Tag Archives: innovation

Could business hold the key to universal access to safe drinking water?

Imagine a life without safe drinking water. It isn’t easy. Most of us take for granted that we can just turn on a tap and fill a glass. But that’s not an option for roughly one in four of the world’s population — the 2.1 billion people who still lack access to safe drinking water today.

With half of all hospital beds in low-income countries occupied by people with water-borne diseases, it’s hard to overstate the importance of reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goal of equitable access to safe, affordable drinking water for all by 2030.

While the current rate of change isn’t fast enough to hit that target, some fantastic research by EY’s Wayne Simper suggests grounds for optimism, thanks to the growing number of impact entrepreneurs innovating new models for the scalable and sustainable provision of safe water in underserved communities.

That story of optimism is one that Unilever and EY were shouting loud and proud at World Water Week in Stockholm, late last month, drawing on a joint report based on Wayne’s insights, and which I had the pleasure of writing.

Co-signed by Kees Kruythoff (President, Home Care, Unilever) and Alison Kay (Chair of the EY Global Accounts Committee), How can a trickle become a torrent? shines a light on the critical factors influencing impact entrepreneurs’ ability to build truly scalable and self-sustaining Safe Water Enterprises (SWEs) with the capacity to bring safe drinking water within reach of hundreds of millions more people.

The market leading SWEs, analysis of whose businesses forms the basis of the report, are already serving more than 15 million people across Africa and India, and we may only have scratched the surface of what these, and others like them, could achieve with the right focus and support. Wayne’s research and analysis suggests this rests on recognizing three things above all:

  1. That the high fixed costs inherent in any SWE operating model mean that only SWEs that operate at scale can achieve true sustainability
  2. That there’s no “ultimate” SWE model that works best in all circumstances, which means that the path to scale depends on finding the best fit to a particular blend of market conditions
  3. That we need investors who are prepared to take a more balanced view of SWEs’ potential to generate returns — from a social impact as well as financial perspective — so as not to overlook promising and scalable models for safe water provision

Picking out just one of these themes, to give you a flavor of the kind of insight you’ll find in the report, it’s worth taking a closer look at the third point.

We’ve all seen the power of a “magic metric” to galvanize action, a prime example being how a single piece of data such as grams of carbon dioxide emitted per kilometer (gCO2/km) has transformed perspectives and behaviors across the automotive industry. The report introduces a new one that has the potential to create a similarly seismic ripple effect: Impact Return on Capital, or IROC for short.

In the case of safe drinking water, this metric represents the number of daily water consumers whose needs can be served per thousand dollars of invested capital. It’s an important measure because it opens up an entirely new way of looking at the capital efficiency of SWEs — one that properly takes into account the purposeful trade-offs these life-changing businesses make, often intentionally running close to breakeven in order to keep prices low and make safe drinking water as affordable as possible.

With innovative SWEs clearly so vital to reaching the SDG target of equitable access to safe, affordable drinking water for all by 2030, we can’t afford to overlook any model with the potential to accelerate that access. Combined with more the more traditional measure of Return on Invested Capital (ROIC), IROC paves the way for a more holistic approach to building and evaluating investment cases that can help guard against this eventuality.

For more on this and other insights for accelerating growth of SWEs, I urge you to read and share the full report. The health and wellbeing of more than 2 billion people could depend on following the advice within its pages.


Mindset matters

Just over a year ago now, I wrote about the vital importance of ‘metaskills’ as an (possibly even the most?) important avenue of intervention if we are to equip young people with the chops to succeed in an ever more complex and rapidly changing world.

A good place to start this post is exactly where I left off last time, with a thought-provoking extract from Marty Neumeier’s excellent book, Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age.

Today we find ourselves caught between two paradigms – the linear, reductionist past and the spiraling, multivalent future. The old world turned on the axis of knowledge and material goods. The new one will turn on the axis of creativity and social responsibility. To cross the gap we’ll need a generation of thinkers and makers who can reframe problems and design surprising, elegant solutions. We’ll need fearless, self-directed learners who embrace adventure. We’ll need teachers, mentors and leaders who understand that mind shaping is world shaping – who give learners the tools they’ll need to continually reinvent their minds in response to future challenges.

