A conversation with Blair Sheppard, global leader for strategy and leadership for PwC.
As you know, I had a break in August and during that time Rachel Maurice became a patron and Silver Supporter. Sorry you’ve had to wait so long for your shout-out Rachel. Welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report.
We live in challenging times which is rather an unhelpful cliche. Nevertheless it's true as challenges, like uncertainty, need to be faced and if not eliminated, to be reduced and managed. At least if we identify the problems we are on the way to defining solutions.
There are fundamental changes to industrial, social and political structures across the world which we have to face up to and control. I spoke to the author of a new book, Ten Years to Midnight.
Anthony: Right, well, my guest for today on The Sustainable Futures Report is Blair Sheppard. He is the Global Leader for Strategy and Leadership at PwC, which many of you will have heard of. It's a network of professional services firms committed to building trust in society and solving important problems.
Blair is also the dean emeritus and professor emeritus of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, where he taught for 33 years. He was the principal force behind opening Duke's campus in China. He's a regular speaker at international forums, including the Global Solutions Summit and the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
Blair, welcome, thank you for joining us.
Blair: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
Anthony: Now we're going to frame this interview around your book, "Ten Years to Midnight: Four Urgent Global Crises and Their Strategic Solutions." So could we start off with an overview of what these four crises are, and why they are crises?
Blair: Yeah, actually, we came to that begrudgingly, by the way. So, first, I'm an optimist and second, our job is to persuade people how the world could be better. But I don't think it can be until we recognise the crises. So they form an interdependent system.
But the first one is essentially, there's enough people being left behind that they feel like their future is not going to be as good as their current state and therefore they stopped dreaming, hoping, aspiring. And the result is we stop being prosperous. The important point that we point out in the book is across the entire lifespan, from people entering the workforce to people leaving the workforce.
The second one, let me save it. The third one we call a crisis of institutions, which is that people are losing faith in the institutions that make civilisation work -- the legal system, the tech system, the education system, the political system. And the problem with that, with lost trust in institutions, is that institutions are for people what water is for fish. It's sort of the things that let us just get on with things. Because there there, we can move in life.
The really sort of scary data point in this one is that only 18% of people in a recent global survey done by Edelman think the system is working for them. The rest are unsure, but nearly half think it's working against them. That is awful. All over the world, right.
The fourth one is that actually our leaders actually are sort of not up to the task because they were prepared for a world that no longer exists in a way. It's not their fault, it's essentially we changed the world on us, so they changed the world on us, so we did it together. And now we need a new kind of leader, and if we don't get it, we won't solve the crisis.
Then the second one we've called the crisis of technology. And the point we're getting at in this is there are two kinds of technology worlds we live in. One of them is the Industrial Revolution, and the second one is kind of the technology revolution. And in both cases, the ubiquitous. They're everywhere in our lives, right.
So because they're ubiquitous, the problem is when they do something wrong, it's a big problem. So with platform technology, examples are, society is polarising. Adolescents are having suicidal thoughts much more than they used to. And actually, in some ways we're getting dumber because we don't have same attention span we used to have or short term memory.
Anthony: When you say platform technology, are you're talking about social media?
Blair: No, I mean all of the platforms, sort of. Alibaba, Tencent, Google, Amazon, Apple, all of them. What I mean by platform is essentially something that is ubiquitous, it's everywhere. It's part of how we engage and you just layer things on top of it. That's why it's called a platform.
So Apple is successful because of all the apps that are sold, not just because of the base phone. Google's successful because of all the things layered on top of it. Amazon sold books, but now they sell everything.
That's what makes them platforms. And it's their ubiquity that's the problem actually, because they're everywhere, if they do something wrong, it really hurts. Social media is obviously platform as well.
And then, the final one is actually this issue of Industrial Revolution, which is the designers of the industrial pollution, never anticipated that their energy source would create carbon equivalence in the atmosphere that risk human existence. So, it's an unintended consequence, but because they're everywhere, it's really hard to change. Really hard to change.
