A week or so ago I had the good fortune to speak at Robert F Kennedy Foundation’s annual conference, Ripples of Hope, focusing on how organisations can embrace regenerative principles. Taking place amidst the relaxed vibes of Manchester’s HOME, it was a great opportunity to connect with others and reflect on the challenges and opportunities of regeneration. Here’s a few notes...
First thing - everyone gets it. We’re all familiar with conferences and events filled with buzzwords (NFTs for the headless metaverse!), but I was struck by how quickly the audience got comfortable with the concept. Volans gave a great summary of the conceptual building blocks of regenerative approaches - biomimicry, circular economy and an acknowledgement of interconnectedness. During the day, this evolved into a shorthand that contrasted extractive systems (taking more than we give) with regenerative ones (giving more than we take). It’s not comprehensive, but this little phrase is a great, human hook - and the ease with which it was used demonstrates how regenerative ideas are deeply rooted in the human outlook. It’s something we’ve spent thousands of years observing in nature and doing ourselves.
The morning’s talks dug into the topic from various angles. Mac Macartney urging people to begin with a deeper examination of two questions - “what do you live for? And what do you live by?”. Charmian Love from B Lab shining a light on mainstream and emerging companies that can give us all give sources of hope. Impact investors spoke about how to re-engineer the “code” of international finance to reflect regenerative principles (I’ll leave our thoughts on that for another post…).
So far so good. But as the morning progressed the atmosphere became testier. Where participants had embraced the concepts of regeneration in the abstract, being asked to explore how it would apply to their business brought out a very different response. Communications experts explained it was the job of the government to build a good society, and theirs to provide high impact PR for commercial clients (with suitably murky description of what “impact” actually meant). Financial institutions explained it was their job to maximise returns for their investors. The warm glow of a world where everyone gave more than they took became a distant memory.
This won’t be a surprise for anyone involved in the hard work of helping organisations or individuals to change. Behavioural change experts will talk about this as the intention-action gap. In principle we’re keen, but in practice we find excuses for why we can’t. And who can blame us - 100 years of history has taught us to separate our business identities from our personal selves, buidling operational business models that studiously ignore the external impacts of their activity. If you’re a leader, finding a way to navigate this - alongside the day to day reality of managing teams, P&Ls and market competition can be tough. And particularly when it's easy to view such change as a “net zero” equation - how can we keep on doing exactly what we’re doing, minus the negative impact?
AT Something More Near, we often view our role as working to reframe questions like this in a way that helps organisations to change in the ways they frequently aspire but rarely achieve. How can we view the limits on carbon emissions as something other than a constraint to be resisted? How can we approach it as an opportunity to rethink our organisation’s role in the world to come?
For those who’ve worked with us before, it won’t be a surprise that when it came to our session, we focused on exactly this moment - how to help organisations make the jump from abstract ambition to meaningful “moves” that help them get started or go faster. By supporting the group to map their organisations value chains and identify where extractive principles are at play - we discussed where company value is generated at the expense of unsustainable energy or natural degradation. We then used this analysis as the basis for positive innovation. How can we use innovation to step into a different relationship with the world around us? What role can we play in a post carbon future? What are the levers for change we have at our disposal?
"an artist is never ahead of his time, but most people are far behind theirs"
- Edgard Varese
I’m not usually a fan of quotes that put artists on pedestals, but I’ve always enjoyed the story of the composer Varese being asked why artists are so far ahead of their time. In typically austere terms, he responded “an artist is never ahead of his time, but most people are far behind theirs”. It’s an idea I find myself returning to a lot at the moment. This is a significant moment. A moment where all hands are needed on deck. A moment of crisis but also a moment of great awakening. As businesses and people we have the opportunity not only to avert a climate catastrophe but to remake the world in a more positive way. Not only to mitigate negative impact, but to help build a regenerative economy. For anyone business - stay practical, map your options and pull hard on the biggest lever you can find.