Ben Fahy talks to The Mind Lab’s Saskia Verraes about teaching humans how to use technological disruption to do good – and how to evaluate what ‘doing good’ really means.
If there was a statement that summed up humanity, you could do worse than “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.
Religion, colonisation, guns, atom splitting, fossil fuels, cars, social media; there’s a long list of human ideas that have led to a whole range of unintended consequences. Many would argue that the pursuit of knowledge and the desire to explore and innovate has led to our continued progress and total domination. Others would say it has led to ongoing war and increasing decimation. So are these things good or bad? Or is it how they’re used that counts?
For Saskia Verraes, the programme lead on The Mind Lab’s Leading Change for Good course, goodness is a spectrum and being better is a process. While technology has played a key role in splintering society and giving us all sore necks, it also helped us stay in touch with our family and friends during the pandemic and allowed us to buy weighted blankets online to deal with our crushing anxiety.
“I thank the stars that Covid happened in 2020,” she says. “It would have been much worse if it happened 10 years ago. Technology is definitely being used for good right now and has clearly allowed us to deal with this situation better” – both in terms of the ability for many of us to keep working and the remarkably swift creation of a vaccine (that was heavily reliant on decades of research beforehand).
Innovation is not just technology. And technology is not just digital. There are so many ways to create change and Verraes says what the course tries to get its students to grasp is that whatever you’re putting into the world, you need to think about the potential risks and responses. And the students need to be able to monitor any issues and deal with them when they arise. It’s what they like to call “sustainable disruption”.
“I don’t think we are able to predict everything,” she says. “But that’s not the right way of thinking about it.”
Mapping it out
You can think about the possibilities, however – and not just the utopian version. Jennifer Doudna, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist responsible for discovering the gene-editing process known as CRISPR, is a good example of the kind of thinking the course aims to inspire. She was confident her creation could lead to amazing things, but she also knew it had the potential to cause great harm and inequality if it was used in the wrong way.
“’Good’ is all in the students’ own context. But it definitely means something slightly different for everybody. It’s also different for different cultures. We try to make people aware of that and it causes a lot of internal reflection and conflict,” she says.
“There have been a lot of tears in the cohorts when people are trying to figure it out. It’s not easy to go ‘this is what I used to do and this is what I thought was right, but, oh my god, I was wrong.’ We try to help them make sense of that and guide them through it.”
Like seeing a photo of yourself as a teenager when you thought you were cool, it’s difficult to have your blindspots, biases and, in some cases, erroneous beliefs pointed out. But you can’t change what you refuse to confront. So do they challenge those various definitions of good, potentially trying to get students to aim a bit higher?
“I haven’t had to challenge them yet. Everyone in the cohorts is inherently good.”
And she admits that could actually be a problem. Perhaps they need a few more heartless, rapacious capitalists to take the course so they can have their own tearful epiphanies.
“I would love that,” she laughs. “But you’re right. We are preaching to the converted. I always think about Sam Judd at Sustainable Coastlines. It was fantastic that people were cleaning up the beaches, but those people knew why they should be doing it and why they wanted to do it. They weren’t the people he needed to reach. So he thought about ways where he could get to people who didn’t understand yet and how he could give them purpose and make them understand, so he started working with prisoners.”
The converted can be a powerful force, however; a bow wave of goodness and peer pressure that may eventually wash over the laggards and force them to change. We’re herding animals, after all, and she believes the herd is heading in a more responsible direction.
“I think there will be lots of ripple effects when the students start talking to their colleagues and to other organisations. As with any part-time education it’s quite a big effort. It requires planning around existing jobs, or kids and there’s extra work to do. But it’s a topic that a lot of people are incredibly interested in right now. It’s inspiring to see that there’s so much interest in trying to be better.”
Pros and cons
A big part of the Leading Change for Good course is focused on indigenous leadership principles and collaboration is a very important aspect of that. Verraes says there are specific challenges for every type of organisation and sector, and every level of leader, but there are potential benefits for all of them. Generally, she says corporates are harder to change because they’re bigger and more set in their ways, but there’s a lot you can do inside these organisations because there are more resources, while smaller businesses, social enterprises and charities often have the vision but lack the resources.
“It works both ways and from a change perspective, collaboration between the smaller and larger businesses, that’s where it really helps us accelerate. It’s about self-awareness and understanding that what they’re doing could be interpreted in different ways and might not be as good as they think it is,” she says.
“It’s also about confidence. You can contribute, you can make changes and there are other people who can help you. Often it’s fear that stops people from doing things and I think by teaching people how to address these things, we will be able to get the majority to come through and address them too.”
But even once the choice to pursue a greater purpose is made, balancing the impact and positive benefit with the bottom line is always a challenge. And how is benefit measured. The same difficult calculation can also be applied to entire industries.
Does the combined joy that’s created across the nation during those responsible post-work drinks outweigh the negative impact of alcohol on families and the health system? Does the practical benefit of the car outweigh the negative impact of crashes and fossil fuel use? Do the jobs and food provided by dairy farming outweigh the environmental impacts? Societies weigh up these decisions constantly and it’s often much easier to quantify the negative impacts because they have very real costs, but Verraes believes the tension is necessary if you want to create improvements.
