WhatMatters: Alice in Sustainability-Wonderland
brutkasten: An Optimist's Guide to a Sustainable Future
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WhatMatters: Alice in Sustainability-Wonderland
brutkasten: An Optimist's Guide to a Sustainable Future
Covid-19 has turned the world on its head. There has been considerable suffering as a direct result of the epidemic, as well as due to the unprecedented measures taken in response. Nevertheless, as a global community we seem to have been successful in preventing the worst. Change is possible and we can make it happen: we have insight, resilience and tools to address the next crisis.
Moreover, Covid-19 has come with a great range of social and environmental benefits. Some of these present excellent opportunities for creating a better world, a world that is more sustainable and more just, and thus better fit for the future than our ‘old normal’. Here is an overview:
We now understand what really matters
1. As a society we are learning to value what really matters, not just what has a (high) price. This includes health, social contacts, a healthy environment, fresh food, reliable energy and data systems, among others.
2. The current crisis has made the global importance of public health drastically clear. The case for investing in health no longer has to be argued. Countries around the globe have “learnt the hard lesson that pandemics can destroy the global economy and cost trillions. Investing in health is investing in the economy.”
3. The experience of scarcity at the beginning of the lockdown – even if just perceived due to empty supermarket shelves that were quickly restocked – has been important to increase people’s appreciation of everyday items such as food (or toilet paper). Such appreciation may go some way in more conscious consumption and reducing waste.
4. As households have gotten used to cooking more meals at home, they have started appreciating the taste of fresh food. Baking bread has become a new favourite pastime for many people locked indoors and without busy schedules. This, coupled with increased attention to the origin and health impacts of foods will likely contribute to healthier eating habits for some time to come
5. While we have been called to respect “social” distancing, we have been doing the opposite. Social distancing is a misnomer: keeping a physical distance arguably has brought us closer than before. We have understood that what matters most in times of crisis is social support through friends, families, networks or even strangers.
6. Importantly, we have realized that not consuming does not kill us. Many people have started questioning their fast fashion habits, for example, realizing that purchase decisions are rarely made out of necessity, and often simply out of boredom. A dent in consumerism and a move towards a circular economy is within reach.
7. Families have had more time for each other. For some, this has led to revelations about the relative importance of work vis-à-vis other aspects of life.
Social justice is back on scene
8. We have started to understand how much we depend on people in some of the most underpaid and previously under-appreciated professions, from garbage collectors to supermarket workers. If they went on strike or were unable to work, our world would quickly collapse (in contrast to many other professions, such as lobbyists, which we can easily do without – see this article for an excellent analysis on why garbage collectors should earn more than bankers).
9. Around the world, we have been giving standing ovations to health workers and others at the frontline for doing their job, allowing the rest of us to stay in the safe comfort of their homes. Let’s keep saying ‘thank you’ as a habit.
10. The essential contributions by those caring for the sick and elderly start being recognised. In the midst of the crisis, Austria’s government flew in hundreds of care workers from Bulgaria and Romania to prevent an additional crisis in health and care (before switching to a more sustainable night train scheme more recently)
11. Tougher times for tax avoiders seem to be on the horizon. Tax avoidance by large multinationals means that societies miss out on billions of Euros. Denmark and Poland have taken a principled approach by refusing to bail out companies that are not paying fair tax. In the future, this could incentivise companies to pay a fair share back to society.
12. The Covid crisis has many gender aspects. On the opportunity side it has shown that female leaders easily outperform their male peers when it comes to responding quickly, effectively and with the bigger picture in mind. Female leaders can be trusted to help sort us out in future crises as well.
13. The Covid crisis has re-invigorated the discussion about a universal basic income, including calls by over 500 political leaders and academics to create a fairer society.
14. Stressed parents struggling to work from home while home schooling their children now appreciate the herculean task of educators.
A temporary drop in air pollution has heightened our senses
15. Much more than before, there is now widespread recognition that air pollution is bad for human health. Long before Covid, air pollution has been killing 20,000 people every day. We now know that it also exacerbates Covid-19: people living in areas with higher air pollution are also more likely to catch Covid and die from it.
