We Need New Generation of ‘Imagineers’ Who Can Envision Sustainable Future: Wayne Visser

Sustainability is the new frontier. To reach it, we must start by letting go of the old ways that are not working, such as the take-make-waste industrial system.

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Wayne Visser is Author and Founder of Kaleidoscope Futures. He shared his vision and experiences with Rusen Kumar, Editor, India CSR Netowrk.

Here is the edited excerpts from interview: 

How long have you been researching and teaching sustainability?

I have been actively engaged with the topic of sustainability for almost 25 years. It began in 1990, when I attended two conferences organised by the international economics and commerce students organisation, AIESEC – one on wildlife management in Africa, held in Zimbabwe, and one on global business and sustainable development, held in Japan – both of which served to capture the voice of young leaders as input to the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. I also did a research dissertation on ‘Green Marketing’ for my Business Science Honours degree in 1991.

The teaching began a few years later, in 1998, when I delivered a presentation on environmental management and a 2-day course on environmental accounting at the annual conference of the National Occupational Safety Association (NOSA) in South Africa. Since then, I have published 15 books on sustainable business (the first in 2002) and over 300 articles, chapters and research reports, as well as delivering over 280 presentations, lectures and courses while travelling to over 70 countries around the world.

What inspired you to start and what is motivating you to keep going?

At the time when I was a young undergraduate studying business, I was also fascinated by existential questions, which led me to explore the ancient wisdom of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam, as well as the prevailing ideas of the New Age movement.

Since all of these traditions are built on foundations of values and ethics, I became interested in how business could become a force for good in society. Companies were just beginning to think about sustainable development, which had been coined a few years earlier in the UN’s Brundtland Report (Our Common Future, 1987).

So it was a natural fit for me to become a student, advocate and ultimately an expert in sustainability. What keeps me motivated is the certain knowledge that today, over 20 years later, we are still failing to solve our global sustainability challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss. At the same time, I have a strong conviction that business’s capacity to innovate solutions is seeding what I call the “syndustrial revolution” – namely an industrialization renaissance driven by the goal of increasing synergy between governance, economic, social and ecological systems.

What obstacles have you encountered during your journey?

The first obstacle that I (and many others) have encountered is the perception that sustainability is a fringe – rather than a mainstream – concern, or even a luxury that only rich people in the West can afford to worry about. This flawed perception still exists, but it is now the exception rather than the rule, given the way that sustainability issues have risen up the global agenda in recent years.

The second obstacle is the belief by many companies that sustainability can be tackled as a side-issue – for example, through philanthropy – without rethinking and redesigning how they make their products, run their businesses and deliver their services.

The third obstacle is the failure of the market – and governments as their rule-makers – to properly incentivise sustainability, i.e. to reward long-term, sustainable investments and to punish short-term, predatory, extractive and consumptive corporate and consumer behaviours. All of these obstacles are surmountable, but not without wide sweeping changes in business, government and society.

How do you communicate the message of sustainability?

Communicating sustainability is a really tricky balancing act. History has shown that we cannot scare people into changing their ways. But at the same time, we need to paint an honest, fact-filled picture of the seriousness of the challenges we face and the impacts our economic activities are having on people and the planet.

 On balance, however, I believe the message of sustainability has to be a positive one – a story of hope and inspiration, a window into what is possible for the future. Increasingly, I talk about the 5-S goals of future-fitness – creating a future for our families, communities, companies and society that is safe, shared, smart, sustainable and satisfying.

If we frame the sustainability message in terms of these positive criteria for a better future, I believe we have a better chance of success. To use a metaphor, we should not be trying to wrestle an old, dry bone from the dog’s mouth; rather, we should present a fresh, juicy bone as an alternative, so that the dog voluntarily lets go of the old in favour of the new.

Who do you think deserves attention nowadays concerning sustainability?

First, we should be celebrating those companies and countries that are embracing the vision of net zero/net positive impacts, such as the strategic goals of zero waste, net positive (100% renewable) energy and carbon neutrality, water neutrality, zero tolerance for corruption, and so on. Second, we must shine the light on any companies that are actively addressing the rise in income inequality and the issue of women in leadership within their companies, as well as within their countries and the world.

Third, businesses that are increasing levels of biodiversity are to be applauded, in recognition of the fact that, together with climate change, this is our biggest global tragedy in progress (WWF’s Living Planet Index shows a 52% decline in populations of vertebrate species since 1970). Finally, we must support companies that have progressive and proactive policies for turning the current migration crisis into a positive opportunity, both for the hard-working, entrepreneurial migrants and for business and the host societies.

Who do you think is attracting unwarranted attention?

The world is awash with CSR and sustainability reporting awards, which I believe are at best a distraction and at worst a manipulation of real impacts. These beauty pageants of the corporate world seldom give an honest and balanced account of progress towards sustainability (or, more to the point, the lack thereof). The reason is that sustainability reporting focuses on ad-hoc activities of companies, rather than integrated impacts on society and the environment.

In other words, they fail to connect the dots and tell us whether things on the ground – climate change, income inequality, loss of species, women in leadership, water scarcity, etc. – are getting better or worse. We are fixated on the parts, rather than the sum of the parts. Besides this, all the multiple sustainability rankings of largely the same companies over and over tend to be inconsistent, creating confusion in the market rather than clarity. Until we have truly integrated reporting and credible global sustainability ratings agencies, we will continue to applaud the captains of industry while the planetary ship goes down.

What are the social challenges before India, according to you?

