How to make the world a better place

Each Sunday 2 minute iNCiTE! reflects not just on the role communication and storytelling plays in driving change but also on the underlying psychology of the change process itself. You can’t have one without the other and, contrary to popular practice, no-one has ever PowerPointed change into existence.

Nowhere are the headwinds stronger for the change agent than on the high seas of sustainability policy-making. A few posts back, I wrote about youth climate activist Greta Thunberg who was the focal point of a Twitter melee over the World Economic Forum’s decision to give her a platform at Davos. Climate action, indeed concerted action on any one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, is fraught not because of a lack of available information but because of its abundance. While there may be mountains of scientific data, this often lacks practical insight to galvanise the policy-makers.

This week, a possible antidote to that - the Dane who triggered the Thunberg Twitterspat in the first place. Until last week, when he was interviewed by Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, I knew very little about Bjorn Lomborg. He is the President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC), an elite think tank made up of 30 of the world’s top economists (including 7 Nobel Laureates). The CCC exists to answer a very simple question: Where should we spend our money if the goal is to do the greatest amount of good in the least amount of time with limited resources? A very good question when you consider that policy-makers are besieged by no less than 169 UN development targets all of which can be moulded to suit one agenda or another.

We explored the importance of prioritisation in previous posts. This essential leadership discipline is not about getting more things done; it’s about getting the right things done. We do it to invest our time, energy and money as wisely as possible, to operate at our highest point of contribution. In this regard, the UN target-setting process was, according to Lomborg, “flawed from the outset, beset by horse-trading, haggling and endless was important not to offend anyone”. Regardless of how good the outcome made everyone feel, prioritising 169 targets is the same as prioritising none. We end up with a sprinkling of investment everywhere rather than decisive investment in a few critical areas.

Enter Lomborg and the CCC. By means of a rigorously peer reviewed cost-benefit model, the team explores and prioritises potential solutions to global issues. To remove any uncertainty about implementation, it also scripts the critical moves. “The prioritization is painful” points out Lomborg: there’s the professional backlash from leaders whose life work have been consigned to the long tail. Then there’s the public backlash: Lomborg has been smeared as a climate change denier, pelted with cream pies and spat at by activists.

Undeterred, the CCC continues to point policy makers to the high points of contribution the peak of which lies in just 19 of the 169 targets. According to the numbers, $1 spent on these 19 targets yields $35 of “good” compared to $7 of “good” if spent on all 169. Controversially, very few of the 19 targets have anything to do with saving Mother Earth. The models show that investing in Her people and their livelihoods yields, at least for now, a better bang for our buck. They reveal emphatically that even a relatively modest investment could eliminate chronic child malnutrition, halve malaria infection and almost wipe out tuberculosis by the year 2030. Jordan Peterson said it best when he concluded that “the best thing we can do for the future is to make better people FOR the future”.

Perhaps the CCC’s biggest liability is the colossal playing field it presides over. Despite the high acuity insights the think tank provides, many policy makers remain either overwhelmed, passive or both. “Most find prioritisation on the planetary scale academically very interesting” says Lomborg. “But then they say ‘yeah that’s probably true for some other country’”. Since the global view scares people off, sometimes you need to shrink the change. It’s perhaps not too surprising then that the CCC’s highest point of contribution has been its “nano” interventions in countries like Bangladesh and Ghana. “It's not like we’ve made all policy-makers super rational overnight” admits Lomborg. “What we have done is to provide headwind to the poor ideas and tailwind to the really good ones”. Despite all the hyperbole about radical action, in the end it’s the small changes that really matter. And wherever they materialise, you have bright spots that can be cloned elsewhere. “If it works in Ghana, it will probably work for its neighbours” concludes Lomborg.

To close, three key learnings. Firstly, the liberating power of prioritisation. It's not about getting more things done; it’s about getting the right things done. Secondly, shrink the change but not so much that you can no longer contribute meaningfully. Thirdly, look for small wins whilst managing the weather system of support and resistance - starve the headwinds, feed the tailwinds. Wherever you see breakthrough, clone it in other places. Above all, embrace Lomborg’s philosophy of change: “we don't need action that makes us feel good. We need action that actually does good”

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