16. Due to the great pause in economic and social activity, air pollution has been dropping. For example, average concentration of nitrogen oxide went down considerably around Northern Italy following its lockdown. This shows what is possible once we care to change the system.
17. Delhi has seen blue skies for the first time in decades. Fewer cars on the road and dirty factories in operation have meant that we got to experience what cleaner air smells and tastes like. This has heightened our senses and increased our distaste for the usual levels of pollution.
18. Recognising the link between air pollution and Covid as well as health more broadly, some cities have started to re-invigorate efforts towards less polluting forms of transport. Milan, for example, a city gravely affected by the pandemic, now has one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes reallocating street space from cars to cycling and walking, in response to the coronavirus crisis. Following the example of Milan and Berlin, the city of Brussels will give priority to pedestrians and cyclists in inner city areas on 1 May, setting a 20 kilometer per hour speed limits for motor vehicles.
19. For lack of alternatives, many people who previously did not take much interest in that proverbial walk in the park have started running or walking in nature, discovering a new favourite pastime which is likely to last longer than the epidemic. This benefits both their physical and mental health, and it makes them appreciate the need for environmental protection just that bit more.
20. Those of us who have always enjoyed hikes through forests and mountains have been thrilled to be able to enjoy nature without the nasty background noise of planes. Noise pollution certainly will not be missed when plane travel picks up again, making calls for less noisy and more fuel efficient aviation technology louder and stronger.
21. Reduced noise pollution has been appreciated by birds as well, and we humans have been enjoying their song like never before.
22. Covid has been providing relief for wild animals – not just those that now do not get eaten (given that we have woken up to the link between animal and human disease). Reduced human activity and less noise, chemical and light pollution has been giving wild animals a welcome respite and us an opportunity to marvel at them.
23. Venice, a city infamous for unsustainable levels of tourism, had time to calm down and see its waterways clear, thus revealing its real beauty in an unprecedented manner. It is just one example of a city the beauty of which we have been able to appreciate more fully than before, even if from a distance.
Future-fit leaders link bailout and economic stimulus packages to forward looking (= green, socially just) policies
24. Enlightened political leaders are realising that they can “walk and chew gum at the same time”. In other words, the now understand that win-wins across the social, environmental and economic spheres can be created by imposing environmental conditions for bailouts, supporting the development of green jobs and, most importantly, by ceasing to use taxpayer money to support the fossil fuel industry.
25. In Amsterdam, the doughnut has been adopted as a policy to re-build the economy in a post-Covid world, making it greener and fairer for society.
26. Many governments, including Austria, have demanded that airline bailouts are tied to environmental conditions such as cutting the aviation industry’s carbon footprint.
27. Taking a leadership role in Asia, South Korea is embracing a green deal for Covid recovery: a recent election during the Covid crisis reconfirmed a government that has a green deal modelled on the EU.
28. The European Parliament called on the European Commission to propose a recovery and reconstruction package that has the Green Deal at its core. The Commission agreed, stating that “the European Green Deal is not a luxury, but a lifeline” to get out of the corona crisis.
29. The New York State government announced the passage of an “Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act” to speed up clean energy projects to combat climate change and help jumpstart economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.
30. In contrast to the 2008 financial crisis, investors today have plentiful options to invest in a green recovery.
We now get the point of global solidarity: we are all in this together
31. It has dawned on most people that global crises cannot be solved by any country, government or nation state in isolation. This is true for Covid-19 as much as it is for the climate crisis.
32. After initial hick-ups and competition for supplies, countries started supporting each other in important ways. For example, Covid-19 patients who could not get a bed in overcrowded hospitals in France or Italy were treated in Germany. Several other countries, such as Luxembourg, also chipped in.
33. In some cases, poorer countries were supporting their richer peers. For example, Cuban doctors flew in to support the Italian healthcare system when the latter was in dire need.
34. Europe, who sent scientists to help fight the virus in China earlier this year, consequently received the same kind of support in return.
Some corporates demonstrate real social responsibility through free services and innovation
35. While some companies have used the epidemic to greenwash (and social-wash) their actions, others have demonstrated that they mean business when talking about corporate social responsibility.
36. For example, companies such as Uber have committed to giving back to society by offering their services for free to health workers, first responders and local businesses in need.
