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How 17 goals have transformed our business (and can help yours too)

Whether it's stated or not, every company has a sense of purpose. For some it’s solely about making money. For others it’s about much more. Not long ago, ThinkPlace made the decision to sign up to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. More importantly, we decided to place them at the core of our work.

And when we did, something amazing happened.

This list of goals has transformed the way we do business. The projects we take on. The partners we work with. The impact we seek.

Can it do the same for your company or organisation? We sat down with ThinkPlace founder John Body to find out more.

Q: ThinkPlace has signed up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. What are they, then?

JB:  The SDGs had their origin in the Millennium Development Goals. These 10 goals, adopted for the turn of the millennium, were aimed at addressing core needs such as poverty, food, health and education in developing countries.

The Sustainable Development Goals are much broader. There are 17 goals and they apply equally to the developing and the developed world. There are 194 signatory countries. The goals cover the world’s biggest challenges including social, economic and environmental needs. Associated with each goal are strategies and indicators for success. 

The goals are ambitious and broad. Some may say overly so. But the Millennium Development Goals galvanised effort and, whilst not fully achieved, resulted in much more progress than had they not existed. In my work across many countries I am hearing frequent reference to the goals and am constantly seeing projects directed towards them.

Q: Why have we done this? Why is it important to us?

JB: The ThinkPlace strategic direction has evolved since the company was launched in 2005. As we worked on more and more projects we began to reflect on why some were rewarding and some were not. 

We discovered that those projects that had personal meaning and combined impact were much more satisfying than those without. We could not get excited about a project where we did not agree with the outcomes. This was particularly evident when working with organisations to increase consumption of products or services that people did not need, or worse still, that were bad for them. 

This led us to redefine our identity. We wanted not just to be a strategic design consultancy, but one that focuses our efforts on public, shared or collective value. Public value is generally associated with the public sector. Shared value is generally associated with private sector initiatives that are commercially successful and also good for the wider community. Collective value is generally associated with value created by the community for the community.

These terms served us well for a few years but we found they were not fully effective in sharing across the team the types of projects we would work on and the types of projects we would not work on.

 

Q: As a company, what does it mean in practical terms to sign up to these goals? What do we have to do?

JB:  The Goals have given much greater clarity about what is public, shared or collective value. Because they are agreed across 194 nations they are more likely to reflect overall community expectation regardless of the countries we are working in.  

We have also signed up to the UN Global Compact which records and enshrines a commitment by a company to work towards the goals. It is a way to shift the achievement of the goals from being a solely public sector responsibility to a multi-sectoral one. In our case, signing up for the goals influences the types of projects we work on. It also influences the way we run our company. This includes reducing environmental impact while increasing social inclusion in the workplace.

Q: Has adopting these goals meant that any changes needed to be made in how we work or the type of work we take on?

JB:  Prior to signing up for the goals we experienced some tension about whether all our projects were contributing to a 'public value' outcome. We had talked about developing a screening process for all new projects to determine their fit with our mission. This would have added an extra step of process and bureaucracy to our work.

We have found that since signing up for the goals this ambiguity has reduced. Not only that, we have observed that our whole portfolio of work has shifted towards higher impact work because the whole team now acts to seek out such projects and screen out misaligned projects. The changes that we have made have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. And in general all the individuals in the company are now much more aligned with the vision.

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Daniel Silkstone
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John Body
Windmills in a landscape
Getting involved with renewable energy projects is a key way we align our business to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Q: ThinkPlace is a business and like any business it has a commercial imperative. What role do you see for companies and businesses in terms of making the world a better place? Is it a moral responsibility? Or an opportunity?

JB:  The more I work with major global and regional companies I am encouraged to see an increasing 'for purpose' agenda. This is deep in the DNA of some companies and more shallow in others. But companies are made up of individuals and individuals are neither fully good nor fully bad. 

From the outside there can be a simplistic view that big business is bad. Bad for society, bad for the economy and bad for the environment. Obviously there is truth in some of this, sometimes. But taking this view can also be counter productive. There are good people inside every company. Working with them to nudge a company away from unethical practice towards ethical practice can be beneficial.

Obviously companies have to be profitable or they cease to exist. But increasingly, to achieve this profit companies are finding they must have social licence from the community to operate. We see when companies damage their social licence it can have direct impact on their share price and revenues. Examples include financial institutions selling inappropriate products, technology companies misusing customer information and food companies excessively promoting unhealthy foods.

Being for purpose and for profit are not mutually exclusive. Increasingly customers will demand more from companies. Current and future employees will be attracted to companies with purpose. So it is good business to think beyond short term profit and create value that benefits all stakeholders.

A child receives medicine.

Q: There are 17 SDGs and they cover everything from abolishing poverty to ending hunger and addressing climate change. What are some specific goals that dovetail with the work ThinkPlace does and what projects are we currently working on in that space?

JB:  We have worked on every sustainable development goal except the “life below water” goal.  We hope to find a suitable project on that soon.  Some of the key areas we work on are:

  • Hunger – We are working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on their private sector nutrition strategy. We are part of a group of organisations working with large global and regional food companies to increase nutrition levels in foods affordable and accessible to those in lower socio economic strata. This is a highly leveraged strategy and not without some controversy.  Some would argue that the global food industry is responsible for poor nutrition. Research indicates that the third and fourth quintiles of the socio economic strata spend $1 trillion USD per annum on processed foods. Generally these are of low nutrient value. But if the food industry can see the economic potential of reaching these populations with higher nutrition foods shared value is generated for the individuals, the societies and for the companies. Target regions include Sub-Saharan Africa, India and South East Asia. The program is less than 12 months old, which means end stage benefits are not yet visible. But what we are seeing is high levels of willingness by food companies to participate in such programs.
  • Clean affordable energyWe developed A-Lab with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency a few years ago and have run the lab now many times on many different classes of challenge.  A-Lab is a multi stage innovation and design framework that brings together diverse players in the energy system to develop and scale breakthrough innovations leading to increased take up of renewable energy. This includes working with conventional power generators, network providers, energy retailers, regulators, retailers, consumers, micro grid providers and technology companies that integrate multiple power sources.  Several of these innovations are now in production and helping accelerate the shift towards cleaner energy.
  • Public health – We work in the health industry across multiple areas. We are involved with organisations that train and accredit health professionals. We are working with the Australian Government to implement a personally controlled electronic health record for all Australians, which will save billions of dollars and hundreds of lives each year.  We also work extensively across Sub Saharan Africa on public health initiatives to reduce diseases such as malaria, HIV and tuberculosis.  Global Partners we are working with include Johns Hopkins University, government aid agencies from the UK, France and the US, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Marie Stopes International and PSI.

Q: What would be your advice for other businesses or organisations who might be thinking of adopting these goals as a framework for what they do?

JB: Research the UN Global Compact for the Sustainable Development Goals. Determine whether your work can be aligned to the goals, or whether your practices can be changed to support social and environmental outcomes. It can be a good way to make progress. 

All companies can do something. Elimination of food waste, reduced use of energy, better hiring and people management practices are examples for all businesses. Then there are specific areas depending on the company.  For example those involved in natural resources will have more scope to reduce environmental impact.  Design and construction firms will have more scope on energy efficiency and social impact.