Category Archives: Business and Economics

Summer: A Time for Measuring, Analyzing, Discussing — and even Experiencing! — Happiness

The following was originally composed as a set of notes for use by Junko Edahiro, who writes a monthly newsletter on happiness and wellbeing issues in Japan. See the website of her Institute, ISHES, for more info.

My own summer vacation, spent mostly in Sweden and the United States, has been a happy one … but the summer has also produced a lot of interesting news about happiness, wellbeing, and alternatives to traditional economic growth, in both countries.

Let’s start with the US. First came a special Summer Double Issue of Time Magazine, which had “The Pursuit of Happiness” as a cover story (July 8/July 15, 2015). Several articles detailed what makes Americans happy, and compared US results with the results of surveys in other countries:  the US ended up 23rd on a list of 50 countries. It also reported on fascinating genetic and neurological research that suggests Americans are more pre-disposed to be happy … because the country is made up of immigrants. People who move, seek novelty, and exhibit other “forward-looking behavior” are also more likely to be happy and optimistic, and there are certain genetic markers for these and related traits that show up more often in Americans.

In fact, these genetic markers for novelty-seeking show up more often in human beings depending on how far they are from Africa, the cradle of civilization. The restless types left Africa, many thousands of years ago, and the most restless kept moving. (Does that mean Australia’s aboriginals and Patagonia’s native Americans are the happiest people genetically? The article did not say.)

Anyway, it turns out that searching for new things is also one of the behaviors that is most likely to be correlated with happiness: the article called it “the joy of pursuit.” We are happier when searching for things than when we find them!

The articles also covered the relationship between money and happiness, and noted that “money can indeed buy happiness, at least in certain circumstances.” And within limits. Doubling your salary from US$ 75,000 to 150,000 does not make people twice as happy … but it *does* make them happier, say current research findings.

Of course, your money-related happiness also depends on comparisons with neighbors, as everyone (including researchers!) already knows. But in the age of social media, things get complicated, because now the whole world is your neighbor … and you don’t just compare cars or houses. You compare Twitter followers.

Americans, the article concludes, do not “simply inherit happiness,” but American happiness “has long been high and healthy — a simple gift of biology, history and environment but a gift all the same.”

See the whole article here:
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2146449,00.html

Meanwhile, the whole Sharing Economy has now come to the attention of the most prominent sustainability voice in the US mainstream media — that is, Thomas Friedman. While Friedman is often “late to the party” on topics like this (he tends to “discover” things years after other people have written about them), what he does is bring the full weight of the New York Times to bear. And he also writes brilliantly. So his article about the Share Economy and how it is shaking up normal consumer markets is really worth reading, even if you already know a lot about this topic.

See:  http://nyti.ms/18tqX65

In my other home country, Sweden, there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of attention and writing focused on alternatives to the GDP. A lead editorial in Dagens Nyheter (DN, the leading daily newspaper) took up the issue of measuring wellbeing, specifically the new study by Ida Kubiszewski, Robert Costanza and others, which looks at the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) over several decades. Kubiszewski et al. concluded that GPI — which subtracts environmental and social costs from traditional GDP measures (among other innovative features) — peaked globally in 1978 but since then has gone down, even though GDP has increased. Rising income inequality and increasing environmental degradation were the chief culprits.

But the Swedish newspaper was critical of the study. “The concept [of the GPI] succeeds as advocacy,” wrote the editors. “But does it actually make us any wiser?”

Equality and environment “are not trivial aspects of development,” wrote DN. But “an index that is created to show us that money is not the most important thing is going to confirm just that point.” While critical of the GPI for simply reflecting its own set of values-based interpretations, DN did not defend the GDP; it noted that GDP sometimes tracks with happiness, sometimes not, and “does not say anything more about society’s wellbeing than annual income says about an individual’s wellbeing.” The newspaper called strongly for more discussion and debate on issues of money, happiness, values, and longterm sustainability, but concluded that one should skip the GPI, which it characterized as a “detour via an easily manipulated index.”

Well, whether or not you agree with Swedish newspaper editors, you can get a summary of the actual report here:
http://www.scidev.net/global/enterprise/news/costs-of-economic-growth-have-outweighed-benefits.html
or review the formal paper here:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800913001584

[NOTE: Of course I do not personally agree with DN on this. The *use* of the GDP is far more “easily manipulated” than the factors in the GPI, and all such measures are inherently normative and values-based. But I have a bias: I used to manage the GPI program years ago, and Bob and Ida are friends.]

The debate that DN calls for received a big jolt forward with the recent publication of a new book in Sweden (available only in Swedish) called “Swearing in Church: 24 Voices about Endless Growth on a Finite Planet.”* To “swear in church” is a Swedish phrase that underscores the fact that criticizing growth is essentially sacrilegious in Western society: you don’t do it. So the “twenty-four voices” assembled in this volume of essays are themselves a statement, because they represent a wonderful diverse and prominent sample of Swedish society, from Anders Wijkman (well known political figure and current global chairman of the Club of Rome) to Stina Oscarson (who runs the Swedish national radio theater) to Pär Holmgren (a famous TV weatherman and climate change educator) and Fredrik Lindström (a much-loved TV personality and language critic). That all of them were willing to “swear in church” about the problem of unending economic growth, and that they did it together in the same volume, speaks volumes.

We will see how much impact the book actually makes … but I take it as an excellent indicator that I was first introduced to the book by my Swedish mother-in-law, who had it lying around on the coffee table at the family’s summer place, on the island of Gotland. She knew about the book before I did.

As an extended family, we tend to spend our summer days on Gotland doing … well, not much. Lying on the beach. Talking. Playing volleyball. Cooking dinner. Most of which costs relatively little money, in pure GDP terms.

But ah, yes, it certainly does make us happy.

Alan

P.S. The UK also just published its second annual national happiness report. People are a little happier there this year:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23501423

* Swedish title: “Att svära i kyrkan – Tjugofyra röster om evig tillväxt på en ändlig planet” (2013)

Indicators, MDGs, SDGs, and GDP

Williams-Fukuda-Parr_16may2013
Mariama Williams (L) and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (R) at Kulturhuset in Stockholm, 16 May 2013

On Thursday 16 May, I attended an excellent public seminar on the power of indicators and numbers in the context of sustainable development. Hosted by UNDP and the Dag Hammarsköld Foundation, in Stockholm, it featured two powerful women speakers: Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, former director of the UN’s Human Development Index and now a professor at the New School in New York; and Mariama Williams, a senior researcher at the South Centre. I tweeted this seminar three times, and used words like “brilliant” and “inspiring,” even though the presentation slides were terrible and neither speaker was a spectacular orator. But their analysis was incisive, compelling, their way of presenting was genuine and direct, and they forced one to rethink even old thoughts in new ways.