37. And then there were those that shifted from production of arguably less socially desirable goods, such as fast fashion or perfumes, to production of the stuff that really matters in a health epidemic, such as disinfectant, masks or other protective equipment, lead the way.
38. Various restaurants have been providing free meals to health and other frontline workers. Many restaurants, for example in the UK, have been offering significant discounts for staff working in the national health service.
39. In the US, fast food chains have been giving away free food to frontline workers.
40. We keep hearing about fascinating innovations, such as 3D-printing of respirators. It is these companies - going back to basics and trying to serve people what they really need - that will be fit for the future.
41. In France, innovation has meant that high-speed trains have been used to transport Covid patients from areas where hospital beds were limited to places with more capacity. For both patients and medical staff this experience has been less stressful than transport via helicopters or planes.
There is a promise for a better work-life balance
42. Covid has helped societies leapfrog into a more digital state of being. Many who previously struggled to adopt digital tools had no choice but to do so, and they have learned to appreciate the many possibilities on offer, from conducting business meetings to hanging out with loved ones.
43. Following the Covid experience, companies have little excuse for not granting any flexibility and work from home to their employees. More flexible work schedules and some work from home can be a big relief for stressed parents and others juggling multiple responsibilities.
44. The crisis has shown us that we can do without the excessive amounts of business travel we had gotten used to. While face-to-face meetings can be great sometimes, they are usually not necessary. This will benefit our carbon footprint as much as our work-life balance.
Communities have passed the crisis test
45. Covid has been a test for community resilience – and many communities have passed it with flying colours. Communities that demonstrate resilience to one crisis will likely be resilient to other crisis in the future. Often resilience is a function of information management and cooperation. Both have worked well in many communities.
46. In many communities, younger community members have been running errands for the elderly and other people at high risk.
47. In neighbourhoods across countries people have been singing and making music together from their balconies in order to help each other through hard times.
48. People have also been showing solidarity with small local enterprises by giving them advances and buying vouchers.
49. Many local shops managed to set up online sales services within just days of lockdown, thus being able to continue catering to their communities and reducing the risk of cannibalization from large online retailers.
50. Limiting our ability to travel far, Covid has made us appreciate the small wonders close to home. We are discovering alleys, parks and towns not far from where we live, wondering why we have not been there before.
We can do it
This is just the beginning. People are getting more and more interested in sustainable lifestyles. A great way to measure this is googling practice: it turns out, over the past few months, search interest in “How to live a sustainable lifestyle” has increased by more than 4,550%.
The point is not to diminish the suffering and inconvenience the epidemic has caused but to understand what it can teach us. Let’s not waste this crisis, let’s harness its lessons and use the opportunities it has brought to address other important societal challenges, such as the global climate and social equity crises. We have no time to lose.
PS: one of the added bonuses has been that actually seeing a plane becomes as exciting as it has been many decades ago. Planes will come back, that’s for sure, let’s hope that they will be cleaner and less noisy than their pre-Covid versions.
Which opportunities have I missed? Please share them here – we can easily extent the list to 100 opportunities.
Ikigai (proncouned ee-kee-guy in case you are wondering) is a Japanese concept that roughly translates into “reason for being”. It is essentially about finding a purpose, and about that balance between your passions and your profession. It is about improving your work and your life at the same time.
This is where the link with the Covid crisis comes in: We need better lives and better work. As many countries are slowly tip-toeing out of the Covid crisis, they must build back. However, going back to normal would be wrong. We must build back better, harnessing opportunities for environmental protection and social justice as we start greasing the economic wheel again. Neither a better life nor better work is directly related to money (though basic financial stability is a prerequisite of a good life as much as a financial reward can be an important token of appreciation at work).
Ikigai offers a roadmap. Let’s dissect its four dimensions and intersecting circles:
1: What the world needs: This is about what people really need, not about what the market values. The Covid crisis has brought those things to the fore: we value health and wellbeing, we value a walk in the park and a just society, we value actual expertise over self-proclaimed experts, and we value time with our loved ones and that smile of a stranger. These are the things the world needs, not economic growth for the sake of it. To be sure: up to a certain level, financial stability is important for our health, happiness and wellbeing. However, beyond that, other things than money make us much happier.
