With rising levels of disenfranchisement in western society, what is the role of business in its cause and solution? Our November Crowd Forum fell on the eve of the US election, where “broken society” has become the dominant narrative. Does our shareholder primacy model need to give way to a broader stakeholder model, and what happens to business and society if it doesn’t?
Globalisation has brought great benefits to some, but is increasingly associated with wealth inequality, a geographical skills gaps and tax avoidance. Business leaders may be frustrated by the rise of Farage, Trump, Grillo and Le Pen, but are they – wittingly or unwittingly - creating their oxygen? With moderation from Michael Skapinker, we heard from a panel of different perspectives.
Helena Morrissey is the Chair of a global investment management firm, and has been outspoken on a number of societal issues
Stephen Kinnock MP has been tipped as a future leader of the Labour Party after one year in parliament, which has been defined by the rise of anti-establishment politics
Antoni Ballabriga is Global Head of Responsible Business at Spanish bank BBVA, and has a telling story from a country undergoing intense political and economic change.
Dr Wanda Wyporska is Executive Director at The Equality Trust, where she is focusing on improving the quality of life in the UK by reducing economic inequality.
We began with a keynote from Helena before a panel discussion. This was an evening for people in business to share thinking on the biggest challenges facing society.
When Nigel Farage told a Trump rally “The little people have been let down by global corporations” he got big cheers. Is this statement grounded in truth, or is it pure populism? What are the societal issues where business is most vulnerable to criticism? Are we now in an era where business needs to address these issues directly, and not rely on government?
Observations and questions generated from the round table discussion
• “Broken society” is reflected in business e.g. the need for a living wage indicates businesses have been exploiting and paying their staff poorly
• It’s not helpful for business to just be reactive they need to go out and “be the change” that helps fix broken society
• How and at what scale can businesses affect these societal issues?
• How much should we invest in trying to address these societal issues?
o How do you go beyond the compliance statement when the issue/scale is so massive?
• Ultimately profit still comes before people and planet, - the race to the bottom is still very much alive
• In todays society we have so much choice would be better if there were streamlined more sustainable options – but what is right - informing or choice editing? Also how do you best inform that choice?
• How do we bring in the companies that aren’t here at this event – it needs to be a collective (pre-competitive) effort
The challenge faced by sustainability/CSR departments is huge
• CSR teams are very well intentioned but they don’t have much leverage rights – e.g. labour right conditions have not really changed in recent years – the problems just been outsourced to further down the supply chain.
• Sustainability departments can find it difficult to get top management on board and prove their worth – despite these wider issues having large business implications
• Wide sustainability team remit – they are not tax experts but have to morally advise the tax team – makes the number of teams you impact endless
• Supply chains are so long and complex it is hard to know which communities/who to focus on
• Teams often work in silo’s e.g. between the sales team and the sustainability team – for example the sales team may not realize the importance of the sustainability messaging and how much their customers do actually care
o Engrained habits – people who have been doing the same thing for 30 years
Media, messaging and engagement
• Even when you get airtime the media tend to focus on past mistakes rather than good things businesses are trying to do.
• Businesses find it difficult to understand their own employees let alone society
• Mirroring the wider societal trends, there is a disconnect in how employee’s think about the economy and how it affects their company, and their own personal economy
• CSR and sustainability programs are singular and do not evolve – which is a shame as their offer an opportunity for engagement
• Consumers (people) don’t seem to care about sustainability that much, but customers do (e.g. Tesco, Wal-Mart, etc.)
Red Flags (warnings)
• You need a Sarbanes Oxley for sustainability
• Potential for PR damage is not strong enough so the driver isn’t there – you almost need a PR fiasco to wake a company up and get them to do the right thing.