If you’re anything like me (and since you’ve found your way to this post, I’m guessing you are) you’ll be nodding in vigorous agreement with everything Marty says.

I mean, think about it…

Kids starting school in 2015 probably won’t retire until 2070. Our education systems are meant to be preparing them for this life ahead, yet we can’t even predict with certainty what the world will look like five years from now. The U.S. Department of Labor apparently estimates that 65% of children currently in grade school will end up in job functions that don’t even exist today. Meanwhile, research by the Oxford Martin School on the future of employment suggests that as many as 50% of current corporate occupations will disappear by 2025 as a result of computerization.

How on earth are we supposed to help our children prepare for, and succeed in, such an unpredictable world? For folks like Marty, education gurus like Sir Ken Robinson, and my friends at the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), the answer is as plain as day…

The secret has to lie in fostering agility, adaptability, and applied knowledge and imagination. That means helping young people to develop typically entrepreneurial skills and behaviours such as initiative and self-direction, communication and collaboration, and creativity and problem solving — fundamentally human characteristics that can help our kids to stay ahead of the ‘robot curve’ (as Marty puts it), to be able to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, to better recognise opportunities, and to remain confident and resilient in the face of challenges.

The teaching of these very sorts of skills and behaviours – fully integrated into the school curriculum – is one of the main reasons my wife and I chose our daughter’s school, and I’m constantly reminded of the difference it can make. Every year, I take part as a judge in the school’s Dragon’s Den-style event (Shark Tank in the US?), where girls as young as six pitch their innovative ideas for new products or services. They never cease to amaze me – not just with the quality of their ideas, but with their confidence, self-assurance and ability to think on their feet – and it seems so obvious that it’s this emotional intelligence, more than their recall of history or trigonometry or whatever, that will stand them in greatest stead in the future.

Cards on the table, this is a fee-paying school and I fully appreciate that these sorts of programs are a luxury not afforded to the vast majority of students. But then that’s precisely why I’m so excited by NFTE’s work on an Entrepreneurial Mindset Index – an emerging methodology for measuring and evaluating the presence of an entrepreneurial mindset among young people and, potentially, to influence policy in such a way that teaching it is given much greater prominence in all our schools.

I’m excited because, IMHO, learning about this stuff shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of a privileged few. Mindset matters. It should be available to everyone.

If you’re interested in learning more, NFTE is hosting an Entrepreneurial Mindset Summit in New York on 27 October. Check it out.

Apple and the polar opposite to modular design

Here’s an interesting one…

Apple has made quite a big deal of trumpeting the environmental credentials of its new Retina MacBook. However, much as I have a soft spot for the company and its design genius, now-Knight-of-the-Realm, Sir Jony Ive, I’m not so sure.

Take a look a fascinating article by Kyle Wiens in Wired, and it seems that big claims – for example surrounding Apple’s use of “highly recyclable aluminum and glass” – may not be all they’re cracked up to be. According to Wiens, and his pals in the electronics recycling industry, there’s no way of recycling aluminium that has glass glued to it like Apple has done.

And that’s not the only question mark. In fact, Wiens is pretty adamant that he’s looking at the least repairable laptop he’s ever seen – RAM soldered to the motherboard, so it can’t be upgraded; battery glued to the case, requiring customers to mail their laptop to Apple for replacements, and so on – suggestive of a litany of design choices that seem to go entirely against the core sustainable design principle of modularity.

That principle of modularity – and its essential contribution to durability and longevity – is best illustrated by the words of Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, in his fabulous book, Let my people go surfing 

Because the overall durability of a product is only as good as its weakest element, the ultimate goal should be a product whose parts wear out at roughly the same time and only after a long life […]. To get all the components of a Patagonia product to be roughly equal in durability, we test continually… test until something fails, strengthen that part, then see what fails next, strengthen that part, etc., until we’re confident that the product is durable as a whole. There’s always going to be a need for repairs, and we make sure that they’re possible; a zipper should be replaceable without the entire coat having to be taken apart.

In short, to truly design for sustainability demands not only smart choices about material inputs (how can we reduce the amounts and types of materials used? to what extent are they recyclable/renewable etc.), but also the manner in which they are combined (how easily can individual components be repaired, updated or put to alternative use? how easily can a product be disassembled, and waste streams separated to aid that repurposing and reuse?).

