Making connections, missing connections

Coming back from a meeting in New Haven last weekend, I spent several fun-filled hours at O’Hare trying to make my connection. At different times, we had a plane. We had a gate. We had a crew. We had fuel. But it took two hours of delays (and multiple gate changes) to get them all together, along with the passengers, before we finally took off.

The airline hadn’t run out of planes. Or gates. Or fuel – they didn’t go drilling for oil and then refine it; they just finally got the right truck to the right plane at the right gate. The problem was connections: the airline (and airport) making their connections so we could make our connections.

That was the same message I took away from the New Haven meeting, a unique collaboration of the US Business Council for Sustainable Development (US BCSD), the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale (CBEY). The meeting was about “Collaborating to Achieve Scale” in business and sustainability. Over 100 leaders from business, NGOs, academia and government had intense discussions around substantive issues like water, coastal wetlands, materials and the circular economy, climate-smart agriculture and forestry.

In session after session, the theme of making and missing connections came through. We are not short of challenges, obviously, but we’re not short of technology, ideas, data, enthusiasm or even capital either. What we’re all still learning to do is to connect them up so that the solutions can really take off.

In some areas, there is real progress. The Materials Marketplace platform is designed specifically to make connections, in this case between businesses with waste streams and businesses who can use those wastes as feedstock. The Water Synergy Projects are designed to connect entities who use water, those who depend on it, those who regulate it, all within a cohesive geographic area. Sustainable Forestry is bringing together partners from up and down the value chain. Energy Efficiency in Buildings is moving into a second phase, focusing on more replicability to achieve scale. Emerging projects like Climate Smart Agriculture are all about making the right connections across multiple industry sectors as well as government and NGOs.

In those and other areas, there’s still a lot to do. Finance is a particular challenge. The people with capital to invest, the people with capital already at risk, and the people impacted by both problems and solutions are just beginning to find ways to connect. And we’re learning that in some cases, we may be chasing the wrong people, trying to connect with sectors that may not be ready to participate in solutions yet. So there are delays and missed connections and frustrations.

There’s a lot to harvest and share, both about content areas and around cross-cutting issues of finance, technology, communications and policy. But above all, great platforms like last week’s meeting provide real hope about making more of the right connections.

Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners.

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Driving sustainability: A glimpse of South Africa

It was my first time in Africa since leaving Ethiopia 50 years ago.  We’ve both changed.

A whirlwind week in an unfamiliar country – let alone an unfamiliar continent – doesn’t make you an expert.  At best, it leaves you with some vivid impressions.  Especially if you get out of our all-too-usual routine of airports, hotel meeting rooms, and fellow expats.

My first trip to South Africa was indeed well out of my routine. Thanks to my wonderful colleagues at ERM in South Africa, my first 24 hours in the country included elephants, zebras, giraffes, warthogs and other non-routine meetings. My last 24 hours included hiking atop Table Mountain, baboons staring down cars, the Cape of Good Hope, townships, seals playing in the surf, and brilliant ocean vistas. In between, I had the chance to meet with 30 clients from across South Africa.  They came from diverse sectors, from mining to medicine, chemicals to communications, resources to retail.  We met (admittedly) in hotel meeting rooms in Johannesburg and Cape Town, but also in mine offices and company canteens. I also had in-depth conversations with a dozen colleagues from ERM’s South African business unit, the base for a growing presence throughout Africa.

That left me with two vivid impressions.  Both are about sustainability, one more emotional and the other more intellectual.

The emotional impression is a pretty typical reaction to Africa, I’m told: overwhelming beauty, scale and complexity mixed with constant reminders of the power of nature.  I don’t have the words to do justice to this, so I’ve just bored family and friends with pictures.

The intellectual impression is of a sustainability laboratory: all the issues are in play here. There are no constants.  Social, economic and environmental factors are all in flux and interconnected. South Africa as a society and an economy, is like a big extended family sharing a house that’s too small and needs work. People are already living on the ground floor, some are working to expand the house and add rooms and comfort to the second floor, while others are still working to shore up the foundation.  Logically, you would work on the foundation first.  But there’s not time for that, the house is already too crowded and the expectations about the growth too high. In fact, the excitement and demand for those additions to the house provide the very energy and resources needed for shoring up the foundation. Neither task, additions or foundation, can wait for the other to go first.