• There is a tension between having sustainability as a differentiator and a pre-competitive issue
Opportunities/examples of ways in engaging with a broken society
• Radical transparency: campaigns showing the “real cost” of a t-shirt and how much money goes to the farmer (UK Supermarkets after milk scandal)
• Using CSR/sustainability as a differentiator: Very successful for Unilever as they are one of the top companies at attracting and retaining talent
• Starts at home - staff involvement and empowerment (to be ambassadors): Empowering staff on the ground or in the C- suite that they can make a difference
• Build it into procurement – make it a must have not a nice to have: Refuse to work with a supplier if they don’t meet their sustainability requirements.
1. Why is there a rise in populism ?
⇨ People have the feeling that the society is broken. Businesses and governments are failing to address certain issues, like the economic crises, which led to a loss of trust and hope. They require changes.
⇨ Changes are already happening in the society, customers are more aware, CSR is becoming more strategic but these changes are slow. People expect faster change and feel like if they vote for an extreme opposite to what they usually do, something will finally happen.
⇨ The rise in populism is also linked to the fact that populistic communication can manipulate crowds. By triggering emotions, populistic communication can make people make decisions based on emotionnal factors instead of rational ones. Trump voters for example, are angry because over thirty years they saw their situation go from comfortable to difficult.
➢ One solution would be to have a sincere cooperation between businesses, governments and the third sector.
➢ Technology and artificial intelligence are one of the reasons why so many people saw their situation get worse. There is now a huge skills gap between what companies need and what people have to offer.
Another solution would be to work on the extreme inequalities in education between the people in the metropolitan cities and the people in the countryside.
2. The consequences of the rise of populism :
The rise of populism can deeply affect businesses. The example Anthony used on stage with the mayor of Barcelona, is an illustration of ‘how populism can deliver different forms of governments’.
The loss of trust in businesses and government affects deeply companies and they need to find an efficient way to communicate.
Why isn’t communication efficient now and what can be done ?
⇨ On the one hand there is a lack of communication from companies and governments to understand what their voters or consumers need. They fail to listen.
⇨ On the other hand, we are bombarded with information and it is extremely hard to tell where to get the right information.
For example, with Samsung and its CSR strategy, nobody was aware of what was already done, even though all the information was on the website.
⇨ The lack of trust in companies affects how people see CSR communication. It can be dismissed or it can have a negative impact instead of a positive one.
Companies could have a more selfless approach to CSR by integrating CSR as part of the business model instead of just a communication tactic. But then, what would be a good approach to CSR ?
Growing investor interest in ESG issues, combined with new possibilities around big data and algorithms, is putting traditional communications in a state of flux. What does this mean for the relationship between sustainability and investor relations teams, and what does best in class reporting look like in the era of big data?
-Big data can aid in sustainability. There is a lot of big data from across the world that can help investors in their decision-making.
-Big data can sometimes be confusing. The concept of the data may not be very easily understood by investors. Data providers should work closely with investors to make the best use of the data in terms of their materiality and applicability.
-Big data providers can explain to investors the algorithms deriving the data as well as the industry they come from and where they can be applied. Through transparency of these data, the investors, advisors and providers can make better connections with the data filling existing gaps in knowledge and improving existing models.
-The environment sector can drive these data and through transparency while advisors and consultants can add value. This can be addressed by answering questions in customer behavior and how to optimize and make a better product.
-Company reporting should change to adhere to the current demands of society, addressing issues and reporting on data that can be used to draw conclusions.
-Data in ESG are not equally abundant for Environment, Social and Governance. The data is more readily available in environmental sector through primary and secondary data that are either actual or modeled data. Data with regards to social and governance are limited especially in the led developing countries.
-This is due to lower transparency in reporting -if there is any report- in addition to less strict regulations in supply chains and operations. This also comes down to irregular checks and reporting to parent companies of their subsidiaries.
-Data reporting by companies can be used as big data if they are consistent and audited. Lack of inconsistency in reporting can lead to incomplete data.
-In areas where social and governance reporting is not widely used, NGOs can use different types of reporting to reduce this phenomenon. There should be more interest in understanding the behavioral and social linkages in order to draw conclusions and to measure social impact.
-Companies should make longer term strategies to address issues such as social and governance and it is also positively perceived by investors.
