Strategy, communication, sustainability, community & society

Be bossy and proud!

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I read an article yesterday about the formidable “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg and her “Ban Bossy”campaign. I’m not sure if I’m just reading the wrong stuff, but I’m yet to find an article about Sandberg that does not have passive aggressive undertones. Maybe journalists don’t like her because she’s so rich, or so high-achieving, or so confident, or, dare I say it, because she is the very essence of a “bossy woman”.

With #banbossy, Sandberg had hoped to tackle the stigma attached to assertive and ambitious women and girls. In spite of the slew of negativity that accompanied the launch, #banbossy has fast become the feminist mantra of the moment. It has caught the imagination of the progressive movement in the US by asserting the need for female empowerment from a young age, and praising bold and strident young women in an era when social media has made people pleasers of us all.

But much has also been said about the irony of bossily banning the word bossy. And while I applaud Sandberg for championing this movement – and facing the online trolling that accompanies bold statements – I’m never going to be in favour of banning words. Rather, as the pedantic linguist that I am, I would prefer to reclaim the word and take the shame out of being bossy.

To label bossy as wholly negative, is to make it shameful – and it shouldn’t be. Dictionary definitions of bossy include “given to ordering people about” or “inclined to domineer”, and while few would want to domineer all the time, bossiness is a competency that good leaders should have and be able draw upon on occasion – regardless of their gender. To eradicate it, means that we can’t apply it when needed.

And to rebrand bossiness as leadership, or confidence, or ambition, is also a falsehood. And this falsehood is the fundamental underpinning tenet of the #banbossy movement – that boys are praised for bossiness and girls and reprimanded for it. I don’t think this is true. As a mother of a boy and a girl – I can confidently say that they are both called bossy in equal measure – and they can both deploy bossiness with great effect when needed!

To take pride in bossiness, we need positive examples of bossiness in action, and Sandberg described a great bossy moment in yesterday’s article:

“Not long after Sandberg joined Facebook, the company threw one of its themed lunch events to which all staff were invited. It was taco day, and Sandberg, approaching the line for food, stood for a moment to take in the scene. “There was the taco stuff, and then there was this bar for the fixings,” she says. The staff members, observed Sandberg, were taking too long with the fixings [toppings] and creating a bottleneck. “And I watched this and thought, this is ridiculous. I said, ‘Excuse me, everyone!’ And I made the fixings bar into a double line. And the line started moving and everyone was like, yeah!” She laughs. “It was one of those moments when I think people were a little shocked, but I gained a lot of credibility in the company.”

I love this – it is best practice bossiness. And as a card-carrying bossy boots, this resonates with me strongly. I often find myself as the one who stands up on a crowded bus and orders people to move up the aisle and take seats to make more room for people waiting on the street. People don’t love me for doing it, but it is the right thing to do, and, yes it is bossy. Now if I took this approach to my whole life, I would of course have no friends, so I have learned to temper my bossiness and only use it when needed (usually in organising queues of people or on buses). But I celebrate my bossiness as a core competency and there is no way I plan to #banbossy in my life.

Sheryl Sandberg is an inspiration to me because she is brave, outspoken, successful and a myriad of other things. But I also love her because she is bossy.

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I don’t “believe” in climate change

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Let me clarify, I don’t “believe” in anthropogenic climate change, because it is not a religion. I simply accept that there is considerable scientific evidence that man-made climate change is happening, and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would help to mitigate against its effects.

So that’s my position clear then. And it seems that the UK Government agrees with this too. The evidence that climate change is accepted in parliament is manifold, for example…

  • The government has had a Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC)  since 2008 – its mandate is to “ensure the UK has secure, clean, affordable energy supplies and promote international action to mitigate climate change”;
  • It has accepted evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Lord Stern and others in policy statements;
  • Just last week in The Telegraph,  Prime Minister David Cameron publicly accepted climate change science by stating that man-made climate change poses one of the ‘greatest risks’ to the UK and the rest of the world;
  • In response to the European Commission 2030 White Paper on climate change in January this year, Edward Davey, Secretary of State Energy and Climate Change said: “Today’s proposals are a step in the right direction towards an ambitious emissions reduction target for Europe.

So this would suggest that there is a consensus within government that climate change exists, and that the debate has moved beyond the “Climate scientists – Yay! Climate sceptics – Nay!” But, no such luck… while the scientific evidence base grows, so too does the muscle of climate change deniers.