So they're crises for two reasons. The first is if they sustain in their present form, they will get much worse in a decade. And the second is they are big and tough and naughty, and therefore fixing them would typically for humanity take longer than a decade to solve. So the question is, how do we change the way we adapt in order to solve things that are pretty darn thorny?
Anthony: Now, before we get to solutions, I just want to skip forward to Chapter 11 in your book and I just want to read the first few lines opening that chapter, which is headed "Massive and Fast, Problems that Cannot Wait."
And you say -- with our institutions in disarray and mired in dysfunction, only a few of them, led by extraordinary individuals with unique leadership skills, will be able to address the global, national and local challenges that must be remedied quickly. These problems are so big and so urgent that we cannot wait for our institutions to catch up. Our institutions as we know them today are not up to that task. But while all of the crises covered in this book cannot be seen as anything but acute, a few enormous problems emerging stand out as more dire and pressing than the others, and I call these problems massive fast challenges. Time is of the essence.
Now you then you go on to identify two global crises, these massive fast crises. The one is the issue of jobs and unemployment, particularly amongst the young. And the other one is, of course, climate change.
Now my question, my first question, which applies equally to both of them, is where are we going to get the leaders we need, and more importantly, how are they going to be able to take power?
Blair: So, I think the interesting issue is so that the first part, which kind of begins to answer your question, which is, if we try to change everything, we'll change nothing, especially in a world that's as polarised ours, and as fractured as ours.
So I think there's only a few things we can agree on.
So the first point is, it may be the two identified are wrong or my co authors and I identified are wrong. I think they're pretty important. But let's focus on one or two things only at a global level and let's agree with each other and go after it.
So one part of the answer to your question is -- narrow the field to the absolutely most critical things, and then maybe we can agree where we all share views in common I think. The second is, I think, because it's so big, we're going to need leaders in a lot of places. It's not like we're going to need a president to step up or a prime minister to step up. We're going to need leaders in lots of places because it's all parts of our life.
So take climate as an example. It's how we grow things. It's how we transport things. It's how we build things. It's how we manufacture things. It's even how we take vacations.
And so if you take that entire sort of life experience chain, we have to rethink the whole thing. And if you said, so, who's going to lead that? I think the answer is maybe about 100 million people are going to lead that right.
And, so the first thing is, I think we have to call for anyone who's in a position of responsibility from some aspect of that lifestyle, they have to rethink their core business.
Then as customers of that, or as investors in that we have to demand that they rethink their business. So there's two kinds of leadership here. First is leadership by the recipient, or you can think it of as a citizen, the customer, the shareholder. And leadership by the people who actually hold responsible for the entity that has to adapt.
So it's pretty pervasive, back to my point, which is, let's all agree, there's one or two things and then go for it. Create a moon shot for the next decade.
Anthony: But I'm just wondering whether we can actually create international consensus on anything, because at the moment we are in a crisis which is not even in the book. Well, I think there is a footnote about the COVID problem. And yes we see countries rushing to develop a vaccine and saying, and it's going to be for us, we are not going to share it.
Blair: I agree, so Anthony, I agree that in a sense, one of the elements behind some of the crises that we describe is actually the global fracture. And it's getting worse, and actually, COVID has made it worse.
To your point, we actually thought about stalling the book. It went to press in January, before COVID happened, and we realised the four crises were even more relevant. So we stayed with it instead of rewriting it.
But think to me it comes back to, let's drive it through, probably business and NGOs first, or business and civil society first, and then let government catch up. We're going to need the government. We're going to need policy. We're going to need carbon credits. We're going to need all that.
But let's drive it. And so there's this odd kind of thing, which is -- I think the most important place for us to get agreement is among shareholders. So if people who hold the wealth say I want it to be done differently, a lot of people will fall in line.