If many feel powerless and disengaged with politics and the big issues, how can we use practical action to empower people? Can we move past clicktivism, apathy or anger and mobilise on what matters to them in their communities and jobs? Do the motivations of business get in the way, making it feel like it is part of the problem not the solution?
• If many feel powerless and disengaged with politics and the big issues, how can we use practical action to empower people?
• Can we move past ‘clicktivism’, apathy or anger and mobilise on what matters to them in their communities and jobs?
• Do the motivations of business get in the way, making it feel like it is part of the problem, not the solution?
How to engage society to take action?
Ownership and responsibility
• Important to remember our responsibility as individuals - it’s not just down to business
• Therefore, important to look at society from an individual (rather than employee) viewpoint.
• Social media and email are the most common channels for campaign targeting (donations and petition sign up promotion). This generates a sense of involvement and validation – especially if the cause represented by the petition succeeds.
Local politics & global issues
• Engaging in local politics is a way of enhancing the feeling of action and ‘belonging to society’ - going out, campaigning and meeting people to hear about their issues and challenges they face.
• Human rights issues and the global refugee crisis are causes of concern. People are worried about the plight of refugees, in terms of safety of passage and survival in extreme weather conditions.
Inter-faith and community forums
• Inter-faith and community forums provide an opportunity for people of different backgrounds and beliefs to share their views and listen to each other. There’s a risk that some people may just attend and not participate in a discussion, but on the whole, these are useful fora to share perspectives, and highlight where changes in approach might be necessary.
• The role of ethical volunteerism in communities is critical especially when the community is going through certain challenges. Getting a community involved in a discussion can help motivate them in terms of participation and problem solving.
Potential barriers to participation/taking action
• Not wanting to waste what we have already bought (in the face of boycotting a company or an ingredient, for example, palm oil).
• Difference of opinion and lack of time – when people have a busy routine, they have less time to engage in the conversation, discuss the argument and ultimately be persuaded.
• Righteousness/obstinacy – A lack of understanding of the other side of an argument and refusal to back down or believe you could be wrong.
• Personal priorities – we may believe we should do lots of things but are not realistically able to do all of them.
• Alienation/distance from cause/challenge with ‘buy in’ – If the voices of the people and communities experiencing the issue are not represented in discussions about the issue, then ‘buy in’ is a challenge – we need something that cuts through the noise with an authentic voice.
• Consumer power is an important consideration for companies, especially food retailers. Companies work hard to please shareholders and consumers. Some companies are not doing enough in terms of social responsibility, despite still being rewarded by customers for doing so (e.g. X company are really ethical so wouldn’t be selling battery chicken) whereas others are doing some great things but are worried about sharing for fearing of being criticised for not doing enough/greenwashing.
How we can change the current situation and involve others? What really matters and what choices do we have?
• It’s widely assumed internationally that the UK is advanced in CSR
• Doing everyday business in the right way is important
• Level of consciousness around ethics in purchase decision making process varies between individuals
• Business needs to pay more attention to children and youth
• Business needs to work harder to improve supply chains and add value for consumers
• Opportunities around customer loyalty programmes could be explored
• Cultural values should be examined when drawing up CSR policies, to decide if the focus should be on either society or the environment
• Innovation should be championed, particularly with finding transport solutions
• Fun should not be forgotten, as it drives engagement – for example, innocent smoothies (and campaign with the woolly hats?)
• Don’t forget that it’s possible to build commercial value while doing good for society
• Dialogue around local issues and action between management and employees is key.
Tech breakthroughs in AI, machine learning and the IOT offer extraordinary solutions in areas such as health and climate change. This may point to a way of solving problems without mass engagement. Do you feel this it is right to rely heavily on technological solutions, or is it important to mobilise people and organisations?
The general public can find AI threatening, a feeling that has been propagate by the media, TV and film.
Historically, AI was expected to take over more ‘blue collar’ roles than ‘white collar’ roles, however as it has developed the opposite seems to be the case.
