UK Prime Minister Theresa May has a reputation as something of an inscrutable sphinx and we only get glimpses of what makes her tick. When she stepped up to the hot seat, there was none of the husky-hugging of her predecessor and she abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change to the dismay and anger of the green commentariat. However, I was less worried about that as DECC had been folded into the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy where arguably it could be better integrated into business as usual rather than being treated as a special case – and BEIS Minister Greg Clark is a champion of carbon reduction.
Delivering affordable energy & clean growth: We will keep energy costs down, build the energy structure we need for new technologies, and secure the economic benefits of our move towards a low carbon economy.
Added to this is various public statements by the PM and BEIS ministers over the last 48 hours singling out electric vehicles, battery technology, 'smart energy' and nuclear as areas they would like to boost. I'm very pleased with this as I've long called for Government intervention to accelerate the smart grid as a way of unlocking more, and greener, growth, than the usual road building.
So far, so good, but what's not there?
The big omission is the circular economy which as usual has to play second fiddle to low carbon energy. For as long as I've been in the sustainability trade, this has been the case – 'waste' is simply not seen as sexy enough. I think it is time for a rebrand, focussing on technologies such as bioprocessing, smart disassembly, automatic sorting technologies and using big data methods to facilitate reverse logistics. More white coats and coding, a bit less in the way of tipper trucks, in other words. A circular economy would also boost the robustness of a post-Brexit UK economy – a key way of selling it to the green-sceptic amongst May's backbenchers.
The other problem is that the industrial strategy launch has been overshadowed by news of another – a misfiring Trident missile last year which hit the headlines yesterday. Events, my dear boy, events...
There has been a raft of big Sustainability announcements from Corporations recently:
Ikea achieving zero waste last year;
Google saying they'll be 100% renewable-powered by the end of the year;
Unilever's pledge to make all its plastic packaging ‘fully reusable, recyclable or compostable’ by 2025.
These are BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) and a half. And what's more they're being delivered. That's because big stretch targets such as zero waste or 100% renewable energy make you think in a quite different way to incremental targets. Business as usual will not do the job, neither will Sustainability as a bolt on.
Before I had kids I used to see myself as a bit of a songwriter. One of my enduring insights from that time is that is much more difficult to write a good happy song than a good sad song. For the latter, you only need to reach for a minor key, a slow tempo and some pseudo-intellectual phrases and you're away. I could never get it right with an upbeat, positive song, so I used to fall back on scathing satire to make it work.
I find the same happens with sustainability news (or any news for that matter). It is very easy to create a headline from a negative story, much more difficult to be impactful with a positive one. So you get articles like this one from the Guardian's Robin McKie which includes the line
"The trouble is that very little has been done in the past decade to trigger changes that might wean us off [the UK's] fossil fuel addiction."
That is utter nonsense. We have seen a renewable energy boom and a collapse in the coal-fired industry. OK, so the domestic heating/insulation sector and transport are proving harder nuts to crack and the Government should be putting this much higher up the agenda, but the picture is encouraging. Of course we need people like McKie to keep the pressure on, but the context is important or people will get despondent.
You can scale this up to the global level. Carbon emissions are stalling, as is population growth, and extreme poverty is falling fast, but you'd never know it from the press. The war isn't won yet by any means, but our front lines are moving forward. Let's keep the troops motivated!
As I've said before, our big theme in 2017 is Sustainability Conversations as this is where we believe breakthroughs lie. But the critical question is how do you get the right people interested in having that conversation in the first place? The answer lies in our old friend, Green Jujitsu.
Green Jujitsu is the art of framing Sustainability in terms which each audience will find irresistible. That means finding the overlap between Sustainability and that person's/those people's perspective on life. So for an Technical Director talk technical solutions, for a CFO talk £/$/Euros, for a CEO talk competition.
In practice this means the following:
Engineering an opportunity to start a discussion on their terms ("Can you help me with something?");
Using their language, imagery and idioms, not impenetrable Sustainability jargon;
Put the ball in their court by asking killer questions (eg "our competitors have just launched a non-toxic version of our product, how should we respond?");
Listen to their responses and encourage them to keep trains of thought going by asking follow up questions (this is essentially how I do my client coaching and it is very powerful).
Summarising conclusions and next steps at the end of the conversation.
Key to all this is realising that Sustainability success will not be so much about how well you do your job as how well you can get other people to do their job. Let them take credit for success even if you've had to drag them kicking and screaming to that point.
We'll be discussing sustainability conversations and green jujitsu in more detail on our webinar on 18th January - more details here.
