Past and future of sustainability with the RSA
by Adam Woodhall — The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, or RSA for short, was founded in 1754, and has an impressive history.
With that legacy, it would be easy for the RSA to be backward looking, but whilst it celebrates its past, it is firmly focused on looking forward.
In 2016 the RSA’s future is looking equally impressive if its most recent event—and its Sustainability Network—is anything to go by.
The event featured a keynote address from James Goodman (pictured), the Director of Futures from Forum for the Future, titled ‘The Future of Sustainability’. Appropriately, the event was held at Fab Lab London which is the City of London’s first purpose built digital fabrication and rapid prototyping workspace.
The RSA’s mission is to enrich society through ideas and action, bringing together businesses, makers and entrepreneurs. Its Sustainability Network is firmly focused on this mission. Historically, it demonstrated this interest by offering awards for the reduction of smoke emissions as early as 1770, recording the first use of the word ‘sustainability’ in an environmental context in 1980 and running the ground-breaking Great Recovery programme from 2012 to 2016.
Learning, inspiration and networking appear to have always been at the core of the RSA. This past provided a great context for the meeting of minds at the Fab Lab. The broad view of Goodman’s look ahead considered how systems change, and he detailed how increasing turbulence and disruption is affecting many sectors and systems, opening up opportunities for positive responses.
We learnt from Goodman how blockchain and sustainability are interacting. Blockchain is a distributed database of transactions located in the cloud and unchangeable, so is a permanent and open record of any transaction. This is the platform for the famous cryptocurrency Bitcoin. But it now has moved out of finance and into sustainability. Goodman gave the example of Provenance, which uses blockchain to prove authentic supply chain, as with fish; it is now possible to verify on your smartphone the history of the fish in the restaurant from hook to plate. The implications of blockchain are therefore considerable, with a potential massive change in supply change management.
Goodman inspired the standing room only meeting by highlighting the energy transformation the world is undergoing. He demonstrated the substantial momentum behind the energy revolution, which is renewable, local and smart, despite low oil prices. Some examples: for the first time in 2015, more investment went into renewables than fossil fuels; on May 2016, there was one day when no UK electricity came from coal; Portugal was 100% renewable for four days; and that New York state is phasing out coal by 2020.
A member of the Sustainability Network, Hermione Taylor, founder of the behaviour change start-up The DoNation, observed that it wasn’t just the keynotes that stimulated her: “The magic of the RSA Sustainability Network is how it brings together such a diverse mix of people, all with a shared passion for sustainability. I’m learning from, and being inspired by, everything from corporate sustainability professionals to environmental campaigners; and from retired ethical investors to young academics.”
Staying true to its title, the Sustainability Network has lots of opportunity for people to meet, connect and deepen relationships. As Susan Harris, Director of SRS Sustainable Business and Chair of the network enthused: "We've had such a strong response since we started, with over 245 members joining in the last six months. The network provides an opportunity for Fellows and others who work with, or have an interest in, sustainability to get together, share ideas and help the RSA take forward its sustainability agenda.”
This is a true member-led community, with subgroups taking action on topics as diverse as a pop-up sustainable department store, hackathons and the stainability impact of RSA activities. Looking toward the action aspect of the RSA network, Goodman commented that it “aims to harness the passion of individuals, and that is what makes it particularly interesting. I’d like to see the group tackling challenges that large organisations find difficult – and perhaps even be bolder and more experimental.”
If you are interested in learning, being inspired or networking, then email the RSA Sustainability Network Chair, Susan Harris: email@example.com.