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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

CISL's interim CEO, Lindsay Hooper, addresses attendees at the Global Leadership Summit in Cambridge

4 March 2024 - With time running out to bend the curve on the climate and nature crisis, rising geopolitical tensions, conflict and AI dominating political agendas, the University of Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership (CISL) brought together influential thinkers, experts and leaders for a 2 day summit to address the unprecedented challenges that currently face global leadership.  

At the inaugural Global Leadership Summit in Cambridge on 27 and 28 February, which took place at CISL’s HQ the Entopia Building and Jesus College, representatives from a range of sectors including business, media, innovation debated tough questions such as: what do changing geopolitics mean for our ability to achieve sustainability goals? What does innovation and technological development mean for international relations? And what leadership is needed now, and from whom?  

CISL Interim CEO, Lindsay Hooper, said: “We are convening this summit halfway through a critical decade, where we need to be transitioning rapidly to a different economic pathway. We need leadership that recognises that we are too late for incremental change – it is time to imagine a new economic model in which capital is allocated where it is most needed to address global challenges; to build international alliances to realise the vision; to craft new narratives and create new spaces to involve people to deliver it.”  

Co-convener of the summit, Professor Shruti Kapila, said: “The main challenge for leadership in this global age of turbulence is to forge a constructive and productive dialogue. There is a lack of empathy and understanding on the needs of different countries. I'm thinking of India, China, and the rise of the ‘global south’, especially in relation in the West. This is a critical moment for global democracy and climate change. For leaders to remain leaders, they will need to engage across divisions. So, a summit like ours here today is an important arena for a difficult but urgent new conversation.”    

Professor Richard Calland, Director of CISL Africa and co-convener of the summit, added, “With Africa taking its place at the G20 for the first time in Brazil year, ahead of the first G20 on African soil next year in South Africa, there is a unique opportunity to forge a new and necessary strategic consensus between North and South on how to realise the great potential in Africa’s economic transition. But it will require bold and visionary leadership - on all sides”. 

Peer-to-peer discussions were scaffolded by inputs from leading experts in geopolitics and technology, including Phumzile Van Damme, a technology and human rights fellow at Harvard University; University of Cambridge Professor of Political Economy, Helen Thompson; Bernice Lee OBE from Chatham House, and Professor Rob Miller, the Director of the Whittle Laboratory.   

Examining the current leadership challenges against the backdrop of political uncertainty sparked great discussion on the subject of the shift to more populist and polarised politics. Sandrine Dixson-Declève, Co-President of The Club of Rome, said: “‘The main challenge for global leadership is fear. What we're seeing is the fact that leaders are not ready to confront challenges head on, and they're getting stuck in short-term, knee-jerk responses to big crises. We need brave leadership. We need leaders who are ready to confront this fear and the fear mongering that we're seeing from many different sides, especially the growing radical right and populism, and really come forward with policies that embrace both a paradigm shift in our economies and a just transition that embraces social equity.”  

Addressing the need for strong leadership through a business lens was Steve Howard, Vice Chairman for Sustainability at Temasek. He said: “Working in the business and investment sphere, I see things that are solely motivated by economics, but most people want to work for purpose. They want to know that they’re a part of something that’s having positive impact. So, leaders need to focus their organisation to be relevant in this challenging world and lead with confidence. There are so many benefits with new technologies and the opportunity to reverse the decline in nature, to radically reduce emissions to have clean, affordable energy and transport, and to improve food systems. This century could be the best century for humanity or it could be the worst. Leadership has to navigate the way to the best.”   

CISL’s Chief Innovation Officer, James Cole, added: “There is a huge opportunity to harness new and emerging technologies to solve global problems such as climate change and nature depletion, and to do so in fair and safe ways.  But we must not have blind trust that new, unproven technologies will magically come to our rescue, nor overlook existing and simpler solutions that already work, but would require changes in behaviours and incentives. The challenge for global leadership, as discussions revealed at the summit, is how to develop and deploy new and existing technologies in a way that is fair, inclusive and doesn’t exacerbate the divisions we see across societies today.”  

Forging the path of a just transition requires the voices of all, and emphasis was placed on a better understanding and engaging non-Western perspectives as well as the huge emerging role of Asia in the climate conversation. Bianca Pitt, Co-Founder of SHE Changes Climate, said: “We have the ‘Leadership of the Few’ at the moment. So, you have to ask yourself – when you look at who's running companies, who runs a nation, who runs governmental decisions, parliamentary decisions – who are these people? And who is actually missing from that group of decision makers? It very quickly becomes evident that, for example, half the world's population – women – are staggeringly missing from these decision-making processes and leadership tables. So, it is vital, if we want to indeed change systems – we need to redesign systems – to bring in new actors who can really take the lead on climate justice.”   

Sir David King, Founder and Chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, brought a compelling sense of urgency to the summit: “We need to move into an ecological civilisation – a civilisation in which human beings' welfare is considered alongside the welfare of ecosystems. And because it's a global problem, we need to change our global civilisation into an ecological civilisation.”  

The two-day summit concluded with the University of Cambridge Vice Chancellor, Professor Deborah Prentice, addressing the important role universities must play, including providing research, education and new ideas and innovation. “As a public body and institution, it is important that we use our voice and influence. The challenges we collectively face are monumental and, valued meetings like this one today, are helping us to spark ideas about what leadership ought to be.”   

Read Lindsay Hooper’s reflections: Why good leadership is needed in an age of turbulence 

Insights from the global summit will generate actionable ideas and priorities, and CISL will be producing a report in the upcoming months, synthesising insights from the event to inform the leadership agenda over the coming critical year. Register your interest to receive a copy of the report when it is released.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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