That’s the difference between products designed for longevity versus those designed for obsolescence; those that are designed from the ground up to be constantly repairable and upgradeable, versus those with a built-in death clock; those that exemplify innovation in the context of a new circular economy, versus those that seem destined to perpetuate the same old linear industrial paradigm of “take, make, waste”.

Don’t get me wrong, the stuff Apple’s trumpeting – arsenic-free display glass, mercury-free LED display, 40% greater energy efficiency etc. – are all great steps in the right direction, but it’s a long way short of the true sustainability to which the likes of Patagonia and Interface aspire.

Referring back to one of the key observations in my previous post, to my mind, it’s precisely that trumpeting of improved environmental performance that signals the shortfall. For while Apple waxes lyrical about all these examples of progress, Patagonia and Interface are choosing to focus on how far they still need to go.

And while Apple hones in on environmental performance, defined and measured strictly in terms of its products, a quick glance at the index of Chouinard’s book will tell you that true thought leaders are casting their nets considerably wider. A book in which environmental protection forms but one (and the last) of an interwoven set of philosophies also spanning design, production, distribution, brand, finance, HR and management should be a perfect illustration that real sustainability is about the entire system of business.

Hate to admit it, but I’m loving The Voice

Normally you’d have to handcuff me to the chair to make me watch a talent show. X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and all that other guff has always left me stone cold, padded out as they are with all that Harry Hardluck/Sally Sobstory heartstring-pulling, every song being pro-tooled to within an inch of it’s life, and the basic premise seemingly more to do with laughing at the loonies than actually finding anyone with said X factor/talent.

However, The Voice on BBC1 has got me totally hooked – at least for the moment.

The lustre may soon wear off now that we’re into a more run-of-the-mill live show format, but the earlier ‘blind’ auditions, and last week’s battle rounds, were great entertainment. They were also a couple of very interesting and innovative tweaks to help differentiate the show from its more garden-variety competition, and to reinforce the show’s brand as being all about discovering great new voices.

Nowhere was this better demonstrated than by the battle round last week between David Julien and John James Newman. OK, so their cause was helped by the fact that they were belting out a track from one of my favourite bands – Dakota by the Stereophonics – rather than some naff RnB number, but it was still bloody good by any standard…


Sausage + Sizzle (the Icebreaker way)


Let’s start at the beginning…

The plan was simple: let’s be what the others weren’t. They were synthetic; we were natural. They were about sweaty men; we were gender inclusive… They were about hard adventure; we were about kinship with nature. They were about function only; we were about design and creativity. Exploring for us wasn’t the highest peak, but an exploration of something much bigger – nature itself.

These words from CEO, Jeremy Moon, brilliantly capture the essence of Icebreaker – the New Zealand outdoor clothing brand, whose nature-inspired, pure merino wool outdoor clothing system is another fabulous example of brand- and sustainability-driven business strategy.

My blossoming love affair with the brand only intensified last weekend as I popped into Snow+Rock to buy my four-year-old daughter a new set of thermals. For me, it was an encounter that added yet another layer (no pun intended) to their brilliance – a perfect combination of sausage and sizzle…

First the sausage…

Emotional ‘sizzle’ is for nought without product ‘sausage’, and product performance is where the Icebreaker system really scores, thanks to taking its cue from Mother Nature.

The merino wool fibre, it turns out, is a miraculous thing – not only providing outstanding insulation, but also incredible softness and breathability. And because of its natural antimicrobial properties, it doesn’t stink either, even after a sweaty run.

By all accounts there are folks who’ve been able to go for months without having to wash their Icebreaker, so brilliantly does it work (not something you can say about the synthetic competition); and, when you do eventually wash it, you can do so on a perfectly ordinary washing cycle (no need for special detergents to get the whiff out).

Feels better. Warms better. Breathes better. Smells better. That’s a clear victory for natural merino wool on product performance, and what was really great to see at the weekend was how the whole Icebreaker value proposition was reflected in the packaging of Lottie’s new gear as well…

Compact and 100% recyclable

Firstly, you’re immediately struck by just how compact it is, and the fact that the inner tray and outer sleeve are both made out of nothing but 100% recyclable cardboard. Look a bit closer, though, and you realise they’ve done something else really clever…

'The Pack with the Hole'

Notice the hole on the front of the outer sleeve (one that on other packages might have been covered by a bit of clear plastic)? That’s genius because it immediately allows you to touch the product inside. ‘Wow, that’s soft!’ you say, and all those messages about superior product performance encircling the cut-out are given an extra kinaesthetic kick.

