When good things go bad
How does it happen that things that are meant to improve things end up making things worse? Benefits created are cancelled out by the negative effects and before we know it costs outweigh benefits - that is, the costs when taking a systemic view, a view that considers the needs of all three aspects of the triple bottom line, rather than just economic ones.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. On my train journey from Kings Lynn to London I pass fields all all sorts: potatoes, different types of grain, sunflowers, meadows with sheep and cows, and more recently: solar panels. Well the picture to the right is not from Norfolk, it is on from Long Island where clearly the forrest has made way to a 'solar plantation'. Many green field 'Solar Plantations' such as the one in the picture probably not only cover fertile ground, many will rely on spraying the fields with weedkillers and other chemicals to make sure nature does not interfere with the solar installation.
Looking at that I think, REALLY? How can we use something that draws on the strength and plentitude of nature and that is supposed to be a step towards sustainability to destroy even more of nature? Is it because that is the only way we know how to think, and use technology? Do we not seal off enough ground already with buildings, roads and other contraptions of concrete, steel and glass? Do we really need to cover fertile land, land that, if not used for the production of food, could be used for the creation of biotopes, to re-build our woodlands and forrest? Rather than covering more of nature we should think about how to cover more man-made features with nature! I rather like the idea of ‘greening walls’, and an initiative to make London the first National Park City.
Especially when it does not have to be like that: to benefit from solar power plant we do not have to cover up more green fields. All it takes is an open mind, the willingness to push boundaries, and seek solutions that combine the best of all worlds rather than do what we have always done, thereby creating a compromise on the lowest common denominator.
An example that illustrates that covering green land with solar panels is not the only way to benefit from solar installations is from the UK-based company Solar Century. Solar Century were determined to contribute to the acceleration of adoption of solar power, at the same time realising that relying on the investment of individuals was a major impediment to dissemination. They decided that if it were possible to create a solar offering in the form of a tax-deductible investment, things might change. Key challenge: in order to quality as a ‘bankable’ asset the solar installation had to be independent of the rest of the building’s structure - which meant the solar installation had to stay on the roof without being fixed to it! If there was a physical connection between roof structure and solar structure warrantee and maintenance would become contestable. Using wind modelling software they were able to design a structure and layout that would ensure that the tiles would stay in place through the aerodynamic load pushing it down alone, no fixings required for the solar installation, even if it were exposed to the force of a one-in-a-hundred-year storm. Thus Solar Century were able to create an investment product that could be leased to any investment fund. I love it: not going for the obvious, not going for the first solution, not giving up until a solution is found that creates wins all round. It also required looking beyond the product itself, and turning force that could be destructive into something that supports the system.
It is not only solar panels where the how and where we use them flies in the face of original intentions. It is breakfast cereals and yogurts that were meant to be healthy, and many variations today have an extraordinary amount of sugar in them. I am reminded of the story of a soup manufacturer who was concerned about the loss in market share and declining product sales. So he started to investigate. Looking at the ingredients he suggested to add some more wholesome ingredients - only to find that he was suggested what had been part of the original recipe, and then been cut out over time in order to save costs. Cost savings might be necessary, but not at the cost (...) of destroying value. I think that is generally a challenge with innovation and innovating, with any change for that matter: do we remember to ask whether the proposed change is actually improving things and creating value, or doing the opposite?!
There is something about food and slipping over to the dark side... In our ambition to make food look good, make it easy to package, and preserve it for as long as possible things might have gotten out of hand a little. In order to deliver what attracts us as consumers, foods and ingredients are refined and modified so much that it has lost they are loosing their nutritional value! This is at least what recent research found: the nutritional levels of modern crops have 10-25% less iron, zinc, protein, calcium, vitamin C, and other nutrients, when compared with historic crops. Our food might adhere to standards and look pretty, yet in what really matters, nutrients, it is underperforms in alarming ways. Our solution: we buy expensive vitamins and other dietary supplements. Are we really making most of innovation's potential?
Perhaps it wasn’t fair when I said earlier ‘all it takes’ as an open mind, pushing boundaries and creating a win-win solution. Being open-minded and pushing boundaries takes a fair few of us out of our comfort zones; and pushing boundaries and creating win-win solutions tends to require one critical ingredient: collaboration, and generally collaboration with individuals and organisations who are different from what we are used to. Interestingly and even though we have been talking about the benefits of team work since the 80s (at least), The Economist found it worthy to publish an article March this year titled “Businesses are embracing the idea of working in teams. Managing them is hard”. Yep, collaboration is not easy, and it will certainly not happen if all you do is tell people: collaborate …
Yet 'collaboration across communities', as I like to refer to collaboration between people of different mind- and values, is the magic dust that opens up opportunities and brings forth innovation. It is not for nothing that co-working spaces and innovation hubs have sprung up everywhere. One exciting example I have come across recently are the Porto Alegre (Brazil) Sustainable Innovation Zone (ZISPOA) and the Parallel Vivo Sustainable Innovation Hub. Both are part of the Global Urban Development initiative which was set up by Marc Weiss in 2001 “…to build a global network of leaders and experts, and to develop a set of inspiring ideas and innovative policies that can help enable all people, everywhere in the world, to live and thrive in peace with each other and in peace with nature.”
Whether innovation, or sustainability, or creating win-win solutions, collaboration across communities is the answer. And despair not, tools to support such collaboration are emerging. From simple ones such as visuals and pictures to more sophisticated and strategic ones such as the Collective Leadership Compass, developed by Friend of the ILF Petra Künkel which she describes and explains in her book of the same title. If you wonder why the use of visuals and pictures is particularly helpful, consider this: with words we tend to assume shared meaning; pictures on the other hand can be interpreted in many different ways which means that when using pictures we generally need to share much more of our thinking. This means that pictures require us to explain our assumptions and and make tacit knowledge explicit. How can i resist mentioning the two decks of picture cards developed by the ILF ;-) ? Ah yes, and there was also a recent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review that talked about ‘The rise of visual content online’.
So, to stop good things from going bad, think a little harder, and collaborate.