It turns out that that company leaders will, because it's the shareholder asking for it. Many governments will, because of the source of capital that countries need to recover from COVID. And so I think I'd go there first, and I think I'd go to the citizen and get us many people around the world to agree.
Think about the power that the mayors are having because they're agreeing with each other, and so you can do a lot bottom up and you can do a lot top down where top is capital rather than the political power.
Then I think, again, to the global multilateral kind of question. I think we can agree on the two things we describe in the book. I think we can agree that jobs and work or small business is massively important. I think we can agree that climate's massively important and then leave the rest alone, in a way. We have a competition that's going to take a lot of work to fix, but I think we can agree on those two things.
Anthony: Okay, Okay, Now you talk about social media, you talk about your experience of social media as the facilitator of the Arab Spring quite a long time ago, and yet well, people, of course, have used that as a vehicle for protest ever since. But we're not getting an awful long way with protest, and governments are turning their faces against the facts and they're trying to outlaw protesters who are merely putting forward the science, they're putting forward reasonable solutions.
So, yeah, as you just said, we need to engage governments. But how are we going to do that? Because they don't seem to look very far ahead and they don't seem to look beyond a very narrow focus. So I think that's our difficulty.
Blair: So you know, I have a lot of sympathy for political leaders, actually, in a way. So we just describe in the book for awful, awful, difficult problems right, that are virtually impossible to solve, that will take more than one term of an office to solve. And we didn't really prepare them for the kind of problem we're dealing with now. They have these cognitive models in their head that are from the last 70 years of success. So we have to rethink the way they think about the world and actually don't trust them very much. So God bless the political leader who tries.
That said, it's clear that we have to get to some agreement. I think a couple of pieces on that, if I can. First is, citizens get the leaders they ask for. And so you can't just look at the political leaders and say they're the problem, because we vote for them, we pick them as candidates, we allow the system to sustain as it is. So I think we need to look at ourselves, not just our leaders.
Second, I think that if we can get consensus among the other communities... If you think about society lives on a kind of three legged stool --- Governments, civil society and business. If you can get business and civil society to agree, it will be harder for government not to come along.
And then again, I think the final piece is, there are too many agendas we are trying to push it one time, and because of that it allows fracturing to exist. If the majority of us say, let's just solve this and make it cause everything else that happened behind it, I think we have a better shot, Anthony. Which is why we focus on two versus... You know, if you think about all the SEGs, they're all important, but frankly, it's so many, it's hard to figure out, just can't get consensus around.
Anthony: Yes, yes. Now a couple of places in the book you talk about the Marshall Plan, which was an aid program led by the United States immediately after the Second World War to help to rebuild Europe. And you're suggesting that we should have some sort of single minded project in much the same way to deal with the major crises which are facing us now. And interestingly enough, the Prince of Wales used the same phrase this week. Can you just expand on that a little bit? Are we talking about the military taking over?
Blair: No, absolutely not. There's some characteristics of the Marshall Plan that are really important. One of them is there was a source of money or there was a pool of money that was aggregated, and then a set of simple rules that sort of said that you have to have an initiative you're trying to drive in your country. you have to have commitment to that and you have to make a case for why you need it. And then we'll distribute the money.
So it was a global effort to create local solutions. That's what I think we need. We need a global pool of money to actually direct solutions locally because the solution to sort of energy in Calcutta is very different from the solution to energy in London, is very different from the solution to energy in Durham, North Carolina where I live.
And so we're going to be very different answers from place to place to place. But you want kind of an overarching structure that says this matters, here's the pot of money we have and here's how you get it. The UN is actually doing the same thing, with New Development Initiative, where they've got a framework to try to influence investment locally. And so a lot of people are coming up with a similar kind of premise. We just have to make one work.
Anthony: I talked about tipping points in a recent episode, tipping point in one direction, which could lead us irretrievably to catastrophe, a tipping point in the other direction where suddenly governments and world leaders get it and we all pull back from the brink.