…then the sizzle…

There’s no shortage of emotional sizzle either, with some wonderfully irreverent copywriting on the back of the box (a bit reminiscent of the kind of copy that appears on Innocent’s smoothie cartons):

The New Zealand merino sheep’s amazing all-weather coat lets him roam the rugged Southern Alps in snow, rain, sun and wind. Now you can wear the same outdoor clothing system – minus the horns, hooves and dags (that’s New Zealanders’ word for sheep poo!). Your Icebreaker doesn’t itch, feels light against your skin, looks great and locks in warmth – and it’s good for the environment. Your Icebreaker rocks!

Accompanied by mini-testimonials (including from 8-year-old, Alex, who says that, if his mum wants to wash his Icrebreaker, she basically has to steal it from his room under cover of darkness!), this helps to create sense of fun, playfulness and love for the brand that amplifies, still further, the contrast between the ‘soft’ Icebreaker and its ‘hard’ competitors.

There’s another lovely little touch, too, with the finger puppets stamped into the cardboard of the inner tray (hours of fun, no doubt, for the younger wearer.)

The piece-de-resistance here, though, is undoubtedly Icebreaker’s pun-tastic invention of the ‘Baacode’ – a unique number on the clothing label that, if you enter it on their website, actually traces the sheep stations from which the fibres that make up your garment were sourced. Complete with extensive bios of the farmers concerned, it’s a great way for Icebreaker to illustrate its commitment, not only to its suppliers, but also to full product transparency.

Tracing your garment

Where the fibres came from

Personal stories from the sheep stations

In conclusion…

Ultimately, I guess, this is all a rather long-winded and effusive way to express my admiration for a not inconsiderable amount of integrative thinking; also, though, to illustrate an important point from a previous post…

Actions taken in the name of sustainability are liable to be worthless – indeed can be positively harmful to a company’s brand and the bottom line – if the underlying principles aren’t demonstrably applied to day-to-day decision-making (i.e. sustainability ain’t about PR; it’s about culture!)… The authenticity of your commitment stems from the materiality of your actions – i.e. beyond the thin veneer of charitable giving, cause-related marketing etc., that commitment should be self-evident in the very products and services you provide.

In case you were wondering what that might look like in real life, I reckon the above offers a pretty decent example.

Old-world CSR vs. new-world sustainability. What’s the difference?

Following my last post, Kevin Keohane very kindly gave a nod to his readers that, if they wanted to get to grips with the difference between old-world CSR and new-world sustainability, they could do a lot worse than swing by this blog. (Ta, mate!)

In the same vein, I’d encourage folks to take a shufti at the shortlist for the Guardian Sustainable Business “corporate sustainability innovator of the year” award.

It’s one helluva shortlist, with profiles of the nominees and links to various articles, blogs and Q&As providing some fantastic illustrations of the new sustainability in action – i.e. sustainability not as peripheral greening, but as core business strategy; the cultural impetus to create new business models that emphasise the creation of shared value.

Among that list, you’ll find a couple of folks who’ve been mentioned on this blog in the past – Mike Barry, for example, M&S’ head of sustainable business (and point man for delivery of Plan A); also Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever (the man at the helm for the launch of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan).

You’ll also find Hanna Jones of Nike (architect, amongst other things, of their GreenXChange open innovation platform) and Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher (yet another progressive and passionate CEO prepared to shout from the rooftops about a more constructive form of capitalism).

Rationally speaking, any of the candidates would be deserving winners for the work that they are doing to emphasise what sustainable business is really about, but I’ve got a soft spot for Mike and cast my vote for him!

Reason 1: When I was in the throes of my Saudi sustainability project, I reached out to Mike for his assistance in developing an M&S case study. I wanted to scratch beneath the surface of all the public pronouncements and understand much more deeply how M&S were setting about embedding sustainability in organisational culture. Mike very graciously obliged and offered some really great insights – a favour that deserves returning!