Fukuda-Parr, once a champion of the aggregated index, presented a devastating critique of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Well, “devastating” is overstating, and she did not really have a solution to offer regarding the problems identified — but the problems are serious. Goals and their respective indicators, chosen to help simplify communications messages and get people motivated to act, became frameworks for giving and evaluation, and indeed replaced the more complex and nuanced conceptual frameworks that had previously characterized the issues. The MDG’s “began to define development.” This is quite problematic: “gender equality,” for example, gets reduced to the number of girls in school — which turns an enormous, deep global dialogue and not uncontroversial development process into a nice, non-threatening little percentage figure. (These are my words, not hers.)

I tweeted this link to her and her colleagues’ papers, constituting a critical review of the MDG process and its numbers:

http://harvardfxbcenter.org/power-of-numbers/

I have not read the papers yet, but I plan to, and assume/hope that I got the basic message from Fukuda-Parr herself. Having listened to so much cheer-leading regarding the MDGs, which I do personally think have been very useful, and watching the formation now of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with some concern and worry, Fukuda-Parr’s critical skepticism was like a breath of fresh air into the dialogue. Especially as it came from the former director of yet another mega-indicator, the Human Development Index!

Her talk was peppered with phrases like “narrowing down effect,” “silos”, “perverse incentives” (knock down the housing of poor people and increase your score on ghettos!). She related how previously solid goals and targets — such as halving the *number* of people going hungry — got turned into much *less* ambitious ones. Halving the *percentage* of people without enough food, when populations are growing, leaves *more* people without nutrition than the older goal would have. “Water for all” became, effectively, “water for some.”

Ah, but what to do? No real answers here from Fukuda-Parr, except some “do nots”, like “Don’t take the indicators literally.” She advocates more the messy, paradoxical dialogue, than the clear, goal-seeking mega-indicator. This appeals to the intellectual, but not to the manager.

Mariama Williams had a different take, focused on the next-to-impossible challenge that she summed up (verbally) this way: There is a big development gap + there is a huge debt overhang in the developing world + we have reached or exceeded the planetary ecosystem boundaries + there is a huge mitigation gap on climate change so the world will eventually be steaming + there are occasional disasters in poor areas that reverse years of progress.

“Governments are still struggling to catch up with the 2015, MDG agenda,” she noted. “And here comes the *post*-2015 agenda. And the train has already left the station.”

Williams presented the classic critique of the GDP, but in some detail, including emphasizing its origins as a tool of wartime, something that did its job well but is “past its sell-by date”. And she referenced a couple of milestone reports that summed up the status of the alternatives — including, I was pleased to hear, our own “Life Beyond Growth” report. (http://lifebeyondgrowth.org)

Williams, like Fukuda-Parr, didn’t have answers, nor did she promise any. She had excellent answers to question though, from the audience, showing how the political dialogue around the MDGs and other topics had effectively deflected any serious grappling with structural inequalities in the world. Both women agreed that equality had sunk lower on the political dashboard because of the way these goals and measures are handled, instead of being raised up higher. And important stories had gotten buried: China, for example, has succeeded on so many development indicators by *not* following the Washington consensus, which few wish even to speak about, while Brazil used serious labor policies to both protect workers and create jobs in a vibrant economy, something that again falls far outside of the neo-liberal consensus, but is (unsurprisingly) overlooked.

What do I take away from all this critical talk? A good, healthy skepticism about the SDG process — which I nonetheless am pledged to supporting, especially with our volunteer-driven Pyramid 2030 campaign, which is still in the “gearing up” mode (http://pyramid2030.org). And gratitude for the people who speak out and ask tough questions, when so many others nod and smile and say how wonderful these things are. I’ll close with a quote from Fukuda-Parr:

“There are things that we treasure that we simply cannot measure.”

Report from OECD: What Winning Looks Like

Here’s a letter I sent out to my friends in the Balaton Group from New Delhi, India, where I was recently attending an OECD World Forum and moderating a panel on sustainability. I never thought attending a meeting on national statistics could make me so happy.  /Alan

Dear friends,

I am reporting to you now from the floor of the OECD World Forum on “Measuring Well-Being for Development and Policy Making.” Around me is a collection of chief national statisticians, senior economists, OECD officials, and assorted political and civil society actors from around the world.

My purpose in writing to you is to communicate a short message:  we won.

I do not mean, of course, that we have “won” the “fight” for a sustainable future. Far from it. What I mean by this is something very narrow and specific, and concerns the fight to convince policy-makers that the GDP should not be the central measure of progress. This is a fight that many people have been involved with for many years, going back to the late 1980s.

Why do I say “we won”? Because at this conference are many people whose job is to prepare the national and global statistics that inform those policy-makers, as well as a number of actual policy-makers. The consensus among those attending this Forum is clear:  these new measures of overall quality of life as well as subjective wellbeing (“Gross National Happiness” and its many imitations, under many names, now in dozens of countries) have become fully mainstream — and they might even challenge GDP for supremacy in the coming years. Programs to develop and launch and use these new indicators in policy-making are now happening in dozens of countries, and they are clearly on the rise. The commitments are serious and appear to be long-term. Virtually everyone at this event, from the head of the OECD to national statisticians, seems to agree that GDP is no longer adequate, and in fact can be dangerously misleading.

Of course, there are many caveats. The fascination with growth and the GDP is hardly going away, and many factors — not least the deep economic crisis here in Europe — could eventually slow the momentum of this “new mainstream”. But what is interesting, indeed rather amazing to me, is that the momentum around the new measures continues to grow, at these high levels of government and international policy making, *despite* the financial crisis. (And in some cases, *because of* the financial crisis, which has exposed the problems in many measurement systems, not just the GDP.)

In political terms, the OECD is rather more progressive than some other international organizations; it is certainly more progressive than the WTO, for example. So a consensus within the OECD does not mean “everyone” in political power, by any means. But, especially as compared to the small think-tanks and academic centers that have championed these ideas, the OECD is unquestionably at the heart of the policy world, and a good indicator of “mainstream-ness”. Australia, France, China, Mexico, several African countries, Indian states, and dozens more … This is critical mass.

There’s another important factor that convinces me that we have won. Many of these national statisticians are saying — from the podium as well as in private conversations — that they see the future of their profession moving this way, and they want to be on the train. “We’re a conservative bunch,” one of them said to me, “and that adds to our credibility. But now we see that these new measurements have reached a point where if we don’t get on that train, we might become less relevant.”  And they want to be more relevant, not less. Expanding the kinds of measures that reflect national progress is actually good for their careers, good for their budgets, and good for their overall political standing. What’s more, it makes good sense to them now.