Tech companies tend to focus fully on developing the tech and rarely engage the public in it in the right way.
Companies are actively chasing new opportunities for using tech but often their employees don’t have the skills to use it effectively.
Tech discoveries will exponentially increase – we are currently at the base of a steep upwards curve. How will it land with society? Will society reject it before it proves its worth?
Tech breakthroughs will inevitably cause unemployment, which will have the effect of creating mass engagement in the tech revolution for negative reasons.
When we reach a stage where AI is writing complex code, we will quickly run into challenges if we don’t understand the code that is being written.
People may be interacting with tech and not realising it is AI. It may actually be used by most day to day before society has realised.
AI is now moving towards practical applications. However it is often overused and sometimes not intelligent.
Mass engagement is part of the solution, as people need to understand tech in order to accept it. The comparison between the public’s response to GM was discussed – the public rejected it before the scientific community could fully explore its worth and prove its potential.
How do we engage society in tech breakthroughs? It needs to be accessible and the way it is presented is key to society engaging with it in a constructive way.
There is a role for looking to the future of how human labour and tech can be used together to achieve higher productivity and increased employee wellbeing (e.g. reducing working hours).
Examples of practical applications
Practical applications of tech can have incredibly positive results when used to engage the public. We have seen this already in tech being used to mobilise people for a good cause. For example games and apps have been used by scientists and organisations to mobilise thousands of people to analyse data in a fun and engaging way.
In the future there is real potential within health for AI Nurses to care for an ageing population. However there was some discussion on the table around the ethics of this and the potential impact on wellbeing.
There are practical applications without creating unemployment. For example, AI selecting sections of contracts for lawyers to focus on and AI doing part of the role of a GP and using algorithms for patient diagnosis.
The majority at the table felt that tech is the solution to many of the issues discussed; however a humane and empathic approach is necessary. There was consensus at the table that tech alone is not the solution, it enables the solution.
As most companies consider how they reinvent their business in a digital world, what are the societal issues they should consider? Using Artificial Intelligence, for example, may result in a loss of jobs, which materially impact lives and culture. What are the problem areas, and how can business do make this transition without alienating society?
The table acknowledged the positive impact digital can have (e.g. financial inclusion in emerging markets) and agrees that there is no question on whether we are going or are about to go through a digital revolution. The discussion therefore revolved around how best to navigate this revolution.
Challenges highlighted with businesses transitioning into the digital era:
- The impact digital solutions will have on jobs
o The industrial revolution initially saw a lot of jobs being destroyed, but was it a necessary evil to lift the whole society up? Is the digital revolution similar?
o Artificial intelligence in particular could probably replace the majority of jobs currently performed by humans.
o The challenge is how to manage transition e.g. what will happen to taxi drivers?
o Hard to re-train people and change is always difficult for people to accept
o It is especially a challenge for small companies who do not have the resources (both time and finances) to do it.
- 11-12m people in the UK don’t have digital skills. Does that exclude them from services? And as such, does that exclude them from society?
o The older generation in particular is particularly at risk of being alienated
- Mistrust toward big businesses (e.g. banks): how do you get customers to really engage with digital tools?
- AI also generates challenging questions for society to answer:
o What is society willing to outsource to artificial intelligence and what it considers immoral to, e.g. should we sentence offenders thanks to an algorithm?
o What will be the purpose of humans?
o Does AI brings into question the system on which most countries have been relying: capitalism?
Whose responsibility is it to ensure a smooth transition?
- If the digital change is at the government level, then it is the government’s responsibility to mitigate its negative impact
- If it comes from business however, it is much more complicated.
o It is difficult to force businesses to do something about this issue
o However, government budgets are under strains and so businesses should take some responsibility.
o Additionally, businesses need to think about their stakeholders, e.g. invest in their people and connect with customers if they want to be successful – this could include teaching both audience digital skills.
- Role of academia / universities as well, in teaching digital skills to all students.
