Every journey begins with a bold question
“The future of good is thinking about our ancestors…and thinking about what kind of ancestor you want to be for the next seven generations.” — Elder Monique Manatch, member of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the latest global movement meant to resolve gaps in collective wellbeing. From hunger to economic development and urban sustainability to gender equality, the SDGs represent humanity’s focus areas for the next 12 years of doing good.
“The achievement of the SDGs hinges on delivering economic growth that benefits everyone, empowering women and achieving gender equality, and taking ambitious action on climate change,” says Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “We have a responsibility to future generations to not only achieve these goals, but to do so in a way that leaves no one behind.”
But do we have the mindsets, tools, institutions and networks to succeed? Will today’s approaches satisfy tomorrow’s needs? Enter Future of Good.
On Nov. 29 and 30 2017, 150 Canadians gathered in Ottawa to explore what it will take to achieve the SDGs by 2030, as well as respond to new challenges that will undoubtedly emerge in the future. Future of Good is first event of its kind in Canada and was developed and curated by Vinod Rajasekaran (a PPF alumnus), Jane Porter and Jason Pearman. Having led teams and projects in public, private and charitable sectors, they each bring a unique tri-sector sensibility.
PPF is passionate about issues affecting the social and economic determinants of growth, good governance and a healthy democracy, policy-making in a digital age and amidst disruption, the changing nature of work and Indigenous growth and governance. While Canada has recently outperformed its G7 counterparts economically, innovation, productivity and competitiveness remain challenges, as does growth that is inclusive and politically sustainable. Our third annual Growth Summit on April 12 will seek to understand growth under rapidly changing circumstances. The discussion during Future of Good echoed many of our interests and provided rich input to our own project development.
We were pleased to support the Future of Good and report back on what we learned.
The Future of Good program
Future of Good featured a diverse cross-section of participants: individuals experimenting with new levers (e.g. AI, blockchain, etc.) and models (e.g. BCorps, outcome financing, predictive science, etc.) to improve public policy, aid, conservation and philanthropy, etc., as well as individuals responding on the ground to issues like gender inequality, climate action, poverty, hunger, inclusive growth and education. It had a participant pool that also spanned generations, with those in attendance ranging from six months to 70 years old.
Through small group dinners, compelling performances, panel discussions and intimate conversations, the organizers’ strove to stimulate a deeper curiosity around shifts (e.g. automation and demographics), encourage participants to practice boldness (i.e. seek to be transformational vs. business as usual), challenge established organizations (e.g. governments, corporations, charities and foundations) to step-up, and illuminate blind spots for those of us in the doing-good space (e.g. language monocultures, technical ghettos) — what emerged were essential elements for doing well at doing good in the 21st century.
The program was animated by extensive planned time for Braindates, artistic performances curated by Possible Worlds, a mobile barista and a breakfast catered by Syrian refugees. Blue Sky School, an experimental school, had a class of students actively engaging in conversations and helping run the conference. Excellent moderation was reinforced by using Sli.do to crowdsource questions for panelists.
1. What does good need to look like in this generation? How will it be judged in the future?
- Vinod Rajasekaran [Moderator] (Co-Curator, Future of Good)
- Jessica Bolduc (Executive Director, 4Rs Youth Movement)
- Nick Brysiewicz (Director of Development, Longnow Foundation)
- Indy Johar (Co-founder, Dark Matter Labs)
After sharing a traditional Syrian breakfast and being grounded by an inspiring opening performance on reconciliation, the first plenary of the day set the stage by considering how notions of good change over generations, and the level of ambition and tenacity needed to resolve some of our current and future complex challenges.
- There’s a fine line in policy-making between locking future generations into a regulatory environment and investing in smart regulation with obsolescence built in. When making decisions and taking actions today, we need to consider how to ensure future generations will have choice and that we preserve optionality with sufficient flexibility to deal with unintended secondary effects.
- Forward looking preventative innovation demands the will to reinvent social policy and rethink how we deliver good. While we can learn from startups, it’s time to scale thinking to the level of complex systems and address fundamental issues. It starts with how we define ourselves and what we do to emancipate the potential of everyone. We have the capacity to do this, as has been demonstrated before, for example the transformation of land rights in the UK.
