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A Life Dedicated to Fostering Sustainability Leadership

2015 is a year that I dearly hope will be remembered as a turning point in our determination to assure the long-term health, wealth and security of people and our planet. We have already had three major UN gatherings whose agreements are showing the direction of travel: they have given us the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in March; the Addis Ababa deal on financing global development; and just last month, in New York, the UN General Assembly formally adopted the new Sustainable Development Goals designed to end poverty and hunger by 2030.

And of course, in Paris in just over a month, the world will come together and - we must hope - agree meaningful action to limit the worst effects of climate change.

Few of us can have any illusions that these big global gatherings can achieve - by themselves - the outcomes we so badly need. But we have to hold out some hope. Because behind these high-profile events, I believe, lies an unstoppable force, a gathering chorus from all walks of life - from civil society, faith groups, business leaders, academia, young people and the millions of those whose voice is so often overlooked - demanding with increasing intensity that our leaders take action to deal with the forces that are so destructive to our natural world and to society.

These issues, these forces, lie at the very heart of our work at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Growing up on the slopes of one of the greatest natural wonders

I grew up in South Africa on a small farm overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, on the slopes of Table Mountain - one of the world's greatest natural wonders.

My father shared with me his deep love of the natural world. He felt a profound sense of despair at the destruction of nature and its accompanying human harm, particularly, as he saw it, by companies in pursuit of profit. I still have the copy of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring which he pressed me and my siblings to read so we would understand his stance on the ruthlessness of big business.

"The powerful notion of sustainable development helped me make sense of the tensions that I had grown up with."

But in the 1960s and 1970s, South Africa was a schizophrenic country and my blissfully happy childhood could not but be clouded by our regular encounters with the world we were not supposed to acknowledge existed - the world of deep social injustice, of black Africans marginalised by white apartheid rule.

Polly Courtice grew up in South Africa where she developed a deep love of the natural world.

It wasn't until much later - in the early 1990s - that I first encountered the powerful notion of sustainable development and realised this might be a way of making sense of the tensions that I had grown up with, between economic growth, social justice and environmental protection. By then, I had recently joined a small unit to help industry gain access to the University' of Cambridge's extraordinary knowledge base through the creation of technical short courses.

Helping business leaders understand sustainable development

What I quickly realised was that many of the business leaders that I met were not looking for training at all, and that there were surely better ways the University could help them. Their underlying challenge, as I came to see it, lay in the rapidly globalising world around them. Many of the old certainties about markets, consumers and the regulatory environment no longer applied, and civil society organisations were capitalising on the communications revolution and the advent of the internet to hold companies to account in ways never before experienced.

Environmental shocks and their associated human tragedies had started to come thick and fast, beginning in the late 1980s, with first Bhopal, then Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez spill; and scientists were starting to raise the alarm about climate change, with the first IPCC report published in 1989. What these business leaders needed were insights into how to deal with this volatile, complex and uncertain world.

The Rio Summit of 1992 was a catalyst for many powerful new initiatives and movements. Not long after the Summit I was approached by The Prince of Wales, who had himself been inspired by Rio and wanted an academic institution to set up a programme to help business leaders understand this new agenda. In 1994 we ran the first week-long residential seminar in The Prince of Wales's Business & Sustainability Programme, summing up the challenge in the question in the seminar's title "Profitability and Sustainability - Conflict or Convergence?"

"All this was taking place many years before corporate social responsibility, let alone sustainability, became commonplace in business."

I feel slightly daunted even now as I recall the steepness of my own learning curve, but I also remember the sense of shock as the experts that I turned to in developing the programme revealed the stark reality of the data and what the science was telling us. For the first time I really appreciated the despair that my father felt, only the story was so much worse than he could ever have imagined. But most of all I look back with awe at the sheer passion and determination to change things for the better of those who worked with me.

Amongst all of those, The Prince of Wales has proved to be a visionary leader, far ahead of his time, constantly pushing beyond the boundaries of convention to challenge the way people see the world and utterly determined to change things for the better.

With HRH The Prince of Wales, then-US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Sir Nicolas Stern, at St James's Palace for a Nobel Laureate symposium, May 2009.

It's worth remembering that all this was taking place many years before corporate social responsibility, let alone sustainability, became commonplace in business, and more than a decade before Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth popularised the reality of climate change. I remember only too well the many heated debates we had in those early seminars. Most business leaders still took the Friedmanesque view that the only social responsibility of business was to increase its profits - social justice and climate change, they solidly maintained, were purely the concern of government.

A powerful network of 7000 alumni

The Business & Sustainability Programme was the springboard from which we were able to transform ourselves into an institution within the University of Cambridge focused entirely on sustainability leadership. From just three people in 1988 we have grown to having nearly 70 people in the team today, with additional offices in Brussels, so that we can work with the policy community in Europe, and also in Cape Town - a perfect excuse to get back to the Mountain!

