COP26: The complexity of the sustainability transition
03 November 2021
By Emma Macdonald and Hugh Wilson
The sustainability of our planet is an all-encompassing issue that spans every sector of the economy – from energy to agriculture – and every part of society, from governments down to individual citizens and consumers.
It covers a range of issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, social justice and security of food and water supplies, each of which is not only enormously complex on its own, but often interacts with other sustainability challenges in unpredictable and unforeseen ways.
Yet often these grand societal challenges are being tackled at an individual company or organisation level, when they need to be addressed in a systemic manner – not least because incumbent technologies, business models, value chains and institutions are deeply bound up with people’s existing lives and livelihoods, meaning that society is only equipped to make incremental changes.
But as we have heard at the COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow, incremental changes are not enough to tackle the climate emergency. There is a growing recognition among governments, investors, business leaders and citizens that a more fundamental transformation is needed. Of course, this is easier said than done.
It can be difficult to know where to start, let alone how to proceed, but there is a discipline that is helping people to get to grips with this enormous challenge and how to tackle it – Sustainability Transition, a field of research that recognises climate change and other sustainability issues need to addressed through radical shifts in how we live, work, travel and consume.
One way to illustrate and help people get to grips with the issues involved and how to tackle them is through gamification. We have taken to Glasgow a game developed in conjunction with Cranfield School of Management that is giving participants at the conference the chance to visualise possible futures; how the decisions that we make today affect those futures and how our decisions can affect other people.
A game is a very good format for this, because there are lots of facts out there – but facts can be a bit dull. This is live, interactive and dynamic. You get different outcomes every time you play it, and it sparks creativity around the potential actions you would take.
People find it difficult to imagine a world different from the one they live in now, even though we can see that the world has changed a lot in the last 10 years.
The game mimics life for a range of different stakeholders, including business organisations, entrepreneurs, NGOs, policymakers and public voices, ranging from the BBC to Fox News. The game immerses you in future worlds in 2030 and 2040, making people think about how radically different the world could be based on some serious scenario work that has been done across Europe.
We ask players to decide what to do and pitch those decisions to each other. They learn about what it will take to lead for the next 20 to 30 years. Leaders will need to be outward facing, not just focused on their own business, suppliers and customers. And they have to be dynamic – their whole strategy and even the purpose of the business might be different in a few years.
They will also need to be flexible and collaborative, because collaborations often produce solutions that single actors cannot come up with on their own. One example of this is the partnership between retailer M&S and charity Oxfam, which encouraged people to return clothes to Oxfam, which could resell or recycle them, in return for M&S vouchers.
Another extremely successful collaboration came in attempts to remove CFCs, extremely harmful greenhouse gases, from refrigerators.
The legislation on phasing out CFCs from refrigerant fluid came out of a partnership between environmental campaigner Greenpeace, the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP-FI), drinks giants Coca Cola, Pepsico and Red Bull, and consumer goods firm Unilever.
The technical ideas on how to do it actually came from Greenpeace. No one company on their own could have done this because they would have been at a competitive disadvantage, but they managed to design something that worked for everybody.
It can be tempting to think that because sustainability does not fall into your specialist domain, it is not your problem. Yet everybody has skills that helped to create the climate crisis, and they can be used to address these challenges too.
However, companies have to put those skills to use in partnership with others inside and outside their organisation. Sustainability has to involve everybody. We need to break down siloes within organisations and across industries – this is not the time for another heroic leader.
Empathy is very important in getting partnerships to work, and the game illustrates this. The players who are more successful in the game are those who listen well and can communicate in each others’ language.
The game presents a range of different scenarios, including a world that is very tech-driven and very individualistic, and another that is very locally-focused – something that people can really identify with because of COVID-19.
Each scenario includes a number of dramatic events that the players have to navigate, reflecting the fact that there will be substantial and continual shocks in the future. In that sense, COVID-19 is not an outlier, it is the canary in the coal mine.
Nonetheless, we are optimistic. It’s very easy to get depressed about climate change, but the game illustrates that the future is not determined – there are different ways to reach your goal and we all have a role to play in getting there.
Because the game is active, it shows that you can do something about it. It’s clear that there will need to be more pre-competitive collaborations between businesses and other organisations.
These systemic issues are so complex and all-encompassing, we need multiple players to tackle them, not just in this game – but in real life, too.
Watch Professors Macdonald and Wilson host the game at COP26 here.
Hugh Wilson is Professor of Marketing and teaches Service Marketing on MSc Business with Marketing and Creating Sustainable Organisations on the Distance Learning MBA. He also lectures on Creating Value with Marketing Experiences on MSc Marketing & Strategy.
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