Looking towards the next sustainability agenda…

In the eighth and final part of edie's sustainability series with Ashridge Business School, Chris Nichols gazes into the crystal ball and examines the role of business in the transition to a more sustainable future.

The irony is, we are working to make our work unnecessary. We are working towards the day when there is no need for a Master’s degree in Sustainability and Responsibility.

In some future world, all degrees, all leadership work, all organisational effort, would simply embrace this thinking. Why would you want to be an unsustainable leader or an irresponsible business?

But we are not there yet: there is so much work to be done. As a faculty team, and as a community, we put a lot of effort into refining and redesigning the focus of our programme to make sure that we address the most pressing contemporary agendas alongside the underlying unchanging imperatives.

At its heart, our work is to help create the potential of tomorrow. As Thomas Berry once wrote, the central problem is one of stories …

“We are in trouble just now because we are in-between stories. The Old Story sustained us for a long time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purpose, energized action … We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children … But now it is no longer functioning properly, and we have not yet learned the New Story.”

                                                                    – Thomas Berry, 1978

We are in the business of developing our capacity to create new stories together.

What are the threads from which new stories might be woven? I think there are many…

Increasing scientific knowledge in business and society: we need scientific literacy in all spheres of life, from the boardroom to policy making. Scientific knowledge is not the enemy of the new stories, nor is it the panacea.

Our new stories will include awareness of the contributions and limits of technology to address our future. Everybody should have an awareness of complexity and earth systems science – and the notion of our actions having an impact should intrigue us and fascinate us.

Without awareness of our place in a connected system we all run the risk of our actions being akin to “fly-tipping” – we act in our part of the world and all too often lack awareness, the consequences of our actions elsewhere in the systems in which we play.

We are connected, wired into the system – and science, maths, models, have the potential to help us understand our actions and see the possibility for wiser action.

But – and this is an important qualification – there is no “soft option” in which we outsource the solution to science and technology. We have to make our decisions based on the best knowledge we can get, and we have to behave as connected parts of a system, not close our eyes and let someone else address our challenges.

Part of the new story will therefore be our overcoming of our myth fragmentation and our stepping into our place in the web of life. 

Giles Hutchins work matters here, as does Firjtof Capra, Peter Senge, Otto Sharmer and many others – and I see the future of our work going deeper into the connections of science, society and social choices.

Addressing our separation myth is an essential step in re-imagining our world of work and the financial context within which it sits.

Just imagine an economics that is aware of its own roots and assumptions. The work of Kate Raworth on re-imagining economics is an example of the potential before us. Kate’s work is a recasting of economics to take explicit account of the planetary boundaries of earth systems science. Eve’s Poole’s analysis of the historical foundations of capitalism offers a piercing insight into the toxicity of our taken for granted assumptions.

So much is taken for granted in our day-to-day dialogue about economics and finance that needs to be challenged and changed – without this, all new stories face the ultimate rejection, being declared “uneconomic”, when it is closer to the truth to say that economics itself is bankrupt because it makes assumptions that are just too small for the job.

And then we need to take this thinking into re-imagining the nature of the firm, and the place of work. As we overcome our myth of fragmentation we also will come to redefine the nature and purpose of “the firm”. The joint stock company, with no purpose beyond serving the interests of anonymous investors is unfit for purpose. Giving legal protection to an entity with no obligation other than profit making is ecological and systems illiteracy. Future corporate forms will have to our show wider planetary and ecological benefit.

All of our systems are inter-connected and we will have to explore intelligent ways of working to transform them all: health, food, education … all have to be recreated and all of this will take imagination, courage and hard work. It will take the discipline of activists and the analysis of commentators, the actions of leaders making change, one experiment and one conversation at a time. 

And we will continue to play our part, helping the leaders and pioneers to develop the skills, the insight and the imagination to make it possible, over time, for all of us to lead an Earth-intelligent life.

Chris Nichols is a business director at Ashridge, where he is co-director of the Ashridge Masters in Sustainability and Responsibility programme and deputy director of The Leadership Experience.

edie partnered with Ashridge Business School for this series of eight articles focused on growing international debate and practice around sustainability. 

Read all parts of the series here.

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