- MOOCs also have an important role to play in helping people to re-train
Whilst traditional sustainability, or CSR, struggles for airtime in many organisations, the public focus on corporate tax, worker rights, and executive pay has never been greater. Are many of today’s sustainability experts guilty of too technical a focus? Is it time to broaden the sustainability remit to deliver more for business and society?
Opening question: Who is your moral compass?
Answers included CEOs, parliamentarians and presidents, but also people in supporting roles advising CEOs for example. See appendix for a list of names
Sustainability professionals are given a role rather than a moral compass, and it often means helping others set a moral compass with limited levers to pull. Is it time to broaden remit?
1. Business strategy
• Position as “responsible” business rather than “sustainable” business as CR often considered a sideline issue. Although ideal for CR to be embedded in core strategy, onus on sustainability professionals to challenge leadership and bring non-traditional issues to the fore. Despite significant support for peripheral issues, doing so involves building standards and this takes time. Need to push key people to create a means in business and get their support, otherwise unable to deliver
• Not only align CR with business strategy, but determine its role within business strategy. Sustainability function should ideally sit within strategy function
• Huge demand for analytics – key question: how is this relevant to bottom line? And a detailed analysis is required to understand the impact. With non-profits specifically, excessive amounts of data become a challenge to sift through what is meaningful to each individual stakeholder. Sometimes stories of people being impacted, that touch people, are more impactful
• Identify how to put a price on the green aspect of projects. Example tigers vs. insects – although tigers are more appealing, biodiversity and role of insects is fundamental, but doesn’t have the same service quality
2. Competence and relevance at community level
• Construction industry faces real issues with an aging workforce resulting in massive skills shortages and local authorities have limited funding for training and back to work schemes. It therefore presents a business case for apprenticeship schemes to train the workers for tomorrow rather than being seen as a CR issue
• Only way to get to where want to be in shortest space of time, is to engage wider consumer base through networks and social media. Example in higher education and schools – how can we teach and engage them to apply knowledge in working world?
• New technology used for good e.g. blockchain. Need to get young people excited about it
• Is the way a company is governed reflective on how viewed by society? – UK has a corporate governance code as opposed to Sarbanes–Oxley Act in US that is merely a tick box approach. Teresa May's approach is encouraging. Business needs to make a profit, but needs to engage all stakeholders only way if want to move forward. Technology allows people to rise and speak up, so can’t get away with ignoring certain stakeholders
• The notion of business doing well has linkage to business case but presupposes role of stakeholders. Everything is predetermined by shareholders rather than employees, communities, customers. Relevance to business case often defined by one group rather than broader interests of society so need to find a way to empower other stakeholders
4. Closing remarks
• Guilty of a focus on technical issues – understand what resonates with stakeholders, and knowing market to inform business case.
• Data is a good thing – although data collection and impact measurement not always easy, it moves conversation from a mere gut reaction and helps pinpoint progress that leadership can relate to. If something not working, can go back and test assumptions and find to solutions to address challenges
• Lots of opportunity for innovation and technology - i.e. vision of blockchain – rather than data crunching, requires a future of cloud and big data for good
• Reach out to stakeholders through formal engagements and get them to assess a scorecard afterwards to see where they consider impact was made and constantly check in to see that aligned
Appendix: Intro question
In terms of leadership, who do you consider to be a moral compass?
• Paul Polman – CEO Unilever: Seen way acts as leader filter down within org – Keith Weed as well ensure all stakeholders behind him
• Helge Lund - CEO BG Group: Led change management program doing consultations on values
• Ray Anderson - Founder Interface: Business has a moral role in success of planet – wasn’t just a business conversation but looked at what trying to achieve - others guided by
• Margaret Hodge - British Labour politician: Very straight and tries to get the bottom of the problem
• Toni Townes-Whitley - Corporate Vice President, Worldwide Public Sector, Microsoft: Found a way to conduct business to shape business – pushing products but doing it
• Steven Rubin - chairman and co-owner Pentland group
• Lord Jose Mujica - 40th President of Uruguay: All stakeholders to be involved in making decisions
• Former CEO in 2009 when economy in freefall make sure that company didn’t lay off workers – as result in social breakdown very quickly – no one made redundant – workers given training grants and re-skilled so resulting in a positive effect on broader society rather than have to close shop
• Sir Mark Moody-Stuart – ex chairman of the Committee of Managing Directors of Shell International, and ‘sponsor’ of Shell’s first “People, Planet and Profits” integrated report.
