Green Steps posed the challenging question to attendees and speakers at its 15th Birthday Celebration: Is sustainability dead? And if so, how we can bring it back to life?

We invited some inspiring keynotes speakers and a panel to share their ideas, abstract and concrete, practical and otherwise, on how we could do just that. From social enterprise, to government, to industry – a variety of perspectives were shared and reflected upon. Click here for more information about our speakers.

We took away many things from the night but some notable themes emerged. Overall, an inspiring, honest and optimistic discussion was shared about the next phase of sustainability. Check out what we learnt below:

1. The language is changing

Over the last decade, a whole range of new terms have entered our vernacular, which imply that sustainability is evolving and taking on new meaning. There was clear consensus during the evening that while the premise of sustainable development is alive, the language and focus is changing. Words such as resilience, adaptation, risk, viability, innovation, disruption, pitch, entrepreneurial and enterprise were suggested as more practical ways to talk about the current challenges we face.

"We shouldn't get lost in the language." 

2. We need to sustain ourselves to be able to create change

A probing question from the audience ignited a discussion around personal resilience in the sector: how do we balance mental wellbeing with the reality of current problems and our personal expectations? Eleanor Meyer, Co-Founder of SustainMe, suggested having a clear idea about what motivates you, then finding a support network to surround yourself with.  She also mentioned the importance of non-computer time and being in nature.

Monique Conheady, Chair of Moreland Energy Foundation and Co-Founder of Flexicar, had an interesting perspective and reflected that the cycles and phases of ups and downs are necessary for us to learn and remain grounded. 

Alison Rowe, past Global Executive Director Sustainability at Fujitsu, gave a frank account of how she went from recycling eTags  (an automatic payment device for tollways) to Global Executive Director of Sustainability at Fujitsu, showing that personal resilience and persistence can lead you to great achievements in the industry.

3. Passion and skill combined will take us a long way

The evening started with a word from Toby Kent, who took off his tie to tackle the challenging topic. From a resilient cities perspective, Toby spoke about the long road ahead for even the most innovative cities, and in particular, for the challenges cities faced in sustaining growing populations.

It was refreshing to hear Toby's views on the importance of aligning passion with skills.  He boldly stated that passion alone won't be enough, "we need passion coupled with skill." This ran the risk of being an unpopular view, in a room full of passionate change agents, but it was the kind of honesty that made his talk engaging.

4. Growing self-awareness

“The truth is; people don’t take advice. If you want to influence others, you need to find the right question, and then get people to reflect on it.”

Will Symons, of AECOM and co-founder of Green Steps, reflected on his years from a young student starting the program to his many years as a consultant. He gave insights on respecting other people’s values and being adaptive enough to consider different solutions and approaches. As a consultant, he challenged the model of giving good advice but rather asking the right questions: “The truth is; people don’t take advice. If you want to influence others, you need to find the right question and have people reflect on it.”

5. Progress relies on innovation

Innovation was a popular topic for discussion. Will Symons spoke about the use of good design to create change. He mentioned the key to progress, particularly in business, will be our ability to innovate, and this will be driven by the sustainability challenges the world faces. Will reflected perhaps 'is sustainability dead?' is the wrong question and instead we should be asking, 'what is it we need to make better decisions?'

Finalising with further inspiration on this topic, Toby Kent commented on how young adults are profoundly committed to change. That’s exciting and hopeful news as Gen Y and Z begin to enter the workforce, and move into senior management positions.

"A lot of this stuff we already know we've just forgotten it"

6. Changing perspectives and global interpretations

It was discussed that ‘sustainability’ has become ‘the new normal’ and is increasingly being embedded into business in new and different ways. Tom Quinn, Director of the Future Business Council, offered ideas on ways to avoid siloing sustainability within business. He reflected that we should approach sustainability like finance, “where each department is responsible for their own finances.”

Alison Rowe shared amazing insights on global interpretations of sustainability, including how sustainability has a unique cultural lens, dependent on people’s values and needs. She drew on her experience working at Fujitsu to highlight the differing sustainability challenges she observed in her work depending on where she was in the world. For example, the key focus for Finland was renewable energy, whereas other countries had a different sustainability concern.

With extensive discussion around term, application and new innovations for sustainability, it became clear that the word itself is constantly evolving, shaped by new and challenging problems that the world faces. But for the future, whatever form it takes, one thing is certain -  we'll need sustainability, and sustainability will need all of us.

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