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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Clare Shine

July 2021 - After three months as Director and CEO of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), Clare Shine shares her thoughts on what's next for the sustainability agenda, and the need for a collective focus on people, nature and climate.

How do you view the next 10 years of ‘sustainability’? 

It’s urgent to make this a true ‘decade of action’.  I remember working for the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when we were so full of hope and ambition. Progress over the last 30 years has been too slow, too siloed, too full of contradictions. I believe we now have a moral duty and great opportunity to be much bolder, fairer and more imaginative in taking sustainability mainstream for the long-term.

The last 18 months of Covid have been a reminder of how fast and efficiently government and businesses can react when they see direct interests threatened. This is a key moment for the CISL community to step up and lead across the world. The pandemic highlights – yet again - the interdependence of human and planetary health and the economy. We need systems change and values-based leadership to protect life and life chances for everyone.

As incoming CEO, what does CISL mean to you as an institution? 

I am honoured to step into the role.  CISL has a distinguished record of shaping the sustainability agenda with and through business. It has played a fundamental role on climate transition and decarbonisation and inspired thousands through its outstanding educational programmes.

Building on these achievements, I want to shape a more radical vision and commitment to impact. Sustainability calls for a new compact between humanity and nature. It’s about culture, agency and collective intelligence - as much a social science as a hard science. Of course we need the best evidence, data and tools but these aren’t enough on their own.

Sustainability can only be achieved if there is genuine benefit to – and buy-in from – people and communities across the world. This fundamental paradigm shift needs to be embedded across business, finance and government and can turbocharge collaboration and innovation.

Here in Cambridge, we are part of one of the world’s greatest universities with an abundance of talent and diverse insights to draw on. We sit within the School of Technology and benefit from exceptional resources across disciplines. This is a huge responsibility. We’ll need to take robust positions in terms of how we grow, what we focus on, and how we work with our global community and partners for long-term impact.

CISL was founded at the vanguard of change. Looking forward, how can CISL ‘call out tomorrow’? 

CISL can play a big role in shifting narratives and mindsets. The ‘market place’ in sustainability is ever more crowded but has a selective focus that can feel remote or technocratic. The why of sustainability is now established, but we must drive the how and the now through mainstreaming, scaling, delivery and equity.

The Sustainable Development Goals are an excellent framework and CISL has done a lot to distil them. Looking forward, our triple focus on people, nature and climate must cut through the noise and guide our work to rewire the economy and leadership. We already see rising demand from companies and boards to rethink their purpose and priorities, in line with the expectations and wellbeing of their own staff and communities.

What are the three changes you would like to see CISL make in the next year?  

Firstly, we need to project a compelling vision for the future. There is so much richness in CISL’s content and activities around the world and I’d like to make our work and messaging even more relevant and accessible. We have a key role to play in sense-making around complex fast-moving issues and in using cutting-edge research to drive policy, practice and behaviour change.

Second, I would like us to put out 2-3 big ideas with real potential for transformation at scale. These will become the focus of our agenda setting and dynamic network engagement, and flow through to our work with organisations, sectors, finance and policy.

Third, our move to the Entopia building must catalyse a step change in openness and innovation. This will be our first dedicated headquarters and the UK’s leading sustainable retrofit. It’s right in the heart of Cambridge and will house an Accelerator for SMEs and entrepreneurs alongside our centres for business transformation, sustainable finance, and policy and industrial transformation.

What will the Entopia Building enable CISL to achieve in the community and the University? 

In every area of life, we are seeing deep questions around the nexus of people and power. We live in an era of shifting tectonic plates: the nature-climate crisis, decolonisation, technocolonisation. We see the corrosive effects of inequality and anxiety. These questions are relevant everywhere but nowhere more so than in an ancient city with an 800 year old university, top technology companies and great disparities of wealth and opportunity.

Entopia can create a creative space for radical openness and inclusive debate, a living laboratory that is also home to our alumni and partners when in the UK. Far from being in an ivory tower, we’ll be located on a busy street between a luxury hotel and a supermarket and opposite the main offices of Cambridge City Council. If a university’s fundamental purpose is to expand knowledge for the public good, CISL can use Entopia to help bring the SDGs to life for the whole city and University.

The future of work – being reimagined all around us – lies in green jobs and new ways of inventing and collaborating. With our new Accelerator, Entopia could become a go-to hub that connects school communities, entrepreneurs, artists and our business and financial networks. I’m keen to ‘bring down that wall’ and welcome stakeholders from community to global levels. In that sense we hope Entopia will be seen as the newest jewel in Cambridge’s crown. 

How will we continue to retain and attract the brilliant people that make CISL what it is today?  

CISL’s success is down to its staff and community. It is really inspiring to see how engaged and motivated our diverse international team is, despite the challenges everyone faces with Covid. I believe that a career at CISL should be a gateway to impact that gives people agency and the chance to create their own path. A key focus for me is to ensure we harness the curiosity, ambition and passion of CISL staff. This is a very entrepreneurial organisation and we’re committed to stronger collaborations and strategic partnerships across the university and around the world.  

How do you feel after just three months at CISL? 

I’ve lived well over half my life outside the UK and am new to the world of Cambridge and universities – so you could say I’m wearing L plates right now! It’s been a whirlwind journey. I’m so impressed with the vision and commitment of everyone I meet - from colleagues and alumni in Africa to zero-carbon innovators on our new digital programmes, to board directors working to transform their companies and investments.

We face multiple crises but Covid can and must push us to scale up much bolder leadership, financial alignment and action on the ground. CISL has a huge stake in positioning education, wellbeing and social justice at the heart of everything we do to achieve sustainability. As a fresh pair of eyes, I see immense opportunity and am determined we play our part.

Find out more about Entopia: CISL’s new home in the heart of Cambridge.

About the author

Clare Shine was appointed Director and CEO of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership in April 2021. She joins CISL after nine years as Vice President and Chief Program Officer at Salzburg Global Seminar, an international non-profit founded in 1947 to challenge current and future leaders to shape a creative, just and sustainable world.

Follow Clare on Twitter.


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.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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