If the public has lost faith in PR and spin, and is broadly distrustful of business, how does a company communicate with its stakeholders? Are we heading to an era where companies become more like social activists, like Unilever and Patagonia? Should companies be more open with their data, both good and bad?
What is an authentic company?
• In the modern and corporate world, is being authentic just a case of being good at comms?
• Its “Walking the talk” and being transparent- a company with a clear purpose, focused on working towards it.
• From the point of view of the consumer, a business can have a strong CSR team but it needs to be aligned with the business purpose to be of value.
• However, authenticity isn’t necessarily positive (!), it’s a case of honesty and truth to companies’ values/performance.
• Examples of authenticity – Unilever Head of Comms and M&S Plan A – honest portrayal of the challenges they face and how they will work to overcome them – the resignation to some failings is a key feature of authenticity.
• Society wants to see when businesses admit when they get it wrong and that the business understands their audience and customer. Should we speak about empathy rather than authenticity?
• Authenticity comes when you are believed and therefore trust and consistency are key.
• So, is openness and transparency the answer? There needs to be an element of steadfastness and a willingness to be true to initial conviction, regardless of the outcome.
• The challenge of reporting – is it actually useful for the consumer? Reporting profits and raw data is relatively useless for the average customer, the way transparency is portrayed in comms and how a business talks about its action is of more relevance.
o Example given: charity wins an award for transparency but on further investigation, nothing available online re. measured impact of their work. But how do we measure impact in a useful way?
• What matters to a business is profit and where it goes, so this is what is reported. The difference they make (the purpose) can be deemed less important, and so goes unreported.
• Authenticity is not earned with reporting, a customer realises the need to deliver and does not need to check.
Do businesses need to be activists?
• Visionaries within businesses risk talking themselves out of a job rather than talking themselves into a new organisation.
• Having an inspiring purpose is key to galvanising support around a company.
• Boards that make the decisions so often do not reflect society. Questions arise over whether this need to change or if they just lack the necessary empathy.
• The starting point is listening and responding appropriately, but is it the responsibility of a business to act like a government (eg raising the price of junk food)?
Are we moving to an era where companies are becoming activists?
• Businesses will always be driven by what the market demands and this is usually based on cost.
• Visionaries need to get through to board level or companies will choose based only on profit.
• Evidence suggests action creates/leads to belief, so businesses do have a role in social action (example given – Heineken are passionate advocates for responsible drinking, which is not seen as driving sales down but as protecting their license to operate).
• Encouraging behaviour change can be as simple as removing the stimulant (eg “repeat” as an instruction on shampoo bottles) – the nudge philosophy.
• With so many comms channels and where price is so defining – does messaging trickle down to consumer level?
• Businesses often rely on visionaries to maintain their stance and reputation, it is seen as their responsibility to make everyone adhere (eg Virgin operated more like a franchise). What happens when they leave?
• Communicating the challenge is fundamental to authenticity.
• Consumers can’t know everything, they want to be able to trust a business.
• The general consensus is that businesses and boards know they need to change but often do not know or understand what they need to do.
Explaining the need for energy reduction has at times felt like asking people to wear a hair shirt. But with the arrival of Silicon Valley tech players like Google DeepMind and Tesla, is energy reduction now becoming cool? Where does power lie - AI, storage or demand response? Do most companies have the right people and skills to play…?
• Energy efficiency is cool!