So, especially if you are someone who remembers those old indicator projects and meetings and reports from the early 1990s and afterward … take a moment and mentally celebrate. We started pushing this rock up the hill a long time ago (taking over from those who pushed before us) … and more and more people joined in … and now it is over the hump, and appears to be rolling on its own steam.

This is what winning looks like.

Warm best from India,

Alan

Letter to a Struggling Business Change Agent

This letter was written to a student who approached me for advice on how to engage a company that was just not showing any interest in sustainability …

Dear ______

Thanks for your patience, it’s been a terribly busy time … kids starting school, me starting work … but I am happy to have this very good letter in hand from you, and to have a much better understanding of what you are after.

First, regarding organizations that “don’t see the necessity to change”:  unfortunately, yes, I have my own share of such experiences. To be brief and practical, here is what I’ve found that “works” in such situations. You have a few options (apart from leaving the company and going to somewhere that is more open to the work you want to do):

1. Pull back on the formal attempts (skip GRI reporting for now) and work informally. For example, host a series of informal, brown-bag lunch events, which take no time away from work. Invite someone in to talk, or suggest a discussion series around a book or series of relevant articles. Invite only those whom you *know* to be interested. This requires time, and patience. You have to build that interest and social trust. If the content is engaging and relevant, the group will grow, and eventually the conditions for moving a formal initiative forward will have improved.

(Eventually, you can introduce concepts like Amoeba etc. to that group … and then you will have a team of Change Agents to work with …)

2. Hack the system by injecting some information that requires a response. This could include, for example, finding some examples where money is being lost or risks are being seriously increased, and writing (or finding) a report or news story that highlights this. “Look at this,” you could say — probably saying it first to the same sort of group mentioned in (1) above — “we really have to do something, or the company could be in for trouble.” This can also be framed in terms of opportunities being missed, competitors who are ahead, etc. Again, stay away from terms like GRI and ISO, which just sound like costly paperwork, and focus on the strategic issues that have impact on real competitiveness.

3. Reframe your approach completely, dropping “sustainability” and focusing on “efficiency” “cost-savings” “innovation” etc. Don’t mention climate change or anything else. Let others bring that up …

… and so on, you probably catch my general line of thought here, there are other variations.

I cannot promise any of these methods will “work.” They have worked for me, or clients/colleagues, in the past, in lots of interesting situations. But it has also happened that ideological blindness just wins out. If that happens, you have tough choices about trying to hang in there and “make a bad situation less bad than it would otherwise be,” or move on. I know people who have done both … at every level you can imagine, from big government to small town, college or company.

Donella Meadows’ paper on leverage points is fantastic, but it is highly theoretical and you have to translate it to the real world for strategic purposes. What I described above are variations on things like “indicators” and “information flow” … While indicators “don’t change systems,” they do create the conditions for changing system goals. There is often a step-wise progression up Dana’s ladder of leverage points. Also remember that “GRI” is not an “indicator” intervention:  it is a combination of several Meadows’ leverage points and, for some people, actually counts as a “paradigm shift” — and therefore it is really difficult to promote to them. Better to focus on a few of the most relevant indicators that broaden their perspective and start to open them up a little bit, rather than asking them to bite off the whole thing.

I’m attaching an old paper of mine [The Signal Path] that might be of help here, an essay that will also be in my new book (slightly revised) [See the preview page for this book] . Give this a read too, and let me know if it helps in some way.

Very best,
Alan

Subject: Sustaining happiness (or, Why I didn’t go to a meeting on Happiness)

[Copy of Facebook Status Update]
Friends, if you follow my Twitter feed, you’ll see a note from friend Kristin Vala Ragnarsdottir saying she missed seeing me at the High-Level Meeting on Happiness hosted by the Prime Minister of Bhutan at UN headquarters in NY. This is a very significant meeting, and I was pleased and honored to be invited. (They even said, “and please bring your guitar” … along with our recent Life Beyond Growth report.) I really hope you all take note of this meeting, the declaration they will issue, the World Happiness Report released there, and more.

So, why didn’t I go?

Simple: it would have meant missing important events with my children … adding stress to my wife’s work schedule … well, several other kinds of stress. Ultimately, a light dawned, and I decided to stay home. It did not make sense to sacrifice my own family’s happiness, in order to attend a meeting on happiness, no matter how important that meeting turns out to be.

But let me voice my strong support for the meeting’s them of “sustainable happiness” from here in Stockholm. We, and the planet, really need it.

[Here is a press release on the results of the meeting:  link]

Life Beyond Growth—download free report

New report traces revolution in how we think about “progress”

Is there Life Beyond Growth? The new report by that name declares decisively yes, citing more and more countries that are seriously questioning the “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP) and traditional economic growth as their default definition of “progress.”

Despite all the economic and political turmoil of the past year — from the Arab Spring to the Great East Japan Earthquake, from the “Occupy” movement to the near-meltdown of the Eurozone — a quiet revolution in economic thought has continued to gain steam. Concepts such as “Green Economy,” “Green Growth,” “Gross National Happiness,” and even “National Wellbeing” have governments around the world exploring new ways to frame, and measure, the idea of national progress. Most recently, the United Nations formally joined the conversation, with its own high-level panel calling for “new ways to measure progress” in advance of the Rio+20 global summit.

These ideas are not new; some are decades old. But the political willingness to engage with them is *very* new. Leaders are realizing that social and environmental conditions simply demand a different approach. As Angel Gurría, head of the OECD, declared last year, “Growth as usual is no longer an option.”

Commissioned by the new Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy, and Society (ISHES) in Tokyo, Life Beyond Growth was written to help people (especially decision-makers) come to grips with the sudden rise of these new ideas, frameworks, and alternatives to the GDP as the sole measure of “Growth as Usual.” Meant to be the first installment in an annual series of reports, Life Beyond Growth 2012 traces “the evolution of a revolution,” from the origins of traditional economic growth to the present day rise of the candidates to replace it, or complement it, as the principal goal of national development.

Life Beyond Growth also takes a geo-political look at ideas like Green Economy (popular among environmentalists) and Green Growth (embraced especially by dynamic Asian economies such as South Korea) and maps out their future prospects:  Who promotes them? Who is adopting them? Where are they gaining traction or meeting resistance? And what is the impact of trends such as the rise of Corporate Social Responsibility, the protests of the Occupy movement, the persistence of armed conflicts, or the upsurge in United Nations activity tied to the Rio+20 summit? Life Beyond Growth attempts describe and even visualize these influences, and come to some conclusions.

Will measures of “Green Growth” replace the GDP in the future? Or will “Gross National Happiness” and indicators of national wellbeing eventually take an equal seat at the table? The authors and sponsors of Life Beyond Growth do not pretend to know the answers in any definitive way. But after a review that attempts to be thorough, balanced, and sympathetic, the report does take a stand. The complex global realities of our time, where one billion lead charmed lives and another billion live extremely deprived ones, demands a differentiated view. Some concepts logically, and ethically, hold more meaning for some groups than for others.

