rank each and every citizen based on the individual’s economic and social behaviour, as well as the scores of others in the person’s network. Things like purchases in last week’s shopping, frequent contacts circle or behaviour such as not showing up to a restaurant without cancelling your reservation – all this will count towards your personal score if you are a Chinese citizen in two years’ time.

This reward and punishment system opens a big controversy. It is hard to say whether it will actually do more good or harm to society. No matter whether we would want to live in a world like this or not, let’s imagine that the mix of the two rating ideas from above is in place: a social credit system which rates us in regard to what we do for sustainability of the world. Each time we purchase a product from a particular place or brand, or buy a coffee in a plastic cup, our public image gets shaped and our personal rating is adjusted up and down on the scale.

And what if, in a utopian future, when the scarcity of natural resources is fast approaching, and unsustainable behaviour is stigmatised in the society, our personal sustainability rating is used to allow or prohibit access to resources we need? What if this number, not written with ink on your hand, but publicly available in all databases mentioning your name, will again become our position in the line for limited resources? Will we then change our behaviour? And, most importantly, how can we change it now, so that we do not end up in such a world?


© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  politics 

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Are we too myopic and self-serving to invest in the future?

Posted By Administration, Friday, February 16, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Daniel Bonin is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his second article for the program. He infrastructure projects as an example of the way myopic thinking sabotages how we as humans invest in our own future.

Myopic and self-serving decision making seems omnipresent. Think about people who display NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitudes. Or infrastructure companies and politicians who plan with wrong assumptions and within short cycles. It can constitute a blight upon future infrastructure projects. This attitude is fostered by the way we think, the way we judge, and the way we decide. The way we view the blueprint of the greater socio-economic system we interact with. It is built into the very characteristics of infrastructures.

People tend to act myopic and self-serving in contexts where decisions are (a) made seldom, are (b) costly in terms of money and cognitive load, (c) receive delayed feedback on the impact and their own contribution to the outcome and (d) would be required to forecast future emotional states to come to an educated judgment. It has to be said that making decisions about infrastructures is a perfect breeding ground for myopic and self-serving decisions.

Infrastructure planners and politicians often assume lay people to be just as knowledgeable and rational as they are. Experts often fail to acknowledge the emotions that are at play when lay people consider planned infrastructures as risky and expect adverse consequences in their backyard. The result is a manifestation of self-serving and myopic thinking, famously known as not in my backyard attitude.

Political and business cycles also foster myopic and self-serving decisions. Politicians have an incentive to postpone uncomfortable infrastructure decisions to secure votes by redistributing economic funds to other social issues or ban projects that are subject to protests of their electorates. Also for businesses, short-term bonuses and serving terms are undermining long-term orientation, thereby facilitating a real diabolic mentality, namely corruption in planning, building and running infrastructures. This severe issue of corruption is encouraged when short-term and self-serving thinking becomes a normal way to behave in organizations and institutions.

There are a few positive developments with respect to our weaknesses to be mentioned: more immersive ways to experience the impact of one’s myopic decisions in the present on one’s future-self have shown to reduce our hunger for instant gratification. This might help to overcome the characteristics of decisions about infrastructures that make the evaluation of them so tricky. For instance, virtual realities can overcome a lack of imagination when it comes to forecast the impact and risk of infrastructure on daily life and thereby alleviate unjustified concerns. In a similar vein, social and frugal innovation increase the acceptance of infrastructures and help to establish their future orientation. Joint involvement of state, local communities and businesses can create win-win-situations for people as it should not be forgotten that infrastructure projects can revitalize regions.

That being said, several trends lead to the conclusion that myopic and self-serving attitudes will continue to undermine future-oriented thinking about infrastructures. Growing social inequalities make it more difficult to put oneself in the shoes of someone else, thereby heightening self-serving behavior. The gap between experts and lay people is also likely to be exacerbated by the shift towards a knowledge economy and a growing role of automation and artificial intelligence, both of which are pushed into the world by experts. The possible downturn of the nation-state and rise of city mayors and grass root movements reduces the degree of coordination and likelihood of top-down interventions that overrule not in my backyard or neighborhood attitudes. It remains questionable if a bottom up push could really lead to more long-term thinking. Much will still depend on the location of infrastructures compared to one’s backyard or neighborhood. At the same time, growing individualism increasingly influence even traditionally collectivist societies. Demographic change and tight state budgets cause older people to seek solutions for their most pressing short-term issues. Younger generations feel ignored and fear being marginalized. A sound and future oriented society would put more emphasis on the voice and needs of younger generations. And it is this very generation and their successors that will live with the infrastructures of tomorrow in 2050.