I was born and bred in Northern Ireland, my 19 years living there coinciding with the bulk of 'The Troubles' – the Unionist/Protestant vs Nationalist/Catholic (delete as applicable) conflict which cost in the region of 3,500 lives over 30ish years. Since the Good Friday agreement of 1998, an elaborate power-sharing structure has just about held peace together and the province has returned to some state of normality.
The NI Assembly has been pitched into one of its periodic of crises, ostensibly by the revelation that the local implementation of the Renewable Heat Initiative has overspent by £400 million.
Now, I've semi-deliberately avoided keeping up to date with Norn Irish politics as I find the tribalism depressing, but I know enough to assume that the crisis is probably more than a failed renewable energy subsidy scheme. But I am very angry at just how inept the NI RHI scheme was. It paid users of biomass heating systems a staggering 150% of fuel costs. The safety mechanisms that prevent abuse in the rest of the UK were not implemented, resulting in a 'cash for ash' goldrush (Irish politics are notable for their memorable rhyming nicknames). Rumours abound of farmers heating empty barns and factories heating previously unheated spaces to profit from the subsidy. What did the scheme's architects think was going to happen?
Why does this anger me? Because bodged subsidy schemes, like the UK's original Feed-In Tariff scheme (which didn't take into consideration plummeting solar PV prices) or the Green Deal insulation scheme (which loaned householders cash at an interest rate higher than a standard commercial loan), give renewable energy a bad name. They create uncertainty and apprehension amongst the general public, anger amongst tax-payers, and feed into the clarion calls from the anti-renewable/climate change denying/pro-fossil fuels lobby. The RHI scandal has had far more press coverage than, say, the record levels of renewable electricity generated in the UK in 2016, even though the latter is in many ways a much more significant story.
Delivering on sustainability is hard enough without tying our shoe-laces together and falling flat on our faces. We can try and fail on technology or private-sector initiatives, but when it comes to spending public money, we must get it right first time.
About 17 years ago, I took a job establishing and running the Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) at the University of Teesside. At the time, the Uni was known for one thing above all else – Virtual Reality. Our building was called the Virtual Reality and Technology Centre – every other engineering and science discipline was crammed in under the afterthought. And then, suddenly, it was decided that VR had no future and the VR Centre was unceremoniously shut.
I mused on this when my sister presented the boys with a Google Cardboard for Christmas. Just a decade after the VR Centre closed and a piece of cardboard with a couple of lenses in it, costing less than a fiver, is giving us VR in our living room. Of course you have to add in the critical element yourself – a (my!) smartphone. And that's probably where the VR centre went wrong – it closed a few years before the smartphone revolution changed the way we interacted with technology for ever. You could accuse those decision makers of being short-sighted, but the extent of that supposedly-unrelated revolution was extremely hard to anticipate.
When you look at clean technology trends they follow a similar trend – individual ideas will appear, get hyped and then disappear. And then, suddenly, we get something like the current renewable energy boom, far exceeding all predictions. The traditional way of explaining this is the hype cycle (see below), but to me this is over-simplistic.
I believe such breakthroughs occur as much by the convergence of technologies as by the maturity of individual technologies. If we go back to the smartphone, all the component technologies: mobile telecommunication, data transmission, the internet (in the form of bulletin boards etc), GUIs and even touch screens were all bimbling along in the 1980s but it took until 2007 for a certain Mr Jobs to conceive the smartphone as we know it. But I doubt that even Jobs would have foreseen, say, the addition of a piece of cardboard bringing VR to the masses. Predicting the future is a mugs game.
We're starting to get to the stage where the Energy 2.0 revolution could go really huge. At the minute we still have a centralised energy system (1.0) slowly morphing into a distributed one. You can see the other elements starting to fall into place – smart(er) grids, electric cars (with their batteries for storage), the Internet of Things, variable energy pricing and the ubiquity of smartphones as a potential interface/control system. That vision of sitting in front of the TV getting an alert on your phone that you could sell some of your solar-generated, EV-stored energy at a premium price if you tap OK right now could soon be with us. Or it could be something completely different, who knows?
I write this from a ward of Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary after surgery on the little finger upon which I cleverly landed when out running/dancing-on-ice exactly a year ago. Not the most auspicious start to the year, but the enforced time out is giving me a chance to reflect on the last year or two and plan the year ahead.
One thing I have concluded is that our non-project delivery mechanisms often deliver much more value to our clients than the traditional consultancy project. A project is tightly defined and the client gets what they asked for. But in Sustainability it is often the stuff that people don't know that they don't know where major breakthroughs lie – those crucial issues take conversation to uncover, not phases and milestones and deliverables.
