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Rio+20: Time will tell

Dr Arnold Smit attended the Rio+20 summit on behalf of USB Executive Development. This was a momentous event. Below he shares his thoughts. 

Since my return from Rio+20, I have been asked numerous times: “So how was it?” It takes time to process an experience like this and no evaluation can ever do justice to all aspects of it.  I will therefore not focus here on numbers such as attendance, the amount of money that was pledged, votes in favour of certain actions to be prioritised, or the public declarations issued.  I will, at least for now, simply offer a very personal account of what I experienced.

Different flavours
I attended sessions in four different streams/areas of interest:  academic, business, civic and government.  Each had its own flavour:  educational rhetoric, best practice boasting, impassioned advocacy and cautious bargaining.  At the opposite extremes of my experience lay the vastly different Corporate Sustainability Forum in the Windsor Barra Hotel and the People’s Summit in Catete Park.  The Windsor Barra is a smart, well-equipped and climate-regulated conference venue with a menu that meets the expectations of prominent business executives.  Catete Park is a green strip next to the beach where temporary structures provided a meeting space in a wind-cooled environment with a few food stalls vending something healthy to nibble on when needed.  The Corporate Sustainability Forum was a paper smart event:  every single document was accessible via laptops, tablets and smartphones.  The People’s Summit was a paper-dependent occasion with just the most essential technology to support communication.  In the corporate arena companies were showcasing their most recent best practices towards making the world a better place.  In the civic arena people were crying for justice against capitalism and corporate expansion.  

Missing connectors
Self-justification on the one hand and justice lost on the other – these causes could not have been further apart.  It was a global event under one banner attended by different audiences facing the same challenge, but meeting in separate venues. The audiences were not sharing perspectives with each other and were not building a common vocabulary of understanding. Each was trying to save the world on its own terms.  I shall never underestimate the complexity of staging a summit of such proportions, but I cannot get away from the feeling that there were ‘missing connectors’ among the stakeholders in the sustainability agenda.

I left Rio+20 with a few reflections:
  • I am hopeful that we continue to understand the sustainability challenges of our world better and better as we go from one summit to the next.  These events are not in vain; they help us to build a stronger case for change as we keep on learning from academics, pragmatists, advocates and policy-makers.
  • I am under the impression more than ever before that, as we face a change management project of global proportions, our response is way below par. We are too incremental, too cautious, too slow, and not radical enough in our approach.  We have to stop underestimating the urgency of what we are challenged with.
  • We need to find connectors between the different audiences.  Sustainability is a cross-cutting challenge for which we need innovation and collaboration based on a common vocabulary of understanding and a common strategy of response. The question is who will hold the convening space for such connectivity in the face of complexity.  My answer is that business schools have to put up their hands in this regard. (I’ll explain my motivation for this in a follow-up article.)  
  • Finally, I believe that back at home we notice a groundswell that is not to be underestimated.  I register a growing level of knowledge and awareness, combined with a sense of urgency, among the people in my classes and workshops.  Not only do people increasingly understand that we have a global sustainability challenge to respond to, they bring with them stories – some small, some big – of progress that ignites the imagination of a new world in the making.


So how was Rio?  I think it left me with a sense of ‘time will tell …’  But time is exactly the commodity that we are desperately short of at this particular junction in history.

So, in the light hereof, please see this as an invitation to help us as an executive education institution not only to understand the problem, but to start applying theory to practice in order to drive the change that our world needs now.

Dr Arnold Smit is the Executive for USB-ED’s Centre for Business in Society​

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