I am attending many conferences and workshops lately and there is one thing that keeps making me angry: the proliferation of meaningless terms everybody feels happy with.
The word sustainable has a career from describing a cutting edge attitude towards our role and our actions in relation to the environment to a marketing label that each and every business sticks to its website or products, no matter what. In that way Exxon, Shell or BP have turned to leaders in sustainability. If you do not find this odd – I do. What makes matters worse is the fact that if everyone can claim to fulfil the demands of a particular agenda, expressed in a slogan, the need to really act is greatly diminished. Why make an effort, if your gas guzzling five litre engine monster SUV can be a sustainable mode of transport? Sustainability has become a ‘word non grata’. And now we repeat the same with inclusive, circular and all the other higher goals that mankind has come up with. And even worse: entire agendas like the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals are at risk of falling victim of the great operation of shovelling about anything under these headings. Add to that that driven and people engaged in society and environment tend to become more specific by adding more of these generic terms, then you understand my frustration.
For policymakers, these terms might be a convenient way of striking compromises and claiming support of parties that do not agree. If you use generic enough a word, everyone can be supportive.
But – generic terms do not evoke emotions and their abstractness make it difficult to get those interested who are not specialists: the public. For them to understand the potential of a strategy, one needs to lead by example.
How does an inclusive piece of city look like?
What advantages does a circular neighbourhood have?
How can we become specific in solving global problems we are facing?
What is necessary is not another policy document but the means that people can lead the way by example. Risk capital, local and national governments that foster a culture of trying, failing, learning, and succeeding. Trial and error is the most successful innovation tool that mankind has come up with and it has managed to create astonishing things. We must turn this into a way of doing things, rather than keeping pursuing the other path of risk avoidance and asking for certainty right from the start. And – we need to do this quickly. The scale of change that is necessary is bigger than everything mankind has seen so far and the time is limited. High time to switch from a slow culture of unsuccessfully succeeding because the results are too small and too late to a fast culture of successfully failing, learning and improving.
By Markus Appenzeller.