There are two memories from 2017 - that took place less than 12 hours apart - which remind me both why I have chosen to do what I do, and why I will continue to do it with ever more urgency as the new year arrives.
The quiet submission of giants
Several thousand years of African hardwood growth lay stacked beneath our feet in the fading light, deep within this protected reserve. Millions of hours of silent watchfulness in this Zambian forest. Billions of slow seconds standing sentry. What secrets held in those dark concentric rings, built molecule by molecule under the supportive gaze of the sun? What history lost, then, as these ancient giants now lie buckled, broken and beaten in ugly horizontal piles on the forest floor. Those painstaking rings of history ripped through by ugly chainsaw scars.
How meekly they seem to have fallen and how quiet their giant capitulation now seems. How angry we must be on their behalf. How vocal we must be against the crashing silence of their response. How urgently we must move against the aching slowness of their final arc to earth.
Four irrepressible reasons for optimism
I had left the lodge before dawn and stepped through the cool July morning towards the Zambezi. I planned to explore some relatively undisturbed bush on the opposite bank that I hoped, despite the human habitation around it, might hold some remnants of animal life. A few yards in, and I had seen everything I needed to: criss-crossing cattle paths, bushes stripped bare by goats, and criss-crossed tracks of domestic dogs. I abandoned the walk, turned back and sat on the bank as the first warmth of the sun crept over the tree line.
With no hint of warning they were there. Slipping, dipping, sliding through the smooth black water, four irrepressible bundles of movement. A bobbing, diving, weaving group of them, relentlessly pulled downwards to the next dive, or upwards for the next breath. A feeding family of spotted necked otters, busily conjuring breakfast from beneath. Against the huge odds stacked against them, and as human advances squeezed life from the land around them, this small family unit was beginning its day.
No panacea, no magic solution. Just four small reminders that, if given merely a hint of an opportunity - a second chance – nature’s ability to recover and rebound will never cease to amaze us.
A highlight was the blockchain training session during SYSTEMIQ days in December – great to see that we are on top of latest technology trends and are finding applications for them in our work!
My highlight was when we met with Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel Santos, and the CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman. The meeting focused on the need to transform the food and land use system in Colombia, whilst supporting the country’s peace and reconstruction agenda. Project development, capacity building, partnering with local institutions and developing innovative financing structures that crowd in private investment will all be critical.
The moment I stood on the plastic beach in Muncar in Indonesia was a wake up call for me - since then I have committed to continue working on Ocean Conservancy projects well after my internship comes to an end.
The first week I joined SYSTEMIQ, I was asked to present my initial understanding of the Energy Transitions Commission’s impact model and areas for improvement. I appreciated this experience because it encapsulates some key features of the culture: challenge and opportunities for associates at any level or tenure to meaningfully contribute their ideas.
It started as any normal day at the Business Commission back in May. Suddenly a voice called out for me asking me what we were doing for UNGA this year.
My answer—to mobilise women leading for the SDGs—spawned an entirely new workstream that neither the BSDC nor I had planned to undertake in our 2-year lifespan. By identifying a gap in the current conversation about women’s leadership and the Global Goals, and how business can invest in women’s leadership to achieve the Goals, we are creating a real buzz among women leaders who have overcome challenges to lead on diverse issues related to the SDGs. We have successfully held an event at Columbia University on this issue, ending with a standing ovation from a 1,000-strong audience; released a provocative discussion paper; and held a panel event with 7 women leaders on climate at COP23. Now we’re working toward launching a report in advance of International Women’s Day to activate women to lead for the SDGs, hold a Davos roundtable on this issue, and hold a Day of Inspiration on International Women’s Day (8 March) to inspire women around the world.
My SYSTEMIQ moment was sitting at the kitchen table of a former high-level representative of the Malaysian government, fielding hard hitting questions about the New Forest Economy project from one of the top biomedicine experts in the world, while being served porridge. 6 months earlier I knew nothing about land use and forest systems, and now I can talk your ear off about rotational harvesting, torrefaction or biojet fuel – always a steep but rewarding learning curve at SYSTEMIQ!
“Nous perdons la bataille” – we are losing the battle. Those words by French President Emmanuel Macron took the audience by surprise at the One Planet Summit in Paris. His bold (if calculated) statement injected – for a brief moment – a dose of reality into the otherwise polished gathering of climate and finance communities. At SYSTEMIQ we constantly get reminded of the challenges we face in our quest to achieve drastic shifts in how the world operates. But at that moment I truly felt I was in the right place, at the right time – with the right organisation.
My personal highlight was a fieldtrip to Tebing Tinggi Timur in Riau, Indonesia, where we visited farmers who plant and harvest Sago. Sago is a palm tree which has a high starch content, it can be processed into a variety of products like noodles and jellies and also processed into sugar. It grows best on wet and intact peatland, so it is one of the alternatives for smallholder farmers to productively manage peatlands without draining them or destroying natural forest. Seeing that there are viable opportunities for the local people – other than palm oil - that we can support, made me understand the importance of our work and gave me hope for what we aim to achieve.
Too many wonderful highlights. But here’s one. I am walking from one meeting on natural capital solutions to another meeting on carbon capture and storage. Two diametrically opposed mental models of what it takes to get CO2 out of the atmosphere. One meeting filled with creativity, joyfulness and potential for deep change. The other more traditional and anchored in linear industrial thinking. We are invited into both worlds and appear to be trusted to act as a bridge – that’s part of our DNA.
The highlight for us is having a crazy yet warm team that shares the same drive to protect Indonesian Forests - with a bunch of Indonesian Food Supplies in our Lovely Office (while enthusiastically gaining weight and laughs together)
My definite best first experience at SYSTEMIQ was that I had to build a model calculating the environmental footprint of an insect quiche, trying to find a caterer for said quiche and serving it to a seminar filled with senior executives.
My highlight was the Our Ocean conference in Malta, where SYSTEMIQ partner Borealis – an leading global plastics company - stood in front of royalty, governments, NGOs and industry peers to announce their commitment to circular economy investments and a €4M investment in Project STOP. Project STOP was developed by SYSTEMIQ and Borealis in 2017, to build a scalable city partnership model for circular waste management solutions to marine plastic pollution, initially in Indonesia.
The Indonesia team went to a field visit in Lampung, Sumatra, where we all stayed in the home of a local community leader. These field visits bring priceless insights and team bonding opportunities.
My highlight moment was... after we had worked really hard to recruit, staff people on projects that inspired them, and get the new London office ready and move in – coming in one day and pausing to notice a project team working happily around the kitchen table in the new SYSTEMIQ space, immersed in conversation and planning. That was a small everyday moment that illustrated how as a team we had pulled everything together, and made me proud!
I think that the initiative for the “Thank you” notes was something really special. It showed to me that people deeply care about each other and we have created a company that is not just held together by a joint mission but also by great personal bonds.
That’s an easy one for me. My personal highlight of 2017 was without any doubt the launch of the Better Energy, Greater Prosperity report in April, which marked the achievement of 18 months of intense analytical work and collaboration within the Energy Transitions Commission.
I took my children with me to the forest to show them the work we do. That was a nice moment for me, and it was fantastic to have them with me on a 5-week trip to Indonesia.
I learned this year the value-add of our “multi-tier” approach: operating both as a thought-leader as well as on the ground through investing. Needed to be with SYSTEMIQ for a while before realising!
Created with images by TheDigitalArtist - "bridge mountain travel"