But in the end, says Life Beyond Growth, a consensus does seem to be emerging: we should all be aiming for a world that is environmentally green, economically secure, and happy, for all. Does that sound visionary? It should:  if there was ever a time when the world needed a clear consensus on a new economic vision for the future, that time is now.

Alan AtKisson served as lead author for Life Beyond Growth 2012. To learn more and to read the ISHES’ Life Beyond Growth report (free download), visit this website:  http://lifebeyondgrowth.org

Why Russia Should Invest in Sustainability

Seven Reasons why Russia Should Invest in Sustainability — Three of Them Unconvincing

by Alan AtKisson

CEO, AtKisson Inc. & Author, The Sustainability Transformation

On Wednesday, 10 February, I made the second keynote presentation (after Ashok Khosla’s opening) to a conference in Moscow called “Innovative Russia: Responding to Global Challenges.” The other participants on the 11-person panel were a small who’s who of combined Russian and Silicon Valley leadership. You can view the program here:  http://gvacapital.com/ir.  Moderator Yermolai Solzhenitsyn’s affiliation is not listed there, but he’s the managing partner for McKinsey in Moscow. The photograph was taken from the stage, with my iPhone, during Ashok Khosla’s speech.

Response to the speech was positive enough that I turned it into an article text, published below, which will also be translated and published by the Russian on-line magazine gazeta.ru. Since my books were recently published in Russian translation, I also managed to slip in — during a final comment, about how venture capitalists could at least try to put some sustainability content into their investment decisions, instead of making money on anything at all and then giving some of their wealth to charity — a note of gratitude to Natalia Tarasova, a professor at Mendeleev University and good friend. She had overseen the translation.

Why “Seven Reasons”? Because Muscovites love the number seven. And why are “Three of them Unconvincing”? Read, and you’ll see …

These are exciting times in sustainability. In practice, sustainability involves reinventing business and governance processes so that they stop destroying key ecosystems, depleting irreplaceable resources, and increasing the gap between rich and poor. “Practice” is exactly what has been missing from sustainability work for most of the concept’s lifetime. But recently, sustainability has moved out of the category “something that academics, bureaucrats, and activists talk about” to the category “something that mainstream business leaders and investors do something about.” This is a monumental shift that has been gestating for some time, if you knew where to look. But it really began showing evidence of its exponential growth rates only in the past three to five years. Now, the evidence is overwhelming:

  • Countries like South Korea and China have embraced the concept of “Green Economy” or “Cyclic Economy” with serious policy initiatives and billions of dollars of investment
  • Global companies like Unilever or Siemens (and dozens of others) have set goals that combine ambitious revenue growth with strong reductions in environmental impact, impressive increases in corporate responsibility practice, and serious commitments to “sustainability innovation”
  • Global consulting and auditing giants such as Ernst & Young have been hiring hundreds of people to support new, growing divisions with titles like “Climate Change and Sustainability Services”
  • Investment in renewable energy grabs headlines every week, such as the recent deal between United Arab Emirates and Spain to invest USD 5 billion in Spanish solar technology
  • Oil and gas economic powerhouses such as Norway are redirecting more and more of their windfall fossil-fuel-generated capital into cleaner and more sustainable solutions (Norway recently pledged to increase its domestic renewable energy use to 67.5% of total by 2020, which translates to an increase of 9% every year in wind, hydro, solar and other sources)

These items are already commercial facts, but more visionary innovations and mega-projects are also taking shape in the world’s think-tanks and testing grounds. From South Korea’s large-scale tidal energy installations, to the bio-mimicry technologies erupting from the minds of biologists working in collaboration with engineers, to the giant-but-increasingly-realistic proposals such as “DESERTEC” (generating solar electricity in the Sahara) or mega-grids (e.g. linking up East Asia with a vast complex of underground, highly efficient mag-lev trains and supercables) … it is no wonder that anyone just waking up to this transformative revolution in humanity’s planetary management strategy might find it all a bit dizzying.

Of course, up to now, humanity had no “planetary management strategy” — and this was precisely the problem. Our activities, super-amplified through the power of cheap energy and technology, had become planetary in scale, but disruptive (and largely destructive) of the planet’s billion-year-old natural processes. And indeed, for decades, it was largely academics and citizen activists (plus a relative handful of visionary leaders in business, the United Nations, local government, and other arenas) who worried the most about what was happening, and tried to do something about it.

That “something” that these early leaders were trying to “do” was to change government policies, business practices, consumer attitudes, educational curricula, and other elements of our increasingly inter-connected global system. The request was actually simple:  Add sustainability to these things. Add systems thinking. Add a longer-term, more holistic perspective to the definition of “success.”

For many years, these efforts to change thinking (and practice, and policy, and investment) did not seem to be working, or at least not working fast enough, and certainly not working at anything like the right scale. But such is the magic of exponential growth:  what appear first as insignificantly small, incremental changes are in fact replication and multiplication processes. They grow by doubling. Things appear to go faster and faster, and at a certain point, things take off. Think cell phones, Internet, Total Quality Management. Few people remember that seeking to perfect quality, as a manufacturing practice, was still a new idea a few decades ago. The idea’s original proponents could barely get noticed by business leaders. But then the Total Quality Management movement started (in Japan), it grew exponentially, it took off … and by one decade ago, “Quality Management” was such a normal, mainstream concept that everyone stopped thinking about it.

That’s what’s happening in sustainability:  take-off. Sure, there are ups and downs even in the midst of take-off, which is exactly what you would expect in a maturing market of any kind. But the overall pattern in unmistakable. Wherever you look on the map of the world, from the renewable energy fields of Brazil, to the environmental accounting practices of shoe-maker Puma, to the spread of clean cooking stove technology to the smoked-out kitchens of the developing world, you can see transformative change accelerating before your very eyes.

But not in Russia.

Why is Russia missing from the emerging map of transformation to a greener and more sustainable economy? With its enormous amounts of money, resources, and brainpower, it could be leading the way, as several other oil and gas-based economies are doing. But analysts far more well-informed than myself — including Russia’s own leadership — have long noted with worry that Russia’s surging economy is almost entirely based on the export of raw resources. The country’s rising prosperity floats on that sea of oil and gas, as a few Google clicks (engineered partly by Sergey Brin’s Russian brainpower) will easily tell you. Easy wealth breeds indifference, and Russian innovators tend to take their inventiveness elsewhere, to places like Silicon Valley, resulting in a drain of capital, both financial and intellectual, from the country.