2: What you love: What the world needs overlaps with some of the stuff you love. Do you love activism for a cleaner environment? Do you love caring for others and getting smiles and appreciation in return? Do you love digital work? Science? Music? Organic farming? Enlightening the world through public speaking? Many of these are the things the world actually needs. As an individual, you might be highly passionate about these. And chances are, you are going to be great at some of them. For companies, this is what should be in their mission statement.
3: What you are good at: What is your core competence? What can you do better than others? Whatever it is, you are likely to be very good at some of the stuff you really love, whether it is music or activism or urban gardening. The Covid crisis has thrown us all into life on the internet. You may be great at finding new digital solutions that solve people’s needs, and perhaps you only discovered this during the crisis. If so, think about making it your profession. This is where what you are good at links with what you can get paid for.
4: What you can be paid for: Doing unpaid work, whether by running errands for elderly citizens or by providing your expertise for free in online seminars, has become part and parcel of our Covid experience. Voluntary work can be very rewarding. Nevertheless, being paid for good work should be the rule. Many people have already lost their jobs or fear for them. Unemployment sucks and it quickly becomes tragic where the social safety net is weak or non-existent.
The Covid crisis forces us to rethink and presents us with an opportunity to find our vocation. It is now much clearer what the world really needs, and this is where many opportunities for business and innovation open up. Want to contribute to curing disease? Consider a medical or research career. Want to care for others, make masks or sell local organic produce? You might find your vocation there. These, like other professions underpaid so far, may just benefit from a more widespread realization of what the world really needs, and hence will be better compensated in the longer term.
We have come full circle. Your ikigai is about finding your personal balance that is in tune with the world, whether as an individual or as a company. It is about using the crisis as an opportunity to move to the next level, to find a job with purpose that lets you demonstrate your talents and live your passion. You are already there? Congratulations! The world needs you to share your experience.
Let's use this crisis as an opportunity to move us and our organisations to the next level. Are you already there? Congratulations! The world needs you to share your experience.
This is clearly not about social distancing: 7 lessons I learned from COVID-19 so far
The new coronavirus is rolling over planet Earth, making its way from continent to continent. As it wreaks havoc on underfunded health systems and economies alike, fear spreads as much as do predictions of a better, brighter future in the aftermath of the epidemic. It would be wrong to talk about COVID-19 as a good thing, and much of its impact, particularly in poorer countries, is yet to be understood as the crisis unfolds. However, in some ways it may have been exactly the kind of cathartic experience we needed in order to appreciate what matters, namely health, community networks, real political leadership and global solidarity. Here are some key lessons we have learned so far:
Lesson #1: Solving COVID-19 has little to do with social distancing: Politicians, doctors, scientists and literally everyone is talking about social distancing these days. However, that’s quite a misnomer. What we are seeing is physical distancing at the same time as we see social convergence. The governments that do well in this crisis are those where partisan and cross-party differences are put aside, and where leaders actually lead, by taking decisive action and communicating transparently. Families, communities and even nations are moving closer together, though mostly through virtual means. Younger community members run errands for the elderly and other people at higher risk; activists promote local buying from small enterprises to help them survive economically; we sing together on our balconies; experienced professionals are streaming their insights for free; and we give standing ovations to health workers and others at the frontline for doing their job. Stressed parents struggling to work from home while home schooling their children now appreciate the herculean task of educators. And there is another benefit of all that physical distancing: when checking in for morning meetings online we even get to see our bosses and co-workers in their pajamas, surely a bonus from a social convergence point of view! :)
Lesson #2: Global solidarity will come around. At first sight, COVID-19 seems to have pushed global solidarity down the drain. Donald Trump tried to snap up a German company with promising vaccine candidates and make it exclusively produce for the US market. Germany has been trying to limit the export of protective masks to other European countries. Just a few weeks ago, border closures or even controls all over Europe would have been unthinkable, now they are a basic fact of life. Rich countries are struggling to keep their own health systems in check, and the support they have promised to poorer countries is becoming an afterthought. But thinking again, we realise that it is the very nature of a global pandemic that it can only be fought successfully through concerted, global efforts. What good would it do for the American or any other economy to beat the virus if it could no longer let people or goods in from elsewhere in the world, for fear of re-introducing COVID-19? And we are seeing a great deal of solidarity already: Cuban doctors fly in to support the Italian healthcare system, at great risk to themselves. Europe, who sent scientists to help fight the virus in China early in the year, is now receiving more of this kind of support in return. Border checks to keep the virus at bay may well be the last measure to be lifted, but they will not last forever.
