“Imagination is the key to my lyrics. The music, however, is painted with a little science fiction.” – Jimi Hendrix

Over the last decade and a half, our society has found itself resting upon an increasingly complex web of trust. Born from the ashes of the Great Recession, this technologically amplified economic recovery held much promise; investors incorporating environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations into their decision-making processes, governments embracing demands for more equitable policies, and citizens leveraging social media to increase the pressure for transparency and justice. But is the backbone of this brave new world really that perdurable?

Once heralded as the great democratizer of information, the corridors of the internet are now polluted with cascades of misinformation, both hyper-accelerated and monetized to once unimaginable dimensions by the Attention Barons of the Web’s second chapter. Market systems long overdue for change remain locked into archaic monopolies still operating on opaque proprietary systems. Trust has become a vehicle to boost shareholder value, with the incontrovertible truth often falling to the wayside as both an inconvenient and unaccounted for expense. This unintelligible game of tug of war has not only created the most profitable industry in the world but has also facilitated the greatest transfer of wealth in human history.

All hope is not lost, however, as a new chapter is being written and a circular economy engineered in the board rooms, financial exchanges, and digital wireframes of a rapidly emerging body politic. After all, the economy we leave to the next generation will be built by those who decide a more sustainable world is not only more profitable – but inherently possible.

One of those great builders is none other than senior vice president of sustainability at Wood plc, member of the World Economic Forum’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, and host of the first chapter of Everything’s Gone Green™: Ann Rosenberg. After 20 years at SAP, Ann joined Wood plc to serve as senior vice president for sustainability solutions. In 2020, Ann co-founded and launched SDG Ambition, which challenges and supports companies to be more strategic and transformative in how they run their businesses to deliver on the 2030 Agenda.

SDG Ambition challenges companies to employ enterprise-wide integration that hardwires the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) laid out by the United Nations (UN) into business management, business processes, and information technology landscapes. The first Business Benchmark challenge launched was Business Ambition for 1.5 C, daring companies to take bolder action to redefine business models to limit the global temperature and mitigate climate change.

Ann will be hosting the inaugural chapter of ‘Everything’s Gone Green™’ – a digital roundtable produced in association with IT World Canada that will examine the role of science fiction thinking in solving climate change and advancing a more sustainable future.
The 60-minute panel discussion will first air on Tuesday, March 22, and features four global leaders from the converging worlds of ESG and digital innovation, including: Perry Hewitt, chief marketing officer at Data.org; Theresa Kushner, chief data evangelist at NTT Data; Chris Wolf, chief research and innovation officer at VMware; and Brian Solis, global innovation evangelist at Salesforce. I sat down with Ann in advance of the roundtable to find out more about how science fiction thinking can help address the greatest challenges of our time.

Robert: These days, it feels like our society is stuck at an impasse fuelled by technologically-amplified division and discord. The greatest minds around the world are often at a loss for solutions that have a reasonable chance of success. You are a promoter of what you call “science fiction thinking” as a way of freeing our imagination to drive the innovation we need. Can you share with us what you mean by “science fiction thinking,” and how you would want it applied to the energy transition and climate change?

Ann: The best formula for innovating with purpose within the energy and climate space is to create a big impact, through big solutions to big problems. By impact, I mean the cultural, social, and political effect of change. Science fiction thinking is a way of accessing that big impact kind of thinking; by eliminating traditional parameters of possibility, we can expand our solution making to the kind of scale needed for this mammoth issue.
Science fiction thinking takes place in those fertile grey areas between faintly possible and totally crazy, between the pursuit of utopia and the avoidance of dystopia, and between fiction and fantasy. Science fiction thinking is a powerful way to envision purposeful solutions for a sustainable future. Looking at the digitalization of the energy sector, where there is a dire need for the implementation of new cleaner energy sources, there is still a huge technology gap between where we are and how we implement the needed clean energy transition.

You could also interpret Science Fiction thinking as a more creative kind of scenario planning. It’s the same concept but with a more open mind.

Those who look to the future and tell stories of its potential seem increasingly pessimistic about environmental, social, and governance outcomes. From what was once a window into a utopian world of equality and increased freedoms, science fiction now tends to lean more towards a black mirror, reflecting the darkest potential outcomes of our modern life. If our science fiction imagination is so important to finding a path forward, what does it mean when so much of today’s science fiction seems dystopian?