This situation could easily be reversed. I use the word “easily” in an entirely theoretical sense:  in practice, nothing is easy in Russia, as any Russian is quick to tell you. The entire nation seems to take pride in its enormous capacity for problems and difficulties — and by extension, its capacity for overcoming them. Nonetheless, in theory, Russia could change relatively quickly from being a sustainability laggard to a serious leader, especially in areas related to technology and large-scale industrial implementation.

What follows are seven reasons why Russian leaders in government and business — including that class of wealthy and powerful people known universally as the “Oligarchs,” together with the people who advise them — should take the opportunity for investing in sustainability far more seriously than they currently do. While all seven reasons are convincing to me, I am quite certain that the first three will not be convincing to anyone in a position of power in Russia. For that reason, I have clearly labeled these first three as “Unconvincing Reasons.”

But that leaves four reasons that seem to have the potential for unlocking a torrent of creativity, investment, and change in the way Russia pursues its economic destiny. Because many Russian economic leaders started their professional lives as physicists and scientists, I will use — starting from Reason #4 — the concept of Potential Energy as a metaphor for what I, as an outsider, see as possible in Russia. A small shift in thinking could result in large shifts in the real world, resulting in multiple benefits, not just for Russians, but for the world as a whole.

UNCONVINCING REASON #1:  THREATS TO NATIONAL SECURITY

Many sustainability issues have a national security dimension. If you are sitting on resources that others desperately need but don’t have — like oil, or water — you may find soldiers at your doorstep. UN diplomats quietly pointed to climate change and precipitation declines as underlying causes for the forced migrations and slaughters of Darfur. Australia has concerns about what happens on its Northern shorelines if refugees flee swamped coastlines or other disruptions. The US Department of Defense runs scenario exercises based on climate change, conflicts over resources, and other sustainability worries, and is moving aggressively into biofuels and solar energy to insulate defense operations from the vagaries of a global energy market. One would think that arguments like these would be compelling to anyone in the leadership of a nation with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

But Russia is vast. It has resources that it perceives, rightly or wrongly, to be virtually endless. It has an extremely strong defense (which, according to recent news reports, is slated to get even more budget support in coming years). No one in Russia worries seriously about hungry Finns or Latvians storming across the border, or even Chinese troops for that matter. No one worries about where the fuel to run tanks and warships and fighter jets will come from. Despite the echoes of Cold War saber-rattling in recent Russia-NATO exchanges, nobody worries about missiles falling on Moscow anymore. National security is truly not an issue for Russia. Arguing for sustainability “for the sake of national security” would generate nothing more than an ironic chuckle, so let’s cross that off the list.

UNCONVINCING REASON #2:  BREACHING THE PLANETARY BOUNDARIES

In a landmark article published in September 2009 in the journal Nature, an eminent international group of scientists concluded that humanity’s activities had already pushed several global ecosystems (climate, biodiversity, the nutrient cycle) over the limit of what those systems could tolerate. Other systems were heading quickly over the same precipice. The long-term consequences would be “detrimental or even catastrophic for large parts of the world” — strong language that reflects the seriousness with which they viewed the available data. They called for concerted action to bring humanities use of resources and emissions of waste back into the “safe zone” of what the planet can sustain. Their arguments were so compelling that political leaders have been sitting up and taking notice, including the United Nations High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, which is chaired by two presidents.

But once again:  Russia is vast.  Even if the worst-case scenarios associated with these trends come to pass, the typical Russian leader is likely to think, “So what?” If water dries up in one place, we’ll shift agriculture to another. Too hot and dry in the south? Too much nitrogen in the water table? Too much climate change? We’ll just grow wheat in balmy Siberia. The rest of the world may have serious troubles, but Russia feels insulated by its size, geographic diversity, and resource wealth. Cross Reason #2 of the list as well.

UNCONVINCING REASON #3:  THE NEED TO “SAVE THE WORLD” FROM CATASTROPHE

A generation of sustainability champions (including myself) were inspired to act by the analyses contained first in a little book called The Limits to Growth, published in 1972 and updated twice, the last time in 2004. The original worries presented in Limits — that the exponential growth of population, resources, and pollution would eventually bump up against the boundaries of the planet (see Reason #2) — have been supplemented in recent years by the notion that there could be “tipping points” in the global system. Resource depletion, ecosystem disturbance, and other activities may seem “sustainable” for a while, but when they can cross an invisible line in the sand, they suddenly collapse like a house of cards, taking innumerable species (and humans) with them. An example might be the Amazon:  at what point does the number of trees lose critical mass and trigger a sudden shift from Rainforest to dry savannah? Unfortunately, such nightmare scenarios are the stuff of current serious scientific analysis.

When people use the phrase “save the world” in the context of sustainability, usually with a kind self-mocking (or just plain mocking) undertone, what they often mean is the effort to stop destructive processes before it is simply too late to prevent some sort of resulting catastrophe. People are emboldened in this work by remembering that, on several occasions, humans actually have saved the world, or at least important parts of it. The most famous example is the threat to the ozone layer caused by the production of CFCs:  production of this insidiously dangerous chemical was dramatically reduced, essentially just in time to prevent the loss of the planet’s one and only atmospheric shield against dangerous ultraviolet radiation. Even the phrase “Save the Whales!” from the 1970s can be celebrated now as a kind of world-saving triumph, at least for several whale species, which have bounced back from the brink of near-certain extinction.

But is “saving the world” a compelling reason for Russia to invest more seriously in the sustainability transformation? Hardly. Russia will be fine. See above: even in a truly worst-case scenario, Russia would adapt and survive, as it always has. (Remember that Russian affinity for surviving serious and complicated problems.) And as for saving the world for its own sake, well … what has the world done for Russia lately? Scratch Reason #3.

If you question my characterizations above, consider the data. While reading through the excellent English-language summaries provided by the organizers of the recent Russia 2012 Forum — an event that happens right after Davos, and manages to entice many of the global Davos stars to stop in Moscow on their way home — I came upon this wonderful tidbit at the end of a slide presentation on Russian attitudes to risk management in the financial markets. As the last item in an otherwise dull review of what Russian investors think about hedge funds, participants were asked, “Do you believe the world will end any time soon?”  “Yes,” said 4.3% of respondents. “No,” said 45.6%. But the majority response, 50.1%, was this:  “I don’t care, I’m hedged.”

Having dispensed with the unconvincing reasons for why Russia should invest in sustainability, let’s turn to the potentially convincing ones, and to that wonderful and relevant concept from basic physics:  Potential Energy.

REASON #4:  CAPTURING AN EXTRAORDINARY ONE-TIME FINANCIAL OPPORTUNITY

According to published analyses, there is a lot of money in Russia currently trapped in its antiquated buildings, equipment, and infrastructure. It is trapped there partly by energy price subsidies, but it is also trapped by a simple lack of attention and focus. There may be more exciting things to do on a Friday night in Moscow than improving the energy efficiency of buildings and machines; however, there are few things that are potentially more profitable in the long term.