All in all, myopic and self-serving thinking is deeply entrenched in our nature and likely here to stay. This is driven by a variety of strong factors and trends: the way humans behave together with the nature of infrastructure decision making, along with distorted incentive schemes and cycles in politics and business. These foster our short-term and selfish thinking about social inequalities, aging societies, marginalized younger people and growing individualization.

Are we too myopic and self-serving to invest in the future? Yes. Will we continue to be so in the future? Likely.


© Daniel Bonin 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  politics 

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Society, the economy, and the planet

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Polina Silakova is one of our Emerging Fellows. She and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. Her first article discusses the intersection of societal norms, economic conditions, and the environment.

In the lead-up to the festive season, streets are dressed up in chic decorations, stores experiment with creative stands with sweets and gifts, and wherever we are, we can hardly escape from commercials, kindly offering to help us choose presents for our nearest and dearest. The hustle in the media and in the shops became an inseparable part of this special time and we can hardly imagine it to be otherwise. End of the year’s shopping boom is good for us and good for businesses, right?

At the same time, a different announcement nearly got lost in this busy media clutter. A world meteorological organisation reported 2016 results which show the record increase in global carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere (403.3 ppm for those who like figures) – a rate not seen for millions of years. The increase is largely attributed to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels. Those fuels keep our homes warm (or cool), make (most of) our cars move, enable the production of all the things that we need (and the ones that we don’t really need), and help me write this post by powering my laptop with electricity.

Until now the price of most of these goods and services did not include full environmental costs and we only start considering this now, possibly too late and too slow. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change is the first attempt to address the issue at a big scale. With Syria recently having signed up the accord, all the countries in the world agreed to act collaboratively to limit the negative impact of human activities. The United States has become the only one leaving, as announced by Donald Trump earlier in 2017. Trump’s reasoning is that the terms of the agreement are bad for America’s economy (which is, by the way, the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon). In other words, if the United States commits to the accord, they will not be able to produce as much stuff as they do now, as profitably as currently.

The reason for Trump’s decision is in the short-term thinking and capitalistic values behind it. But he is not alone in prioritising the more tangible short-term outcomes over the more blurred future on the horizon. Generally, as recent research by the University of California suggests, human brains are “not wired for the future”. However, as with everything, there are exceptions and in another part of the world, we find a different story.

While Trump is trying to protect the production of new goods, Sweden introduced a 50% reduction in tax on repairing goods. This is the government’s attempt to rationalise new economic behaviour for people to revive their possessions, instead of buying new stuff; to create the new norms, as opposed to what developed countries are accustomed to. The initiative aims to cut carbon emissions from production, reduce waste and more generally, promote sustainable consumption. In other words, Sweden gives its citizens an additional, financial reason to take care of the planet. Sustainable values of responsible citizens are supported both by making this behaviour normal in society and by providing monetary rewards. And Swedes don’t seem to expect any negative economic outcomes from the new law.

The difference between the responses of these two countries to the wicked problems we face is in how much weight does the future have in the decisions we take today? The Brundtland Report in 1987 gave rise to the most influential definition of sustainable development. It states: “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The difference between the Swedish and the American response is exactly in defining the needs of the present and in understanding the impact of today on the generations of the future.

While the governments of different countries may choose different actions in regard to these two components of sustainability, we are curious about whether we will see a more American or a more Swedish response from consumers in the future? We are not inviting you to re-gift your last year’s present or to carry a Christmas tree home on a bicycle. The problem is much more complex than that and the solution involves all three parties: government, businesses and consumers.

What role will we choose to play? What is the relationship between our values, societal norms, economic conditions and our buying behaviour? When will we start including full environmental costs in the price of the goods and services and when will we be ready to pay for it? Will it direct our choices between alternative goods? Or not?



© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  society 

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