“I came from tourism and I was chief responsible management officer at Tourism Holdings. That’s a sector that was on the cusp of making radical changes, because it has to. And we were definitely on that path prior to Covid.”
Follow the money
In market capitalism, profit and shareholder value has long been king when it comes to incentives, and quarterly reporting doesn’t tend to reward long-term thinking. In some cases, glossing over what economists call externalities is a good way to increase those profits. But what are the true costs? What if, as Verraes says, you added in the costs of water, pollution and social harm? What would the bottom line look like then? And could you take accountability for the harm you’ve already caused and eventually have a positive impact?
“A company I like to use as an example of that is Interface Flooring. It’s a carpet company in the states and it started that journey really early on in 1994-1995. They had a very inspirational CEO called Ray Anderson who had an epiphany and said ‘I can’t just be delivering a product that people buy and throw away and buy again and throw away. How can I redesign my business to be zero harm and then regenerate?’ He stood up to his shareholders and said ‘I won’t just deliver you a profit. It also needs to be about my people, the environment, and the community.’”
He passed away in 2011 but the company is still on that journey and trying to find better ways of doing things. Some of those solutions are more expensive, but the fact that they cared resonated with consumers and Interface’s profits started to go up.
“That wasn’t the focus, but it’s been a side effect … It makes business sense, as well as ethical sense. If you look at it logically, where is your business going to be in ten or 20 years? We invest in our Kiwisaver for the long-term, so why don’t we think about that with our businesses?”
In the energy space, these investments are starting to pay off. Oil companies, some of which used to be the world’s biggest and most profitable companies ever, are being delisted from stock exchanges and are stuck with stranded assets. The willingness to fight for a better solution – and, in some cases, government support for those solutions – means we are now at the point where solar energy is the cheapest energy we’ve ever created. The demand is going up, the companies that have created those technologies – and their shareholders – are now being rewarded and the companies that haven’t changed fast enough are experiencing a classic case of creative destruction. As Apple’s Tim Cook said recently in a thinly veiled comment about Facebook and its approach to data privacy, “the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom”.
This shows that when we put our collective energy into solving a problem, we generally succeed. Sometimes that energy can be pointed in the wrong direction, like the Manhattan Project. Sometimes it can be pointed in a more helpful direction, like renewables or the unprecedented scientific collaboration that was required to create Covid-19 vaccines. Verraes only wishes it didn’t require so much urgency to create momentum around a slower-moving crisis like climate change. But she’s hopeful that the pain the world has experienced during the pandemic will now lead to a much stronger collaborative response. As the world has seen very clearly over the past year or so – and as the class tries to teach – prevention is much better than a cure.
Verraes admits she has yet to see a good standard that can be applied across the board in terms of impact management, but there is a lot of work being done right now to find that and she thinks New Zealand has actually helped create a new language around the definition of success with its wellbeing budget, which is based on much more than just financial metrics.
In her eyes, it’s a good example of the evolution of evaluation; a Doughnut Economics-style recognition that economic growth is not a perpetual motion machine and if we go too far in one direction we will exceed some very important social and environmental boundaries.
“We have to remember that we’ve ended up here because the economy was designed this way. Consumerism was created by nations and corporations to make people buy stuff so we could get out of the slump after World War 2. And that’s just been let loose. But it shows me that we can also design it out if we want to.”
Humans are often scared of change, but we’re very adaptable creatures when we need to be. Despite the concerns about plastic bags being banned, most of us quickly and easily moved to another solution; despite the fear of driving chaos when we changed the right-hand-turn rule, we dealt with it; when many of us were forced to work from home during lockdown, we did. It’s more comfortable doing what we’ve always done but, as Verraes says, in some cases change is actually much easier than we think. We just need the impetus.
And regulation is crucial if we hope to create that. So do we need a bit more of a benevolent dictatorship? A bit more bravery to override vested, often selfish interests? Some potentially unpopular decisions in the short-term that will be beneficial in the long-term?
“Change comes from the top and the bottom, but if you look at the Netherlands, where I’m from, and how it became a cycling country that definitely had something to do with policies. It was a road safety issue, so cars had to give priority to cyclists because cyclists were more vulnerable.”
That decision has been good for the environment and for people’s health and safety. And it’s so normal now that when we talk about the Dutch or, more broadly, Western European cycle culture, there’s often a sense that it’s innate. But it didn’t happen magically. It happened because the leaders of the day made a decision to change the rules and incentivise certain behaviour.
New Zealand already has a pretty solid international reputation for collaboration, kindness and boldness, something further enhanced by Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style and international profile. And Verraes thinks the attention generated by our Covid response means the “time is right for Aotearoa to stand up and lead change for good, from all angles”.
“When we launched the course last year, there was a feeling it was the right time to do this. And the positive feedback from the first two cohorts and the interest we’re getting shows we were right. So many eyes are on New Zealand because of how well we’re doing and there’s a lot of international interest in the course, so there’s a massive opportunity for New Zealand to really showcase what we can do and become a country that can change the world.”