Sunday, November 27, 2011

'Zeronauts' needed in these dangerous times

At the stroke of midnight on Oct 31, countries across the world, led by the United Nations, celebrated a series of symbolic seven-billionth babies being born.

While parents were congratulated and babies photographed by local press, one man - a prominent authority on sustainable development - posed a sober thought amid the revelry.

Mr John Elkington, executive chairman of London-based environmental consultancy Volans, notes that though this might be a symbolic moment for humanity, it also marks 'dangerous times'.

Speaking to The Sunday Times in Singapore recently - he was here to speak at a forum held by the Singapore International Foundation - Mr Elkington, 62, says the problem humanity faces today is that it has inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries economic and business models, technologies and ways of thinking about the world which are now 'actively dangerous'.

'When I was born, there were fewer than three billion people in the world. This month, we hit seven billion and in these circumstances, resource availability and environmental security are severely threatened,' he said.

Going by UN estimates, the world population is set to rise further - reaching 10.1 billion in the next 90 years, or reaching 9.3 billion by the middle of this century. Current consumption patterns are simply unsustainable, given this scenario.

Mr Elkington says he recognises that some governments and business leaders have been responding to these concerns by adopting policies and strategies that ensure the sustainable and efficient use of resources.

'But I don't think they are remotely addressing the agenda yet, or introducing the disruptive change we need to see,' he says bluntly.

Mr Elkington is regarded widely as a pioneer thinker on sustainability - he originated the term 'triple bottom line', or people, planet and profit, which has become popular in business speak and often used in conveying the idea of a socially responsible business.

It is a way of measuring success beyond financial performance to include the environmental and social impact of an organisation.

These days, he is working on a new book, to be published early next year, and has coined a new term that describes people who are leading the way in solving the world's problems - the 'Zeronauts'.

He explains to the forum, aptly called 'Ideas for a Better World': In the last century, astronauts launched into space in search of new worlds, and in the process, catalysed the evolution of everything from non-stick frying pans to mini-computers to satellite telecommunications.

Their work forced humans to recognise that Earth is a very rare planet indeed - and our only home for the foreseeable future.

Today, there is a new breed of explorers and entrepreneurs - the Zeronauts - who are pioneering novel ways to create wealth that is in tune with the 21st century reality of a human population pushing towards 10 billion people.

Central to this idea of the Zeronauts is that they are putting the world on a path to a zero impact economy - that is, one with zero risk, zero emissions, zero pollution and waste, zero biodiversity loss and zero population growth, as defined by Mr Elkington.

He cites one person he identifies as a Zeronaut in the book: Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

But Mr Elkington says Mr Gates is a Zeronaut not due to his leadership while he was in Microsoft, but rather now in running the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is pursuing objectives towards a zero impact economy.

'Unusually, for a business leader in the United States, he's talked about the need to drive towards zero carbon, but he's also addressing it in areas like public health care, in polio and malaria; he's trying to drive these diseases to zero,' notes Mr Elkington.

Professor Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, who was in a panel discussion with Mr Elkington at the forum, notes that if Singapore were to measure itself based on this idea of the zero impact economy, then it has not been bold enough.

It was only recently that the local bourse launched voluntary guidelines for companies to report on their operations and their impact, he adds.

So does Singapore have what it takes to produce such a Zeronaut?

To this, Mr Elkington says: 'I'm deeply positive about Singapore, but I do recognise that the entrepreneurial instinct (here) is not as great as it needs to be.'

He explains that, typically, disruptive innovation comes from places where people are 'profoundly uncomfortable' because the current system is not working.

Singapore is an efficient society 'where things work' and this may take away the urgency to change things disruptively, he adds.

Still, Singapore has shown leadership by planning for long-term timeframes in its investments and that is why Volans, in a recent report called 'The Future Quotient', identified the Republic as one of 50 top examples of leaders that have shown the capacity to create value in the long term.

Mr Elkington defines long term as a time horizon of beyond 33 years - the defined age of a generation. The report profiles examples of innovation which are 'future- centric' and inter-generational in nature.

'Singapore has accumulated a huge amount of wealth over time and trained, educated and skilled up its population in a way that is highly unusual,' he says.

'So although the average person might not have this raw hunger to change the world, there's the capacity to do so once the mind is made up, as Singapore has demonstrated with its capabilities in water technology,' he adds.

That said, he admits that ordinary people are 'unlikely to be driven by the concept of zero'.

The Zeronaut agenda is a business and governmental concept which he hopes will help leaders see that they are defining the world's sustainability challenge too loosely.

'A relatively small number will come out of this revolution... but those who do will be the Amazons and eBays of the future.'