I’ve spent much of my life working with business. People tend to assume that because business operates in markets, that markets are predictable and linear and tend to behave in an ordered manner. But anyone who has studied markets and the evolution of economies realises that they are much more like ecosystems.
You have periods of stability and periods of instability. I’ve been aware of that since I did economics in the late 60s. But I only did it for one year as it seemed to make very little sense by the way it was taught. It didn’t take into account environmental factors at all.
However, one of the thoughts I came away with was that the dynamics in our economies are very multi factorial and that there are moments when things go extremely wobbly. Some of that is because of war or conflict, and sometimes it may be because of an external influence like weather and climate changing in unpredictable ways.
But the tendency is that technologies primarily drive our economies. These technologies are created, we invest in them, they evolve, we build our societies around them and then the technology shifts. And when they shift, society and our activity move as well.
Heading into the mother of all U-Bends
So, where are we? I think we’re heading into the mother of all U-Bends. We’re in a period where an old order is coming apart. This old order can be tracked back to 1944 when the architecture of the post second world war global economy was laid out. But since then, we’ve had a whole series of technologies coming in, particularly in the last forty years or so. I have felt for several years now that we are on the cusp of some sort of discontinuity.
We look out now and see a landscape wriggling with new technologies, most of them digital in nature. They range from satellites and drones to autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, synthetic biology, etc. We have more of these technologies coming through than in any previous period in our collective history. So our technological landscape is primed for this transformation.
But I think there will be a cultural shift as well. Ordinary people are waking up to the fact that the world is interconnected in a way they could scarcely begin to imagine. A world where wildlife trafficking in Thailand is linked to wet markets in Wuhan, which link to infections in traders, then everybody, and then that goes global. Like climate change, many saw [Covid-19] coming in broad outlines, and we should have responded, but we didn’t.
So, we’re headed downwards. This is a period where people become increasingly confused and uncertain and fearful, and angry. That’s where a lot of this recent political populism comes from. We’re headed downwards and undoubtedly, there will be enormous pain as a result. I think that is going to be pretty gruelling at times.
Climate change, for instance, forces tens of millions of people to migrate, and suddenly, you’re into barricades and walls and conflict. I think we may well see some form of major conflict. And the U-Bend, for me, is not like a recession. It is something that goes on for a much more extended period of time than most people initially expect. We’ll be lucky to come out of the other side within 12 to 15 years.
The upside is that this is a wave which we will come back up from. And when we do, we’ll emerge into a transformed world. I was born an optimist. I don’t think one could do this sort of work without believing this world was improvable. I believe these periods of discontinuity are the biggest opportunity we have as a species to change things. In my mind, it is the opportunity to change things for the better.
We’ll hear all sorts of voices from people we’ve never heard before
One result is that we will start to see a difference in leaders emerging across every level in our society. Their view of what makes an appropriate, effective and sustainable solution will be quite different from the people they are replacing.
Look at Greta Thunberg. Suddenly, this 16-year-old girl is standing up and telling the world what it needs to know with a vision and acuity that is quite remarkable. That is an early indicator of where we’re heading next. We’ll hear all sorts of voices from people we’ve never heard before.
It’s dangerous to generalise, but I believe we need more women leaders at every level in our society and in our economies. It’s often said that on balance, men tend to be more instrumental, priding themselves on being able to think systemically. But women seem more aware of a broader world as part of their wiring. So when we talk about solutions, it is essential we continue to bridge the gender divide and bring women into the economy in a much more profound way.
It was fascinating that, when Project Drawdown analysed solutions to climate change, girls’ education was number six on the priority list. I don’t think it is coincidental that every country doing moderately well through this difficult time is likely to have a female leader. Societies that elect female leaders are more inclined towards a broader view of the world.
No one planned directly to destroy the biosphere or destabilise the climate
We’re moving into a set of industrial revolutions which is off the scale greater and more complicated than anything we’ve gone through previously. But there will be all sorts of unintended consequences as we develop and deploy solutions.
Some of the biggest crises over the last 60 years have been created by things considered safe at the time. Chlorofluorocarbons were the much safer refrigeration alternative, yet they blew a hole in the ozone layer. We’re going to have unintended consequences on at least that scale.
Who we are, what we want to see happen, what we value, what we are prepared to protect: all of those questions will become increasingly important. As the evidence of climate change presses home ever more severely, it will become very present in a growing number of people’s minds.
The question is, then, what do they do with it? Do we flash in anger? Do we attack people whose fault it is? Or do we, over time, accept this is a set of unintended consequences? No one planned directly to destroy the biosphere or destabilise the climate. We have an opportunity now to wake up and, in a very short order, do things differently.
Innovation comes from the edge of the system
As a species, we’re too clever for our own good. We are adept at creating crises that we are remarkably inept at tackling effectively: plastic pollution, antibiotic resistance, obesity, space debris and the climate emergency. Diabetes is an invisible pandemic with a bigger impact over time than Covid-19. All of these so-called wicked problems have characteristics that almost defy solutions.
When we ask the question of how we solve all of this, we’ve got to be able to step back from our understanding of reality. It’s one of the reasons why in times of massive destructive change, innovation comes from the edge of the system. Here, solutions flourish because they didn’t operate to the standard rules or obey the systemic instructions.
I think that’s where we are. If you pay real attention to climate change, it is pretty bleak. The outcomes are outside most people’s experience, so they don’t want to think about it. But solutions help people think about those problems and provide a happier stepping stone to what is needed.
John Elkington's Green Swans (Fast Company Press, April 2020) is available from all good bookshops.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 3rd July 2020