- We can’t fully reimagine a future of good without considering the social constructs embedded in our current worldview. Language, for instance, reflects worldview. English as well as current coding languages are object oriented — they focus on the individual. Many Indigenous languages on the other hand aren’t noun-based and are more about relationships. Such languages and worldviews are better structured to understand and communicate complex systems.
- Passing the torch to the next generation demands that we come together around common interests. Each generation has the option to decide what to preserve, instill and pass on — and every generation has the choice to revisit and reinterpret history for themselves.
We’re all busy thinking about the issues of today, yet we’re the ancestors for the future. What does it take to be responsible to future generations, whether seven generations or 10,000 years out? The SDGs help by presenting a set of shared issues to unite around and answer the question “what it means to pass the torch well”.
2. Levers for doing good part 1: How are the tools that we use today changing?
- Stephen Huddart [Moderator] (President and CEO, The McConnell Foundation)
- Anna Laycock (Executive Director, Finance Innovation Lab)
- Andreas Souvaliotis (Founder and CEO, Carrot Rewards)
- Christine Renaud [Moderator] (CEO, e180)
- Ilse Treurnicht (recent CEO, MaRS Discovery District)
- Maher Arar (CEO, CauseSquare)
Money is at the root of many of the issues we face — climate change, access to good education, poverty, etc. Enterprise and investment traditionally has been how capital is generated, while philanthropy, along with government and charity, is how it is distributed to work on problems. These two sessions considered how traditional levers for doing good (e.g. the financial system, enterprise and philanthropy) are changing — both where there are opportunities and risks.
- The future of good will require innovation on a massive scale, so startups and small NGOs perpetually seeking funding are unlikely to achieve system-level change. We need closer links between those doing the work on the ground and financial institutions with significant capital to allocate.
- We need to leverage market forces by bringing profit and purpose together in social ventures. To maximize reach, these ventures will need significant partnerships with private and public sector as well as academia and civil society.
- Disruption isn’t just about new technology or new ways of working, or feeling the first effects of climate change. At its core, it’s about the confluence of things like the global mobility of people, new business models and the forces of climate change on entire systems.
- Transformational leaders can’t be afraid of current structures becoming obsolete: it’s inevitable. The challenge for leaders in the 21st century will be the degree to which they tolerate complexity and help their board, executives, managers and staff work through it. They need to be able to craft an organizational culture that learns quickly, bounces back from failures and sees opportunities for new forms of partnerships on a grand scale. Culture makes the rapid adoption of new tools and approaches possible.
- New entrants into the doing good space can be many things, including social entrepreneurs who structure ventures so that solving social and environmental challenges is a core part of their bottom line. Unfortunately, many of our current structures impede these new models for doing good (e.g. little venture capital for triple-bottom line enterprises). This is especially unfortunate because there are tools and market forces that can quickly take innovations to large-scale.
To make meaningful contributions to achieving the SDGs, organizations and institutions that create and invest wealth need to move from being enablers of the current system to enablers of transformation. At the base-level, preparing for transformation will be required to buffer your organization from future shifts. However, the opportunity here is to create systems to invest in and scale innovations that help the largest number of people.
3. Levers for doing good part 2: What tools will become important in the next decade?
- Ian Capstick [Moderator] (MediaStyle)
- Supriya Syal (Former Chief Behavourial Scientist, Privy Council Office Innovation Hub)
- Ethan Wilding (Co-Founder, L4 Ventures)
- Kamau Bobb (Director, Constellations Center for Equity)
- Catherine Green (Head of Programs, Response Innovation Lab)
This session was the second of a discussion of tools for good. The focus was on tools that will become increasingly important in the next decade. Specifically, new technologies and behavioural sciences, as well as innovation labs and training programs embedded in the field.
- Behavioural science has broad applications for driving wellbeing. While the use of nudge principles in programs delivered by mission driven organization is good, there are broader applications. For example, recruitment and talent management (e.g. angry people are often more creative and more optimistic), optimizing internal change-management exercises and designing more nuanced policy (e.g. factoring in the cognitive tax imposed by living in poverty).