The biggest question is, can this work? Can this country grow sustainably? Sustainable development isn’t an interesting question here, it’s an imperative. It is, in effect, the elephant in the room. That elephant isn’t exactly hidden; everyone knows it’s there, once you know where to look.

Elephant hiding

“That elephant isn’t exactly hidden” – Mabula Game Lodge, Limpopo, South Africa

Fortunately, I had a great teacher who showed me what to look for. For all the terrific insights from clients and colleagues, my best teacher was July, the ERM driver who took me from Johannesburg out to the bush.  July, it turns out, is studying environmental management. He is energetically turning potential burdens into opportunities.  He is reveling in the moment. And he taught me how to listen to South Africa.

  • His day job is as a driver, taking people to and from meetings about environment and sustainability.  A source of distraction and frustration to someone studying for a better career? No, a source of opportunity to get experience: he won approval to go into meetings and sit in the back taking notes rather than sitting outside in the car.
  • He grew up with parents from two different clans speaking different languages (Northern Sotho and Tsonga). With Afrikaans and English both used in school, he had to learn four languages by the time he was eight.  A source of confusion and burden? No, the source of a facility with languages which he’s now using to learn Portuguese so he’ll be prepared for the growth markets on South Africa’s borders.  And he’s making sure his children learn multiple languages.
  • Stuck spending a Saturday driving this American through drenching rain nearly flooding the streets of Bela Bela? He deftly turned it into a mutual coaching session. We spent hours in the car and over lunch in a fair trade of experience. He extracted lessons in consulting and client service from me. He gave me powerful lessons in South Africa’s true sustainability challenge: meeting economic, infrastructure and social needs amidst vulnerable environmental riches and growing expectations.

July didn’t just drive my travel-weary body that day, he drove my understanding.  Just like he’s driving his career. And it’s energy, insight and adaptability like his that helps give South Africa real promise for working through its sustainability challenges.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]   

 

The most social media of all

As the US BCSD annual meeting came to a close, I urged participants to reach out to colleagues using all the digital channels we’d created.  I reminded them to connect colleagues with the Twitter hashtag #scaleup, the LinkedIn connection, and even the google+ community.  Then on the spur of the moment I added: “And you can use the most social media of all — talk with them.”

We had gone proudly digital at this meeting.  We shared documents on Google.  We created our own Twitter hashtag just for the meeting. We exchanged email lists. Some of us even connected with each other on LinkedIn while sitting in the same conference room.

There was a purpose to all this.  It wasn’t just to pretend we were cool (or that some of us aren’t that old). We made a conscious decision to create multiple channels for participation and sharing. Everyone isn’t comfortable speaking up in a group. Everyone doesn’t feel equally empowered in a meeting: like many meetings, this one had a hard core of folks who were veterans of the group, with others who were new – and less likely to be comfortable speaking up. Everyone doesn’t work the same way: digital channels are delightfully “asynchronous” for those of us who suddenly realize at 2 AM what we should have said or asked in the session the prior afternoon. And if we want to engage younger colleagues, we figured, we need to offer the channels they use.  (My good friend and former colleague Bonnie Cheuk taught me this concept of “multiple channels” during ERM‘s own strategy process 5 years ago.)

It’s easy to fall into the digital trap, though. Digital channels are great ways to sustain contact or pass on information.  But it’s very hard to build relationships and trust digitally. Those take face-to-face contact with real give and take.

Image 2-12-14 at 8.54 PMBetween the US BCSD meeting and a session with The Conference Board’s Chief EHS Officers’ Council the week before, I’d had 50 real conversations in two weeks.  It was tiring, but fantastic. I got to know colleagues better. I made new contacts I never would have met on-line. We found real connections we never would have discovered with laser-focused tweets or articles reposted on LinkedIn. We talked about children and grandchildren, houses and apartments, illnesses and losses, paths that crossed in strange times and places. We found human connections we can build on going forward.

Not everyone has the luxury of time and travel to make those connections. Not everyone is comfortable with walking up and talking to strangers.  There is real value in including more people by using multiple channels, digital and analog, remote and face-to-face.

Still though – talking with people, the most social media.  Who would have thought it?

I know there’s nothing new or dramatic in all this.  But it was a useful reminder for me.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]  

Public ends, private means

Affordable student housing in a 12th century convent in Venice.  A food truck collaborative in a gritty Boston suburb.  Mobile-phone charging stations in Burkina Faso. This is sustainable development?