Lesson #3: Their socio-economic contributions now will define companies for years to come: we have been talking about the ‘triple bottom line’ for decades, about the reconciliation of people, planets and profits, asking companies to account not only for finances but for their social and environmental impacts as well. While the success of this is debatable as pointed out by John Elkington himself (the man who coined the term 25 years ago) the crucial socio-economic role companies play and which is sometimes forgotten in sustainability debates, is brought to the fore by the COVID-19 response. Those companies that do not dismiss their employees right away play an important role in preventing even bigger damage due to unemployment. Those who shift their production of arguably less socially desirable goods, such as fast fashion or perfumes, to producing the stuff we really need right now, such as disinfectant, masks or other protective equipment, lead the way. We keep hearing about fascinating innovations, such as 3D-printing of respirators. It is these companies - going back to basics and trying to serve people what they really need - that will be fit for the future.
Lesson #4: There will be winners and losers. We are moved by, and publically applaud, the dedication not only of our health workers. We also celebrate the people working at the front line in supermarkets and pharmacies, and those keeping our utilities and public TV stations running - basically by moving into their offices and giving up real life for a couple of weeks - to avoid service disruptions for all of us. We beg pharma companies to come up with diagnostics, vaccines and medicine. And as we are leapfrogging into digital forms of work, education and service provision, we thank telecommunications companies for ensuring broadband continuously lives up to its promises. Arguably, many of the industries and companies who provide the goods and services considered essential right now (think pharma, medtech, IT, telecoms, etc.) will benefit economically in the longer run. And that is exactly the point of triple bottom line thinking.
Lesson #5: Systems change is becoming a realistic prospect - if we want it. Humankind has overcome many enormous challenges in the past. There is no reason why we would not be able to bring this one behind us as well. Recent reports from China, the origin of the pandemic, as well as other Asian countries that have been successful in containing the spread of the virus, such as South Korea, are encouraging. However, whether we manage to use our newly derived insights for broader systems change towards a more sustainable and socially just economy remains to be seen. The main ingredient for systems change - a strong external push - is there and the opportunities are clear: as governments bail out failing enterprises, for example in the travel industry, they must impose conditions that will help them reach their environmental targets. Investors have plentiful alternative to fossil fuels these days, and they would be well advised to use them.
Lesson #6: Getting our priorities right. If nothing else, COVID-19 has been a timely reminder about the paramount importance of health and wellbeing. Some of us have rediscovered the little (and in some places guilty) pleasure of going for a walk in the park. We realise we can do without constant business travel or shopping trips abroad, and that cooking at home is a viable option vis-à-vis taking out fast food or eating in restaurants. And we may just begin to realise that taking climate action sooner rather than later is the only option to prevent the next health crisis.
Lesson #7: COVID-19 is not a health issue. COVID-19 is not just a disease. It is not just a health issue the solution of which depends on doctors, nurses, medicines and other parts of a functioning health system. It is also an economic issue, an environmental issue, a social issue, a communication issue, a business issue, a scientific issue and many other issues at the same time. The exact same is true for climate change by the way.
Whether or not we will manage to harness the tragic opportunity offered by COVID-19 will depend on all of us. Let’s #stayathome and do it.
And there is another benefit of all that physical distancing: when checking in for morning meetings online we even get to see our bosses and co-workers in their pajamas, surely a bonus from a social convergence point of view!
Why greatness is a risk factor and what else we can learn from earlier civilisations
Civilisations, even the greatest ones, come with an expiry date. As we know, greatness did not protect earlier civilisations, such as Ancient Egypt or the Greek and Roman empires, from collapse. Research from the University of Cambridge tells us that the average lifespan of a civilization is a meagre 336 years.[i] What does this mean for our Modern Global civilisation? How many more years do we have? And what can we learn from previous civilisations and the factors that preceded their collapse?
