“We must move from incremental solutions to exponential ones.”


6 min read

This interview was co-authored by Dineshi Ramesh and Alexander Saleh.

John Elkington is a Founding Partner and Chief Pollinator at Volans, a leading sustainability think tank and advisory practice. He is a world authority on sustainable capitalism and corporate responsibility, and an author of 20 books. His latest, “Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism,” explores how Green Swan events present a path to exponential progress in our economies, society and the environment.

Why Green Swans?

If anyone had told me as a child that I would write even one book, I would have been completely nonplussed!

Around two years ago, I began writing a book that wasn’t to be this book. It was to be about artificial intelligence and its use in facing all sorts of grand challenges which are more complicated than what we’ve previously faced. However, as I got quite deep into that, it emerged that there was very little demand from publishers at the time. There was already so much on AI out there.

So, I flipped it. I began examining the nature of the risks and challenges that we must now confront. When it came out, the ideas in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan” made a big impact on me. As I was thinking about the negative exponentials of economic, social and environmental breakdowns that lead to Black Swans, I also began to think about positive exponentials. The Green Swan language, appeared to be a relatively simple way to capture and explore these potential breakthroughs.

How does Green Swan growth differ from the growth that is pursued by companies today?

The Green Swan concept takes the ideas of traditional “green growth” one step further, by saying that we must move from incremental solutions to exponential ones. The challenges that we face, plastics in the oceans, antibiotic resistance, Covid-19, climate emergencies, obesity and so on, are building at exponential rates.

So this isn’t just about (hopefully green) growth, it’s about exponential growth and solutions to exponential problems. We’ve got to replace the ways that we feed, house, transport, inform and finance our swollen human populations.

I’m a big fan of the work of the Xprize Foundation, Singularity University and GoogleX. The people who are trying to think about exponential solutions. And these solutions aren’t just waiting to be plucked from a tree, they require a huge effort, huge stamina and political will. Black Swans happen because we aren’t really paying attention. Green Swans happen when we really do begin to pay attention.

Can we leave the development of exponential green solutions to the private sector? What is the role of the Government and/or the regulator?

We need the innovation, the enterprise and risk-taking of the private sector, there’s absolutely no question about that. It was interesting to observe Marc Benioff stating that capitalism is broken, only to be countered by Warren Buffet saying “only governments can create conditions that make the private sector do the right thing.”

I believe governments have a central role to play. Look at what’s happening with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and the trillion-euro investment into the European Green Deal. Mariana Mazzucato, an economist who I pay a lot of attention to, points to times in our past where the government has waded in, for example in the space industry. Over time, the private sector has no option but to make a success of playing a new game, with new rules. I think we’re there again.

And whilst it’s clear that developing the world economy along the lines of Milton Friedman’s principles of small government hasn’t worked, at the same time, much of government policy-making is ineffective and not fit-for-purpose. Business periodically reinvents itself around new and innovative ideas. Government hasn’t ever achieved this to the same extent, and now needs to do so. It is essential but must be reinvented to best serve our long-term interest.

How can we nurture the learning environments that lead to exponential solutions and Green Swan events?

If you look at human thinking patterns, we’re not wonderfully well-wired to do even elementary mathematics. I stumbled out of calculus as soon as it appeared on the horizon at school. But as to whether we can encourage or train people to think in exponential ways? I think we can begin by encouraging people to pay attention to what’s already going on in the wider world — and to use models and machines to get a grip on exponentials, be they good, bad, or ugly.

It’s not as if exponential flurries haven’t happened before. Looking at Information Technology and how that spread through our economy, that was a whole series of exponential trajectories. So it’s not that we haven’t been there before, it’s just that it’s incredibly disruptive when you find yourself there. If you were at IBM at the time, suddenly your business model was being pulled apart by upstarts like Microsoft and Cisco. I think that’s where we might be headed again.

Having a broad vision of where we need to get to is important, like JFK’s challenge to get a man on the moon. If that vision is set clearly enough and the incentives are put in place, it’s amazing what we can achieve as a species. But it will be from those untrammelled economies, those that are on a growth curve and are confident, as opposed to those that are feeling tired and defensive.

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If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

Crazy Horse, the Lakota war leader who united the Plains Indians to stand up against General Custer. He was an outlier and wasn’t afraid to go against convention. However, my wife Elaine raised the two very correct points that I don’t eat meat and I don’t speak Oglala Sioux, so I might not get very far!

Do you have a favourite quote?

I’ve had a few that I’ve used over the years, but I’d share one that comes from the US Army Corps of Engineers during the Pacific Theatre in World War Two: “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”

And finally, who is Green Swans for?

I normally say only go for one target audience, as that helps with the writing process. But here, I think there are three answers:

  1. People in business, particularly at the top end of businesses. Not everyone who sits on a board or in the C-suite is interested in this stuff, but at least the ones who are open to new ideas.
  2. The sustainability industry. Much of the work there focuses on incremental solutions and I’m making the argument for greater ambition and exponential solutions.
  3. Young people, who are the least likely to read the book, but the most important group for me. We are in a situation where young people have every right to be at least a little bit worried about the future, with multiple systemic crises pressing in at once. But it’s in these times, where the potential for change is greatest.

Our key takeaways

  • Adversity breeds resilience.
    Instinctively, we might not welcome these difficult times in our collective history, but they are powerful, as they can align us to a broader purpose. It’s in these times that “the prospects for driving change, in a coherent way, are much higher than in normal circumstances.”
  • What can board members be aware of?
    As stakeholder-led agendas make their way into the mainstream, they can become diluted. “Sustainability is about systemic solutions to systemic challenges,” and this is why the role of the NED is so important. It is difficult to act as the dissenting voice, or offer the alternative point of view. However it is vital that we protect this, to avoid becoming magnetised to solutions that don’t match up to reality.
  • How can Company Secretaries prepare for the future?
    As business reinvents itself along new lines of social and environmental value creation, organisations will need custodians of these initiatives. The role of the Company Secretary will evolve alongside this, offering strategic support to the board in identifying and enabling the conversations that need to be had. Right now, company secretaries can be starting those conversations with chairs, board members, and management, to identify these new drivers of performance and build agendas that support them.

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