And in our recent floods we saw them come out in full force. There was Nigel Farage in his waders, smoking a fag and referring to the floods as “just weather”…

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But leading the charge against the Met Office for making an “absurd” link between the floods and climate change, has been former chancellor Lord Lawson, noisily peddling his global warming scepticism on any media channel that will have him (including the BBC).

*** Across the land climate scientists collectively sigh… ****

Lawson’s climate change denial could be seen as an example of the unwelcome intrusion of politicians – even skilled politicians – into science, and his rhetoric has been described by climate scientists as ignorant and dangerous.

But while I agree that it is ignorant – and it may indeed be dangerous – I also think that it is arrogant for scientists to think that they can work in a vacuum, avoiding “unwelcome” intrusions from politicians.

Why so? Because it is the issue of what appropriate action to take to mitigate the effects of this climate change that is important now – and this is primarily a political problem. The debate in government has moved on to the best use of public funds (renewable energy, energy efficiency measures, nuclear, etc…), not the proof that climate change exists. And this is where it gets messy…

Even if there is clarity and consensus about the challenges of climate change within government (and I believe that there is), there is no such clarity on how to act to deal with it. There are multiple options, many of which become blindingly complex and present huge budgetary challenges. Everything proposed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change has to be approved by HM Treasury. And this is where Nigel Lawson does have legitimate expertise and influence on the current Treasury decision-making process.

So while he ain’t no scientist, nor is he a “nobody” in this debate. It is not just the scientists who matter in dealing with the evidence of climate change. Politicians’ interpretation of evidence is vitally important because it dictates how the public purse is spent. Nigel Lawson has very relevant experience of having to interpret scientific evidence and make budgetary decisions for where to deploy public funds (for good or for ill) as the former chancellor. What his polemic exposes is the inherent biases that he holds about climate change and the big issue is the powerful influence he wields within the treasury.

So, what I do “believe” is that scientists must learn about how politics works and that exposure to Lawson could be of vital interest to them if they are trying to influence government – exposing as it does the flaws and power dynamics in parliament, and the reasons why the use of public funds on climate change mitigation is always so hotly contested.

Happy new era! This time it’s personal

As the new year approaches, it feels like the end of 2013 might actually mark the end of an era. A grand statement I know, but after the death of 20th century icons like Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela, and high profile falls from grace from captains of industry and city mayors alike, it feels like last century’s traditional hierarchies are finally breaking down. And now, as we enter new, uncharted territory, our old models of leadership look tired and in urgent need of renewal.

So, while I was pondering this big troubling thought, synchronicity led me to this fab speech by Dov Seidman, given at the RSA last week. Seidman is CEO of LRN, a global ethics consultancy, and here he outlines the implications for living and working in a world where the old rules no longer apply.

Seidman is the first CEO I’ve come across (perhaps aside from Paul Polman of Unilever and the late Ray Andersen of Interface FLOR), who not only “gets” sustainability and values-driven strategy, but can also link this to the future impacts of the new world order posed by hyper-connectivity, globalisation, and the values shift from baby boomers to generation X and Y. He says:

“We live in a world that has rapidly gone from connected to interconnected to interdependent. In government, business, and society, we are now rising and falling together. One banker at his desk can lose $2 billion and affect global markets. One vegetable vendor can catalyze a revolution toward freedom throughout the Middle East…

This is a profound shift into what he calls the “era of behaviour” and it has dramatic implications for businesses and governments alike. Seidman reckons that sticking to the old rules of engagement will simply lead to demise, and to truly address the scale of today’s global complex challenges, we must look to moral philosophy for guidance.

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He quotes the most famous line from the Godfather – “It’s not personal, it’s just business” – and attests that it no longer qualifies as sound management advice. To succeed in the future, we can no longer sustain separate, amoral spheres for our professional and personal lives – being ‘good’ people who just have ‘bad’ jobs or work for ‘evil’ corporations. He says:

Everything is now personal as the world is now not just interdependent, it is morally interdependent.”

Merging the personal and the corporate worlds won’t happen overnight, and it will certainly be a tricky business, but it is the kind of new year’s revolution I’m looking forward to seeing in our brave new century. So, here’s to 2014, the dawn of the era of behaviour!

Which metrics matter? When hitting the targets misses the point

Today the UK’s school league tables are out. From the moment the national media hit “print”, the panic set in, with parents across the country frantically combing through the data to discern if their school came out as good or bad.

