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Sustainable Innovation

Exploring the complexity of our sustainability stories

Exploring the complexity of our sustainability stories
Published: January 7, 2020
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Exploring the complexity of our sustainability stories

Whilst writing this article I'm flying at 20,000 ft with drink in hand. Air travel is a modern miracle of engineering, but it's a complex one. On the one hand, it's allowing me to fly halfway around the world to deliver a development programme, but on the other I'm burning huge amounts of fossil fuel in doing so. My development will help a client get better at pumping oil out of the ground, however I'm also challenging them on what their strategic future away from oil should be. Complicated.

Where I’m heading in the Middle East, the conversation is about change. People and organisations are talking about what we need to do before the oil runs out, about the need to diversify into solar power and other sustainable solutions. Because slowly, things are changing. Currently, 2.9 million electric vehicles are predicted to be sold globally in 2019 [1], in the same year that the UK powered itself by over 50% renewable energy sources [2].

Perhaps most impressive is the turn against single-use plastics, with the public calling for better solutions. Thanks to the ‘blue planet effect’ the public began to demand change and make more ethical spending decisions. Suddenly, companies had a reason ­– and the ability – to make change happen, driven not by corporations, but by people.

In order to drive change in organisations and create an environment that allows people to broaden their thinking, maybe we need to question what we are surrounding people with. What kind of information finds its way into their awareness and decision making? What are they sheltered from? How many of the complex problems of climate change and the future of this planet are held by how few people? At Impact we help organisations explore their own stories, facilitating a different kind of conversation that explores complicated and seemingly indefinable issues.

One such conversation focused on shipping scrubber technology. Innovation in this area has come in response to the International Maritime Organisation’s new legislation limiting air pollution from shipping exhausts. This is a bigger issue than most people realise, with the biggest 15 ships globally responsible for more sulphur oxide gas emissions than all the cars in the world.

Currently, there are two ways for ships to reduce emissions:

1) Use cleaner, more expensive fuel (the IMO’s preference)

2) Continue using cheaper fuel, but fit an exhaust gas scrubber to the ship which washes out emissions

When the biggest cost ships face is fuel, unsurprisingly most shipping owners are going for the latter. On the surface, the changes the IMO have made appear to make this a happy story, but it’s not that simple. When margins are tight, companies have to look for other ways to save. In this case, this means ship owners using an open loop system, which transfers pollution from the air to the sea [3], damaging our ocean ecosystems. There are other systems that capture contaminants and store them until they can be processed on land, but they come at a financial cost.

The question we put to participants is: ‘Who’s responsible for transferring the pollution to the sea?’ The IMO? Ship owners? Consumers? Engineers? Fuel companies? We ask them to rank these actors in order of responsibility, not forgetting to include themselves. We then ask them to decide on a collective ranking as a group, doing so as quickly and efficiently as possible, reflecting the reality of business. Ultimately, this proves to be impossible, too complicated by individual beliefs, biases and perspectives, which are important factors when interrogating the complex stories of organisations. 

At Impact we believe that deliberate dialogue can help groups of people better explore these difficult topics. By fostering the skills of:

  • quality listening
  • clear, considerate communication
  • holding our assumptions and perspectives lightly
  • asking open, genuine questions
  • respecting others 

Deliberately employing these skills allows people to explore the complexities of sustainable innovation issues rather than immediately trying to fix them. They can start to unlock the questions that need to be asked in order to begin developing solutions. Because just asking the question ‘who’s responsible’ hasn’t got us very far. 

So, you might ask us, which stories here at Impact could we be exploring? We certainly aren't exempt from these questions, and sat here at 20,000 ft, I'd have to say that our carbon footprint predominantly comes from travel. This knowledge sits uncomfortably at the back of my mind, along with the plastic cutlery I used on this flight (which is as bad as the plastic straw I didn’t) and the work we are doing with harmful organisations. We reassure ourselves with the fact that we help these harmful organisations grow, and hopefully change. But are we just kidding ourselves? Time will tell, but it’s a conversation we are exploring and I know I am part of an organisation that demands that of me. 

What do you demand of your people? What’s your complex story that needs exploring? Are you recycling vigorously, yet powering yourselves with fossil fuel generated electricity? Are you transporting your goods in biofuel vehicles only to lose track of your plastic packaging? Are you making technology for good, which is inadvertently doing harm? The complex sustainable innovation problems we all know don’t have simple solutions, but perhaps having open dialogue about them is a good first step.

Mark Quest is a Senior Consultant at Impact.