The biggest social challenge for India is governance. I’m not talking about corruption – although that is a creeping cancer that cannot be ignored – but rather about how a democratic country with over a billion people avoids death by inertia, precipitated by overshoot-and-collapse. The evidence so far from the rest of the world – albeit at a much smaller scale – is that the bureaucratic inefficiencies, institutional delays and myopic politics of democratic governance systems are failing to respond quickly enough or at sufficient scale to the sustainability crises that are looming.

This overshoot-and-collapse behaviour was predicted in the 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ study of the Club of Rome and seems to have been vindicated in the ensuing 40 years. Simply put then, how does India convince its burgeoning middle class to adopt a lifestyle – and by implication a production and consumption model – that decouples economic growth from ecological impacts? Failure to do so will reverse all the incredible progress made in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in the past few decades.

What are the most significant areas of sustainable responsibilities?

Anyone who truly wants to take responsibility for a sustainable future needs to be working on disruption, whether it be technologies that can disrupt the fossil-fuel fed dinosaur industries that are still thriving, or business models that can disrupt the trickle-up economics of today’s capitalism, or purpose-inspired leadership that can disrupt the existentially bankrupt incentives that drive the soulless modern corporation.

We need to cultivate a new generation of ‘imagineers’ who can envision a sustainable future in which all of life – including humans – is able to thrive, and who are prepared to make it their calling to bring that dream into reality.

At the same time, we need a proliferation of crack-squad problem-solvers – people who are highly proficient in the strategies of resilience and the skills of adaptation, who can help us all through the inevitable turbulence of a climate-damaged and conflict-fraught future.

Your book ‘Sustainable Frontiers’ looks at unlocking change for a sustainable future. How can it be achieved?

Sustainability is the new frontier. To reach it, we must start by letting go of the old ways that are not working, such as the take-make-waste industrial system, hostage-to-shareholders capitalism, greed-fuelled executive compensation, consumption-addicted lifestyles, growth-at-any-cost government policies and survival-of-the-selfish corporate strategies. But letting go is difficult, because we are all hardwired to resist change.

Therefore, the book provides eight keys to unlocking change, namely: transformational leadership, enterprise reform, technology innovation, corporate transparency, stakeholder engagement, social responsibility, integrated value and future-fitness. The golden thread that runs through the book is increasing connectivity, since connectedness is the ultimate catalyst for change. This is because innovation, integration and inspiration all stem from increasing complexity – that is to say, from more and better connections between people, institutions and ideas.

Read the Research report KF-Report-Transforming-Corporate-Accountability

Please tell us about Kaleidoscope Futures?

I set up Kaleidoscope Futures in 2011 as a research based think-tank consultancy, with the aim of envisioning and realizing a better life, bolder business and brighter future. This includes promoting the Kaleidoscope 5-S Future Fitness Framework (launched in Ecuador in 2012), as well as the Kaleidoscope 5-D Strategies for Resilience – defend, decentralise, diversity, decouple and define (first presented to the IFC/World Bank Group in 2013).

Kaleidoscope Futures has published its research in the books Corporate Sustainability & Responsibility (2013), Disrupting the Future (2014) and The CSR International Research Compendium – Volume 1 (Governance), Volume 2 (Environment) and Volume 3 (Society).

It has also published the free-to-download research report ‘Transforming Corporate Accountability: The Revolutions of Reporting, Ratings & Social Media” (2015), and will soon release ‘CSR 2020: Trends in Corporate Sustainability & Responsibility’ . Kaleidoscope Futures has also co-produced a documentary called “Sinking Nation”, about the impacts of climate change on the Pacific island of Kiribati, which is due for global release in the next few months. We will be investing more in powerful documentaries in future, as I believe that artful storytelling is at the heart of inspiring action towards sustainability.

How do you imagine the future of sustainability in India?

When it comes to sustainability, India is the best of worlds and the worst of worlds. On the one hand, the sub-continent feels the worst impacts of climate change, water scarcity, poverty, income inequality and endemic corruption. On the other hand, India has a rapidly rising middle class, vast natural resources, an active civil society, a deep culture of ethics and first hand experience of the transformational dividends of technology. From what I know of India (although I don’t pretend to be an expert) and of sustainability (where I am on firmer ground).

I believe the future will bifurcate  on whether Indian leaders grasp the dire necessity and immense opportunity of the syndustrial economy, or continue to place their faith in the doomed demi gods of consumerism-on-steroids and Philanthro-Capitalism. In the Consumer-Olympics future, India faces growing inequality and its CSR-mandated philanthropy acts as nothing more than a Band-Aid on the haemorrhaging wound of winner-takes-all capitalism. In the syndustrial future, India converts its growing prosperity to a renewable economy focused on shared well being, and teaches the rest of the world what it really means to survive and thrive through millennia.

[ Dr Wayne Visser is Director of the think-tank and media company, Kaleidoscope Futures. His work as a strategy analyst, sustainability advisor, CSR expert, futurist and professional speaker has taken him to over 70 countries in the past 20 years to work with over 130 clients, ranging from companies like Coca-Cola, Dell, DHL and HSBC to international organisations like the UNEP, the World Bank and WWF. Wayne is the author of 23 books and a guest columnist for The Guardian newspaper. He has been recognised as one of the world’s top thriveability  leaders. He is  also the Founder of CSR International and previously served as Director of Sustainability Services for KPMG and Strategy Analyst for Capgemini in South Africa. ]

(Rusen Kumar is the Founder and Editor at India CSR Group)

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