When confronted with this palpable sense of panic, I realised that I didn’t care. I thought, why does it matter where we sit? And I’m really not being facetious when I say this. I’m not a “slummy mummy” who doesn’t give a toss, I’m an engaged parent with a happy child who has good friends and seems to be doing well in reading and writing. But his school has just been rated as middling in the league tables, and doesn’t compare brilliantly against its local counterparts. But I am left feeling “so what?”

It is a brilliant school. It values creativity, it is ethnically and socio-economically diverse (like the real world is), it encourages outdoor play, it deploys discipline fairly, it works with local parents and appreciates their input – these are the metrics that matter to me, but don’t make their way onto the league table. So as per usual, I shall defer to a leading academic to back up my hunch that the kids at my school are alright…

This film is of Sue Palmer, a nationally respected authority on literacy teaching, and author of a great book called Toxic Childhood. In this film she outlines the top 5 tips for teachers to help them build emotionally intelligent, resilient and happy children (who, in time, will become emotionally intelligent, resilient and happy adults). Palmer is a fierce critic of League tables, particularly for primary schools. In 2008 she wrote in The Guardian:

“As long as league tables exist, in a risk averse society [like the UK] most people daren’t ignore them. Primary schools at the top of the league (which, by a strange coincidence, tend to be in the wealthiest areas) have a reputation to maintain; those at the bottom have to try to claw a little higher. The status of all interested adults (teachers, governors, parents) depends on how their Year Sixes perform in national tests… So from four years of age, our children now live in the shadow of SATs… The curriculum is dominated by the core subjects of English, Maths and Science… Not surprisingly, this regime leaves far less time for creative but unquantifiable experiences, like art, drama and music, which through the millennia have nurtured children’s imaginations and contributed incalculably to their emotional and social development.

Less time also for the active, hands-on learning children need if they’re genuinely to understand the concepts underpinning the tests. Last year researchers found that the conceptual understanding of today’s 11-year-olds lags two to three years behind their counterparts in 1990. While performance on pencil-and-paper tests has soared over this period, children are apparently less likely to understand the principles they’ve been trained to tick boxes about… Not surprisingly, the children trailing furthest behind are still those from the disadvantaged homes – statisticians last year found a direct correlation between league table position and postcode. ’.

So does anyone really benefit from league tables? Or do they just serve to make parents and teachers either feel a surge of panic or satisfying wave of smugness – both of which could ultimately lead to bad decision making that is not in the interests of the school. League tables are a blunt instrument, and the devil is always in the detail. Data is meaningless without context. My advice to parents is to look at the data, but then reconcile it against their own experience and feelings.

As with everything in life, it is unwise to make a decision on data alone.

Design tools for a circular economy

The circular economy is one of those business phrases that is so de rigeur that you wonder if, like fashion, it really has staying power. But dig deeper than the buzzword and it is clear that the circular economy is a concept that is ahead of its time and will be key to the long term success of any production based business.

The logic behind circular thinking is that as key minerals, metals and other resources become ever more rare and markets become more volatile, it will benefit business greatly if they design their products in such a way that the materials in them can be recovered and reused.

In this video, Judith Sykes and Mark Shayler of Useful Simple Projects describe the work they are doing with organisations such as Samsung and Proctor and Gamble to look at material recovery and service models that support circular design solutions. It is a good overview of what needs to be done if the circular economy is to become a reality, and it is just this kind of in-depth work that is needed in order to turn circular economy from idea to reality.

Are smart cities just for smart arses?

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Recently, a tech industry blogger (who shall remain nameless), tweeted a picture of an achingly cool tech café in Shoreditch (home of London’s “Silicon Roundabout” – our attempt at a Silicon Valley). It looked so bloody exclusive that I rather churlishly tweeted that I couldn’t see any toddlers in there as you couldn’t squeeze a baby buggy between the “design classic” chairs and iPad docking stations. He, quite rightly, ignored this random outburst, but the exclusivity of the tech-hipster scene has been bothering me ever since.

And today I stumbled across a brilliant article in the New York Times which clearly articulated my pain. It analysed the effect of the so-called technorati on the city of San Francisco, charting the impact of the Google and Facebook millionaires who are being blamed for driving up housing prices and threatening the city’s bohemian identity. I quote…

“Resentment simmers, at the fleets of Google buses that ferry workers to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View and back; the code jockeys who crowd elite coffeehouses, heads buried in their laptops; and the sleek black Uber cars that whisk hipsters from bar to bar…For critics, such sights are symbols of a city in danger of losing its diversity — one that artists, families and middle-class workers can no longer afford. On the day of Twitter’s public offering this month, 150 demonstrators protested outside the company with signs reading “People not profit” and “We’re the public, what are you offering?”

