Volans: An Interview with John Elkington, CEO & Chief Pollinator

Volans: An Interview with John Elkington, CEO & Chief Pollinator

John Elkington, CEO and Chief Pollinator at Volans

John Elkington, CEO and Chief Pollinator at Volans

I was introduced for the first time to the work of Volans a few years ago, when they organised their Breakthrough Capitalism Forum in London in 2012. In the intervening few years, a number of important organisations working in the field of sustainable development and responsive work have grown in stature, like B-Lab (and B-Corps in general) and Forum for the Future (I featured the Director of their Mumbai office, Anna Warrington, not too long ago over here), and Volans unsurprisingly works with almost all of them. So it was my pleasure to be able to interview John Elkington, CEO of Volans, as their latest report Breakthrough Business Models was released last month. Here's what we spoke about:

Volans was set up in 2008, if I understand correctly. Please tell us a bit about the foundation of Volans, for readers who may not be familiar with you. What was the motivation to set up an organisation that focussed on breakthrough change at that particular point in time?

Yes, 2008 was our ignition point. As to why we felt that a new venture was needed, it’s complicated. I had sensed for some years that a major economic discontinuity was coming. The timing, though, was uncomfortable—Volans launched into the teeth of the global storm later dubbed the “Great Recession.”

My hunch at the time was the sustainability industry needed to jump to a very different level of ambition. I had been increasingly concerned that the agenda—which my colleagues and I had helped evolve since co-founding SustainAbility in 1987—was at growing risk of being seriously diluted as it mainstreamed in business. Confirmation came in 2010, when over 80% of more than 700 CEOs around the world said they had already “embedded” sustainability in their companies.

Then there was the people angle. Through my involvement over seven years with the World Economic Forum and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, I had been increasingly exposed to the thinking and work of leading social entrepreneurs. Volans co-founder Pamela Hartigan had been a Managing Director at both those organisations, and together we saw an opportunity to bridge between the world of social entrepreneurs and mainstream business.

Our book The Power of Unreasonable People was effectively the Volans manifesto—and was handed out to every participant in the 2008 WEF Davos summit. Tragically, Pamela died earlier this year, but her spirit lives on—particularly among students at the Skoll Centre at Oxford’s University’s Saïd Business School, which she ran for many years.

To be honest, I never set out to be a serial entrepreneur, but have now co-founded four businesses, all with a social mission, since 1978—all of which still exist. Our “Breakthrough” really kicked off in 2012, with the Breakthrough Capitalism Forum in London. Since then we have launched a number of reports and books on the theme, including The Breakthrough Challenge, which I co-authored with Jochen Zeitz, former Chairman & CEO at PUMA and now co-chair of The B Team with Richard Branson.

I remember referencing Volans a lot a few years ago when I was giving a talk on intrapreneurs within corporate firms. How much of your work is with in-house business challengers who have a mandate to create change, and how much of it is with organisations like the United Nations and B-Lab? What, in your opinion, is the difference between working with corporates who need to commit to change and organisations that are openly already committed?

In terms of the balance between working with in-house challengers, or intrapreneurs, and working with business-to-business platforms like the Global Compact, each of those areas would take around 30% of our team’s time.

Organizations solely interested in PR and camouflage wouldn’t come to us. We are known to be challenging. As a result, we mainly work with businesses that are already openly committed to significant change. We do not have a magic, black box set of solutions: sometimes we fail to catalyse the levels of change we think are appropriate. In such circumstances it would be quite proper for the client to “let us go”—or for us to resign.

We are constantly working to raise the bar for business, but a fair amount of our work is relationship-based. We work with people we know and trust, and vice versa. for example, the link with the UN Global Compact goes back a long way, but really took off when Lise Kingo took over as Executive Director in 2015. She and I had worked together since 1989 at Novo Nordisk, where she had occupied senior roles. When I kicked off a UNGC conference in Madrid with a challenging talk on the future role of business-to-business platforms, her response—when I returned to the audience and sat alongside her, was: “When do we start?”

We’ve got a lot of things planned or on our to-do list, but are already building out our Project Breakthrough website. Early filmed interviews—co-produced with the Atlas of the Future team—have featured people like Peter Diamandis of Singularity University and The X Prize Foundation, Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase, Josh Tetrick of Hampton Creek foods, and Rick Ridgeway of Patagonia.

As for the B Lab link, that’s a bit different. It started when both Volans and SustainAbility became certified B Corps—the first and second home-grown B Corps in the UK. Then we had the privilege of incubating B Lab UK initiative at Volans for six months, which was great fun.

You've just released your latest report 'Breakthrough Business Models'. It's a fascinating report that looks at how, as the report says, 'sustainable development is now breaking into the mainstream'. I was particularly drawn to your observation about Harvard Business Review now including environmental, social and governance factors in their ranking of the world's best CEO's, which shows Lars Rebien Sørensen of Novo Nordisk coming up tops and people like Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings dropping down (or off the list altogether). In your conversations with CEOs, how much of a sense of urgency do you really get, with regard to the importance of placing these issues high on the corporate agenda?

