Tag Archives: Sustainable Development

Innovating for a Sustainable World: The Moral Challenge for Young Leaders

6 Jun

The following is an excerpt from my entry to the Mindful Leadership Competition 2010 held at LIBA Chennai in collaboration with University of Dayton US.

This is the first age that’s paid so much attention to the future, which is a little ironic since we may not have one.                                                                                                   –Arthur C. Clarke

Today, when drastic increase in temperature year after year over a specific region can be measured, when glaciers are continuously melting, flooding the valleys fed by rivers originating from these glaciers followed by diminished flows, when we can see the inequity in social and economic status of people around ourselves and in the light of the facts showcasing depletion of fossil fuels at an extremely fast pace presented by modern day researchers and scientists, the 17th century philosopher John Locke’s words that my expropriation of natural resources does you no harm as there is enough for you don’t hold true anymore.

We as stakeholders in this ecosystem are now aware of the limitation of the existing natural resources.

Though environmentalists had started a slow movement by the late 1960s towards bringing environmental considerations to the mainstream decision making which widely comprises of Economics, it was only in the 1980s when for the first time Sustainable Development was quoted in the report called Our Common Future commonly known as The Brundtland report submitted to United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development[1] stating that it is development that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.’ It was also stated that sustainable development was about both equity between generations and equity within generations.

Development is not about ‘the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest time’ but ‘the greatest good for everyone for ever’, hence, to integrate the conservation and development to ensure that modifications to the planet do indeed secure the survival and well-being of everyone we need to renovate our existing world with newer ideas leading to efficient and effective handling of our current resources so that when we move into the tomorrow the resources not just help us pave our path into that but continue to exist there too and the only thing that can ensure our arrival and existence into such a world is – Innovation.

Renovation of the world we live in, with ideas applied successfully in practice is Innovation. Innovation sometimes could be a radical or revolutionary idea that challenges and changes the current thinking, processes or products and leads to a new way of living for example Muhammad Yunus’s[2] Grameen Bank in Bangladesh started giving loans to women in a country where they have been in subjugation and seclusion for centuries and this radically new and different belief in the trustworthiness of women transformed the lives of millions, helping them break the shackles of poverty and march into a new world which had food for them, which had opportunities for them and where lied the promise of livelihood for them.

At the same time innovation could appear to be an insignificant change in our way of doing things but has the potential to change our world upside down. Internet Banking is nothing more than using the same banks but on a different platform. Two guys at Stanford downloaded the web and indexed it for fun and the idea developed into one of the biggest companies of all times-Google. One man wanted to work with minimum number of chips at a time. He is Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple and the engineer behind the Apple-1 and Apple-2 computers.

Innovation is not just the end product but it involves changes in thinking and implementation of techniques right from the conceptualization of an idea to its transformation into something that adds value and brings a positive change to the society we live in. While we can see the processes involved in the development of an end product which is both economically viable and socially acceptable, there is a lot going on in the backdrop simultaneously which involves an orbit shifting challenge to start with which puts the innovator in an all together new orbit, need aroused due to limitation of resources or an ambitious dare taken by an individual or a group and their determination as well as dedication to the cause. Dr. G Venkataswamy’s dedication to see a world free of unwanted blindness persuaded and led him to start Aravind Eye Hospital which is now the largest and most productive eye care facility in the world. He not only started the project but also made it a self sustainable initiative by conquering challenges or sustainability speed bumps. The clinic started manufacturing its own ocular lenses to bring down the costs of operations and came up with more than one innovation in the process.

Though Innovation and technology bring a counter weight to business and livelihood, not every new technology is an innovation towards sustainability as it might bring greater downside risk than upside benefit. This can be easily substantiated by the recent advances in the nuclear sciences and stem cell researches[3]. When nuclear scientists have been successful in providing energy solutions for the world where we can no longer rely on fossil fuels at the same time nuclear warfare presents a critical and dangerous situation for the humanity to exist. At this critical juncture the roles of young leaders come into the limelight because tomorrow’s world scenario will be determined by the decisions taken by today’s leaders.

