Jonathon Porritt is in the business of envisioning the future to help businesses and politicians start getting really good at living more sustainably. Since launching the non-profit Forum for the Future in 1996, Porritt has worked with more than 100 businesses and organizations from Nike to M&S in their attempt to shift to a more sustainable future. As former Chair of the UK Green Party, he has accumulated over forty years experience navigating the treacherous paths of public and political opinion around climate change and all the rest of the sustainable development agenda.
From the outset, Forum of the Future’s mission has been to re-invent the notion of capitalism to include social, natural, human and manufactured capital alongside traditional financial capital. His new book, “The World We Made,” is a culmination of this work. Looking back from the world of 2050, the book tells the story of sustainable change through the eyes of a fictional 50-year-old history teacher, Alex McKay. It is colorfully narrated with compelling imagery - photos, graphs and scribbles that paint a picture of a credible and inspiring future.
Looking back, Alex McKay would be keen to get “The World We Made” on every classroom reading list for the next generation. In some respects, his story resembles a business plan for the world - setting ambitious targets and then working out a roadmap to 2050. Through its 50 chapters, the book explores how nearly every aspect of civil society – from education, energy, transportation, healthcare, food, community, politics - could evolve in a positive direction over the coming decades by harnessing our collective civic voice and technological advances to build a low-carbon economy.
Porritt says his message is clear. “I’ve tried every conceivable way to create change, from political activist to campaigner, writer, broadcaster, and government adviser. Throughout that time, my goal was to direct people’s attention more to the upside of today’s sustainability agenda, than to the downside, simply because that’s what the human mind gravitates toward, given a choice. Both politicians and businesspeople find it extremely difficult to respond to non-stop messages of apocalyptic doom and gloom!”
Borrowing a technique used at Forum for the Future called backcasting, “The World We Made” pinpoints goals for 2050 using available statistical data sets, informed by a cross section of views about what’s really possible, then works backwards from the desired end point. This method is more productive than forecasting, Porritt says. “The trouble with forecasting is that you can only see the future in terms of where we are in the present. That’s far too limiting when trying to get people to think as radically as we need to!”
According to Porritt, unlocking people’s imagination and creativity is fundamental to this whole story. “We’ve got brilliant technologies available at our fingertips and brilliant people who are capable of astonishing things, yet we cannot seem to liberate that creative energy needed to make these solutions accessible.” At a recent conference, a young design and engineering firm presented their simple and inexpensive pulley mechanism capable of providing hours of light to a family without electricity. He sees collaborations like these – good design that translates new technologies into equitable solutions and systems available to billions of people – as the best means of delivering that 2050 world.
Despite this hopeful vision, Porritt is realistic about the challenges ahead. Government inconsistency over green policies at the national and international level constantly undermines this transition to an equitable, low-carbon economy. Yet he is encouraged by an emerging set of business leaders and an energized youth that no longer chooses to wait for top-down permission. They understand far better what the transition entails, and are eager to enable new ways of doing things.
Perhaps with a little guidance from Alex McKay, it won’t be long before they start to use all of imagination and creativity to challenge all of us to re-make the world.
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Image Credit: Flickr/TEDxExeter/Benjamin J Borley, Laus