I’ve been working with CEOs and other business leaders since the 1980s, so have seen a series of upwaves and downwaves in interest in the environmental and wider sustainability agendas. But the number of CEOs paying serious attention to related issues—among them climate change, water stress, forced migration and human rights—is growing all the time. A key part of the reason is that this is now a market issue, not just a regulatory matter. Insurers, reinsurers, bankers, investors—they’re all getting agitated. And some of them, particularly among the investment community, are getting quite excited about markets forecast to be worth millions, billions and even trillions in the coming decades.

As a result, we see leading businesses moving on from their decade-long focus on developing the business case for action. Now they are exploring the business models that can help them both to secure their futures in the face of market assaults from totally new types of insurgent, and to deliver new forms of value across the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental value created—or destroyed.

One interesting thing about Novo Nordisk was that it was the first major company to recharter itself around the triple bottom line, a concept I launched in 1994—so it was great to see Lars Rebien Sørensen sweep better known CEOs aside. That said, it’s interesting to see that even he has had to step aside (albeit after 12 years) as Novo Nordisk comes under intense price pressure in the US pharmaceutical market.

The thing about the triple bottom line is that you have to perform against all three dimensions. One CEO we work with, Patrick Thomas of Bayer spin-out Covestro, sets the baseline of progress against at least two bottom lines, with the third at worst stable. So he’s making the point that this shouldn’t be seen as a trade-off.

There are a number of organisations, as you mention in the report, looking to further the positive movement already happening in the world today. What is the one thing that you think a lot of social entrepreneurship and change organisations are still missing, or perhaps not prioritising as much as they should?

Breakthrough Business Models was produced for the new Business & Sustainable Development Commission. The sub-title spells out our findings, noting that these business models are ‘Exponentially More Social, Lean, Integrated and Circular.’

I think one thing we are failing to do well is the lobbying of governments to create the enabling conditions for the right sort of change. We really do need carbon taxes and the other clear market signals of the direction of change. If governments are sensible, they can run down unsustainable industries—like coal—while building the new ones. The Japanese did that for many years, offshoring industries like shipbuilding and focusing on industries of the future, liker biotechnology and robotics.

What excites you most about our current world? And how do you see Volans contributing to the direction we are heading in?

I love the X crowd—and have visited The X Prize Foundation, Google’s X and Singularity University this year, alongside a bunch of incubators. From some of the boardrooms where we operate, some of these people and organizations seem outlandish, as NGOs like Greenpeace or social entrepreneurs like Mohammed Yunus once did. But X-powered business models like those evolved by Airbnb or Uber are showing that if your industry isn’t all shook up already, it soon will be.

Technology has always fascinated me. At school in the 1960s I wrote away for the annual reports of aerospace companies. Since then I have scoured the world for clues as to where technology could take us, for good and ill. California has been a regular haunt. But I am also concerned that some of these technologies are being developed at such a rate that we will suffer another round of what I call the Midgely Syndrome.

Thomas Midgely was a brilliant General Motors and DuPont scientist who held over 100 patents—but came up with three inventions with tragic consequences. First there was leaded gasoline, then there were early Freons (CFCs) and finally, after he developed polio, a bed with pulleys and ropes to help him get in and out of bed. The first damaged nervous systems, including Midgely’s own; the second helped blow a hole of the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer; and the third ended up strangling its inventor.

We need to innovate at a pace faster than at any previous period in our history, but we also need to develop mechanisms that can track, test and evolve such technologies long before they get to such a scale that vested interests can fight to keep them operating for years—or even decades—after real harm has been demonstrated.

What are your thoughts on the automation of work, especially with technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality? How do you see them helping or hampering the breakthrough business models currently at work? 

I think AI is immensely exciting. But, equally, as the likes of Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned, it could cause social and environmental havoc if mismanaged. We should take such warnings seriously. And that means constantly challenging new developments while they are still at stage where they can be influenced. I heard Deepmind explaining their approach to AI governance last week—and was impressed by the way they invite stakeholders into to observe sensitive areas of their work without requiring them to sign non-disclosure agreements. That’s brave!

There are quite a few examples of these technologies being used in interesting ways in the future of work domain, for example chatbots that make customer service better. Do you have a particular favourite example in the social change sphere?

My favourite AI applications are still to come I suspect, as we work out ways to use big data, machine learning and the like to work out how to run our economies both productively and fairly. And, at the same time, how to operate “Spaceship Earth” as its human crew builds towards 9-10 billion people. As Buckminster Fuller put it, our planet didn’t come with an operating manual. We’re in a crash program to develop it—and AI can help hugely.

Tell us a bit about your recent work with the UN: Project Breakthrough. It looks ambitious and important - what do you hope to achieve through it and what are next steps, now that it is live?

For a taster of what’s to come, your readers could take a look at the website, already mentioned. Our next step is a Breakthrough Symposium, to be held in Cambridge, UK, on November 9-10, co-hosted by the UNGC and ARM Holdings, with a side visit to PA Technology’s campus. And then in September 2017 we’re working towards the first Breakthrough Summit, but more on that later, hopefully.

Our aim is to mash up the worlds of insurgents and incumbents in such a way that the incumbents evolve and the insurgents scale in ways that help the global community to deliver a growing number of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Frankly, on current evidence, the prospects don’t look great—but there’s nothing like an existential challenge to bring out the best in people.

Sincere thanks for your time, John!

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