One day we may not have any of the lush green forests to cut down and set up our factories, there may not be any trees to lie down under and rest during the summers, the rivers may be either flooded or could turn into thin streams of water, our children may not be able to see the blue sky during the day, we may not be able to share our joys during the rains with them and all that may remain could be the stories filled with environmental bliss. And this is what provides the young leaders of today with an orbit shifting challenge which could be the origin of a world based on innovation towards sustainability of our current world. It’s our ecosystem, our social setup and our very existence which is in danger and it’s our moral duty which has challenged us to save our today in order to showcase it to our future.

The challenge is not just to preserve the ecosystem and natural habitat but to come up with sustainable solutions to our modern day problems. Today’s youth needs to look for sustainability not just in environment but also our socio-political setup which in a way contributes to our economy.

This seemingly gigantic mission can be achieved by dividing the task into comparatively smaller domains or verticals mentioned below:

Sustainable Education System

Education will form the most critical tool, providing solutions to various problems such as corruption, caste and religious discrimination, human rights violation and terrorism which are detrimental to the human existence. To achieve educational equity in this world we must strive to bring a systemic divergence in the existing model towards sustenance. Leaders have to come up with innovative ideas that would help develop a self sustainable educational model with alternative revenue sources as an answer to the problems of schools running on grants or low economic backup by the government. This would help attract top-class talent to the non glamorous job of teaching hence improving the quality of education which in turn would not only retain the current students who tend to drop out of education at an early stage due to unavailability of role models in class and consecutive decrease in interest towards learning but would also increase the number of students attending classes.

Education sector is in dire need of strategic leadership towards integration of sports to education, empowerment of children from vulnerable backgrounds by developing life skills, removal of gender bias in educational opportunities especially in the developing countries and realization of the right to Education[4] for all which is beyond horizon, considering of our present state.

Taking Poverty to Museums through Innovation

At the UN conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, the then Prime Minister of India Mrs. Indira Gandhi said that ‘Poverty is the worst pollution’. While growing demands of the ever increasing population on the scarce resources creates Environmental Stress, those who are poor and hungry destroy their immediate environment in order to survive and this degradation of environment further affects these poorest groups in the worst possible ways, hence adding to the stress. This provides the young leaders of today with another orbit shifting challenge of pulling the millions of human inhabitants of our planet who are below poverty line to the other side of the line. This calls for Innovation.

While Professor Yunus has shown a way of eradicating this social evil by leading people towards livelihood through Microcredit, today’s leaders have to bear the responsibility of increasing the pace at which it is reaching the needy as well as its area of reach through creative ideas. Further newer and better ways can be found to help the poor get into self-employment, a highly undervalued sector by present day economists, and carve their way out of poverty.

Sustainability through Social-consciousness driven enterprises

Fritz Schumacher[5] in his book Small is Beautiful claims that conventional development strategies promoted islands of Western modernity in the cities, while doing nothing for the vast majority of population residing in the villages. He suggested that small scale technology which can be understood and controlled by common people can be the only tool for their survival as it would not require the presence of experts for everyday functioning. In our world where business enterprises as well as Non Profit – Non Government Organizations are thriving there is a niche sector occupied by For-Profit Social enterprises that are consciousness driven which means that while they are earning profit in order to sustain themselves, there motive towards business is social elevation which could be an even greater motivating factor than self interest or other financial wants.

Young leaders have to increase the bandwidth of these social enterprises so that every section of world population can benefit from them, for this they need to take an innovative approach towards this enterprise led development so that it would lead to an inclusive growth where defunct systems will have no place and a socio-economic equilibrium could be attained.

Building Sustainable Cities

“Our cities and towns are not an acceptable face of a rapidly modernizing and developing economy” was quoted by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh[6]. This statement itself dares the youth of today to take up the challenge of rethinking the approaches taken towards urban development and asks them to come up with imaginative solutions to problems of urbanization which are critical to the future of our planet where population is consistently increasing.

The concept of Sustainable cities is not just about the centrality of master plans of urban development or detailed implementation of critical reforms but a futuristic way of living in an entirely new habitat. It need not have the same kind of buildings we live in but buildings made of environment friendly materials which would be stronger, more durable, and capable of withholding natural disasters and would have the resources to provide shelter to thousands of families. These cities need not have the same transport or severe systems that we currently have moreover, the energy resources could be new as well. High levels of dedication and determination would be required for constructing and inhabiting these modern day cities which would reflect an acceptable face of humanity on our planet.

