Project Breakthrough: a skunkworks for sustainability

The place stank to high heaven. It housed activities that today’s socially responsible investors wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. And yet Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works is the unlikely inspiration for a new UN project designed to save our future.

Announced at the UN headquarters building in New York on September 19 2016, Project Breakthrough is designed to help jump the global sustainability industry to new levels of ambition and action.

And not a moment too soon. Just as early test pilots crashed into what they came to know as the Sound Barrier, so our world of 7-billion-and-counting souls is now colliding with what we might call the “Sustainability Barrier,” an evolving crisis captured in the Planetary Boundaries work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

View of curvature of Earth from 78,000 feet from an SR-71 Blackbird, developed at the Lockheed Martin’s ‘Skunk Works’. Capable of breaking the sounds barrier, it can fly continuously at Mach 3.1 (source: Brian Shul/USAF).

Whereas the original Skunk Works was a response to the intense ideological rivalries of the last century, the skunkworks just launched by the United Nations Global Compact and Volans aims to catalyse the long-term transformation of capitalism, markets and business — ensuring that a future world of 10 billion people does not collapse into new rounds of conflict and war.

Anyone able to understand demographic trends knows that the planet is about to get a lot more crowded, with another 3 billion people forecast to join us within a few short decades. The implication: If we are to make sense of this new century of ours, we must buckle up and break through — evolving new technologies, new business models and, most fundamentally of all, new mindsets.

Some people still hope to hold back the floods — of seawater or migrants — by building walls. The Soviets found that didn’t work too well. Others try to think positive, think different. The United Nations, for example, launched the Sustainable Development Goals exactly a year ago — with a delivery deadline of 2030.

Growing numbers of businesses have been embracing the Goals. Interestingly, however, many seem to have missed a key fact about the Goals. Read carefully, a number of them imply exponential progress and growth. Consider, for example, the first two goals, which call for “No Poverty” and “Zero Hunger.” Change-as-Usual really isn’t going to get us anywhere near.

Some corporate leaders are thrilled that the business world is now seen as a source of solutions, not just of problems. But now people like Unilever CEO Paul Polman, increasingly seen as the sustainable business world’s version of Superman, are warning that even the best-intentioned companies can’t do this all on their own.

Instead, among other things, they know that they must work out how to amplify their efforts by working through leading edge business-to-business platforms. Stand back, though, and it’s clear that, despite growing efforts in this space, most business contributions still aim for incremental change — measured in fractions of a percentage point of change — rather than pushing for breakthrough and, at least for a while, exponential improvements.

This is the market — and mental — gap our new Project Breakthrough is designed to fill. The idea began to simmer late in 2015, when I keynoted a United Nations Global Compact session in Madrid. This pulled together many of the world’s leading companies in the sustainable business space. What we need, I insisted, is a shift in business thinking from incremental to exponential solutions, and from an obsession with the negative impacts of business to strategies and business models designed to produce positive impacts at the necessary pace and scale.

Be careful what you wish for!

Lise Kingo, the Global Compact’s new Executive Director, promptly turned to me — and inquired what we were going to do together to turn the boat around? My reply: the first steps will be to embrace a wide range of breakthrough innovation initiatives — and nurture the rising generation of disruptive talent.

Buckled up or not, the initiative has since been travelling at warp speed, at least in UN terms, pulling in dynamic partners like Atlas of the Future and Human After All. The resulting website will be launched at the September 2016 Global Compact event ahead of the UN Private Sector Forum in New York. We are on the agenda — launching the Project Breakthrough website today in front of hundreds of business leaders.

Among the breakthrough innovators spotlighted in the starting line-up on Project Breakthrough are Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase, X PRIZE Foundation CEO Marcus Shingles, Covestro CEO Patrick Thomas, and Gary Cohen, President of Health Care Without Harm. Project Breakthrough will evolve rapidly, featuring an A-Z of other innovators and thinkers across the world who are pioneering the disruptive technologies, new business models and exponential mindsets needed to address the SDGs through into the 2030s.

Project Breakthrough will also manifest physically, with a Breakthrough Symposium to be co-hosted in in November in Cambridge, UK, by the Global Compact and ARM Holdings (the Internet of Things player recently acquired by Japan’s Softbank). Then, after a series of Basecamp events on different challenges and opportunities, we plan to convene the first in a series of Breakthrough Summits in September 2017.

According to Wikipedia, the term skunkworks has come to mean “a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy. Their work often addresses matters of national security — and is shrouded in secrecy.” Project Breakthrough is being developed in the same spirit. But, unlike the original Skunk Works, which was highly secretive and tucked away in a foul-smelling corner of a factory site, Project Breakthrough embraces openness and crowd-sourced solutions.

Smart business leaders increasingly sense that incrementalism isn’t going to be enough when some of our most critical challenges — among them climate change — show every sign of going exponential. The question they — and we — must now answer is how we shift companies, industries and ultimately entire economies from trajectories leading towards breakdown to alternative breakthrough pathways designed to punch through the Sustainability Barrier.