The Zeronauts model how business, government and civil society will need to operate in future. They are innovators, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, investors, policy-makers and educators pushing towards (sometimes beyond) zero in such fields as carbon, waste, toxics, pandemics, poverty and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Draft website here.
The problem is that human beings are poorly equipped to think long-term in effective ways - and many aspects of modern capitalism weaken such abilities as do exist. This is a major problem when it comes to working out how to adapt capitalism to the challenges of the 21st century, critical among them the likely growth of human population number to 9-10 billion.
A parallel problem, and in a way it's one of success, is that CEOs now think they have "embedded" sustainability (81% 0f 766 CEOS polled by Accenture for the UN Global Compact thought so), when what they are often thinking of is some form of global corporate citizenship or responsibility, not of fundamental changes in their business models, in markets and in capitalism itself. Mainstreaming brings dilution. This poses not just corporate but national and even civilizational risks at a time when the science suggests that challenges like climate change are teetering on the edge of runway trajectories.
When the Accenture study A New Era of Sustainability was published in 2010, we launched three projects designed to counter what we saw as dangerous complacency in the global C-suite. These all built on the first study we had published in 2009 shortly after launching Volans, titled The Phoenix Economy: 50 Pioneers in the Business of Social Innovation.
The first of the new wave of projects was a report called The Future Quotient, which can be found here. The sub-title of the report: 50 Stars in Seriously Long-Term Innovation. Tools and processes are available to boost the Future Quotient of individuals, teams, organizations and societies.
The second is a major forum on what we call 'Breakthrough Capitalism', slated for 29 May, more details here. Rather than using adjectives like 'inclusive', 'responsible' or 'ethical' when talking about the future of capitalism, we counterpose 'Breakthrough' and 'Change-as-Usual' scenarios with a 'Breakthrough' scenario, along the lines foreseen by economists like Nikolai Kondratiev and Joseph Schumpeter.
And the third is a book, The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier, due for publication on 16 May. The draft website for the book can be found here. The idea is that, just as jet pilots slammed into the Sound Barrier in the late 1940s, we are now crashing into various aspects of the 'Sustainability Barrier' (think Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak Fish). Many thought the Sound Barrier unbreakable, but it wasn't - and the same is true of the Sustainability Barrier. The book sketches out five stages in the embryonic discipline of Zeronautics.
The virtue of zero as a management concept is that it can be like a Japanese koan, triggering a rethink, a reframing, a reimagining.
One simple mind-game used in the book, borrowed from the Long Now Foundation, is to render all year dates with an additional '0', as in 02012. The book spotlights 50 individuals or initiatives playing into this vast new opportunity space in a Roll of Honor, and reports on hundreds of other initiatives that are moving in similar directions.
Volans is already working with businesses wanting to push towards zero, among them an array of sportswear brands (adidas, Nike, PUMA) pushing towards zero discharges of hazardous chemicals in China by 2020, and Deloitte Innovation, with first steps including a Zeronauts Symposium in Rotterdam on 5 June 2012.
For organizations embracing the Zero Challenge, from the US General Services Administration (GSA) to companies as commonplace as Frito-Lay, the aim is not simply to stretch their horizons and targets, but to stretch their sense of what is possible. We also help Boards, C-Suites and other decision-makers to go wider (when the temptation under pressure is to go narrower), to go deeper (vs shallower under stress), to aim higher (when everything suggests we should lower our standards and targets) and to invest longer (when all the pressures are conspiring to shrink our time horizons).
There is a huge difference between companies (and there aren't too many of them) like Unilever (interest declared: have worked with them, in various ways, over more than 20 years), which have set truly ambitious stretch targets as part of their Sustainable Living Plan, and Nestle (interest declared: am on their Creating Shared Value Advisory Board), which believes that progress should only be discussed in public when achieved. But handled in the right way (think JFK and a Man on the Moon by 1970), stretch targets can inspire immense efforts, potentially sustained over time. And it turns out that Nesle is using zero-based targets already, as part of its application of Lean Thinking.
In The Zeronauts, which includes two chapters on the potential cross linkages between the Total Quality Management (TQM) agenda and the sustainability agenda, the spotlight shines on five different areas where zero-based thinking has already had significant practical impacts: population control, pandemics, poverty, pollution and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Zeroing is also looked at through the lens of five different levels of effort: the Citizen, the City, the Corporation, the Country and, ultimately, our Civilization.
A 4-stage process is outlined, whereby change occurs at the level of 'Mindsets', then 'Behaviors', then 'Cultures' and ultimately at the level of the overarching 'Paradigm'. I first outlined this framing in 2010 in a McKinsey publication, What Matters.
None of this is ever easy, indeed having worked with companies over more than three decades, and with some individual companies for over 20 years, i often say I envy James Bond, in that when 007 finds himself in Dr No's or Goldfinger's command centre, he always knows which buttons to press -- whereas I rarely do when entering a boardroom for the first time. Instead I have described key parts of what we do as being akin to the grit in the oyster that, in the right conditions, can trigger the formation of new forms of value.
Zero is a new piece of grit.
In The Zeronauts, I sketch 5 stages on the Pathway to Zero: (1) Eureka! moments; (2) Experimentation; (3) Enterprise formation; (4) evolution of supportive Ecosystems; and (5) the mainstreaming of a new concept across the entire Economy. These are based on the Pathways to Scale model I developed with Alejandro Litovsky for 2009 report, The Phoenix Economy.
The first thing for leaders will be to pay attention to what is going on on the zero space. For example, here is an imminent study on how zero-based targets that are now being built into public-private contracts.
A second thing is to pull in individual Zeronauts to engage top management, something we have done for decades with NGOs and more recently with social entrepreneurs, where we laid out our agenda in 2009's The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World (Harvard Business School Press). try running a quick-and-dirty experiment with a leading Zeronaut, to test the viability of the approach across your entire organization. If the first experiment fails, think like Edison.
A third thing is to work out where zero-based targets might be useful in short order (as in zero waste to landfill) and then review how others have tackled the challenges.
And fourth, recognise that this is a long-term game. This has to be built into the organizational culture, a baton to be passed off (in a positive sense) from CEO to CEO, CFO to CFO and so on. Shareholders, investors and financial analysts will need to be brought along. Never easy, but the only way to create the nature and scale of change that is needed.
- the outstanding team at Volans
- the companies that we work with on related themes, particularly Nike
- the foundations that have funded parts of our work, even through Volans is a for-profit enterprise, including: The Skoll Foundation, the Shell Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Generation Foundation and Tellus Mater Foundation
- those who have celebrated our work along the way, including -- in the Zeronauts space -- the American Society for Quality (ASQ), with its award of the 2011 Hutchens Medal for Social Innovation