A Review by: Laurel Hansen, Director, Client Experience, Me to We

Graduate Certificate in CSR/Sustainability (Class 2018/2019)

Stevenson’s book is based on the position that our current systems are failing. He argues that “Old models – for education, health care and government, food production, energy supply – are creaking under the weight of modern challenges.”

Clear Application of Systems Thinking

The book highlights innovators from around the world in each of these fields who have identified inefficiencies and even dangers in existing systems, and found sustainable solutions that are flourishing. The examples in this book are intensely varied, from a grieving American family who leveraged real patients and their data to change how the medical world understands the cost of drug trials, to an Austrian mayor who revived his community by giving them autonomy over their energy supply. One common thread that I noticed between all of them was a clear application of systems thinking to their approach.

In each case, innovators have developed solutions with a keen eye on the big picture and possible feedback loops and consequences. It was interesting to see this process come to life in so many different scenarios. In the example from Austria, while the mayor could have financed his project exclusively with grants from the EU, he intentionally focused on financing the project from inside the economy as much as possible to keep the money in the local economy and stimulate economic growth for everyone as he was revolutionizing the energy industry. He realized that energy independence would revive some local industries, but would not bring his community back to life for the long term if most of its citizens were still unable to thrive there.

Strong Purpose to Create a More Sustainable & Equitable Future

Another common element across all of the innovators that Stevenson features in his book is that they are driven by a strong purpose to create a more sustainable and equitable future. This purpose is clear from the outset and carries them through the challenges of their journey. Beginning from that point there are many similarities between the Transformational Company 19 Principles and the organizations that each innovator is building. For example, these organizations are by nature solutions oriented as they have been built to address an issue identified by an individual or group. Throughout the book the reader learns how these organizations are achieving sustainability through employee engagement and stakeholder accountability, while engaging with the public plays a significant role in all of the examples Stevenson shares. What is even more encouraging is that success is being achieved as economic and social benefit. For example, by creating a tool to allow patients with specific medical conditions to report on their experience with certain drugs, one innovator was able to use day-to-day structured computable health data to beat the ‘gold standard’ of clinic research to its conclusion “at a fraction of the cost.”

Innovators Persist and Hone their Business Case

I enjoyed the examples that Stevenson chose to share, because they were in fields that are so big and complex that I think we often assume the status quo exists because there is no other feasible solution. If there was, someone would have thought of it already, right? In each case, the innovator inevitably faces opposition from those who helped create or benefit from the existing system or status quo, even when it is evident that the status quo is no longer serving the people it was meant to. However, the innovators persist and hone their business case until others in their field cannot help but take notice and give merit to their pioneering ideas. In the Introduction to the book Stevenson sums this up by writing,

“In short, change might sound possible in principle, but we can only believe it when we see it.”

I think this is especially relevant to anyone involved in CSR since working towards sustainability so often requires advocating for change in systems and our approach, which can come up against opposition by some. In this way the book provides inspiration for CSR professionals and personally that was my biggest takeaway and will continue to inform my CSR practice. Even up against the pressure from large multinational companies and governments, each innovator found a way to persevere, motivated by a deep sense of purpose and the data to back it up.

Overall I don’t think this book is for everyone. While I found the achievements of each innovator inspiring, I did find it a little too technical for someone without a science background. Many of the examples focused on developing solutions for complex biological problems and while the outcomes were incredible I did find myself bogged down in some of Stevenson’s description of the scientific processes at times. However, for CSR professionals that are interested in a more technical read, I would recommend this book as a good source of motivation. Furthermore, because this book covers so many diverse fields of work I would also recommend it to anyone in government, education, healthcare or food production searching for some optimism and a look at how some of the world’s most complex problems are being solved through innovation, a systems thinking approach and strong purpose.

The Book: We Do Things Differently: The Outsiders Rebooting Our World by Mark Stevenson
Published by: The Overlook Press, 2017

About Laurel Hansen

Laurel Hansen is Director of School Engagement at Me to We. Laurel is a member of the Class of 2018/2019 in the Graduate Certificate in CSR/Sustainability at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

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