The power of collaboration to inspire a better future

The power of collaboration to inspire a better future

Major companies including BT are using new digital platforms to scale sustainability conversations with stakeholders

As progressive businesses seek inspiration for their sustainability journey, many are stating quite simply and honestly: ‘We cannot do this alone’. A colossal team effort is needed from business, government and civil society to tackle the immense water, carbon, energy and food security challenges we all face. Given the sheer complexity and global nature of these issues, the response must be global, and to be effective, it must happen at scale.

Harnessing the power of human creativity to address these issues by engaging with stakeholders provides an opportunity to ‘crowdsource’ ideas beyond a company’s own four walls. Many firms are still grappling with how to ensure stakeholder engagement is meaningful and translates into positive actions with business value. However, with companies under pressure like never before to be transparent in their dealings, there is no time to lose in deepening stakeholder relationships.

And, with rapid advances in digital technology, stakeholder engagement can now be scaled to previously unthinkable levels.

The Better Future Forum united global sustainability experts to openly debate how business can help achieve the transition to a circular economy and move beyond ‘doing less bad’ to make a net positive contribution to society.

The forum, which was independently moderated by research consultancy GlobeScan, was an extension of BT’s unique, open-sourced approach to developing the carbon net positive framework that sits behind its own Net Good vision, launched on 18th June 2013. The company has openly shared its Net Good methodology – the blueprint for helping customers reduce their CO2 emissions by three times the end to end carbon impact of BT’s business by 2020 – for the benefit of others.

Hundreds of people took part from 22 countries, in what was one of the first large scale stakeholder engagement exercise of its kind from a communications company. With an emphasis on concrete action, BT’s Head of Net Good, Kevin Moss, articulated BT’s initial response via video the following day.

Towards large scale stakeholder engagement

As companies aim to broaden the sustainability conversation and reach multiple stakeholders in the most efficient way possible, new digital platforms provide a compelling alternative to traditional options such as one-to-one discussions, forums, roundtables, surveys and telephone interviews.

Billed as a way to ‘stimulate co-creation through conversation’, Unilever’s first ‘Sustainable Living Lab’ in 2012 was a pioneering example of mass digital stakeholder engagement. The second of this series, held in April 2013, zoomed in on the challenge of reducing household waste. The ideas were channelled directly to the company’s Sustainability Living Plan steering group to help shape their thinking.

Similarly, Accenture hosted Sustainability 24 in May 2013 to unite business and local government leaders in a 24-hour discussion on the link between embedding sustainability and achieving high performance.

Pros and cons of large scale digital conversations

Scaled stakeholder engagement platforms can be very useful in tackling specific challenge areas. They unite different companies and thinkers – with a focus – and provide a tangible way for companies to breathe life into their commitments. Mass online participation means companies, NGOs, academics and individuals across the world can share relevant insights.

Above all, such technology holds the potential to bring businesses and not-for-profits together to collaborate while further embedding sustainability in their respective organisations. And people enjoy this type of interaction, too. Some 75% of participants who completed BT’s post-event survey said they’d be ‘very likely’ to take part in another Better Future Forum.

On the flip side, large scale, highly visible stakeholder debates could be perceived as a PR exercise or, worse, a ‘talking shop’, where issues are discussed but little action results. Further, the question of how to integrate the world’s introverts (who make up a third to a half of society) into the conversation remains largely unanswered. Many people may have excellent ideas, but may simply be unwilling to share them in a public forum. So, balance is needed.

BT’s approach

Among the 16 guest experts participating in the Better Future Forum on 2nd July 2013 were the CDP’s CEO Paul Simpson, Accenture’s Peter Lacy, Save the Children’s Jasmine Whitbread, Dame Ellen MacArthur and Gail Klintworth, Chief Sustainability Officer at Unilever. The three key sessions focused on creating ‘value loops’ (not ‘value chains’), strategies for businesses to become ‘net positive’ contributors and, importantly, how this can be achieved in reality – through what partnerships and collaborations.

“The Better Future Forum inspired dynamic and diverse conversations on a subject that we at BT are passionate about: how to ensure business becomes a net positive contributor,” explains Niall Dunne, Chief Sustainability Officer, BT. “The scale of the change needed to achieve this radical step means breaking down the barriers between us and getting together to shape delivery and share knowledge is vital. Digital platforms are increasingly enabling collaborative discussions to take place at scale, and this great use of technology provides a significant opportunity to really engage and partner with sustainability thinkers around the world.”

Some 800 comments were posted from the forum’s diverse global audience, and polls on key issues were taken throughout. Drawing on the chief themes to emerge, BT has outlined its next steps: to play a central role in establishing further collaborative, cross-sector approaches to building net positive leadership; to work with others to develop a common set of principles for different net positive models; to influence positive, scalable behaviours among stakeholders.

“The forum combined traditional engagement techniques with modern technology, and acted as a starting point for joint discussions on global sustainability challenges,” says Caroline Holme, Director at GlobeScan. “BT laid itself open to scrutiny and has emerged the stronger for doing so, having collaboratively discussed ideas with the wider sustainable business community. This open collaboration is exactly the type of leadership we need from companies like BT.”

So, with concrete action to emerge, valuable insights shared and a rich conversation enjoyed by people around the world, ‘crowdsourcing’ for inspiration and solutions to corporate sustainability issues certainly has the potential to unlock a wealth of ideas and drive innovation. And for BT, the Better Future Forum has helped shape its ‘next steps for Net Good’.

 This article was originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business site.