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More of the same simply isn't enough

28 June 2019 – Dame Polly Courtice reveals how one of the world's leading hubs for green business thinking is preparing for the next phase of rapid corporate transformation

For 30 years the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) has been working with business, government, and financial leaders to help shape their organisations, sectors, and public policy towards more sustainable economic development. Our global leadership network of more than 8,000 individuals is now driving change on every continent.

However, despite all that has been achieved, the truth is that what we have collectively done and what we are doing is simply not enough. And more troublingly, most of the sustainability challenges that we are all wrestling with - and their consequences - have been known to us for decades.

The world remains threatened by potentially catastrophic climate change, the degradation of natural systems and the mass extinction of species. And while the last decades have given us economic growth and tangible poverty reduction, inequality within and between nations leaves millions of people still living in extreme poverty; and economic shocks, food insecurity, and climate instability threaten to reverse the fortunes of those whose lives have improved.

The need for systemic change is being demonstrated in every quarter - from the negative impacts of plastic waste on marine life and the acceleration of biodiversity loss, to a wider understanding of the role of soil health in both tackling and adapting to climate change, to the increasing demand for businesses to value social purpose alongside financial contribution. Nothing short of transformation is required right now to set us on a path to a safe and stable climate, a healthy environment, and fair and prosperous societies.

This week the UK became the first major economy to pass a carbon neutral target into law, giving a clear signal to business that the net zero revolution has begun in earnest. And although EU leaders recently failed to get consensus on their target, this will and must be agreed soon. As our understanding of our impact on the natural world deepens, and as social issues become ever more pressing, we will need ever more ambitious policies across a range of issues to create a transformative operating environment.

The global economy has experienced multiple waves of change over many decades. The evidence is now clear that its next phase of evolution will be fundamental to our future and business, government and finance leaders have a vital role to play in this unprecedented economic transformation.

This agenda is at the heart of CISL's work with companies and individuals as they seek new business and industrial models to drive innovation, and identify the action needed to tackle political and economic barriers. This will require a 'rewiring' of business as companies respond to the changing context, reacting to emerging risks and opportunities and rising societal expectations. It will require also the rewiring of our finance system as financial institutions respond to the changing demands from clients and regulatory institutions as pressure grows to rethink their purpose and operating practices, and adopt longer term, more forward-thinking strategies.

The Institute has worked for many decades with groups of companies on complex challenges like climate change, natural capital and sustainable finance, leading to the creation of influential leadership groups such as the Corporate Leaders Group working on climate change in the UK and EU, the Banking and Environment InitiativeClimateWise for the insurance sector, the Investment Leaders Group and the Natural Capital Impact Group.

To enable CISL's network to lead the transformation over the next decade to 2030, we are setting up two new centres, alongside our Centre for Sustainable Finance, to develop high-impact systemic solutions for business, government and the finance sector. The Centres will apply CISL's expertise in developing leadership capacity and system-level solutions through Education and Advisory Services, Research, Small Business Acceleration and convening leadership groups, sectors and value chains, to accelerate the transformation to a sustainable economy.

The Centre for Policy and Industrial Transformation will deliver high-impact, systemic solutions to drive policy and industrial change towards a sustainable economy. Pioneering partnerships between business leaders, policymakers and academics will help unlock the economic changes required to deliver a safe and sustainable economy.

The Centre for Business Transformation will work with businesses and their stakeholders to explore critical questions shaping the future of corporations. The centre will work to inform and test what business leadership looks like in a sustainable economy, enabling the rewiring of business through the development of commercially viable, high-impact solutions and effective approaches to embed sustainability, including transition pathways, resource security strategies and measuring the value of business to society. The centre will deliver strategic advisory services and world-class education programmes.

The Centre for Sustainable Finance works through a unique combination of deep industry collaboration, high-calibre research, and exceptional education programmes - helping financial institutions and those who regulate them to play a catalytic role in achieving a sustainable economy.

Across all three Centres, CISL will continue to deliver research grounded in business insight and policy understanding, that is practitioner-focused and drives thought leadership.

On 13 June this year, at our 30th Anniversary celebration, we brought together over 250 leaders from across business, government and finance to determine the transformative action required to achieve a sustainable, carbon neutral future. The event, held at Buckingham Palace, provided a forum for senior leaders to share their insights on the individual and collective leadership needed over the next decade to unlock transformational change.

The discussions focused on the individual and collective actions leaders can take to deliver a net zero economy, to support and restore healthy ecosystems and ensure resource security, and the role of business in enabling inclusive societies. Over the course of the next year, CISL will be working with its Network to drive this economic transformation, and take forward the ideas and solutions that emerged for collective leadership.

Real, lasting, and fundamental change in the way society operates and in the way we run our economies is the only way forward.  Not a superficial, cosmetic change, but transformation at the system-level. More of the same simply isn't enough. The science demands more. Society expects more. And our children and grandchildren have a right to expect us to do more.

This article was first published in on the Business Green website 28 June 2019.

About the author


Polly Courtice is Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). She is also Founder Director of The Prince of Wales's Business and Sustainability Programme, and Academic Director of the University’s Master of Studies in Sustainability Leadership

Polly is a member of the University’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy Committee and the Board of Executive and Professional Education. She is a Director of Jupiter Green Investment Trust and a Non-Executive Director of Anglian Water Services Ltd, and is on the environmental/sustainability advisory boards for AstraZeneca, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, Lloyds Banking Group and Nespresso. In 2016 Polly was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), and in 2008 a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order (LVO), both announced in the Queen's Birthday Honours list. Polly was awarded the 2015 Stanford Bright Award.

Polly is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and has an MA from the University of Cambridge.

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.