We have three main non-project delivery mechanisms (in increasing level of conversation richness):
But shameless plugs aside, with whom are you going to (or do you need to) have conversations about Sustainability in 2017? Is it everybody, or, more likely, key influencers? How will you start that conversation? What language will you use? What format will it take? And how will you work with the results?
And, as that last paragraph demonstrates, one of the best ways to kick off a conversation is with a question.
Here's to a successful and more sustainable 2017, full of rich conversation!
If 2016 was a tumultuous one in world affairs – Brexit, Trump, Syria, all your childhood icons dying – it was a relatively calm one here at Terra Infirma Towers. It was a year of solid delivery rather than breakthrough and, possibly related, for me personally, spending a lot of time in physio to try (semi-successfully) to get the little finger I dislocated at the start of January working again. Many of my blog posts in 2016 were written in the coffee shop of the Royal Victoria Infirmary here in Newcastle (a client of ours, so I wrote it off as background research!).
From a work point of view, we delivered on several major projects started in 2015. Two of these, a research project on employee engagement for a major sustainability leader, and a sustainability strategy for NHSBT, will become publicly available next year. I intend to delve quite deeply into those for your benefit when they are launched as some of the content and lessons are really cool, if I may say so myself. A notable new client was Durham University, who we helped to embed sustainability into its mainstream engineering degree syllabus – a real passion of mine.
The Northern England Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) continued delivering top value for its members. What I really like is when I see conclusions from CoSM shaping the sustainability programmes of members in practice. The Group will motor on in 2017 and we're looking to put together a Southern branch.
I put a lot of work updating our Green Academy webinar programme this year and we had some great new companies signing up. If you want to try it out for free, our 2017 taster session is on 18 January.
So that just leaves me to thank all our clients, partners, associates, friends and family for their support in 2016 – and looking forward to 2017 and whatever it may hold!
We're winding down now for Christmas as Terra Infirma Towers, so I'd just like to take a moment to thank all our clients, partners, friends and followers and wish you all a very Merry Christmas! The Flaming Lips song above is one of my very favourite Christmas songs and playing it triggers the seasonal cheer for me, and the lyrics hit the button even harder this year than normal.
I found out last week that one of my clients dissuades people from using air travel by requiring the prior approval of the Chief Operating Officer. This creates a pinch point – booking a train is much less hassle.
At another client, staff have to pay for short haul flights upfront themselves and claim the money back, whereas train tickets get purchased directly by the company. This means they could be out of pocket for six weeks.
At a third, we had to remove the bureaucracy around booking the teleconferencing system when we found it was putting people off using it – booking travel was easier. Once the red tape had gone, the teleconferencing went from gathering dust to booked out almost overnight.
The whole 'nudge' theory – make desirable behaviour easier than undesirable behaviour – has gone out of fashion recently, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work. The examples above show how powerful it can be.
I see a massive overlap with my Green Jujitsu approach to employee engagement for Sustainability as both treat people as they are, rather than what you would like them to be.
Last Friday saw the final Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting of 2016. We met at the wonderful Live Theatre in Newcastle and had a great lunch at the Theatre's Caffe Vivo.
The subject of the meeting 'Embedding Sustainability in Capital Investment Decisions' - a recurring topic when we discuss other issues. We got so many great insights it was very difficult to boil them down to just twelve for a blog post, but here goes:
Use bureaucracy to your advantage – get Sustainability into the checklists and stage gates;
You don’t have to tag all sustainability projects as sustainability projects – if it’s needed, it’s needed, full stop;
Challenge the status quo and have a good business case prepared in advance;
Delegate the job of ‘policing’ decisions on Sustainability to others or you will become a pinch point;
Pick the big impact issues and let the small stuff go (80:20 rule);
Find the overlap between Sustainability requirements and company strategy;
Cosy up to key decision makers long before any decision is taken;
Understand the organisation’s financial rules inside out – they may be being applied in a way that unnecessarily prejudices against Sustainability;
Outcome based procurement allows potential suppliers to propose best way of fulfilling your needs;
Don’t consider anything with a negative impact on customer experience – it will almost certainly end in failure and rancour;
There’s always a focus on costs, but there’s nothing worse than reputational damage;
Make the case of the downside of less sustainable options/do nothing as well as the upsides of the sustainable options.
I've favoured the 'big strategic principles' in that list rather than the myriad of practical tactics which also arose. Alongside that were many company-specific ideas which we don't record as the Group operates under the Chatham House Rule.
If you are interested in the Mastermind Group then click here for more. The present group is based in the North of England, but we're investigating setting up a London branch in 2017, so if that interests you, please let me know as soon as possible.