Our work has evolved closely in line with the sustainability debate and taken us far beyond the walls of Cambridge in offering programmes for executives in many different centres around the world, often tailored for individual organisations, and for cities such as Beijing and Guangdong, and in 2016 we plan to introduce a programme in Colombia to build the links between sustainability and the peace process that is so vital to that nation's future.

"The Prince of Wales has proved to be a visionary leader, far ahead of his time, constantly challenging the way people see the world."

As the sustainability movement has gathered momentum, so our graduate and executive programmes have attracted ever more talented and highly motivated individuals from a wide variety of sectors and countries, committed to building sustainability expertise and leadership skills. Our role is to challenge leaders to respond to the evidence before us; to make decisions based on the latest and best science, and to build on the experience of those who are building resilient business models that simultaneously meet our social and environmental ambitions. If we have developed a core skill it is to help leaders to step back and reappraise the purpose and direction of their business and, importantly, to reflect deeply on the role that business could and should be expected to play in society.

Today we have an influential network of nearly 7,000 leaders - alumni who to one degree or another have been 'woken up' to the crisis we are all part of, and who have been inspired by the endless possibilities that an alternative approach might offer. But what many of them are experiencing - like so many others in the business community - is the reality of being trapped in the current system, often driven by the short termism of investors and policymakers. This has led us over the past decade to open up a whole other dimension of our work, where we seek to bring about change at a more systemic level.

Are we making enough progress?

This has meant new ways of working - partnerships and alliances within and between the business and the policy communities, and with academia and civil society - to tackle critical but complex issues where business, policy and science intersect and yet where shared spaces for dialogue and coherent action often do not exist.

The Prince of Wale's Corporate Leaders Group that we set up in 2005 was one of the earliest business groups to work in this more collaborative way, creating space for policymakers in Europe to introduce long-term, ambitious policies to tackle climate change. It was instrumental in supporting the UK government to pass the world's first Climate Change Act and its annual Communiqués have succeeded in bringing the progressive voice of thousands of international businesses to the debate, calling for ambitious carbon targets and pricing, and for a commitment to limit global temperature rise to 2°C.

Our Banking Environment Initiative has convened 10 of the world's largest banks to sign a compact which aligns them with the Consumer Goods Forum's resolution to achieve zero net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020. And in the Natural Capital field we are involved in developing the first ever Natural Capital Protocol that will set out a standardised way for businesses to measure and value their impacts and dependencies on nature - simply essential if business is to take appropriate action.

Over the years we have seen at first-hand what leadership in the business community can achieve, including inspiring examples of innovation and serious efforts to mainstream sustainability thinking. But the real question is: are we making enough progress? Is the contribution of business anywhere close to what is required, and can the economy in its current form deliver what the world needs in terms of sustainable development?

Rewiring the economy

Our conclusion is that while there is a vast amount more that business could and should do, there are limits to how far it will be able to go without a fundamental redesign of our economy, where business, finance and government work together to tilt the game in favour of sustainability, in favour of business models which create prosperity and provide decent jobs, without eroding the natural and social capital upon which they rely.

This thinking underlies our latest initiative, Rewiring the Economy, which identifies ten collaborative tasks which, if implemented over the next decade, would lay the foundations for a sustainable economy. Tasks, for example, that encourage investors to use their influence to drive long-term, socially useful value creation; and encourage companies to broaden their measurement and disclosure frameworks. These are not tasks which we at the Institute have set ourselves to tackle, but rather we offer them as a compass and a framework against which to test strategies and decision-making.

"Our role is to challenge leaders to respond to the evidence before us and make decisions based on the latest and best science."

My father used to play in the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra and it was my joy to watch the orchestra rehearse and to sneak in through the stage door on concert nights to hear them perform. Perhaps I was unconsciously picking up vital tips, because in truth what I've done in my 27 years at Cambridge is to act as the conductor to the aspirations and efforts of countless individuals - my colleagues and affiliates - many far more knowledgeable and skilled than I am.

I have tried to offer a vision as to where we might go, and what melody, what tempo we should be after, but it has always been a collective experience and, quite simply, without them I would not be doing what I do. When it has worked - which in many respects it has - the harmonies have, I believe, radiated far beyond the individuals we work with to touch the wider system of which they are part.

The shifts the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership has been able to facilitate over the years have often run against the grain of mainstream business sentiment and, let's face it, against the grain of much mainstream business school teaching too! This has sometimes been challenging, but it has also opened up some extraordinary opportunities to bring together the thinking and practice of people from disparate backgrounds to find a constructive way through some of our most complex, and most intractable problems. There are constant reminders around us of just how far we still have to go, but I am an optimist and I believe that we will sum up the will to make the profound changes that are needed.

On 29 September 2015, Polly Courtice, Director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, received the prestigious Stanford University Bright Award for her contribution to environmental sustainability. This is an adapted version of her acceptance speech.

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