Even the Mission District, once a working-class Hispanic neighborhood, is now a destination for the tech elite. Evan Williams of Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook have bought homes there. Suddenly the coolest part of town doesn’t feel quite so hip. The real loss to the city is its diversity – and ultimately it is a city’s diversity that makes it cool.  Watch out London or one day we too could “wake up to an extremely unbearable ocean of sameness”.

The rise of techno-city

But my concerns with tech-driven urbanism is not limited to the rise of the Shoreditch hipster and their fancypants cafes (that would be ridiculous). I am concerned by the much bigger issue of the banality that a tech revolution could force upon the way we experience life in modern cities. As tech-driven “eco” and “smart” cities across the world are being developed to accommodate our rapidly growing population, the architects of such smart cities are routinely failing to design for real  human experiences – preferring to design for the “cool” or “exclusive” hipster wannabe (which is of course far worse than an actual hipster).

According to author Leo Johnson, a global trend to upgrade urban areas to become smart cities is already underway. In a recent New Statesman article he pointed to a range of new and emerging cities, such as:

  • Migaa, near Nairobi, Kenya, a new “premier gated city” built on 700 acres of a coffee plantation, with a private hospital, conference centre, helipad and biometric ID system;
  • the Kakungulu eco-city in Uganda, with its the questionable eco credentials of two malls, a 50,000-seater stadium and a golf course with seeds for the greens flown in from Florida;
  • Masdar City in the UAE, Norman Foster’s eco-oasis in the desert, with 40,000 new inhabitants; and
  • Songdo, South Korea, described by Cisco as a “model for future cities”, with smart water, smart garbage (pneumatically sucked out of sight), smart parking with cars guided to empty lots, centralised blood pressure monitoring consoles.
  • Don’t get me started on China..

While Johnson is amazed at the rapid pace of this development, he sees inherent problems with newly-created smart cities. He says:

“You haven’t solved the underlying problem with a new city: you have just moved it on down the road. These new “smart” cities aren’t going to look like the architect’s model. They are going to have a lot of people camping in and around them, looking for jobs.”… the smart city risks being an import city, closed to local skills and goods, with a reduced capacity to develop or integrate local expertise… As a result, there’s the danger that it will become something close to an iPad city, a mesh of topdown, closed systems, both vulnerable and interdependent, with a deskilled local labour force that’s unable to repair or maintain it.”

That is a posh way of saying that there won’t be any real people living in the smart cities of the near future. Like San Francisco, the real people living real lives will be on the margins. Which sounds like a pretty dumb city to me. The only way out of this is to actively foster diversity – design for it, and break through the barriers of exclusivity. Perhaps I will bring my kids into that hipster cafe and won’t worry about the mess or chaos that ensues. This will of course be in the interest of building a pool of research data on the benefits of a diverse city. Because a functioning  city – or should I say my kinda town – is a mixed up one.

Project Sunlight puts spotlight on parents

This is Unilever’s launch film to accompany its latest initiative “Project Sunlight”, launched on 20 November 2013, Universal Children’s Day, in Brazil, India, Indonesia, the UK and the USA. The project is designed to appeal to people everywhere, and in particular parents, encouraging them to join what Unilever sees as a growing community of people who want to make the world a better place for children and future generations.

Now for the critical analysis. As for the messaging in this film, it is a pretty traditional consumer marcomms effort. The main difference is that a standard Unilever advert would be aimed at the familiar domestic problem (dirty hands/clothes/kitchen/children), followed by technical domestic solution that brings safety/cleanliness/happiness/love/security to the consumer. In this film, while it aims to tug heartstrings in the same way (using soft baby fingers, dewy eyes of parent and child), it is out of its depth with geopolitics.

This film tries to bust out of the formulaic lifestyle bubble by graphically showing a harsh world of war and environmental destruction, but then it falls back into its familiar product mindset and says, “don’t worry, you can rely on us and our technologies to solve these unpleasant problems”. For me there is too little pause between the “burnt out, war torn devastation” to the “clean water happy old people” for it to in any way make the audience consider what role they might have to play in the solution. I feel it will leave viewers shocked but comforted that there are techno fixes that will solve things. Which is debatable…

In general, I really admire what Unilever are doing with sustainability and the Project Sunlight launch blurb (found at http://www.unilever.com/sustainable-living/news/news/slp1113-projectsunlight-launch.aspx) says that it wants to use its enormous global reach to change people’s behaviours, and they certainly have a massive global audience, so fair dues to them for having a go.


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