Designing for the future and sustainability


Further to our series of discussions about the need to effectively manage our present operations while developing new products and services for the future. At the time of writing this, I am in the Netherlands and I am again impressed by the development of new technologies and systems in this part of the world. The entire public transport system for example has changed its ticketing system to a smart card system, whereby passengers scan their public transport chip card while checking in and again when checking out of the bus, tram or train. The distance between the check in check out points is calculated and the corresponding amount of money is charged to the card. A very effective system, that reduces the need for buying and stamping paper tickets as was done before. Also at the airport things have changed and passengers now check in themselves and their luggage, using a fully automated new system. Having just gotten used to online checking in and printing my boarding pass at home, I now wheel my trolley to the luggage drop off counters, where there are no agents to accept my bags. Instead passengers are directed to a computerised system, consisting of a touch screen connected to a kind of container. Following the instructions on the touch screen, the system proves to be rather straight forward and most passengers are able to check in their bags without any help. 

Think about the developments of such new systems and while admiring the innovative part of it, I cannot help but wonder what happened to the ground personnel that used to do the job that was now taken over by a computerised system. Declared redundant, I suppose, and thus saving the company money, allowing it to keep its head above the turbulent waters of the highly competitive aviation industry.

In another development, I read about a bank, stating its multi million profits over the past 2 quarters of the year. In the same breath it declared 7000 workers redundant.  No doubt this is also related to the continued automation in the banking sector.

The never ending need to make more profit and to grow, have caused many people to lose their jobs and find themselves in a very dire situation indeed.

With just having passed the 7 billion population mark and counting, we need to continue finding ways to feed all and allow people to live a descent life. The obvious thing to do seems to be finding ways to keep economies growing but the ways things are going this does not necessarily mean creating more jobs and employment. While there are no easy answers as we can conclude form the developments throughout the world, one thing seems clear to me and that is that if we do not find solutions that are sustainable, we will continue losing and consuming the very resources we need to provide for respectful livelihoods.

In his book “HOT, FLAT and CROWDED” Thomas Friedman writes the following:

“Our overarching goal has to be sustainable globalization. Why? Because a world defined by the values of sustainability is not just a greener world. It is a safer world, it is a more just world and it is a politically more stable world. Sustainable development provides a framework for humans to live and prosper in harmony with nature rather than at nature’s expense. Everything we care about – a growing economy, human well being and security – is compromised, undermined or lessened by environmental degradation.

Now what exactly does sustainability mean? What are the values that underpin sustainable behaviour, whether in the financial world or the natural world? Something is sustainable when it protects, restores or regenerates our resources and assets rather than degrades it. Sustainability is not about size and scale. Being big does not make something sustainable.  What makes an institution sustainable is not the scale and size it reaches, but how it does its business, how it relates to its employees, shareholders, customers and suppliers. Sustainability is about the disposition, the mindset, and behaviours which shape and develop relationships – relationships with family, friends, customers, investors, employees, borrowers, fellow citizens, the community, the environment and with nature. In both the natural world and the financial world, it means thinking and then behaving in a way that literally sustains – sustains the natural world around us, sustains business relationships, sustains personal relationships, sustains the community, the country, the planet, sustains the relationship with our grandchildren and with generations to come. And that mindset automatically leads to the values that connect us deeply as people to other people and as people to institutions, to communities, and to the environment – values such as transparency, integrity, honesty, and shared responsibility. This mindset also leads us to think about the impact our actions will have over the long term.

Sustainability is an outcome – we want our best institutions and companies, and as much as possible of our natural world, to be sustained. And sustainability is a practice – a set of principles for growing companies and ecosystems that will endure. When we act with sustainable values we make it more likely that our natural world and the institutions and companies that undergird our lives and improve our standards of living will also stick around. Practicing an ethic of sustainability, in other words, produces institutions that are too good to fail and too strong to fail – not institutions that are too big to fail.

There are really only two kinds of business relationships: situational and sustainable. Situational relationships are all about what one can get out of here and now – right now. They are all about pragmatically exploiting short term opportunities rather than consistently living the principles that create long-term success.

That is why we need to inspire more and more people to embrace sustainable values and then to live those values with sustainable behaviour.  Laws and regulations tell you what you can do but values tell you what you should do. There is a difference between doing that which you have a right to do and doing what is right to do. Sustainability requires us to be more than just situational. But if you are not in the grip of values, you will only act situationally. Of course we need regulations to govern society. But you need values of sustainability to go along with regulations.”