This week, as the Sustainable Brands CEO welcomed 2,000+ delegates to SB’19 Detroit, our 13th annual global gathering in the US, she shared her hopes for the week and for our continued collective pursuit of a flourishing future.
It continues to be such a delight to be in partnership with our esteemed board members and the many community leaders who have been at our side working to drive transformation against our ambition these past many years. And what an inspiration we have found in the City of Detroit and its people, who are demonstrating the meaning of resilience in the face of trying times. We welcome those of you that are here from Detroit and the surrounding communities, and hope those of you who are visiting from around the world will all find time this week to get out into the community and learn from the living experiment taking place here to Redefine, Redesign and Deliver a 21st-century version of the Good Life.
I’d like to extend a personal welcome to each of you, to our 13th annual global gathering here in the US. We are truly grateful to count you among the many in the world, across every market sector — from a wide range of political, cultural and faith-based backgrounds — who see both the pressing need and the growing opportunity to find a new way for business to deliver both individual success and a healthy economy, as well as a Good Life for all people in today’s increasingly complex and challenged world.
Already this year, over 5,000 members of the Sustainable Brands community world-wide have come together — in Tokyo, in Istanbul and in Paris — to explore new ways we can deliver meaningful value to our various stakeholders by delivering business growth, while improving our capacity to deliver a regenerative economy for the future. This week, another 2,000 are expected to convene here in Detroit — and by year end, as we continue these learning conversations within our expanding communities on the ground around the world and online, we’ll add thousands more — a fact that gives me hope every day in the face of the ongoing drum beat of evidence that we continue to face the real risk of a full collapse of those eco-systems that ensure our long-term survival as a species.
These are hard words for anyone to utter. At SB, we have been dubbed a “Home for Courageous Optimists” — and this is important to us, because we believe that amplifying the positive is a critical strategy for enabling the future we want and need. And yet, we must face the facts if we are to hold steady together and take large and fast enough steps — oftentimes, sadly, in the face of resistance — to grapple with and move quickly to mitigate the many troubling signs that we can no longer ignore, that we are putting ourselves at risk of collapse. All of us are certainly experiencing the impacts of climate change, which will certainly get worse before things get better. We recognize more and more the mess we’ve made of our rivers, lakes, groundwater and oceans — and to the health of a frightening number of the species on our planet which are already at risk, or even functionally extinct. It is this recognition of loss, in fact, that is spurring much of the protectionist reaction we’re seeing in many places around the world, as on some level we begin to collectively realize the risk we face to the future of humanity, and the home we all share.
In his powerful new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, historian and New York Times bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari begins his very worthwhile journal of advice for today by saying: “More than ever, we are facing a real uncertainty about the future of humanity.” Harari and so many others observe that the ever-accelerating fields of infotech and biotech, particularly, hold not only huge potential for positive, but also potentially frightening outcomes for the future of humanity. Artificial intelligence and automation promise more efficiency, greater safety and faster access to insights that can help us solve for the increasingly complex and irascible problems we face — and yet we have not yet developed a common practice of asking ourselves if/how the “innovation” we pursue is more or less likely to deliver the Good Life we need to ensure a future for our children and grandchildren.
In fact, the pace of development in science and technology — together with its outcomes and implications — can feel beyond the grasp of most to understand and thus form an opinion about. And so, we face the risk of losing control of our own ends to the few who are pushing the needle forward in these fields largely unchecked. With this, comes the real risk of creating an economy where many are increasingly irrelevant, where we further aggregate more of our wealth in the hands of the few, and where access to life-expanding biotechnology is available only to the elite. These are all sobering possibilities as we stand at the precipice of either breakdown of our fundamental life supporting systems, or breakthrough to a new way of navigating in the face of the realities of our time.
The good news is, if we start by acknowledging the potential risks, breakthroughs in science and technology — in combination with powerful storytelling and uncommon partnerships developed through our unique human capacity for cooperation — truly do afford the real potential to help us Deliver a better version of the Good Life for all; and the exploration of this promise will form the backdrop of our conversation as a global community this week, and throughout the coming year.