- Our data are being centralized and even monopolized by companies and institutions sitting on unbelievable troves of data. There is tremendous potential for good to be done with those data, and appropriate incubation of organizations linked to regulatory authorities, as well as clarity on data ownership, could unlock that potential.
- Training and education are not the same thing — training teaches a specific skillset that can become obsolete, or at least restricts one to a particular vocation, whereas education prepares people for multiple options. Education and training policy must ensure inclusive opportunities.
- In parallel to access to education, equitable access to innovation support and opportunity are required to maximize human potential.
As new tools for doing good are emerging at an accelerated pace, it’s especially important for leaders to create runways for these innovations to be adopted, and wholesale ecosystems to sustain and grow the positive impacts.
4. What do the forces and levers at play mean for how we approach the SDGs?
- Andrew Chunilall [Moderator] (CEO, Community Foundations of Canada)
- Diane Dodgins (COO, Shorefast Foundation)
- Elizabeth Hendriks (Vice-President Freshwater, WWF Canada)
- Robert Opp (Head of Innovation and Change Management, World Food Programme)
This session asked executives from organizations leading responses to key SDG domains for their reflections on how organizations need to approach SDGs differently given the day’s discussions on shifts, ambition, and tools.
- The current structure of the not-for-profit, charitable, and government systems can hinder the achievement of multi-generational good; they simply weren’t designed to tackle really complex problems, and they are limited by how revenue can be distributed to invest in leaps forward. If social innovation capacity and support structures continues to lag behind capacity and support for science and technology-based innovation, many of these organizations are going to become obsolete.
- Partnerships could open entirely new areas of opportunity for businesses, governments, academia, not-for-profits and charities. Large international NGOs, for instance, have a deep field presence in developing regions where the private sector could access new business opportunities. Charities must be accountable to their work, but they increasingly have a duty to be nimble to find ways through complex challenges and see where problems are also commercially interesting opportunities that private innovators could be involved in.
- Communities on the ground need to be part of the decision making about developments that will affect — positively or negatively — their wellbeing.
Conservatism in the doing good sector impacts organizational ability to adapt and invest in scaling up promising models. This needs to be addressed to work (strategy and operations) both toward the SDGs as well as to anticipate and respond to future shifts. New partnership models and a cultural openness to innovation are two promising ways forward to close the gap between the status quo and desired state.
6. Building movements for a vibrant and evolving Future of Good
The day ended with a conversation between Jess Tomlin (Moderator) and Alia Soliman, Atong Amos Agook and Yah Parwon, the 2017 Nobel Women’s Initiative Sister-to-Sister Mentorship Program participants, on the essential elements for sparking and sustaining vibrant movements.
- The Future of Good is about transformative change of deeply entrenched norms and belief systems. It’s a long game, a marathon, and one-time changes in policy and law is not enough.
- When the stakes are highest, those who have the least to lose can drive the most valuable innovations.
- Movements that have real impact have to affect awareness, connect with other movements and change systems, remain vigilant and respond to any future shifts that can compromise gains. Movements, leaders and policy makers also need to be ready to work with unlikely allies.
These three young women leading movements in different parts of Africa have had successes and they shared ideas on keeping movements strong after the initial objectives are met. In an increasingly interconnected world, good looks like strong movements. Powered by both anger and hope, strong movements constantly strategize and ask what is to be done after the immediate crisis goal is achieved, taking that energy beyond the initial reaction and a mobilization resources in an emergency.
“It’s inspiring to find out that adults are still learning too.” — Blue Sky School student
Achieving the SDGs will require continuous innovation on a massive scale. It will challenge us to clarify what we value, challenge incumbents, be aware of our blind spots and make the space for shifts to happen — and do this over multiple generations.
Whether we’re ready for it or not, we should expect new entrants to continue to emerge who are applying novel tools and bringing flexibility, allowing them to scale and achieve impact quickly and thoughtfully. If your organization has been in the social mission space for the past few decades, expect the viability of your model to be challenged in fundamental ways. If your organization hasn’t had an explicit social mission, expect pressure from your staff, board and the public to develop one.
If you’re a leader in this space, Future of Good has successfully made the case for making time to reflect on buffering your work from disruption and contributing to enabling conditions that make room for a more radical future.
Interested in learning more? Connect with Future of Good.