This Won’t Work

January 27, 2011 § 2 Comments

Start by watching this short video from Sony and WWF about a new project, Open Planet Ideas.

It won’t work.

1. This is not anything new. I’ve lost count of the number of online-green-community-spaces there are, and it’s pretty obvious that what’s holding us back is not the need for another one.

2. This is not the best way to get people to do what you want. It’s supposed to be reinventing community activism to attract the Facebook generation. As a proud member of the Facebook generation, I can tell you – I’m not attracted to things that are built for me without finding out what I want. I’m attracted to things that work. Facebook works, MySpace doesn’t. Avaaz works, petitions on the Number 10 website don’t. Follow the data, peoples.

3. This is not addressing the real issues. “You can collaborate to identify environmental issues, and tackle them as a community.” Well, let me do that first part for you – why not start with the IPCC 4th Assessment Report on climate change, then how about biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, carcinogenic toxins etc? As for part two, an unknown internet user on the other side of the world is not going to motivate me to write letters to my MP as much as a local group, or an established organisation. (Unless you do something like this)

It frustrates me that the significant resources Sony will have put into this project will end in six months time with a small presentation about how they’ve ‘engaged’ the public, and that the project is now closing down. Sony wields enormous influence and could have used this moment to transform their ideas of business, and taken their customers with them. That has not happened here.

Thankfully – there are ways WWF is collaborating with business in really positive ways, as Jason Clay explains in his fantastic TED talk.

We can’t all hide from the big business world. As Sergio Vieira de Melo once said, ‘you need to go and talk to the men with guns’. Parts of our movement absolutely need to work with corporates to improve their environmental and social behaviour, and to start changing business norms. After all, if they say they want to change – and we’re not going to help them do that, how are they supposed to improve?

That said – systems theory tells us there are three ways to deal with corporate pollution/exploitation/etc.

  1. Incentives
  2. Punishment
  3. Constraints

Right now, we’re ignoring number 3. Constraints. Our systemic goal of permanent growth ignores the environmental and resource realities of limited stock. That needs to change. Number 2. Punishment is under-used. BP executives should be behind bars following the oil spill last year. Monsanto and Cargill should be fined half their profits for their treatment of farmers around the world. And don’t get me started on Tar Sands.

But here’s the interesting bit – number 1. Incentives – here is where NGOs can work with business successfully. Think FSC standards, think Fair Trade. But we’ve got to make sure that the things they do together are actual incentives to change things.

That’s why the Sony/WWF project won’t work – because it doesn’t get us anywhere new.

h/t Greenormal

§ 2 Responses to This Won’t Work

  • Hugh Knowles says:

    4th system intervention could be ‘disruption’. I think rather than focussing efforts on trying to tackle the massive inertia and complexity inherent in current incumbents we should be diverting a lot of our resources at discovering, refining and accelerating & scaling the alternatives.
    Agree that Sony, WWF and IDEO made initiative far too broad. Secret is to ask right question about one of the challenges we face and ask it in a focused way that still allows people to be imaginative.

  • David Voxlin says:

    I completely agree that the Sony-WWF campaign seems doomed to fail. The reason you have identified is also the right one in my mind – it feels quite old. But where does that leave us? I haven’t seen any evaluations of GE’s Ecomagination campaign, but it looks a lot more interesting to me, and it does incorporate similar means, albeit in a more interesting way.

    Jason Clay’s work at the WWF is a great example of work that represents the real momentum of sustainability in business. The interesting thing about what’s happening with Mars and the other examples Jason gives is that they do not fit into the incentives/punishment/constraints framework that well at all. The incentive for these companies is not tax-breaks or great PR (although the latter is not to be underestimated generally) – it is being in business and making money, not just in the next quarter, but in two or three decades as well.

    Environmental law in our part of the world does not exactly instill fear, and it is embarrassingly underdeveloped. Having said that, will command and control regulation will create the kind of change we need on a larger scale? It is doubtful that that is the right way to go to change norms. The interesting developments in EU environmental law lately, which are seen as progressive in their means even if they are not ambitious enough, all incorporate elements of proceduralism, which resemble incentives more than they resemble constraints and punishment.

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