Breakthroughs in materials science, an uptick in systems thinking and explorations about how to move toward circularity promise the real potential for fruitful solutions. The increasing and important presence of our brand marketing leaders in this conversation, and the compelling stories they are beginning to tell about a future without trade-offs between our own ability to live the Good Life, and the opportunity for others to enjoy the Good Life alongside us, offer real glimpses of hope. And our own human capacity for cooperation — an innate gift that resulted in the evolution of our species to dominance over our world — is being tapped more and more by you, our truly valued and respected SB community, where increasingly, we see competitors sitting side by side, working pre-competitively to help design and deliver systems changes that can result in lifting the tide for all boats.
Jonah Sachs, author of the recently published book, Unsafe Thinking, will be challenging us all this evening to find our way back to the beginner’s mind — something important to our ability to bring fresh eyes to the moment. Several years ago, Jonah drove home to us the truth that humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations; and the simpler the story, the better. His book, Story Wars, which beautifully detailed our human response to stories and the power that exists in the stories we tell ourselves and share, is more critical to understand today than ever. In fact, the danger in the Sustainability narrative itself is that it is generally framed as a story of loss, which can exacerbate our temptation to see the world as a world of scarcity. The trouble with this worldview is that it perpetuates fear, which is often paralyzing. Fear is the enemy of imagination and hope, without which we are sunk as a species.
So, this brings us full circle to the importance of carefully protecting each other and our entire worldwide community of courageous optimists. For the need is more acute now, than ever before, for stories of hope and transcendence. The good news is that there are many deep thinkers including Peter Diamandis and Elon Musk; and others who’ve shared insights from this stage on the topic, including Ramez Naam and Charles Eisenstein, who remind us that even in the face of unprecedented challenge, we still live in a world of abundance. This then, is the thing we must focus on — while also being careful to forego some of our irrational exuberances of the past, and while being more disciplined about designing out unintended consequences of our innovations from the start.
So, with this, I share gratitude on behalf of all of us at Sustainable Brands, for each of you and the critical role each of you is and will play in the design of a better future. I challenge us all to stay present — yes, to our very real and troubling challenges — but also to focus our energy, attention and storytelling on the positive.
As I have said before from this podium — I see faith as the choice, and discipline to hope for the best, while keeping an eye on the ditches on the side of the road.
Here are some parts of the story I choose to believe, and I hope you will all leave this week feeling better able to choose this story for yourselves.
I choose to believe the future is going to be beautiful, though the ride will undoubtedly be bumpier getting there.
I choose to believe that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should — and that we will all get a little better at asking ourselves, and each other, whether we should, in time to make a difference.
I choose to believe — and we see this in our own research — that we as humans are hungry for things that unite us over things that divide us; that most of us realize that we can’t protect ourselves from climate change by putting up a wall; that there is power in vulnerability, as reflected in the stories of many of our most powerful heroes through time; and that while we have lost our command of wisdom in the midst of our pursuit of knowledge, we can in fact recapture our recognition that wisdom is the most valuable pursuit — and that our young people today may already be showing the way.
I choose to believe that the capacity to cooperate is, in fact, an inherent strength embedded in the DNA of humans — A story that will be brought to light in our closing plenary on Thursday afternoon — a powerful multi-media Performance that is itself a collaboration between art, and science, and YOU — which you really will not want to miss.
I choose to believe, as Yuval Harari submits in his latest book, that “humankind can rise to the occasion if we keep our fears under control and be a bit more humble about our views.”
Now, it’s time to turn you over to the experience we have collaborated with hundreds to create for you this week. We trust your presence here will bring you inspiration, as well as new ideas and new tools — we hope you have all taken a spin through the SB Brand Transformation Roadmap, and that it has sparked some new ideas about next steps you might take on your own journey or new things we might work together on to solve. But more than anything, we trust you will leave this week with new partners who can help you drive better business results while creatively contributing to our collective ability to Delivering the Good Life of the future for all.
And I wish each of you — and I ask you to watch for, and take note of, moments of insight, moments of connection, moments of action, and most of all, moments of hope — as all of these will bring you, and us as a collective, the power we need to turn science, technology, storytelling and collaboration and new partnerships into the story with the happy ending we all are here to write together. All of us at SB remain grateful and humbled by the opportunity to be stewards of the story we are writing together, and we look forward to the renewal the week will bring for us as we hope it will bring for each of you.