Disrupting Business As Usual for Sustainability
Yesterday my youngest son Charlie held a yard sale to raise funds for the Bobby Robson Foundation. The Foundation’s research and resources has kept his best friend’s Dad alive and (reasonably) well in the face of aggressive cancer, so it’;s a bit of a personal mission. But also, yard sales are fun and give you the opportunity to clear out stuff that would appreciate another life in another home.
While going through my bookcase, as well as the slightly underwhelming tomes which went into the sale, the sifting process acted as a reminder of how different books affected my thinking over the years. One that stood out this time was Sustainability by Design by John Ehrenfeld, a short(ish) but deeply philosophical look at what Sustainability means and how to achieve it. The anecdote that sprung to mind 15 years after I read it was how something as simple as a dual flush toilet makes us stop and think as suddenly we have a choice where there was none before.
To deliver Sustainability, we must disrupt business as usual. It doesn’t take long working in change management to realise that most decisions are taken by default. If you have a single flush toilet, you hit the button without thinking – it’s what you do. I didn’t decide what to have for breakfast this morning, I lifted the box of Weetabix as I (almost) always do. If you commute to work by car, I bet you take the same route almost every day. Disrupting these ingrained habits is very difficult and not without danger of backlash.
I happened to read an online article this morning about a cycle rack planned for what is currently a parking space which was causing much consternation amongst local businesses. Quotes were along the line of “I’m a keen cyclist myself, but why can’t the cyclists park down the road? Our customers come by car.” This is classic NIMBYism – ‘I agree with the concept but not here’ – and you would not believe some of the mental gymnastics that people will dream up to keep things just as they are.
There are three ways to overcome this mental inertia:
- Go ahead and make the change, put on a tin hat, and hope that in a couple of years everyone will have got used to it. This is risky and unpredictable – 10 years ago all the speed limit in all the residential streets around me were changed to 20mph without a murmur of complaint, this year 20mph has become part of the ever-tedious culture wars.
- Nudge people in the direction you want – popularised by another influential book on my bookcase, Nudge Theory says you need to change the decision architecture to make the desired outcome the path of least resistance. Financial incentives are a classic nudge eg the UK’s feed-in tariffs led to a halving of the cost of solar energy almost overnight. Making sustainable behaviour easy is another – when my City simplified its recycling system the participation rate soared by a factor of 4. Hopefully, people will adjust their behaviour over time, but sometimes you get unintended consequences.
- Theory Y (point 1 above is Theory X) where you ask people how they would solve the problem so they own the solution, rather than having it imposed upon them. This works fantastically well within an organisation (and is the basis of almost all my consultancy), but is very difficult to do with the general public as any subset you engage with tend to be self-selecting either for or against.