Rural Urban Integration

Uncertainty in the timing and amount of monsoon combined with poor irrigation facilities due to decline in the ground water levels affects a farmer’s choice of crops as well as the timing of plantation leading to lower yields and thus decreasing his earnings. Marginal farmers are being forced to sell their land adding to the economic inequality in the villages. The surplus rural labor when migrates to cities while trying to adapt to the severe situation caused by climate change adds to the unskilled labor population of these cities putting an extra pressure on the existing resources.

This presents a unique challenge which calls for rural urban integration so that the rural youth can avail opportunities in their own lands and need not migrate to cities in search of employment. Further the urban population should also be made aware of the rural lifestyle as this would not only bring them closure to nature but would also help them make informed decisions in their everyday lives with environmental considerations in mind. This could be done by creation of a common platform where both the urban and rural population can come together.

Sustainable agriculture and Water Management

When food and water form the most basic needs for the survival of any species on planet earth that is for the sustenance of life itself, special efforts are required to maintain the availability of both of these resources in their pure form and adequate amounts. This calls for saving the biodiversity through practicing sustainable agriculture which would include Non-Violent farming or growing different crops together to maintain the fertility of soil, using plant genetic resources and putting extra emphasis on seed diversity. In most of the areas where chemical fertilizers are being used to increase the fertility of soil over years, the soil has been eroded of its ability to contain and store minerals and at the same time the farmers have lost faith on their ability to farm without chemicals, hence, while the fertilizers have increased the fertility to some extent it has created bigger problems in terms of the morale of farmers and nutrient content of soil. Therefore, young leaders are required to come up with ways to make sure that farmers are re-introduced to their abilities and a direct marketing space is created where the crops produced could be directly sold to consumers, increasing the profit margins and elevating the lives of people engaged in agriculture.

Similarly, water management is another area which requires immediate attention as not only the ground water level is dropping; the purity of available water for consumption is also in question.

Conquering sustainability speed bumps through Bio mimicry

Nature has been engaged in research and development towards sustainability for the past 3.8 billion years. There are about 10 to 20 million species who have found and adapted to solutions in order to sustain and exist through ages. We need to get inspired from the organisms around us and imitate and integrate their knowledge and our skills to form a better world for our future generations. While we are using bio assisted technologies or domestication to solve some of our problems such as bacteria is being used for water purification we need to get to the second level which would be taking an idea from an organism and applying it to conquer our design challenges and sustainability speed bumps. Various organisms have lived through years by adapting to the changing world and finding answers to problems of sensing and responding, cleaning without detergents, solar transformation and total degradation which could be of great help to man. . There is no lack of information but a lack of integration which is to be done by the young leaders in order to understand the solutions that nature have come up with, for our existing problems ranging from energy crisis to water purification to waste management

Thinking towards a ‘New Realm’

We need to get ahead of what we know and need to think towards creation of a ‘New Realm of Existence’ where everything could be new, the technologies, the materials, the processes, the civilizations, the resources, all these things could be unheard of in this newer world. In order to attain this we need to give our creative geniuses a free ground to play in, where they can create, model and remodel everything until it satisfies the sustainability parameters. We need to get over our limitations and strive to attain the target of making the human race exist beyond time. This would be one of the targets of our Young Leaders.

For this we must get down to the task of rethinking our virtues while living in this age of blindly followed consumerism and social inequality and should work together to find our way into creative evolution. And it’s not just our duty or a matter of ethical utilization of resources but an obligation that we have towards our future generations. This is what presents innovation for sustainability as a moral challenge to the young leaders.



[1] The commission was chaired by former and later Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland hence, the name to the report.

[2] Muhammad Yunus, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, set up the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh to lend tiny sums to the poorest of the poor, who were shunned by ordinary banks.

[3] Advancements in stem cell researches have put forward many questions concerning bio-ethics and have been a matter of general concern in the bio world.

[4] The right to education is recognized as a human right by the United Nations and is understood to establish an entitlement to free, compulsory primary education for all children, an obligation to develop secondary education accessible to all children, as well as equitable access to higher education, and a responsibility to provide basic education for individuals who have not completed primary education.

[5] Dr. E.F. Schumacher was a well known economist, journalist and progressive entrepreneur who is considered the guru of the appropriate technology movement which combined the idea of eco-development with ‘appropriate technology’ in the 1970s.

[6] This was quoted by Mr. Singh in his address at the National Conference on Jawahar Lal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.