Reason 2: maybe it’s the British obsession with supporting the plucky underdog? Whatever, I just feel that the bloke who’s got his sleeves rolled up actually delivering on Plan A deserves recognition, perhaps more so than the big name CEOs.

Reason 3: lest you think that my judgement is based on entirely subjective and emotional reasons, let me just reinforce that there are actually bloody good, legitimate, logical reasons for casting a vote in Mike’s favour too. Take these two further slides from my recent Landor presentation, for example, as illustrations of the scope and ambition of Plan A.

Jonathon Porritt’s verdict, I think, says everything that needs to be said about why Mike and M&S would be worthy winners of the award:

M&S is addressing the right things, in the right way… It’s not just progress against all the specific actions that matter, but the way in which M&S is transforming its core business model through Plan A.

That, in a nutshell, is what the new sustainability is all about.

The Big Lie of climate politics, talent management and the Next Industrial Revolution

There’s a nice interview piece up on CSR Wire right now, the first in a three-part series with Eric Pooley – deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, former managing editor of Fortune, and author of The Climate War.

It happens to have pricked my interest today as, in the course of editing an upcoming new title on talent management in the 55-minute guide series, I’ve just been re-reading a report by Tomorrow’s Company – Tomorrow’s Global Talent: A new talent agenda for the UK.

(Don’t get the link? Don’t worry, all shall hopefully become clear…)

The central tenet of the Tomorrow’s Company report is that understanding what they refer to as the “triple context” (the interdependence of economic, social and environmental sub-systems) is not just essential to success at the level of individual businesses, but also at the level of national economies. The success of UK plc, they maintain, lies in talent-intensive, high value-added sectors, focused on innovation that steers the global economy towards a more sustainable future.

Interesting, then, to read Pooley’s views on the machinations of the “deny and delay” crowd in the US, and their moves to scupper the US Climate Bill by peddling the great myth that sustainability and economic prosperity are somehow mutually exclusive.

It’s a familiar, if completely facile, argument that insists that if we take action on sustainability, we’ll break the bank (erm… didn’t we do that already?!); that doing something good for the environment is necessarily bad for the economy; that all it does is make us less competitive against the likes of India and China.

Aside from highlighting the inconvenient truth that numerous examples (such as Interface) already exist to demonstrate that this isn’t so, it’s even more important to point out that what this kind of argument appears to ignore is the even greater myth that countries like the US or the UK can even begin to compete with India and China on an international scale on the basis of the continuation of business as usual.

Surely – as alluded to by the Tomorrow’s Company report – the basic rules of corporate strategy apply here, as much to nations as to individual enterprises?

Let’s not forget Michael Porter’s definition of strategy – a process of understanding, positioning and adapting a business for the purpose of creating sustainable competitive advantage. (I mean c’mon, people, he even uses the word “sustainable” for chrissakes! How much more of a clue do you need?!)

Countries, just like companies, can be viewed as bundles of productive resources (e.g. fixed assets, people, skills, brands etc.). Each has a unique resource profile that can be leveraged into core competencies, and that can sustain competitive advantage as long as those resources remain valuable and distinctive.

The point is that much of what was once valuable and distinctive about our system of business is no more. The environment has changed. Our competitors can easily imitate or substitute those resources. The ways of the industrial age just don’t cut it any more because, in that realm of Six Sigma and operational efficiency, our competitors have a much better value proposition.

Isn’t it time for us all to accept this reality and embrace sustainability, not just as a moral imperative, but as a brand, business and economic imperative too?

As many people have written, what we’re talking about here is nothing short of the next industrial revolution – a fundamental game change. (As the military analogies so prevalent in thinking on strategy would have it: if you can’t beat them on their terms, then change the rules of engagement.)

Sure, the transition won’t be painless, just as I’m sure it wasn’t at the time of the last industrial revolution. It will create winners and losers. And the vested interests aren’t going to go down without a bloody good fight. But, to elide two of Umair Haque’s more zen-like tweets, here’s the thing:

The real utopia isn’t betterness. It’s the economists’ world of perfect markets, greed, and consumption driving unstoppable prosperity. Being the best in tomorrow’s terms often means being the worst in yesterday’s. Make the tradeoff. It’s how disruption happens.

‘Nuff said.