Our civilization has achieved amazing things: from curing previously deadly diseases to travelling into space, from connecting people around the globe in an instant to developing carbon capture technology. Unfortunately this greatness tends to blind us to the severity and urgency of the risks we are facing today. We think that our civilization is better and more advanced than previous ones, and that therefore it is somehow resistant to collapse. We think of our own civilisation as permanent, as the ultimate civilisation that has achieved what humans can possibly achieve. We think of our world as the pinnacle of evolution. I bet you that those Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans thought the same.
This makes us too slow to respond when the risks finally dawn on us, and too focused on one-dimensional solutions. Many of us believe that technology and innovation, which have indeed served us so well in overcoming challenges of the past, are the servants that can continue to make sure we stay ahead. We think within civilizational boundaries which we do not question. But ignoring complexity and failing to look at the bigger picture from a systems perspective is dangerous.
No matter how advanced our Modern Global civilisation may be, it certainly is not immune to collapse. Greatness may actually be a risk factor: greatness seems to correlate with complexity, and both real and perceived greatness has led to the sort of hybris that makes civilizations blind to very real risks. Historically, it was rarely just one event or one factor that caused civilization collapse. A combination of factors seems to have been preceding collapse in many cases. Historical analysis suggests that besides external shocks through war, famine and disease (and sometimes simply bad luck) four main factors are linked to civilisation collapse: Climate change; negative environmental impact; inequality; and complexity.[ii] Does this sound familiar? Climate and other forms of environmental change, widening gaps between the rich and the poor and accelerating complexity are the very issues we are struggling with today. They are already keeping scientists, activists, policy makers and some enlightened business leaders who have understood the need for systems change very busy. We have recognised the trigger points, but we have not yet been able to move much into the right direction.
What does distinguish us from earlier civilisations is that our impact on the climate is human-made and much more pronounced than that of our ancestors. A narrow focus on economic growth, the very progress we cite as a means to push our civilization forward and assure it survives and thrives, is putting our lives at risk, and threatens our entire civilisation. The enormous degree of complexity and interdependence in a globalised world, the fact that we depend on a complex network of private and public entities across several regions and countries for food, water, medicine and other essentials, makes our civilisation even more vulnerable than previous ones.
So if greatness - real or perceived - cannot protect us, what can? The tools we have to arm ourselves against collapse are science, systems thinking and global collaboration. We must address complexity head-on. Science, technology and innovation can indeed go a long way in decelerating the pathway towards collapse. However, without a bigger picture perspective and long-term thinking as well as true global collaboration on policy and action across governments, businesses and citizens – and across countries and cultures - technological innovation will not do the trick. Many of the technical solutions are well known and their likely impact can be tested and demonstrated in very comprehensive and user-friendly ways, for example the EN-ROADS climate change solutions simulator developed by management school MIT Sloan together with Climate Interactive, a think-tank. We now “only” need sufficient political will and societal understanding to actually implement the solutions we have known about for decades.
Addressing climate change is a worthy goal and essential for saving our civilisation. However, it is not an end in itself, but rather a means to maximising health and wellbeing for all, and to save the billions of Euros and Dollars resulting from inaction. Not only at some distant point in the future, but right here and now, where seven million people die from air pollution every year and millions more are affected by drought, flooding, hurricanes, extreme heat and other effects of climate change, all of which has enormous societal costs.
Positive framing and harnessing the power of multisolving – of creating and demonstrating triple wins across the environmental, social and economic spheres at the same time – is the way to go. Rather than messages of doom and gloom this will ensure that action to address the climate crisis and improve global justice is palatable to politicians and business leaders alike, besides providing the necessary incentives for citizens to change their attitudes and behavior.
[i] Kemp, L. BBC Future http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190218-are-we-on-the-road-to-civilization-collapse. “The data is drawn from two studies on the growth and decline of empires (for 3000-600BC and 600BC-600), and an informal, crowd-sourced survey of ancient civilizations (which I have amended).”
