News | 16th April 2020

Green Swans & How to Spot Them

By Dr Geoff Kendall

From recall…

In a Harvard Business Review article in June 2018, John Elkington announced the world’s first product recall of a management concept — the Triple Bottom Line — which he had introduced 25 years earlier. Reactions were decidedly mixed, ranging from “good riddance!” to “how could you?!” I’m paraphrasing, but not a lot. I found the reactions intriguing, perhaps in part because the recall didn’t come as much of a surprise to me.

Back in 2013, when the Future-Fit Business Benchmark was little more than a concept itself, I would stumble my way through explaining it to anyone who would listen. The most common reaction from whichever poor soul I had cornered was a furtive glance in search of the nearest exit, but John was different. He quickly saw that Future-Fit was an attempt to encourage and equip people to embed Triple Bottom Line thinking into the very core of how they do business. Whether John thought we would succeed I don’t know, but he graciously agreed to appear on our newborn website as a strategic advisor, and he penned the foreword to our first public draft. (Without the credibility that endorsement gave us I’m not sure we would have made it as far as a second public draft, but that’s another matter!)

…through reinvention…

We’ve come a long way since then, but it’s fair to say that the Triple Bottom Line — and every other well-meaning concept, framework, model and toolkit which followed — have not yet managed to nudge our global economic system onto a better course. That’s why John issued his Triple Bottom Line recall.
I knew he had no intention of throwing it  away — at least, not until he had exhaustively explored whether it could be retuned, recalibrated and reinvented to catalyze the systemic change we need. And that’s exactly the effort that John and the Volans team have been engaged in for the past 18 months, bringing together a wide range of experts through the Tomorrow’s Capitalism Inquiry to figure out where we go from here.

…to responsibility, resilience and regeneration

That work reached an important stage last week, with the publication of John’s twentieth book, Green Swans: The Coming Boom In Regenerative Capitalism. In it John sets out a compelling vision for our economy to become truly responsible, resilient and regenerative. Our team is thrilled that the Future-Fit Business Benchmark features prominently, with John stating that it “has the potential to evolve into a global operating system for business, markets, and, eventually, cities and governments.”

But before we get carried away, the operative word here is “potential”. Yes, Future-Fit offers a clear destination to aim for, and a way to guide progress toward it, but it will only have any real impact on the world if it is adopted at speed and scale. Early adopters know the Benchmark works, but now we need to make that adoption exponential — among companies, investors, advisors and policy makers — and that’s why for me the idea of the Green Swan is so compelling.

Enter the Green Swan

What, you ask, is a Green Swan? Well you may have heard of Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swans, which John characterise as “challenges that get exponentially worse in ways that most of us struggle to understand, let alone tackle and solve.” Black Swans are dramatic events which few, if any of us, see coming even though they are often “inappropriately rationalised after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.” The 2008 stock market crash is a decade-old example, whose shockwaves are still being felt.

John notes that people also now talk of Gray Swans: issues “which are predictable and may have been predicted, but which when ignored for too long erupt in ways that can rock the world on its heels.” Anyone who has watched Bill Gates’ 2015 Ted Talk on the urgent need to prepare for pandemics — which now seems eerily prescient, but to experts at the time was merely stating the obvious — will realise that the current COVID-19 crisis fits the Gray Swan profile.

And so from Black and Grey to Green. In John’s words:

A Green Swan is a profound market shift, generally catalysed by some combination of Black or Grey Swan challenges and changing paradigms, values, mindsets, politics, policies, technologies, business models, and other key factors.

A Green Swan delivers exponential progress in the form of economic, social, and environmental wealth creation. At worst, it achieves this outcome in two dimensions while holding the third steady. There may be a period of adjustment where one or more dimensions underperform, but the aim is an integrated breakthrough in all three dimensions.

The sight of Green Swans on the horizon would be hugely welcome right now, given the urgency and complexity of the challenges facing us today. But where do they come from? John channels Hans Christian Andersen to answer that:

An Ugly Duckling is an early-stage concept, mind-set, technology, or venture with the potential to become either a Black Swan (often driven by “bad” exponentials) or Green Swan (driven by “good” exponentials). Its potential future evolution is very hard to detect early on, unless you know what you are looking for. Tomorrow’s breakthrough solution often looks seriously weird today. The net result is that we give them significantly less attention and resources than they need — or than the future of the 2030s and beyond would want us to in hindsight.

I love this definition, in part because I’m a sucker for a stretched metaphor, but mainly because it recognises that plenty of endeavours have the potential to drive rapid and radical change — if only we could spot them early enough to nurture and nudge them in the right direction.

How to notice and nurture an Ugly Duckling

Last June I was asked to speak at the UN Global Compact Expert Network Retreat, on how our economic system needs to change, and the role the UN Global Compact can play in that transition. I only had a twenty minute slot, and as I touched down in New York the night before I took the stage I realised I had enough slides to fill at least two hours. Most of them ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor — including a first cut at a set of questions aimed at exploring the ‘exponential potential’ of any big idea.

Those slides came to mind this morning, as I read John’s call to action in the opening section of Green Swans, which states that the book is “more of a manifesto, not yet a detailed road map” — and which encourages the reader to build on what’s there. So it is in this spirit that I dug out the questions and have summarised their key points in the table below (in no particular order), in the hope that they might offer a starting point for identifying today’s Ugly Ducklings.

Green Swan enablers… …and how to spot them
Established need Is the idea meeting an established need, for example by solving an obvious and immediate pain point for the target user?
Exploitable capacity Can the idea be implemented by tapping into existing expertise, infrastructure, or resources?
Economies of scale Does the cost of implementation decrease as adoption increases?
Ecosystem effect As adoption increases, does the potential benefit for each user increase — for example through the creation of new markets for services?
Engaged influencers Is the idea backed by people who have the reach and ability to attract the target users?
Empowered co‑creators Are others encouraged and rewarded for contributing enhancements, which then become available to everyone?
Easy adoption Is the idea easy for a target user to embrace, and is the barrier to entry (e.g. upfront cost) low?
Effective incentives Is the idea desirable for target users to embrace? In particular does the make them or save them money, or improve their quality of life?
Evidence of success Has the idea already been proven (for example in a particular location), or can its financial and/or technical viability only be proven if it scales?
Exciting narrative Is the idea compelling enough, even at small scale, for target users to act? If the idea were to be scaled, what would be different in the world? How can this inspire others?

The questions are grouped according to what we might think of as ten ‘Green Swan enablers’: attributes which, if present, might increase an idea’s potential to scale exponentially. I’ve been asking myself these questions for a while now about Future-Fit, as I try to identify gaps in our efforts to accelerate adoption of the Benchmark. Hopefully you will find them useful too. That said, this is all very much a work in progress, so  to co-opt one last avian quote from Green Swans  please see it as “an invitation to scratch and peck, not to parrot.”

Imagine if we could come up with a reliable way to notice Ugly Ducklings at an early stage, and to identify what support they need to nurture and nudge them toward a greener future. Perhaps the myriad Green Swans we so sorely need really aren’t that far away, if only we know where and what we’re looking for.

As with all our work at Future-Fit, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas. In the meantime, I urge you to grab yourself a copy of Green Swans and read it from cover to cover at the earliest opportunity. I would end this post by saying that among people who still think that business as usual is acceptable, Green Swans is sure to ruffle a few feathers but my team would never let me get away with it…

Dr Geoff Kendall Co-Founder & CEO

Geoff is an entrepreneur whose experience spans sustainability consulting, high-tech startups, corporate communications and academic research.

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