I left London on the day that 52 percent of the UK population voted to leave the EU. I left with a very heavy heart, dumbstruck that such a body blow to one of the most important integration projects since WWII had been delivered. For the next few days I would wake (admittedly, at totally the wrong time for my UK-based body clock), with a profound sense of loss, which took a few seconds to pin-point to the outcome of the vote.
I now realise that travelling to the other side of the world has actually helped me begin to make sense of what’s happened, and, critically, begin to understand what needs to happen next.
First: We ignore inequality at our peril.
The voting demographics of the Referendum reflected a huge divide between the haves and have-nots, the urban and rural or ex-industrial populations, and age groups. London has become a prosperous, multi-cultural bubble, disconnected from other parts of the UK despite being the home of its national government.
Even though my family comes from the Midlands, where the Leave campaign romped home, I failed to really notice – by that I mean, internalise – that the high street of the town I grew up in is now reduced to a string of charity shops, and that when a job is advertised in the new, local Costa Cafe, hundreds apply, and that job goes to someone with a Master’s degree. I failed to notice that the digital revolution is just mumbo jumbo to a vast swathe of over 60s, and has delivered precisely nothing.
Contrast this with Australia, where huge efforts are now underway to deliver a meaningful reconciliation plan, designed to address the huge inequalities that exist between the native aboriginal people and the broader Australian society - plans such as the one being delivered by Bupa, the global healthcare company. Australia is taking inequality very seriously.
Without facing inequality head on, any hope we have of delivering broader environmental progress is probably doomed.
What next? We need to ensure that action taken by business, NGOs, government and civil society is guided by goals that deliver simultaneously for all strata of society and the environment - which is why in these turbulent times, the Sustainable Development Goals have never been more important.
Second: A functioning, progressive national government is useful, but not essential for progress towards sustainable development.
Cut scene back to Australia, where from September 2013 to September 2015 it was governed by Tony Abbott, a climate denier who famously described the science around climate change as ‘crap.’ During this time, some of the passionate sustainability champions I met in Sydney described how they didn’t feel comfortable sharing their profession with ‘non-susty’ types, and just kept quiet about what they did for a living.
And yet, whilst they stayed under the political radar, they remained busy - busy promoting renewable energy as the sensible transition pathway for a coal-dependent economy; busy innovating and testing sustainability solutions, such as bugs that turn waste into fuel; busy creating a movement of sustainability advocates, who, now that Mr Abbott is gone, are unleashing their energy and passion with vigour on Australia’s businesses and government.
The political vacuum that is emerging in the UK (which some may argue has been here for some time), is no reason not to push ahead with a powerful sustainable development agenda. Businesses remain committed, so is civil society (well, elements of it), and nothing has changed for the NGOs.
What next? We must harness the levers for change that remain as strong as they were before June 24th. To do this, we need to employ systems thinking and innovation to understand our sustainability challenges from the inside – examining the linkages and interactions between and among different actors to diagnose exactly where the barriers and opportunities for collaborative action lie, and how best to push those levers to accelerate change.
We will continue to push ahead with our global initiatives that bring stakeholders together to transform entire systems that we all depend on – these include the Protein Challenge 2040, Cotton 2040, the Living Grid and the Net Positive Project. We will harness the energy of business, civil society and others, and leave a spare seat for national government, hoping that sometime soon they may want to focus on progress, rather than each other.
Third: Even if, and maybe when, the button that triggers Article 50 is pushed, the UK is still part of a global economy.
My last reflection from Australia: It is a very long way away from anywhere. It has access to all the resources it needs. It could theoretically exist as an isolated outpost in the Southern Hemisphere.
But! We live in an interconnected society. An interconnected economy. As Forum’s Futures work has demonstrated time and again, one decision made today has multiple long-term ramifications that echo across the world. Even if project globalisation halted tomorrow, there are global links that connect us in ways that didn’t exist before. Perhaps these links will burst apart under isolationist-type pressures. I doubt it, though.
For me, this is why the Leave campaign argument that leaving the EU would give the UK more control over its economic destiny was such piffle. The UK may well leave the EU, but its complex web of connections – societal, economic and environmental – doesn’t recognise state borders and won’t all get sucked into the waves of the English Channel. These connections are strong. What binds us unites us, and it’s folly to think otherwise.
What next? Yes, the UK will feel the EU’s wrath at this ridiculous vote, but the UK is part of a system. We don’t exist in isolation. While elements that bind part of our system might weaken, others can grow stronger. At Forum, we will be concentrating on harnessing the power of parts of the system that are passionate for progressive change. From citizen innovators to enlightened trusts and foundations - which happen to be in the UK but are certainly part of a global economy - these are individuals and organisations that won’t let a miscalculated vote undermine the positive forces for change. And neither will Forum.
So, thank you, Australia. Thank you to all the wonderful people I met. Being down under for a few days has definitely helped me see things the right way up, and I now face the challenging times ahead for the UK with a renewed sense of optimism.