The key word here is “potential.” An apple hanging by its stem has what physicists call “potential energy.” Break the stem — or better yet, if the stem is gripped between your two fingers, simply open your hand — and the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, the energy of motion. The apple falls.

According to a report by McKinsey & Co. published in 2009 (“Pathways to an energy and carbon efficient Russia”), there are many such apples in the Russian economy. Relatively simple incentives and decisions, the equivalent of simply letting the apples fall, could create a very respectable flow of money, even in a country used to the torrential flows of petro-rubles. Consider the following:

  • An initial investment of €70 billion to upgrade buildings and construction would result in savings of €190 billion over a twenty-year period. This is equivalent to a 120% return on investment.
  • When it comes to producing heat and energy, a €20 billion investment produces €60 billion in savings over the same period, a whopping 200% ROI.

In fact, says McKinsey, “Russia has the largest relative potential among all the BRIC countries to reduce [CO2] emissions through implementing only measures that are economically attractive” [emphasis added]. While the savings in CO2 may not be a compelling motivator for Russia’s economic leadership, the potential for solid returns on investment should be — not to mention the jobs that could be created in order to do the work, and the pleasure of owning shiny new (or renovated) buildings and machines.

The benefits include health and safety: Russia’s own Geographical society reported last year (March 2011) that “we have fundamentally obsolete production facilities and communal infrastructures, which is [a recipe for] a major disaster.” Fully 60-80% of Russia’s energy infrastructure is estimated to be in need of maintenance and repair, and those repairs could be combined with efficiency upgrades. Around 90% of industrial waste is not recycled back into production: waste is going to waste, when it could be generating more economic value. These figures represent a great deal of financial potential energy that could be released by the right combination of incentives, policies, and forward-looking investors.

What is that combination, exactly? These are the kinds of big, complicated problems that Russians ought to love, because solving them could make some people quite wealthy. The potential exists not only in renovating the existing infrastructure, but in the new things that must be built just to meet projected demand. Over 60% of the infrastructure to provide Russia’s expected energy needs in 2030 has yet to be built. What choices will Russia make about how to build it? Wasteful ones? Or long-term profitable and sustainable ones?

In fact, it is entirely possible that the estimates of McKinsey and others may be conservative. For example, the rise of “passive house” technologies in Europe in recent years has produced many examples of extraordinary cost savings (which is another way of saying, extraordinary profit). A typical Soviet-era apartment complex in, say, the Czech Republic can now be rebuilt to save 90% of its previous energy consumption, while creating brighter and more attractive living environments. No one really knows what would happen if innovations such as these were serious deployed throughout the Russian economy, because no one has tried.

The apple is still clenched firmly in the hand.

REASON #5: THE COMPETITION FOR ECONOMIC AND GEO-POLITICAL POSITION

Like it or not, Russia is in competition for power and influence on the world stage. At the moment, the nation’s vast fossil fuel and other resource reserves are the primary platform on which it stands. But this powerful platform will not last forever, and its lifespan may be shorter than many believe.

The global energy market is changing with extreme rapidity. Many countries are embracing new (and environmentally controversial) methods of extracting oil and gas explicitly to reduce their dependence on the global market … and by implication, their dependence on Russia. Other nations, such as China and South Korea, are taking what might be called “hard positions” in sustainability and green economic innovation, partly as a way of increasing their “soft power”:  South Korea has been rewarded for the billions it invests in “Green Growth” with an enhanced profile as a forward-thinking technology leader envied by many. Meanwhile, the financial crisis continues to depress demand, and if high unemployment persists or deepens, the word “depression” may creep back into the global economic lexicon. Experts speculate openly about what will happen if these trends combine to create a “perfect storm” — from the Russian economic perspective — of dramatic drops in the price of oil and gas. The picture they paint is not rosy.

The reality of today’s energy market, as well as the future of how that market will develop, are both devilishly complicated. Some say “peak oil” will drive prices sky-high; others say depressed demand and diversification will send prices plummeting. Predicting the future is impossible. But that simply underscores the very real possibility that Russia may not have more than a decade left to enjoy its extraordinary fossil fuel capital windfall. If the petro-ruble river starts to run dry, what will Russia have to show for all its years of easy money? As more nations “frack” their own gas, install windmills and solar cells, super-insulate their houses, and start driving their cars on electricity generated off their own roof-tops, what will they buy from Russia? What will Russians buy from each other?

Investments in sustainability of the kinds described above — not just in the low-hanging fruit in Reason #4, but also in the more visionary directions described earlier, including the emerging fields of biomimicry, green chemistry, and sustainability-oriented nano-, bio-, and info-technology — would accelerate the kind of economic transition that everyone says Russia needs. Russia has the chance to transform itself from pipeline-and-oil-barrel hulk to a focus of technical and economic admiration, while renewing its economy on back of a much more diverse and robust industrial portfolio. Granted, the world’s hunger for oil and gas is not going to disappear any time soon; but the world’s hunger for sustainability-oriented innovation, and its respect for those who seriously invest in it, is growing exponentially. This has created a serious global race in which Russia is not currently competing.

And you have to be in it, to win it.

REASON #6: IMPROVED QUALITY OF LIFE FOR THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE

In a recent issue of Science journal, an international team of 24 researchers documented the benefits in every country, worldwide, of reducing tropospheric ozone and black soot. In brief, by taking action to improve a menu of 14 wasteful and pollution-generating industrial activities — of which all but one apply strongly to Russia — health will improve, food production will increase, and millions of premature deaths would be avoided (an estimated 40,000 of them in Russia). The cost? Negative. The whole exercise would generate net positive income by reducing healthcare expenditures and increasing agricultural output. The fact that these actions would also help reduce the impact of climate change is just a bonus (“Simultaneously Mitigating Near-Term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security,” 13 January 2012).

This is just the most recent in a long line of research papers, case studies, and living-proof models showing that “going green” is good for people as well as the planet. In buildings renovated to be sustainable and efficient, fewer people get sick and employee retention rates improve. If you make city streets or even parking lots more beautiful and pedestrian-friendly, people will walk more instead of driving their cars round and round looking for a parking spot that is 50 meters closer to the door.

Sustainability innovations of these kinds do not just save lives, make money, and stimulate economic development: they make people happy. They create optimism. They can help point whole societies squarely toward the future, and generate a feeling of hope.

What Russian leader, in government or in business, would not want this for the Russian people?

Which brings us to the seventh, and most compelling reason for why Russia should invest seriously in sustainability.