Yes.  This is exactly the frontier where new models for sustainable development are being created: unconventional, innovative projects to achieve public ends through private means.

These models come from optimism but also from frustration. The optimism reflects the belief that new things are worth trying. The frustration reflects the experience many have had trying to work around the limits of conventional models, including:

  • Private sector, especially the corporate world.  Society expects more and more from businesses.  But good intentions can be ground down by the complexities of fiduciary responsibilities and quarterly earning pressures. Investment is stranded in old business models – and even older organizational cultures.  We’ve seen good progress and sometimes great innovation from business, but the limits are real.
  • Public sector, in both the developed and developing worlds.  Even the world’s oldest democracies are seeing stalemate rather than statesmanship in addressing their biggest challenges. We’ve had to put hopes for public policy solutions off to the side; almost a sequestration of expectations.  At this point, we expect so much from business precisely because we expect so little from government.
  • Philanthropy and foundations.  They do great work, but they are often not in for the long haul.  They can be enormously helpful at getting something started.  Providing dependable, year-on-year baseline funding seldom fits their business model, though.  That makes sense – but only if what they help start has some other form of funding to remain viable.
  • Civil society and non-profits.  Many do amazing hands-on work to fill the urgent gaps, including feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. That work requires ingenuity to stretch scarce resources every day.  There is no surplus to invest in new models, not when that can be done only by taking food off the table at the soup kitchen.

All these sectors and models play needed roles but all have their limits.

Now we’re seeing fascinating work on creating and testing new models.  (In full disclosure, I should point out that some of this work is being done by my greatest mentors, intellectual partners and friends.)  This work is building unconventional approaches to:

  • Harness private means including capital, spirit, management rigor, creativity;
  • For public ends including interconnected concerns around economic development, jobs, environmental sustainability, housing, energy, diversity, transportation and education;
  • In financially-sustainable ways, breaking the dependency on undependable foundations, grants, government agencies.

One might almost call this nexus… truly sustainable development.  At the very least, it’s putting back in the missing “economic” piece in the sustainability “triple bottom line”.

What does this look like in practice?  There are lots of initiatives including micro-credit, transportation, energy financing and other areas. Three striking examples of different models can be seen in:

  • The Crociferi development in Venice, providing affordable student and faculty housing built on a base of a 12th century convent and tourism spending.   (The facility opened just a few months ago with publicly funded property investment and privately funded management.)
  • Projects around the world sponsored by the Low Carbon Enterprise Fund (a program of the ERM Foundation).  The Fund’s projects “provide finance and pro-bono technical and management support for low carbon entrepreneurs in the developing world”, ranging from fuel-efficient stoves in India to carbon-neutral, shade grown coffee in Latin America and Ethiopia.
  • A new project in Malden, Massachusetts aiming at local business development for immigrant communities based on co-creating development rather than providing arms-length financing.

The people deeply involved in these experiments are asking tough questions themselves.  Isn’t each project its own “special case” and if so, how do we extract common lessons? Does sustainable financing depend on meeting both public and private ends? How do we scale up? How do we do enough to really matter when no one project is that large? Can we scale up without new forms of “hybrid capital?” Is “sustainable development” even the right label for all this, given how much economic impacts are overlooked in the sustainability world?

Where will this all go? I’m not sure.  Nor are the people driving these experiments.  I suspect it will be non-linear path, filled with twists and turns and setbacks and surprises both good and bad.  Then again, the people driving these experiments got where they are today on non-linear paths that ran through (among other things) railroads, economic development, boards of banks and consultancies, Native American crafts enterprises, and grass-roots political organizing. What the paths all have in common is a focus on broader pubic needs and experience in making things work in the private sector.  Maybe we should call it public yearning, private learning.

I’ll try to keep track of these experiments and share the lessons learned. (I’m already learning lessons just from the reading they’ve each suggested; see the mini-bibliography at the bottom of this blog.) I’m finding that these experiments are all about connection: connecting resources and needs, knowledge and challenges, opportunities and people willing to pursue them.  They are also about connection at a very personal level: reconnecting with old friends, connecting them with each other, and tapping the energy and creativity of much younger new friends being drawn in.  The path won’t be linear but it certainly will be interesting.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.] 

Mini-bibliography: