June 25, 2015

A clear direction

Dr Osvald Bjelland, founder of The Performance Theatre, blogs about the imperative to reinvent growth on the eve of the Lisbon theatre

A few weeks ago I was in California, visiting some of the brightest minds from LinkedIn, SalesForce.com and Pearson Group. I was blown away by the conversations we had – how the spirit of growth was everywhere, despite a national climate of political struggle and partisan bickering. Change is in the air there. Everywhere the talk is of big investments in truly disruptive technologies.

Since then I have been thinking a lot about the pace of change, and the need both for a clear direction and a radical renewal of the leadership needed to take us there. And today, on the eve of The Performance Theatre in Lisbon, I would like to share a few thoughts.

You don’t need to look far to find the many reasons that we need change. On my own home continent of Europe the outlook seems especially sombre. In southern Europe unemployment is soaring, while Greece remains on the brink of implosion. Further north, the people of Ukraine are living in constant fear. And all across the continent, economists and investors are desperately hunting for any sign of growth.

And perhaps darkest of all, more than 60,000 migrants have tried to cross the Mediterranean in the last year, driven to desperation by war, poverty, famine, drought and persecution. In the first five months of this year, 1,800 people have died making the journey – a staggering 20 times more than the same period last year.

At a time of economic globalisation, the first two decades of this century have nevertheless seemed to focus on splitting the world apart. Where has this tribalism come from?

The questions, problems and challenges are everywhere, but I believe we already know the answer. We need to reinvent growth. And that means developing a new model with three particular characteristics: it must benefit the many as well as the few; it must create success in the long term as well as the short; and it must benefit humans without sacrificing the environment that sustains us.

Reinventing the way we do business may seem daunting, but I feel optimistic. Our species has a proud history of reinventing ourselves. Take the economic, political and social changes that marked the Age of Discovery. Portuguese navigators, many of them setting out from this very city of Lisbon where we are now gathered, brought back gold, sugarcane, cotton, cinnamon and other spices, tea and potatoes; they created entire new industries; and in the process they changed the way Europeans see the world forever.

In fact, as my experiences in California showed, our growth model is already being reinvented right now, at an incredible pace, driven by the market, ideas and collaboration in what we might come to call the Age of Connectivity.

In the trust-based economy, collaborative consumption and collective ownership is becoming a billion dollar, worldwide industry. Airbnb now facilitates accommodations in 34,000 towns and cities, and 190 countries. Yet it does not own a single room. Uber will generate over 10 billion US dollars in revenue this year, connecting drivers and passengers all over the world. But it does not own a single car. Twitter, with its more than 300 million active users, has become the first source of news for people during dramatic events. Without operating a newsroom.

In the field of energy, a combination of high and unreliable prices, new technology, political investment and consumer demand has opened the door for renewables as well as storage solutions, and they are taking the world by storm, if not in pure market share, then in the minds of individual consumers, corporations and investors.

And yet I worry that this reinvention of growth is, in many cases, happening without direction and strong leadership. There are so many policymakers who endlessly meet and talk and promise, yet never make any progress towards actively reducing our carbon emissions. There are so many international institutions that stumble over their own bureaucracy instead of leading the way. There are CEOs who scramble to develop or consume resources to meet their investors’ short-term expectations, without a clear eye on their future effects or legacy. And of course each of us in, our own way, plays a part in maintaining the status quo, building our silo walls, and ignoring the inevitable and interconnected effects of all our individual actions.

Imagine instead what we can accomplish with real leaders in this age of opportunity – leaders ready to set and follow a clear direction. We need the modern-day Churchills, Ghandis, Mandelas. Or, in the world of business, the new Werner Siemens, Thomas Edison or Thomas Watson. All these leaders had the courage to follow both their heads and their hearts, making decisions selflessly, serving a purpose much bigger than themselves, based on what they believed was right.

We need leaders now who can see when the status quo is not working, and who are ready and willing to change it; who can look beyond their own organisations and purviews, and see the true power of collaboration. Last week, when Pope Francis issued his ground-breaking encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si, he did not address it only to all Catholics or even all Christians. He addressed his message to the whole world. This is the kind of collaborative leadership that we need.

Above all, we need leaders who see the hazards of increasing inequality and the benefits of bringing the many into the fold; who are ready to work with nature instead of against it; and who keep a ‘weather eye’ on the longer-term dangers and possibilities.

Well, my friends, my colleagues, my partners and esteemed guests, and those of you who are not able to join us:

Let us be those leaders.

Let us be the ones who dare to follow our hearts as well as our heads, and who collaborate to create something truly outstanding: a new model of growth, fit for the 21st century, with all the challenges and opportunities it brings.

And that, dear friends, is what The Performance Theatre is all about.

Pictured: Participants gather for the theatre on Thursday 25 June

Follow Osvald on Twitter: @osvald_bjelland