Wanted: Visuals and Narratives for Sustainable Business

Berrini, São Paulo. Photo: Olaf Brugman (c)
Berrini, São Paulo. Photo: Olaf Brugman (c)

Architects, painters, designers, builders used to work together and made every effort to visualise and implement their dreams and proposals for future generations, while simultaneously visually challenging the cultures, politics and designs of their times. Impressive examples can be found in “Utopia 1900-1940. Visions of a New World” by the Lakenhal Museum and Nai10 Publishers.

These artists from the first half of the 19th century made me think about how the current sustainable development movement is visualising how our businesses want to work, move, build and realise their futures. Pretty poorly, actually. The same goes for how our future cities, rural areas, agrifood systems, health systems, educational systems look like, how they are positioned in space and are connected, how they will affect us and what opportunities they will provide.

Is my assumption correct that most of us could not give a rough but concrete summary of how his own community, region or country wants to be in 2020, 2030 or 2050 to be a low-carbon, inclusive and safe place to live, work, and learn? If it is, how can we drive sustainable development and set big 2030 and 2050 goals if most of us cannot even imagine their lives in their own geospatial living environment?

The whole corporate set of tools leading to materiality matrixes, annual sustainability objectives and green house gas emission reports, ESG assessments, etc hardly contribute to showing how a business will move and operate in future, although they fulfil good purposes. These tools are necessary for planning and managing day to day activities in our bureaucracies, but do they inform our workforces, our stakeholders, and do they inspire and induce better ideas to bring about the futures we want? We could do much better.

The sustainable development movement could do much better by visualising more how its wants to progress, by bringing more, clearer and better narratives through which we can imagine our lives in next stages of society, by inspiring stakeholders more, by combining different areas of expertise more and try painting more concrete pictures of the businesses we want. To help to do so may be the primary function of networks such as UN Global Compact or the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Let’s create better visuals, better narratives and better dialogues on the businesses and societies we want. And invite the artists to the table, they are dearly missing.

Olaf Brugman

First published 26 August 2017