• AI likely to play a large part in the future of energy efficiency, although unlikely to be a cure-all; consumer behaviour change is also necessary so to avoid the rebound effect
• Solutions generally focused on taking away responsibility or unsustainable options from the consumer
• Need to move away from the low energy option being in conflict with core business investment so that it is integral to the core business model
• CSR needs to be implemented at the heart of business as well as across the outward business portfolio. Often hard for sustainability practitioners as one has to ‘speak the language’ of fellow departments which can be a challenge.
• How do we effectively communicate the same message (energy savings) to different stakeholders? Science Based Targets are a useful tool to obtain high level buy-in
• Energy efficiency solutions at present must always be win-win. There is very minimal ‘beyond the business case’ thinking.
• What is an acceptable payback period?
• Technology is there but biggest challenge is social acceptability – How do we overcome this?
• Sustainability still viewed as an altruistic goal in terms of the products they consume
• Do we ‘nudge’ people towards best practice OR give them no choice at all? - The Nudge Factor vs. choice editing
• AI has huge potential to improve energy efficiency where facilities operators cannot.
• Producing the ‘right type’ of energy or products for consumers so whatever choice they make is an energy efficient one
• Take away decisions from consumers by using AI – increasing reliance on appliances linked to internet combined with the UK being a world leader in AI leads to great potential in this area
• Competitions for start-up funding in energy, waste and water innovation
• Empower the consumer by enabling them to understand labeling systems, the meaning of energy efficiency, maintenance schemes and what they can do to improve their homes. Generally through social media/ webpages/ smart metering etc.
• Engineering products based on stakeholder engagement processes, providing both what the customer wants and an efficient product
Communities fear being left behind and often criticise businesses of being disconnected from the communities that they serve. How does a business authentically build, maintain and benefit from connections with communities? How much of a role does tech play in this, and which platforms are working?
The realities of modern life
It is important to realise that we are not part of a community where we live, but a bubble. We only like relating to people who think like us, and tend to build networks this way. A solution needs to break this barrier and get people to speak to others beyond their bubble.
In terms of building relationships with communities, two questions arise. First, is the problem that the purpose is not clearly defined (i.e. what do we mean by community, and connecting with them)? Or is the problem one of a lack of a mechanism with which to engage with communities?
Acknowledgement of each other is and will be a key element of building community. Unfortunately the dynamics of modern life, especially in big cities (working mums, less free time, technology) make this very difficult. There is a desire to return to community but there is no catalyst at this point in time.
A positive development is that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being taken into account more. A big question is how you educate society over the SDGs, when there’s so much ignorance even within business. Government and the media have a decisive role to play.
Potential actions that businesses can take
In spite of the apparent disaffection with businesses, a recent CSR barometer produced in Brussels demonstrated that people trust more businesses than they do politicians. People may feel disconnected with CEOs, but they will listen to ‘people like me’ ie: those they consider to be peers.
It is necessary to have innovation coupled with activism, and creative forms of activism. There is often a strong stigma attached to the word, but we should all be activists (even businesses).
A potential innovation would be to use global and national crises as opportunities for business. For example, using the skills that so many refugees have (given they are often skilled and middle class) and harness them so that they can be used back in Syria to improve their country after the war.
Solutions to social issues have to go beyond asking for money, which feels powerless and creates a power divide between the giver and the receiver. It is important to create systems where we learn from the South or other groups we are trying to help and empower them that way, rather than us giving.
Role of technology
Technology increases our capacity to network but it can also reduce human-to-human connection. Social media gives us the illusion of expressing ourselves to the world but in reality we are only speaking to our own networks. Social media can also limit constructive debate, while increasing polarisation and shouting at each other. Thus it would seem that current technology might be contributing to our sense of a divided society.
Technology will work as long as it facilitates and produces interpersonal interaction, it will not work if it just enforces the divide. Innovations such as Upworthy app can spark people to act. The app for example links people to a campaign or tells them how to take action after watching a video or reading a piece about a social, political or environmental issue.
Technology needs to be affordable and accessible to all, but that is a problem in itself. Hard to envisage how to build a connection between the land and nature in places like London.
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