I don't know which way we're going to tip, I really don't. But that's the question. And your book is called "Ten Years Years to Midnight." This clock, I believe, in the centre of New York, which is counting those years down. I think it's ahead of you actually thinks it's less than 10 years. How realistic is it? Are we going to actually? Are we going to get there in the time that's left?
Blair: So I think you're right about the tipping point, which is if we do what we're presently doing, even if we accelerate a little bit, we go off a cliff that's really pretty unattractive. It may be 10 years, it may be eight years, it depends on the biological feedback loops that we haven't really come to understand how soon it will occur. But I think 10 years is kind of the outside limit, frankly.
Or the alternative is actually an amazing path. You could tell a story about how the future is unbelievable, if actually the world agrees on a few things, which is, let's create a sustainable economic model, and let's make it inclusive. If we could agree on just those couple of things, then actually I can tell a picture that is amazing and doesn't have a clock in the middle, has this beautiful forest and houses and all the things you would want in life in the middle.
So I'm hoping. The next book is Finding Dawn. But I agree with you, we're going to need people with power, money, capability to make the change to agree collectively that we need to make the change. But I think that's going to have to come from all of us to insist they do.
Anthony: So perhaps the most important thing we can do is to keep people's mind on the issues to continue to promote the message.
Blair: Exactly. Yeah, Anthony, I think two things that if you sort of say what could any individual do, right? The first one is get really informed and call the question of anyone who they meet, they interact with and they vote for or they talk to. Just be a good citizen, a good employee, a good consumer, in that sense of good intent, worrying about the sustainability of it.
And then the second one is find a place you love and make it better. Because essentially, I think this is going to be 10 million cities at a time kind of, that do it a little bit, villages or cities or counties that do it little bit at a time. And it adds up to something that's really pretty massive. Because it's more than industrial scale problem, it's a complete lifestyle issue, that way I'll have to rethink.
Actually, if you look at all this, if you read Paul Hawkins book, for example, the life you live if you go to the solutions is actually way nicer, actually way better. And so it's not like we're asking people to give something up. We're asking people to move to kind of a much nicer place.
Anthony: That book you're referring to I think is "Drawdown," is that right?
Blair: Yes, it is "Drawdown."
Anthony: Drawdown. Yes, I recommend people have a look at it. As we draw to the end of this conversation, I'd just like to quote the very last sentence in your book where you say – “No one is exempt from the need to act. Please decide what role you will play and get to it.”
Blair: There's nothing more to say than that I think actually, that is the perfect summary of what we're trying to articulate in the book. So I'm glad you read that sentence.
Anthony: Blair Sheppard, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to The Sustainable Futures Report.
Blair: Thanks, Anthony. I enjoyed it a lot. And good luck with your mission, and I hope you're successful.
Blair Sheppard, global leader for strategy and leadership at PwC. Ten Years to Midnight: Four Urgent Global Crises and their Strategic Solutionsis available now from all good bookshops and probably Amazon as well. It’s published by Penguin Random House.
I mentioned some weeks ago that I was reading Thomas Picketty’s Capital and Ideology. I’m pretty much halfway through on about page 540. By contrast, Ten Years to Midnight is very much shorter and a much easier read.
I leave you with the news that honey is better for you than you might have thought. A study, published in the journal BMJ Evidence Based Medicine, found that honey was a more effective treatment for coughs, blocked noses and sore throats than many remedies more conventionally prescribed.
Well, as a beekeeper I knew that.
Beekeeping is suddenly getting the celebrity treatment. David Beckham was pictured in the press this week with all his family wearing bee-suits. He’d built his own hives as well. Apparently Ed Sheeran has installed hives on his Suffolk estate. Good news for bees and good news for us as bees are an important pollinator of food crops, particularly fruit. If you have land, time, and a few hundred pounds to spare you too can join them in protecting the bees. If not, grow some bee-friendly plants next year. In fact if you plant crocuses now they will provide an early food source for bees. I’m just off to give mine some winter feed.
Before I go,
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That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
Until next time.