Looking for a way to start 2020 healthier and happier while benefiting the environment at the same time? Try digital detox
Want to start the new decade with a win-win-win? Digital detox will make you happier and healthier while benefiting the environment and politics at the same time
If you felt happier and more wholesome over this holiday period than during the rest of the year, this may well be because you were spending less time on social media and had more real-life interactions with friends and family instead. Perhaps you let life move a bit more slowly than usual, taking a break from constantly checking what your friends and colleagues were doing (or purporting to do) online, or agonizing over how many likes a certain post of yours received?
When people give up social media for a time, their happiness levels measurably improve. In one Danish study a group of adults had to give up Facebook for a week. By the end of that week, the detox group reported more happiness and less depression than the control group, which continued using social media as usual. Another study asked college students to limit their social media use to ten minutes per day per platform, and no more than 30 minutes in total. Compared to a group of people who continued using social media as usual, those who limited social media use felt less lonely and less depressed over the course of several weeks.
If you ended up using your holiday time to go for a walk in the woods, your happiness levels may have further increased: people who exercise in the natural environment at least once per week have only about half the risk of poor mental health compared with people who don’t. Each additional use of the natural environment for physical activity per week decreases the risk of poor mental health by a further 6%.
If, on the contrary, you escaped stressful family festivities by retiring with your smartphone to tweet, post and upload, this may have made the situation worse. Getting a glimpse of the joyous celebrations, lavish presents or perfect holidays your peers appeared to enjoy may have made you feel even more stressed and anxious. FOMO – the fear of missing out - can be very powerful and very painful, particularly at this sensitive time of year. And the grass is almost always greener on the other end of the data highway.
So digital detox may be for you. And here is the thing: it will not only make you happier and healthier, it will benefit the environment at the same time. We rarely think about data and communications when we hear about climate change, but your data may actually be quite dirty. The servers and data centers that store and process your data have a massive carbon footprint since they consume large amounts of energy, energy that more often than not comes from fossil fuels. The carbon footprint of ICT (information and communication technologies) is already comparable to that of the aviation industry’s emissions from fuel (2% of global emissions). Some experts predict that the total electricity demand of ICT will be around 20% by 2030.
The beginning of this new year also marks the beginning of the decade in which our global carbon budget to remain within the 1.5C limit will be depleted if we continue business as usual. Where global leaders have failed, it is time for individual action, bit by bit. Consider this the next time you switch on Netflix, re-tweet a hilarious comment about Trump or upload photos to Facebook.
What’s there not to love? Your digital detox will boost your health and happiness, while also reducing your carbon footprint – and decreasing Trump’s airtime - at the same time. A great win-win-win for starting into this new decade.
How late is it in carbon time?
This countdown clock shows an estimate of how long it will take the world to reach an amount of greenhouse gas emissions beyond which 2°C of global warming will be likely (Source: Nick Evershed, Carbon countdown clock: how much of the world’s carbon budget have we spent? The Guardian, January 19, 2017).
Are you more interested in the 1.5°C scenario? Click this link. In a nutshell: as of early 2020, we will have about 8 years left.
Low Tech is Beautiful: the best ICT solutions for MSMEs also benefit large companies
There is a lot of buzz around high tech solutions for doing business in low-income and emerging markets right now. There are some exciting unicorn examples of emerging market business models which use artificial intelligence, blockchain technology or drones to make supply chains more efficient. However, for many businesses in these markets the potential of low tech solutions is much more exiting right now.
These relatively simple solutions, such as online platforms facilitating business links, SMS information services for agribusiness and mobile apps to track logistics, are widely available in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Nevertheless, they remain largely underutilized. This is a missed opportunity in making value chains more effective and more inclusive, thus creating win-wins for small businesses and their multinational business clients, as well as the individuals and communities they serve.
In our new research we focused on IT solutions for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), including smallholder farmers. For enterprises in emerging markets challenges range from accessing market insights and gaining skills to accessing finance. While larger companies have the means to overcome many of these challenges, MSMEs typically face bigger constraints, and generally find it more difficult to succeed.
“The biggest leap for MSMEs comes from low-tech IT solutions that improve access to information, transparency and traceability in value chains, and those that facilitate access to finance and basic services, such as healthcare services and access to energy.“
Together with Fundes, Endeva has scanned available IT solutions that enable MSMEs to grow and become more productive. As production networks span ever more widely across multiple countries, the opportunities to better integrate MSMEs from emerging markets in global value chains are vast. Suppliers, distributors and customers who had previously been isolated can now be accessed relatively easily with the help of these IT solutions.
