The words “sustainability” and “innovation” are overused in our lives. Used to the point of exhaustion. They have been, and continue to be, the mantras of many organisations. But would we need them, in an ideal world? Would they even exist?
This saturation reflects a moment of transition we are living through. On the one hand, with increasing competition and technologies that accelerate the rate of change, innovation has become the weapon of choice for companies wanting to differentiate themselves in the market. On the other hand, everything we have learned about the human condition and the ecosystem to which we belong tugs on our conscience, and makes us face the naked truth – that our model of living today is not sustainable in the long term, that it threatens the survival of future generations. The sums just don’t add up.
Up until this point, fine. But there are two very revealing questions that are rarely explored in this context. First is the symbiotic relationship between innovation and sustainability. Second is the question of why we are so behind in adapting to this new reality. I will start with the first.
What would we make of an innovative idea today, whose innovation relied on wreaking havoc, and thereby becoming unsustainable tomorrow? What about an idea with perpetual relevance, which could be continually recycled, but which did not represent any kind of desirable innovation? The fact is that nothing which is new but unsustainable, or perpetual but not really new, is innovative. A cannot exist without B. Now the sums add up.
From this equation comes a noble and little used meaning of “innovation”: to enable the emergence of the new, but without sacrificing the quality of people’s lives, living beings, and the environment, along the way. Very simple.
In this sense, to call something “sustainable” is the same as calling a brand, a company or a product “honest”. Imagine how strange it would be if companies had “honesty departments.” This doesn’t happen, because we assume (however fancifully) that businesses are essentially honest. Sustainability should be subject to the same rules. It should be a sine qua non condition of every business, not an adjective used to describe it but a fundamental cell of the DNA of its commercial relationships.
In sum, it’s high time that we abandon the dichotomy between innovation and sustainability, held up today as supreme and individual forces, and instead embrace them together, holistically and absolutely.
Over these last 7 years of Mandalah, we have been at the centre of the collision between old and new, ideology and pragmatism, always looking to bring the dose of daring necessary to overcome the inertia of a dated modus operandi. We have been involved in memorable projects, like helping Nike to position itself in Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup and the Olympic Games, with a strategy based on sport as a catalysing force for the integration of a city’s populations.
We have also helped GM to think about the future of urban mobility in megacities, leaving behind a narrow focus on cars alone, and moving towards the complex paradigm of mobility. We helped ESPM to develop its new Academic Master Plan, adapting to emerging ideas from around the world in the field of education. We have witnessed micro-revolutions both within and outside of these organisations, breakthroughs that freed their professionals to navigate calmly, intuitively and fluidly through chaos. Of course we also witnessed a number of attempts at change which got stuck, for a number of reasons. Here are three of them:
Fear. Change hurts. It hurts because humans like what they can recognise. In this sense, to change means to take risks, and to brave new territory where success isn’t guaranteed. This requires sensibility, adaptability, courage and resilience. Not everyone is willing to change, especially those who prefer stability and predictability in their functions and measures of success.
Myopia. Not being able to see past the next quarter is another impediment to change. Bimestrial, trimestral, semestral and annual horizons were created by man to support a pragmatic system of debts and loans, governed by the financial apparatus and totally disconnected from the natural cycles of commerce and its relationships. This dissonance, added to the short-termism that still characterises the majority of companies, disturbs the balance between action and effect, on the one hand, and sustainable planning for the future, on the other. Professor Homero Santos, one of the most respected thinkers in Brazil, in his most recent work(1), explains: “For those who fear and don’t dare, there is the consolation of living as best they can in the here and now, and this is what money insidiously offers. It’s the numbing dictatorship of the Market God, who creates the empire of the short term.”
Numbness. Osho(2) warned us that society was divided between the heads (the bosses) and the hands (of labour). And the heart, where did it go? If we look at everything that has been built and destroyed in the decades following the Industrial Revolution, the narrative is clear: relying on logical and Cartesian modes of thinking, companies proliferated and profit, the supreme metric of prosperity, became abundant. But at what cost? What we are learning to see is that over the course of all these years, value was generated at the expense of values. It is clear that at a certain point, the system crashed.
During this process of transition, we must be faithful to our human origins. Homo sunt, and every man has an incredibly powerful tool, his heart, capable of producing the most renewable of all energies, love.
As soon as we (re)connect with our hearts, we commune with the planet, and thereby empathise with everything and everyone around us. This sensibility is the start of a reconception of who we are and why we are here. With it, doing good, honest, well thought-out and constructive work which does no harm to anything or anyone, becomes natural. It’s about leaving a legacy not after, but during our passage through life.
Satish Kumar, the great activist and founder of Schumacher College3, proposes a new trinity as a vision for the future: SOIL (earth, supreme source of everything and everyone), SOUL (human essence) and SOCIETY (the collective of individuals). In the words of Homero, “where these three spheres overlap is where genuine sustainability lies.”
This is the most opportune moment in time for businesses to become part of this system and to see themselves in each other, as irreplaceable parts of an “environment” always, and mistakenly, referred to in the third person. After all, to embrace a holistic vision of the world is, first and foremost, to be a part of it.
At Mandalah, we are a consultancy in conscious innovation. The adjective “conscious” is intended to make clear that, for us, to be innovative means to be good for the world. We understand that the sustainability (a word we try not to overuse in our day-to-day) of the strategies we co-create with our clients, is based on the definition of a (personal, and then professional) purpose which orients the actions of the business, makes sense of the work of its collaborators, and ensures that its legacy will be left, but also lived. We do this by searching for value which can be shared by all, and for the balance between profit and purpose, using the age-old methodology, dialogue.
We are not alone in this struggle. There is a new force and conscience in the air, and this is not a violent struggle. In the words of Leah Wilson, “your heart is as big a weapon as your fist. Keep fighting. Keep loving.”
1 “Hamlet’s Skull and the Magic of Three,” work in progress.
2 The name by which the Indian philosopher Rajneesh Chandra Mohan Jain is known. Osho’s message was always based on the individual’s perception of freedom.
3 Centre of thought on sustainability and holistic sciences in the south of England.
About Lourenço Bustani
Lourenço is the co-founder of Mandalah, a Brazilian innovation consultancy with offices in Brazil, Mexico, USA, Germany and Japan, focused on helping organizations bridge profit with purpose. In 2012, Lourenço was included in Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business.