sustainable business

Are You a Designer or a Defaulter?

Sandra Stewart | November 1, 2012

“When we talk about sustainability we’re not talking about fixing problems. We’re talking about the system. The system is the problem. … One way or another, the system will become sustainable—by default or by design.”

That was Paul Hawken speaking at this morning’s Sustainable Industries Economic Forum in San Francisco. From audience conversations afterward, it seemed like a point that stuck. New Resource Bank President and CEO Vince Siciliano referenced the choice between default and design in a breakaway session with RSF Social Finance President and CEO Don Shaffer on trends in social finance. (Full disclosure: both organizations are Thinkshift clients.)

Both Shaffer and Siciliano talked about the need to change not only how we use our money (though it’s certainly true that we’re all voting with our dollars), but also how we think about money and how our financial system operates. Siciliano noted that our financial decision-making process tends to disregard enormous future benefits—say, a livable environment for our children and grandchildren—in favor of relatively minor short-term benefits (the discount rate problem—explained entertainingly on NPR’s Planet Money).

Shaffer pointed out that our financial system should serve people and businesses, not the other way around (our current situation). That turnabout can happen at least partly because, as Shaffer observed, “The culture of money we live in is complex, opaque and anonymous.” RSF is trying to model just the opposite system, he said, with initiatives such as its collaboratively set interest rate, RSF Prime, which brings borrowers, investors, and staff together to discuss a fair rate of return for all.

That brought me back around to Hawken’s point—will we face the challenges posed by climate change by thinking creatively and developing new, better systems? Or will we passively accept whatever happens? Bringing it to the personal level, it’s worth asking yourself (or at any rate, I’m asking myself): Am I a designer or a defaulter?

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