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COP26 and Beyond: We are all ‘Systems Thinkers’

There is no denying that COP26 was a microcosm. It was all there, from Extinction Rebellion and a swelling youth activist presence in the streets, to the back room deals with fossil fuel lobbyists, and everything in between.

As a microcosm, it bears noting how the world has changed since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, some 29 years ago. Whilst writing this, I was inspired by Ann Tutwiler, former Deputy Director of FAO and former ED of Bioversity, to explore one area, food systems, and consider the difference between then and now. 

Back then, there was no voice or representation of everyday farmers. At Glasgow they were well represented by national and global associations. Their voice is now being heard. 

Then, there was no awareness — let alone presence or voice — of indigenous people and their role in global food systems and preservation of biodiversity. From the streets to the backrooms, indigenous leaders were influential. There is an emerging consensus that their voice matters most, that they should have the first and last say on whether we are making progress in stabilising the climate. They are our existential canary in the coalmine.

Then, NGOs and agribusiness were mortal enemies. There was no trust, no cooperation. At Glasgow, the calendar was peppered with workshops and panels that showed there was more than talking going on between these former enemies. All kinds of innovative projects and approaches were on display. Most importantly, there was a shared recognition that any real progress could only come from genuine multi stakeholder cooperation.

Then business was reactive, doing the minimum to fend off pressure and perhaps mitigate the related risks from being called out. Now, business at Glasgow was flying the flag of solutions.

Now, the vision is of business as a proactive agent of needed change, working transparently with nonprofits and government. Slowly, inevitably, necessarily, a new goal for business is emerging, one that seizes the opportunities in the reality of ever-deepening interdependence and accelerating rates of change.

It was the business leader, Paul Polman, who presciently noted that rather than having separate UN summits on climate and biodiversity it would be more effective to have an integrated and single political process. As I pondered this proposal, I was reminded of Richard Nixon’s quip from the 1970s, when he said, “we are all Keynesians now”; one might say of Glasgow that, “we are all systems thinkers now.” 

So what does this mean for the future, and for the continued discussions that were ignited at  COP26 and will continue to burn for years to come?

Most importantly, it’s the acceptance that business is necessary to solve the global crisis of planetary overshoot. The corporate machine will continue to churn, but now it will do so in a way that gives more than it takes away, is part of the solution rather than the problem. 

Businesses, leaders and those that advise them, need to take the organization’s role as Corporate Citizens seriously, and not simply pay lip service to the cause. They must place the good of the planet and all of its inhabitants at the core of decision making. 

Business is at a moment of existential choice. Business simply won’t exist in the future if the four pillars of sustainability (economic, societal, human and environmental) aren’t placed as a top priority, and quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic is testament to that and to quote Paul Polman again, you simply can’t have healthy people on an unhealthy planet

Whilst businesses may well be motivated to change, a case of ‘analysis paralysis’ stops them in their tracks. It’s a mountain they can’t seem to get over, and this stunts their progress. The mountain however, is just a mirage. 

The tools exist right here and now to help businesses to make real, impactful change that permeates the entire business and engages with all of their stakeholders. This not only allows an organisation to rearrange it’s vision around creating a better future for all, but will ultimately lead to a more sustainable, profitable organisation in the years to come. 

Thanks to the developments made at Single Organizing Idea, businesses now know exactly how to make their contribution and are inspired to do so, equipped by the latest tools, techniques and insights available to not only deliver real, meaningful change, but to place sustainability at the core of their business operations.  

Ultimately change can only be sustained if businesses are committed to embracing the transition and have embedded it within the very fabric of the organisation. At the heart of Single Organizing Idea is a rigorous management system that has been expertly designed to meet the needs of our new inclusive, multi-stakeholder world - precisely the one we saw on full display at COP26.

David Bonbright is a Founder of SOI.


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