It has been a long 34 days and now I am in the last leg of my trip before heading home. I am in Bruekelen, Netharlands. Outside this tiny habitat, itself discernable only by its suburban status to Amsterdam – is a medieval palace by a canal that now is home to the largest private business university in the Netherlands. It is the Nyenrode University.
Nyenrode has a strong Indian connection; it has many Indian students, some great Indian faculty, and association with the Indian Institute of Management and last year, ex-President Abdul Kalam was here to receive an honorary doctorate. I come here often, sometimes to deliver a lecture, sometimes to listen to someone else. Today I am here to participate in a roundtable conversation on sustainability. Among others, a great reason to be here is to listen to Dr. C.K. Prahalad who would be the keynote speaker.
Yesterday was a wet day in Netherlands; it rained like an incessantly weepy child. You could not make out through the haze that the daffodils are breaking free and the tulips are like ballerinas held at the wings before a grand performance. But today, the Sun has come up nicely. And, as in a prelude to a grand musical, just as smaller artistes come on stage to perform with aspiration and abandon, I find beds of colorful spring flowers asking to get noticed like tiny ballerinas before the tulips come on stage.
The Little Ballerinas
We are now at the courthouse building of the palace where the roundtable is in session. To many westerners, Dr. C.K. Prahalad defines the idea of India. I have known him for two decades now and each time I listen to him, it is an uplifting experience. In times like this, you need to hear what thinkers like him see as tea leaves in the cup. “You can not be an academic unless you are an optimist,” he says. It sounds simple and profound just like he makes his point on a dozen other issues on sustainability.
Convert sustainability from being a concern to an opportunity for innovation. That is the core of his message. He goes on to say that we need to be looking at “next practices” and not the best practices. If every one is emulating everyone else’s best practices, we will all stagnate in a mediocre world.
Extortion and guilt giving may work to raise the temperature on the issue, but they do not sustain. We must focus on wealth creation – doing well and doing good – at the same time!
Every system in the world is under great strain.
It is not about the trees we cut; it is about the microbes we destroy that science has not even started to know.
All the oceans are under peak harvest level.
Ozone layer depletion can actually blind people.
How did it all happen?
In the last 70-years, while taking care of the consumptive needs of just 1.5 billion people, we created the ecological damage. Now 1.5 billion people will be added to that number in India and China alone – and combined with people moving up the ladder elsewhere, 2 billion new members will be added to the world’s middle-class. And that leads us to unimaginable stress on the system – the Planet will survive though people may not, unless we pay urgent attention to the underlying issues.
The impact of pollution, destruction of fisheries, and destruction of forest land – crosses national boundaries.
Today, the eco-footprint of an American is 9.6 hectare; that of a Russian – 4.4, for a Chinese it is 1.6 and for an Indian, it is .8. In the next few years, that .8 will double but the bigger issue is that it will double for a huge mass of people.
In dealing with sustainability, regulation and compliance take high priority no doubt, but they are not enough. Large forums are critical to solve the problem, even if that sounds counter-intuitive.
Wal-Mart buys probably $25 billion Chinese goods. It can discipline its suppliers. It has the power, as do Marks and Spencer. But could these companies also educate their customers? Of course. Wal-Mart alone could educate 100 million people who come to throng its isles.
We need to think of big business as an ally. Not adversary.
The current world of economic uncertainty and volatility will do big business good. These would force issues. They push the idea of sustainability from Corporate Social Responsibility (Guilt Money, he calls it) to core business and draws this interesting 5-box model on two axis: Integrating sustainability with the core business and Innovation.
At the bottom is compliance; it is the least innovative. But, an opportunity none the less. Think of the US. Different states have different pollution norms. Within California, there are different norms for San-Francisco and San Diego. The US and Europe and Asia have different norms. What savings could be made if we pushed standardization as the starting point and compliance as a driver for sustainability?
Then look at just operations – operations of companies and governments. Telecommuting will become the norm in the years ahead. AT&T saves $500 million a year in space alone because people are working out of home. When UPS mandated a simple idea of no left turns for their delivery trucks and a last-in-first-out idea for package delivery, they saved 3 million gallons of gas. Mathematical algorithms can make you green!
Then look at products and services. CISCO re-conditions routers and gives them back! Random House has mandated that it would use 30% uncoated paper. Unilever says 100% of its palm oil would be sourced from sustainable agriculture.
If Coke reduces water usage by 20%, it would save 50 billion liters of the precious resource! Operations have enormous potential of saving if we choose to innovate.
Think of detergents that need to be transported to take up store space. What if the same washing capacity is packed in lesser volume? Compact the detergent.
What if in cold countries, washing machines could work with cold-water detergents?
What if Fedex and DHL and UPS did not carry fat printed reports across the world but digitized them at the source – teleported them over satellite links and printed them closer to where the delivery is needed – like at a Kinkos for Fedex and not lugged the reports across oceans.
What about learning bio-mimicry?
The best cements are made by corals. But they do not pollute.
Cement plants across the world produce 1 ton of carbon emission for that one ton of cement – every time.
What about waterless detergents? After all, dirt is a deposition on substrate surface.
What about converting coal to methane without sending miners down the shaft?
We could ask bio-organisms do the work.
How about eatable packaging? Imagine the billions of shampoo and pan masala sachets that choke the drains, kill the microbes and just sit there without becoming soil.
The Civil Society and Big Business must work together to make the breakthroughs happen.
CKP thinks we will come out of the current crisis, but how?
“Man did not come out of the stone-age because we ran out of stones. Man innovated,” he says. “Man will not run out of fossil fuel to find the next big thing. We will innovate.”
For that, all of us must think big. And start small.
Do not eat the elephant all at once.
Listen to everyone; listen to the people who say “No”. In free societies, people must learn to build coalitions. Coalitions are the future.
Strategy is not about unhindered march forward. You must learn to go two steps forward, one step sideways, and sometimes, another backward and repeat the process.
The current crisis is actually very good. The eco-system we will build will be very different from the economy we leave behind.
Organization size for coping with complexity has gotten out of hand. A 7-feet-tall person cannot stand to attention for an hour; his legs would simply break up. Man is not inherently designed for a 7-feet structure. Our big fat organizations falling is all due to inherent un-sustainability.
We need to learn how to build scale without size.
Roundtable Participants with CKP – I am in the red tie
It is well past eight in the evening now. Outside the castle’s courthouse where we are gathered in a big circle discussing the future of the world – more importantly – the future of man, the spring flowers have gone to bed. Tomorrow, I must leave before they are up. By the time I return to Nyenrode again, they would all probably be gone. I feel a sense of emptiness, a certain longing whenever it is time to leave this beautiful country of canals and castles, tulips and windmills.
But Bangalore is waiting and so are all of you to whom I lovingly bring a piece of my world every now and then. So, I shake hands with the wise man and turn to my room. He says in parting, it is about quality of leadership. Someone must say it got to be done without knowing the details. It is about building wellness measures. We must address the issue with the entrepreneurial spirit. Profits are a better driver than fear, guilt, coercion and policy. And finally, it is about respect for nature.
Man must live in harmony with nature. It is time to give up the desire for mastery!