We had a great Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group Meeting last Friday - I'll post more this Friday (I'm still writing the session up). But one comment really stuck with me over the weekend:
"The realisation that I didn't need everybody's buy-in, just the buy-in of those who matter [in this case], was really liberating, it really made the task achievable."
As I keep saying, the biggest barrier to Sustainability is the space between our ears. That applies just as much to practitioners as non-practitioners. We all get hidebound by self-limiting beliefs such as 'we have to get everybody bought into this' – Sustainability is difficult enough without placing (almost) impossible hoops to jump through along the way.
I recently posted 10 such self-limiting beliefs on a LinkedIn article which has attracted quite a bit of attention, most of it positive but some commentators are still wedded to ideals and political dogma over practicalities. That won't help them or anybody else move towards Sustainability.
A couple of years ago, the kids asked could we "send some money to poor people in Africa" and it has now become a regular thing to do a bit of fundraising on the run in to Christmas. The two years we gave to SolarAid, this year the kids wanted something related to water so WaterAid was the obvious recipient. As with last year, we ran a yard sale, and although we didn't shift that much stuff, we raised over £100.00 and caught up with the neighbours over a glass or three of mulled wine. It's a nice antidote to the traditional consumerism and gluttony, of which we partake liberally.
When I was clearing the garden to put up the stalls, I realised I needed to clean the decking as it gets very slippery during the winter. So I filled a bucket with hot soapy water and gave it a scrub. I went back to the kitchen to get some cold water to sluice it down. Just as I was about to fill the bucket, it dawned on me. "We're raising money for WaterAid and you're about to throw buckets of drinking water quality water at your decking, you idiot." I went back out into the garden and filled it from the water butt.
Goes to show how behavioural change requires interruptions, even for someone who eats, lives and sleeps sustainability every day!
After the groundswell of hope after the Paris Agreement this time last year, 2016 hasn't been a great year for sustainability in general and climate change in particular, cumulating in the election of a (probable) climate change sceptic to the White House.
But I am cheered by the 400 businesses who wrote to the President Elect and told him to keep on the low carbon trajectory. Don't forget the much repeated lament of anti-capitalist activists as to how much power the corporate world wields. Much as I'm a staunch democrat, if business has that power and uses it for good, I'm not going to complain. That's true Corporate Social Responsibility.
So I call on every corporation to create a vision of a sustainable future for their business eco-system and develop a strategy to deliver on it. Don't wait for politicians to lead; if you forge a sustainable path, they will follow (and, some at least will try to claim credit - just let them). Build the future you want to see.
During her leadership campaign in the summer, PM Theresa May promised to shake up corporate governance. She would give workers a place on company boards and make shareholders' votes on executive pay binding – all things her party blocked during the coalition years of 2010-2015. But when the proposals were published yesterday, they had been watered down to a level of toothlessness.
This reminded me of a diagram which someone sent me recently (I understand it was produced by Bain&Co, but I don't have further details of the source). It shows that Sustainability projects have a much better failure rate than other projects, but suffer from an extremely high level of dilution – in fact very few succeed without some kind of compromise.
I would love to know the exact reasons for this. Some may be difficult to overcome such as immature technology and/or supply chains (although that can be sorted out), but I suspect much of it comes down to nervousness by decision makers, tiptoeing their way through unfamiliar territory.
My solution to the latter problem is to make sure those decision makers are involved in developing the proposals. Psychology has shown that when people are presented with a change, they exaggerate the risks and play down the benefits, but when they generate the change idea themselves, that flips to overestimating benefits and playing down risks. I have had a boardroom bump up Sustainability targets by taking this approach – the complete opposite of the pattern shown by that diagram.
I've spent the first part of this morning giving some advice to an entrepreneur who has an exciting green business idea but wanted some help with the direction to take it. As we talked, a theme emerged from my rambling – to get a novel idea up and running you have to:
1. solve a really pressing problem that your customer has, and/or
2. lower the mental leap required to adopt the new system.
These apply to all aspects of encouraging people to use more sustainable technology. For example, if you want people to use teleconferencing rather than business travel you should play on the convenience (more time with the family rather than in a dull hotel), make sure that booking/using the system is at least as easy than booking the travel, and get key people to insist on using teleconferencing for their meetings so others are forced to get familiar with it.
One of my clients, a chemist by trade, refers to barriers to change being like the 'activation energy' required to make a chemical reaction happen. Catalysts are used to reduce the activation energy and that's how we, as sustainability practitioners, should see ourselves - catalysts.
OK, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. This year, for the very first time, we're offering a Black Friday deal on next year's Green Academy – and it's a whopper! All 10 webinars (11 including the Taster) for just £165.00 + VAT – 50% off the normal cost. But only if you sign up today – just click the button below.