Click here for an overview IT solutions that make MSMEs more effective and thus facilitate their incorporation in large companies’ value chains.
What if… social enterprises and NGOs pooled their data on patients and customers in low-income contexts?
Africa is missing millions of qualified health workers. As a result, many people in low-income contexts cannot access healthcare at all, or they receive poor quality care. Employing community health workers – who are less well trained than conventional health workers but closer to patients – has been a solution for decades. While community health workers (CHWs) have achieved a great deal they have been facing enormous challenges, ranging from lack of access to medicines to gaps in their own education and experience.
In recent years, pioneering organisations such as Living Goods have started addressing these issues by using technology to support CHWs with artificial intelligence. Living Goods is a social enterprise that works with CHWs to deliver health products and services to the poor in Kenya, Uganda and other countries. It has armed its agents with mobile tools to facilitate their day-to-day work, thus enabling them to provide better and more efficient care. In partnership with Medic Mobile, an mHealth company, Living Goods has taken the next step to harness the data it collects, making use of robust-real time data flows to bring additional capabilities to CHWs and thus provide even better and more targeted care.
In the health track of ii2030, a two-day event to develop solutions for intelligent diagnosis and treatment in low-income contexts organised by Endeva, stakeholders from business, academia and civil society came together to identify solutions that are fit for the future. They asked what it would take pioneering NGOs and social enterprises like Living Goods to share their data, thus supporting stretched healthcare works in low-income contexts with artificial intelligence and potentially with big data.
What ethical and legal challenges would they face? Would organisations be protective of ‘their’ data or willing to share for the benefit of their programmes and the people they serve? How could these data be usefully combined? How could big datasets be used to facilitate predictive analysis and thus improve the quality and efficiency of care? We want to continue this conversation and are looking for interested partners.
But what about the people? Taking a multi-sectoral perspective when providing energy solutions at the BoP
Last month I was invited to give a keynote speech on innovative and appropriate businesses solutions in the energy sector. The meeting was organised by the Global Forum on Sustainable Energy in the run-up to the 2017 Vienna Energy Forum, a bi-annual global multi-stakeholder forum.
‘Affordable and clean energy’ is #7 in the world’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is clearly related to many of the other SDGs, such as those covering health, gender, water and sanitation, decent work, sustainable cities, climate action and others. 1,4 billion people currently have no access to electricity and instead use kerosene and candles for lighting purposes. Three billion people cook and heat with biomass, causing 4 million deaths per year.
Therefore it is all the more surprising that debates often center on technology and supply side solutions rather than taking energy users, many of whom live and work at the base of the pyramid (BoP), as a starting point. In other words, they focus on what’s possible with technology in the short term rather than applying an effective multi-sectoral lens when developing solutions for these people in the medium- and long term.
All too often, well-meaning donors, NGOs and companies spend public or private money to provide top-notch technological solutions to these issues while failing to take basic realities into account. As a result, success is often short-lived at best, with negative implications sometimes more likely.
The lessons on appropriate solutions are clear and I have been working with partners to implement these effectively: solutions must respond to an actual need and be affordable; when considering affordability, not just the initial purchase of hardware but also cost for installation, maintenance and repair need to be factored in; local providers should be able to install, operate and maintain equipment using spare parts and appliances that do not become obsolete in the long-run; local labour and other resources should be employed as much as possible; and last but not least, equipment must be built with local conditions, such as heat, dust, etc. in mind.
Now it is time for all public and private actors to internalise and apply these lessons. This is true not only for solutions in the energy sector but for all sectors in which technology can make a difference to the lives of the poor, including medical technology and technology for the production of everyday necessities for example.
This Blog discusses a range of topics from social development to sustainable business. I get inspired in all sorts of settings: when working with women in rural areas of Africa on demanding better healthcare from the authorities; when working with large multinationals on measuring their social impact; when teaching students from around the globe on sustainable business and management for the future; when writing reports about politics and happiness; or when discussing my own work-life balance with family and friends. I also discuss selected photos. Please enjoy, share and comment - THANK YOU!
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