Let’s change the rules of engagement – it’s time to get real

By Amanda Powell-Smith

The case for social and environmental action is clear. From the high-level World Economic Foundation Global Risks Report to daily reminders of the poverty impacting so many of our communities, no more evidence is needed to prove that social inequality is increasing with dramatic consequences for all our futures.  Bold phrases are being used and big targets are being set to signify ambition but if we are going to turn them into action, it is time to change the rules of engagement.

While 2019 was a turning point for recognition of the climate emergency, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has driven home both the devastating consequences of inequality and the inspiring outcomes of focused cross-sector co-operation.

By stepping forward as problem solvers – often in the absence of government – businesses are increasingly recognised as the most trusted institutions with high expectation that they will address and solve today’s challenges. Sixty eight per cent of people say that CEOs should step in when government does not fix societal problems[1].

Whether rapid delivery of online grocery shopping or digitising entire workforces to enable them to work from home, the ingenuity and energy of the business community over the pandemic has been impressive, culminating in the extraordinary speed of the pharma sector in developing and delivering vaccines.

But the reality is that while business involvement is critical, no sector can achieve the levels of institutional, systemic and behavioural change required for a genuinely sustainable future on their own. Unprecedented collaboration is needed and we believe that means a fundamental shift in attitudes and involvement from organisations in all sectors.

New examples driven by need have shown what’s possible: from the NHS sharing information of vulnerable citizens to ensure delivery of food and medicine by charities and communities; to parents working alongside teachers to home-school; to neighbourhoods everywhere self-organising to look after their own. Now it’s time to make this the norm.

If 2021 is going to stand for anything, it needs to be for reality. Real responsibility, real perspective and real change – which starts with a conversation that puts people first.

Lead as an innovator

Leaders of every organisation must recognise that their legacy depends on the actions they take to create a fairer, more sustainable system. Setting goals is a starting point and calling for policy change is an important part of the journey – but unless they are combined with making more immediate practical changes they can also feel like a devolvement of responsibility.

It is not someone else’s responsibility to lead action.  Yes, it needs teams and ‘we’, but innovation starts with an I and everyone in a leadership role at their organisation needs to take personal responsibility for initiating change now.

Involve real people

If the pandemic has helped to achieve anything, it has been to join the climate change and social justice agendas with a human face. Specialist, technical conversations are extremely important but there must be a straight line to the people who are and will be impacted by the decisions made.

Yet we continue to hear demands for ‘everyone to know about the Sustainable Development Goals’ or ‘everyone to reduce their carbon footprint’. This is thinking in a bubble – not recognising what the majority of people are grappling with every day or approaching conversations that will affect them from their reality.

In 2020, the results of the Climate Assembly UK’s report showed the value of involving the public in finding a pathway to net zero – and surprised many in their support for changes to the way we live today.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted the indomitable spirit, solidarity and ingenuity of communities. Against the odds, people have come together to care for the vulnerable, maintain public services and find radical new ways to care for each other.

It is the people with learned experience of an issue who are the ones who know how it should be solved.  Yet ‘business as usual’ sees them ignored by decision makers who describe them as ‘hard to reach’. This can no longer be an excuse. We need a new respect and effort to hear their valuable voices and learn from them.

The need to put behaviour change methodology at the heart of sustainability action also means treating people as individuals with a unique perspective and their own barriers and motivators to action.  Leaders need to have insights from real people if they are to develop relevant solutions.

Create entrepreneurial alliances

The word partnership is widely used but while most are united around a shared endeavour, there is rarely equality between partners and relevant organisations or individuals are often missed out.

While we are seeing increasing ideas labs being set up within businesses, or challenge prizes being run by trusts and foundations, they still sit within the confines of existing structures. One thing Covid has exposed is the interconnected nature of the systems supporting society and that no one sector can solve societal challenges alone.

As well as finding new opportunities for social innovation through clever, cross-sector partnerships, we also need to rethink philanthropy. Funders need to listen more closely to their beneficiaries and be more confident about supporting systems change. Meanwhile, donors involved in strategic and collaborative giving will be able to achieve much more than those at arms-length.

It is time to throw away the rulebook on partnership and create new entrepreneurial alliances that unite the knowledge, skills and resources needed to tackle the challenge, rather than sector-based protocol. This might be messy – and could end up requiring a new shared vehicle to move initiatives forward – but it will feed innovation and ideas.

Unlocking change

These are complex, challenging times – but they are also exciting. We are witnessing the power of citizens, communities, businesses, charities and public services to adapt and react at speed to new ways of working for the common good.  There is no doubt that where there is joint will and accountability, extraordinary things can happen.

The levels of change needed means that every organisation needs to think differently if we are to build a better, fairer and more sustainable society, and this needs a new approach to convening, to creativity and to cross sector communications.

Let’s make 2021 the year that sustainability action got real.

Forster Communications will be running a series of roundtable events to explore these issues in more detail. If you would like to receive an invitation, or have a particular view you’d like to share, please email events@forster.co.uk


[1] Edelman Trust Barometer 2021

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