Breaking out of the parallel universe

Let’s welcome moves to get business and politics talking to each other.

The idea of a parallel universe is a staple of science fiction. Indeed the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Interstellar, is all about a mission to save humanity from devastating crop blight by travelling through a wormhole to find new planets – or so my teenage son assures me. (I fear the purported climate change allegory was rather lost on him.)

However a parallel existence is alive and well here on earth, in the two worlds occupied by business and politics, or so it seems to me.

In business, forward thinking leaders are grappling with how to build prosperous companies for the long term, faced with rising costs, potential shortages of raw materials and fractured societies, against the backdrop of a profound loss of trust in corporate motives. In politics, thoughtful leaders are grappling with the absence of prosperity, with rising energy bills, massive youth unemployment and the overhang of debt and austerity –  and a breakdown of trust in institutions and now a nasty streak of xenophobia too. In short, many of the same issues in both realms.

Of course both sides have made many mistakes, but the solutions – as this commentary has long argued – lie in working together. Thankfully one initiative is trying to cross the divide. An Economy That Works (also covered in a recent media briefing) is setting out how to make the transition to an economy that delivers prosperity, competitiveness and sustainability for both companies and citizens. The model is built around six core characteristics including high employment, low carbon and zero waste. It has identified four enablers that will encourage this transition.

I’ve played a modest part in discussions to build this vision, and was pleased to see the latest step just announced – a set of priorities for the forthcoming UK general election: 50 ‘asks’ clustered in six themes. This manifesto contains many good ideas on how to close the UK’s skills gap, finance a shift to a low carbon economy and (interestingly) work more with European partners.

The only trouble – said with a heavy heart – is that virtually none of the 50 asks is framed in a way that a political party could put into its manifesto, still less use on the doorstep with real voters. The analysis is laudable and the technocratic solutions correct, but there’s little apparent voter benefit. In democratic politics you have to persuade people to vote for the change in policies. And that’s rather like the challenge sustainable companies have in persuading consumers to buy the new products.

Oh dear, another example of both sides struggling to convey the same message, and with no wormhole in sight.

Meanwhile this month’s crop of commentators address some of the key steps that we can be taking towards the goal: Grace Young and Simon Hill on what business is doing in education, Arpita Raksit on the role of women in Africa’s growing economy and Yohan Hill on shifting to a low carbon future, while John Morrison calls for a new ‘social contract’ for business in society. Amen to that!

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