During the infancy of the Internet Age, several years before the launch of iTunes, a young British entrepreneur had the idea to create an online music download store. The concept was simple; create a virtual store, hosted on the web that enabled music lovers worldwide to order the latest releases at the click of a mouse. Today we’re all very familiar with this concept, but back in the early Nineties the idea was revolutionary. Having bought together a team of developers to build the platform and set-up shop in a small studio down a backstreet in Brixton, the music entrepreneur quickly realised the value of his concept. Within weeks of launching the Beta phase of the start-up, interest had been expressed worldwide and orders were coming in from as far a field as Russia and the United States. Meetings to pitch the concept to executives in the London offices of some of the world’s biggest music groups followed. Despite giving some lip service to the idea, not one of the music majors came aboard; indeed they attached so little value to the online music store concept that they wouldn’t even proceed with a trial of the technology. Under-pinning their lack of foresight was an assumption that business could and would carry on as usual and do so indefinitely; to imagine that the music majors could fall from grace and see their profits nose-dive any time soon was simply unimaginable for many music executives. However, nose-dive they did, as the Internet’s popularity spread like wildfire, enabling disruptive models to displace traditional music formats.
The saying goes ‘history repeats itself’. When Radio Caroline took the to seas in 1964 the music industry bosses of the day did everything within their power to shut the station down. Their attitude to pirate radio was only marginally less scornful than that of their counter-parts attitude towards the Internet in the early Nineties. Such poor foresight and judgment is not reserved to the music industry, nor even to the private sector. Consider for a moment Royal Mail. Surely upon the launch of email at least one bright spark suggested to the Royal Mail executive board the potential benefits of investing in the new technology; after all it would make sense for the leading British postal service to at least take a crack at becoming the leading British electronic mail service. How different Royal Mail’s profit and loss sheet could look today if such an opportunity had not been overlooked in the past.
There are two types of fear of loss: fear of losing what you have and fear of losing what you could have. Decision-makers in the public and private sector embrace the former at their peril, yet do so surprisingly often, as illustrated in the examples given above. The psychology isn’t complex; when we put our hearts, minds and souls into creating something the last thing we feel like to doing is dismantling, disrupting or destroying it. Our natural urge is to protect that which we have built, be it a career, a business or industry.
The scale of change required to build a sustainable society makes the impacts of the Internet look like piecemeal. The Internet enabled the creation of a faster-moving, better-connected and more democratic world. The way we work and the way we communicate has been revolutionized. However, on the whole the Internet has not challenged the way we source commodities, manufacture goods, build towns and cities, travel from A to B, produce energy, treat waste, grow food and keep livestock. Sustainability challenges all of these things and more and yet, many organisations are taking a reactive, not a pro-active approach. Certainly there are exceptions to this rule, with standout examples including IBM, Nike and Marks and Spencer – each of which has made an ambitious commitment to building a truly sustainable business, to which they pay a great deal more than just lip service. However, the majority of private and public sector organisations are best described as laggards where sustainability is concerned.
While developing a model for a sustainable city able to withstand extreme weather and geological events, I’ve been researching how the Earth’s ecosystems build resilience to natural disasters. I’ve found that in the natural world destruction goes hand in hand with renewal, wherein there is symbiotic relationship in constant motion between the two, neither able to exist without the other. Take for example forests in fire-prone regions. When we see images of flames ripping through these forests on our television screens the picture can look very bleak. However, some tree species are reliant on these fires, for it’s only when forest scrub is cleared by fire that their saplings have the space, light and soil nutrients to grow. Forests and businesses aren’t so different. Businesses can only make space for the new if they are prepared to clear out the old every now and then. Just as you need to plant several acorns to grow an oak tree, a business needs to plant and nurture many new ideas to keep their metaphorical forest in good health.
It’s time for decision makers across both the private and public sector to feel a fear of loss; a fear of loss of what their organisations could miss out on. Some of the sustainability ideas they will be presented with in coming months and years will feel maverick, perhaps even wacky. Most will have little, if any traditional infrastructure supporting them. The odds stacked against their success will be huge. The majority will fall over at the first or second hurdle. When being presented with such ideas keep Radio Caroline in mind (if you don’t know story hire the film ‘The Boat That Rocked’, as it will give you the general picture) and as they say in the States “Face the Fear”.
Melissa Sterry, Founder of Societás and NEW FRONTIERS