Science fiction can certainly result in some scary solutions, but the guiding principles applied with the science is what determines its character. As examined in my book, Science Fiction Thinking: A Starship for Enterprise Innovation, we are applying science fiction with the UN Global Goals and exponential technologies. This is Innovation 4.0.

In this manner, science fiction thinking builds the bridge between the UN 17 Global Goals and the solutions which will ultimately achieve them. Linking innovation to purpose and the 17 SDGs can accelerate positive change in the world and improve company’s bottom line. Those efforts can inspire employees, customers, partners, and entire communities to unite around a higher purpose – completely unlike the dystopian future thinking we so often see.

It’s one thing to call for a new line of thinking, it’s another thing entirely to implement at scale. Entrenched power structures and corporate policies can act as an immovable barrier in all but the nimblest of organizations. Can you share some examples of companies that are embracing this imaginative approach to innovation with purpose?

Science Fiction thinking and scenario planning inspired by fiction is not a new phenomenon. Martin Cooper, a fan of Star Trek, invented the mobile phone while director of research and development at Motorola. In 1997 the film “The Fifth Element” featured flying cars & taxis as urban transportation. Today, Chinese drone maker Ehang has produced the Ehnang 184 Autonomous Aerial Vehicle capable of aerial transportation of a single passenger for 23 minutes of flight at sea level.

There is an observation that you can tell when a corporation becomes serious about net-zero and other ESG goals when they move responsibility for net-zero and ESG from the marketing department to the operations or risk management departments. Is that a reasonable way to think about it? Do you see this migration happening?

Today we see a strong adaption of ESG commitments across CEO agendas, strategy, and governance. We are seeing more and more companies take on board UN Global Compact’s SDG Ambition Framework which I co-created in 2019 with the UN. SDG Ambition is a pathway that helps companies integrate goals across their operations and within stakeholder engagements.

You are an unabashed supporter and passionate advocate of the UN and it’s SDGs. You often say that you “work for the UN”. To those who are skeptical about the UN, how would you explain your passionate support? Is your passion more for the concept of the UN as a place where all of humanity comes together to work collaboratively on common challenges than the human institution with all the inherent problems? Or, is it both?

The UN is the global convener of SDGs across governments, the private and public sectors, academia, etc. It is collectively leading the way for the world to collectively fulfil the global goal agenda. We as human beings should be supporting that mission in any capacity possible.

It is clear your life’s mission is to create better outcomes for the citizens of our future economy. That kind of time horizon means taking in all available information and weeding out the noise to find a clear pathway. What “noise” do you identify as impeding the activation of today’s leaders and the fulfillment of SDGs and what can be done to weed these distracting and detracting elements out of the evolving body politic?

Last year, COP26 really lit a fire within stakeholders across the public and private sectors. I’ve never seen such a united front in wanting to work towards these goals in a truly collaborative way. This overwhelming unity of purpose dwarfs whatever noise there might be surrounding the conversation.

After a long day on the front lines of the climate crisis, it’s easy to want to relax, put up your feet, and find distraction to unwind. For many however, the problems and potential solutions of the day trade our rest for reflection and live in our heads rent free. In that spirit we ask one final question; what keeps you up at night?

We are at an historical moment in time where we are collectively standing at the precipice of the world’s greatest crisis to date. My drive is for closing the technology gap and for building solution that are sustainable, accessible, and affordable for all. What keeps me tossing and turning is thinking about what’s holding us back from making those solutions and bridging that gap – perhaps it comes down to a lack of imagination more than anything else. This is why we need to activate the science fiction thinker in each of us.

Everything’s Gone Green.

For additional information or to register for the first episode of “Everything’s Gone Green” with Ann Rosenberg on Tuesday, March 22, please click here.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
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Robert Brennan Hart
Robert Brennan Hart currently serves as the Executive Vice President of Social Impact at the Electronic Recycling Association and has been recognized by the United Nations Foundation as one of the world's Top 70 Digital Leaders and Avenue Magazine as a Top 40 Under 40 digital luminary. As the founder and former CEO of the Canadian Cloud Council and Politik, Robert is a globally recognized advocate for the advancement of a more equitable and enlightened digital society and has participated as a member of the United Nations Global Digital Council, DocuSign global advisory board, and HotTopic’s Meaningful Business steering committee. Previous to joining the ERA, Robert served as the Chief Community Officer at Abaxx Technologies and Executive Producer of the Smarter Markets podcast.