REASON #7:  BECAUSE YOU CAN

Russia, compared to most other countries on Earth, is in a privileged starting position when it comes to investing in sustainability. It has ample financial and intellectual capital to invest — much of which is leaving the country, at the moment, but that is a flow that could be reversed. It has surplus resources to such an extent that the word SURPLUS should be written in large letters. It has a relatively unchallenged position of national security, and no need to project power globally (because, among other reasons, it has all the resources it needs). It has a deep heritage of leadership in science and technology on which to draw. And it has plenty of low-hanging, money-making fruits to pick from its economic tree.

More importantly, Russia’s strengths give it the resilience needed to take some risks and absorb some losses — for as any entrepreneur will tell you, one has to be ready to take a loss once in a while, in order to accomplish a big win. Changing national economic habits, technologies, and infrastructures is going to require a lot of focused thought, domestic reform, strong incentives (e.g. to reverse human and financial capital outflows), and occasionally nerves of steel. Russia needs to find its niche on the global sustainability stage and, for its own sake, to do it quickly. As noted earlier, the theory is easy and straightforward. The practice will be challenging.

But Russians are a tough people. They like challenges, and they don’t like to lose. There is a great deal to be won by investing seriously in sustainability and economic transformation. Russia certainly should do this, if only because — in ways that truly are unique to this country — Russia can.

Labeling Sustainability: Is Certification Working?

The answer from this small seminar group of world experts on assessing the impact of sustainability standards — gathered by IVL, IISD, RFF and others to review the work of a big international research program called Entwined — is a qualified yes.

The “Yes” is interesting (and thanks to Erika Svensson of IVL for inviting me, so I could hear it) … but the qualifications are even more interesting.

For example, isn’t it amazing that it takes an independent, rigorous set of research programs just to find out whether these various voluntary standards are actually working? One of the findings of the State of Sustainability Initiatives annual assessment is that most of these standards — things like Forestry Stewardship Council certification, or Rainforest Alliance’s coffee labeling program — have no clue about the actual impact of what they are doing.

Or rather, the transparency of that impact is low (“red” on a slide displayed by Jason Potts of IISD). Standards organizations don’t have good numbers, and/or don’t publish them. So teams of researchers have been combing the market data, interviewing farmers, etc. to figure this out. Data is scarce. The data that does exist is fascinating (see my Twitter posts from this same seminar), such as the fact that Peru, with only 2 or 3% of the global coffee market, has 20% of the “sustainability certified” coffee market.

So, what are the findings? Researchers and data geeks will want to dig into the actual studies, but the executive summary is:  it’s an imperfect world, but standards and labeling does work. Environmental performance (comparing, for example, farmers that are certified to those that are not) improves.  It’s not that use of agro-chemicals drops to zero, of course, but — in one study for example, focused on coffee — that there was a 38% difference in the application of such chemicals between certified and non-certified farms. That’s actually a good result. (See the study, by Allen Blackman et al. at Resources for the Future)

Question time at the Entwined Seminar

Not only does it work environmentally, it works socially as well:  training programs work, capacity improves, even agricultural yields appear to go up as a result of that capacity building. Kids of sustainability-trained farmers in Vietnam, for example, appear to do better at school! (That tidbit from Daniele Giovannucci of COSA.)

That’s good news … because there are literally hundreds of these voluntary standards and certification systems in use around the world (600+ by one count), many at the producer level, many more at the consumer product level. It’s not about a fixed set of criteria, or setting up a label and then relaxing. “We see eco-labeling as a process,” says Caroline Hopkins of the Swedish Nature Conservation Society. She describes how that process works:  they move a voluntary standard into the market (say, removal of chlorine from paper production), and when critical mass is achieved and the technical/economic feasibility of this improved environmental behavior is proven, then they want to move the voluntary label into national legislation and regulation — and get out of the labeling business for that product. “So that we can move on to more urgent matters.”

What’s really happening here? In a quiet way, I think these standards and certification systems are a quiet way of practicing global governance. Phrases like “world government” usually get certain groups, especially in the United States, extremely upset. But we do have world government, of course, or at least “world governance”:  the UN, WTO, the vast body of international treaty law, etc. etc. But these globalized, voluntary standards for “greener” product development are also a form of global governance. What’s more, it is truly multi-stakeholder global governance:  data from IISD showed how the governing boards of these standard-setting groups are very nice mixtures of NGO and private sector, developed and developing country representatives, producers and consumers. This is “soft” stuff, in purely legal terms, because nobody actually has to do it. But as these labeling schemes reach critical mass, companies feel more or less required to participate.

Right now, there are protesters in the streets of many world cities demanding more democracy in the way the world’s economy is run. Ironically, it seems there might be a relatively new, inclusive, democratic, transparent process of economic global governance emerging right now, at least in a specific instance, and right under our noses:  on all those green labels in the supermarket.

A Week in Super-Fast Green-Growth South Korea

My first visit to South Korea introduced me to a remarkable country. Everyone I met, from the taxi driver to government officials, was unfailingly kind and courteous. I came away very impressed, on many levels. But the trip certainly started out in an interesting way …

South Korea is in a hurry. I felt this first-hand. It started with a car accident.

When riding in a taxi in a new country, especially when I notice that the drivers of vehicles on the superhighways seem a little on the cavalier side, I have often found it a good policy to sit in the back, put on my seatbelt (like a good Swede), and get my computer out. Best not to look at the actual driving.

For that reason, I really don’t know why my taxi ended up plowed into the side wall of the tunnel after smashing into the car ahead of us and sending another car into a spin. I was shaken up, but fine. I was still holding my computer, and I calmly saved my work, closed it, and got out of the smoke-filled car. The driver, whose air bag had deployed and saved his face, was saying something to me in Korean. I assumed it to be “Are you okay? Get out of the car!” and so I did that.

I sat up on the wall inside this tunnel and marveled at how most cars, in such a situation, just try to figure out how to get by and keep going — even though there was a car in the middle of the middle lane, facing the opposite direction, which seemed to me a clear signal that something was amiss.

There are many additional colorful details to this story, such as the ride in the tow truck or the sign language conversation with Korean police. But given that I was unhurt, and unable to tell anyone anything about what had actually happened, someone simply called a new taxi for me and I continued on to my meeting at South Korea’s Government Complex.

Since I had left early — to allow for trouble, which I certainly did experience — I ended up arriving exactly on time.

After the day of meetings (which were pleasant and productive), I was in no mood to take another taxi, so I rode the excellent subway system, two hours, changing four times, to get from south Seoul to Incheon. What landscape I saw was essentially the same everywhere: urban Asia. Small manufacturing operations. Shopping opportunities. Dense dwellings. The occasional hilly area (this is Korea after all), and some lovely parkland (Koreans appear to greatly appreciate parks).

The trains in Korea run so smoothly that most people who are standing do not even bother to hold on to anything. They just stand there. Many of the passengers were engrossed with their smart phones. Whenever I could sit, I pulled out my laptop and worked.

Back in Incheon, I got off the train a few stations early in order to walk home to the Sheraton Incheon hotel and get some exercise. The station guard who helped me get oriented was amazed that I was going to walk. The distance seemed to him improbably far. I knew it to be about 25 minutes, through another pleasant park, in the cool evening.

Incheon is a huge metroplex, very diverse and spread out, southwest of Seoul. Part of the city is old and historic, the site of Western culture’s main interface with the Korean culture in centuries past. Part is brand, spanking new, and has been built on land reclaimed from the sea in just the last few years.

In these newer parts of Incheon, one almost feels a sense of vertigo at the pace of growth. In just a few short years, tidal flats and low waters have been turned into “Tomorrow City” (the name of just one of the many futuristic building complexes) and many other tomorrow-ish things. The designers of these new parts have certainly been informed by “green”/sustainable ideas. My hotel is the only LEED-certified hotel in Korea. Across the street is “Central Park,” whose name, strategic location, and size are a clear reference to Manhattan’s Central Park. Incheon’s ambitions are similarly New York-ish: Korea’s tallest skyscraper was just finishing construction next to the hotel. And some of the nearby buildings look like support structures to the inter-planetary transportation device that is featured in the Jodie Foster movie about humanity’s first communication with people on other planets (“Contact”).

For this reason, the enormous Christian Bible exhibition (see photo), which occupied a huge portion of Central Park, and which had been partially destroyed by a typhoon and left in shambles for months, seemed all the more surreal. From my hotel window on the 14th floor, I looked out over Moses parting the red sea, a life-size replica of Jonah and the whale, a full-size (and that means enormous) model of Noah’s Ark, and dozens more. Everything was in bright colors. Everything was frayed; some things (such as a huge temple made entirely of porcelain plates) were partially, even dangerously, collapsed. A literal “stairway to heaven” invited one to climb up a winding road into the air, with no guardrails and certainly no certainty that one would return: in fact, if one did try to climb it, one would certainly end up falling to one’s heavenly doom (or perhaps, for the non-believers, doom of a more fiery kind).

Otherwise Incheon, or the part of it where I was living, was full of coffee shops and quick-marts, branded restaurants and high-rise luxury apartments. The roads appeared to be 12 lanes across, but there were never more than two lanes of traffic: Incheon is planning, Incheon is built, for future growth.

How much of that growth is green? S. Korea is, after all, the leading country in the world in terms of “Green Growth,” the policy of directing public investment into low-carbon technologies. Incheon city officials promised to send me some of the technical specs on what is happening there, which I look forward to reviewing, with keen interest. Meanwhile, I found this fascinating article in the journal “Environment” which details a recent set of scientific debates and political conflicts between conflicting “green” goals in the Incheon area. An enormous tidal energy plant, for example, would be “low-carbon,” but would come at the cost of the tidal flats that serve as rich breeding grounds for marine biodiversity.

It is impossible to assess, from a first visit, what is actually happening in Incheon. How “green” is the growth? There are signs of green-ness (e.g. the LEED certification on the Sheraton hotel) visible to the trained eye, but otherwise one would have to look at actual data to know how to evaluate it. Fortunately, South Korea has an entire Global Green Growth Institute whose purpose, in part, is to study these things (http://www.gggi.org/About/About_01.php). And you can read more about the national Green Growth strategy of South Korea here:  http://www.greengrowth.go.kr/english/en_main/index.do

What I do know, about Incheon (my home for a week) and about S. Korea in general, is that the level of ambition — for growth, for green-ness, and also for being a promoter of Green Growth on the international stage — is impressive. The scale of what is happening there is enormous. And it is happening with extreme rapidity.

Whatever is happening in Incheon, it is very definitely the future of this part of the world, growing before our eyes. And that’s something that every serious student of sustainability should study and reflect on.

*

Note: If you want to learn more of the basics of Incheon’s green city program, focused on the Songdo International City region where I was staying, here is Warren Karlenzig’s good blog post about a visit there in 2009. To see how the city describes itself, visit:  http://english.visitincheon.org/

Transparency, Confidentiality, and Consulting

Tomorrow I arrive for a week in the Republic of Korea on UN business. The purpose of this blogging intensive is to make my work more transparent, but this is one of those moments where I just cannot be very transparent … yet. This is the reality of the consulting life. Working with institutions and companies, you often find yourself in situations where confidentiality is essential. I’ve even had consulting engagements (and this trip to South Korea is obviously not one of them) where I was not permitted even to talk about the existence of the engagement — or even to say that I had been in a certain city at a certain time.

It sounds like secret agent stuff, but it’s not:  it’s ordinary course of business in some areas of business and political decision making. For example, there are times (and again, this is not one of them, I won’t be hinting anything here!) when funding, hiring, sourcing, or other decisions are at play, and too much transparency can actually *increase* the risk of corruption, undue influence, or influence peddling.

And there are of course a host of other reasons for confidentiality — but the main one is more or less the same as the reason your grandmother or grandfather might have not wanted you in the kitchen while she/he was cooking that special dinner:  watching the process disturbs the process. S/he would rather just present you with the wonderful result. Getting more people involved in the process would create a classic “too many cooks” mish-mash. Writers are like that too:  If I tell you too much about the book I am writing now, I may never actually finish it.

But often, after the fact, the cloud of confidentiality is lifted. Usually not all the way, but somewhat. I can tell you now, for example, that we’ve been assisting Levi Strauss & Co. with their sustainability strategy, benchmarking, and training over the past few years. And at the moment, I feel especially good about that relationship. You may have noticed that Levi Strauss just went public with a major initiative to raise the bar — dramatically — on corporate sustainability standards, moving toward alignment with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, and challenging all companies to do the same. The best way to get updated on that is to watch the 3 min. video at their corporate website (lower left corner as of today – search on YouTube if you’re reading this later on in history):

http://www.levistrauss.com/

Or read the short blog post from CEO John Anderson:

http://www.levistrauss.com/blogs/next-20-years

When clients make decisions like that, it make a consultant feel very good indeed. Please note:  I don’t want to overstate our role, either in this specific case, or in any client situation. The responsibility of an external advisor is always strictly limited to exactly that:  advice.  And again, consulting advice is often given under conditions of confidentiality precisely because it is the client who must weight a large number of inputs (including the inputs of multiple consultants, internal experts, stakeholder groups, etc.), make a decision, and face the consequences. My usual jest is that when things go well, the client rightfully takes all of the credit. When things go wrong, well, we consultants are partly there to help take the heat, or at least some of it.

So over the next week, I’ll be blogging and tweeting as normal, for this intensive … but mostly about other things, and about impressions from my first-ever visit to South Korea. Someday, maybe, I’ll be able to tell you more about it.