Towards a More Advanced Civilisation

by Tony Cooke, CEO, One Planet Education Networks

This week I’ve been in Delhi, India for a summit on sustainable development strategies for the world’s poorest 4 billion people who live on less than $10 a day. It’s been an excellent opportunity to share thoughts, ideas and concerns with people from the global south and east about systems transformation for the Sustainable Development Goals in developing and emerging economies.

I’ve been asked several times about whether the SDGs are too complex to be measured and whether developing and emerging economies can realistically attain them and meet the UN’s Agenda 2030.

Those involved in assessment and evaluation will have a far more qualified perspective on this than I do. For what it’s worth, I completely recognise the complexity of tracking almost 200 indicators across 17 goals at a local, regional, national and international level by governments, businesses and NGOs. I recognise the inter-connectedness and systemic nature of all of them and the very real risks of multiple counting of the same results by many different stakeholders. I also recognise that the hard metrics being used won’t fully capture the capacity building for systems transformation that is necessary to achieve the goals, for example the social capital generated through strong partnerships and collaborations around the world and the improvement in competencies for driving change of individuals, organisations and networks. For all measurement does matter, we really shouldn’t get lost in the trees debating whether or not some SDGs are too complex to be measured accurately. It could be 2030 before we’ve developed and agreed on a perfect metric, by which time it’ll be too late to act. What really matters is the longitudinal tracking of progress over time in a consistent manner as a proxy for making progress in the right direction.

I’m actually increasingly optimistic about developing and emerging economies’ ability to achieve the SDGs in their own countries for a number of reasons.

First, they’re nothing like as path dependent as developed economies. There is much less vested interest in the old way of doing things, less ageing or outdated infrastructure to navigate around, less behavioural inertia and less vested interests to overcome.

Second, they move at pace compared to developed countries. For example, Shanghai has 90% adoption of electric mopeds in just 4 years since their introduction, leading already to an improvement in air quality for the city. A developed economy might take 20+ years to reach the same level of adoption of a new technology.

Third, they have burning platforms that create an imperative for action. Many of the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges are on their doorstep and materially affect both the quality of daily life and the prospects for progress – air and soil pollution, desertification, extreme poverty. They therefore have the greatest stake in solving these issues.

Fourth, and probably most importantly, they have the greatest stake in the future. It is believed by many in the west that developing countries won’t commit to the SDGs because they want to enjoy the same profligate, unsustainable lifestyles that developed countries have had for so long. But this implies that sustainable development is about having to make sacrifices.

To my mind, this is seeing the issue totally the wrong way round and it is certainly not how the representatives from these countries at the summit expressed it. They see it quite differently. The population of the developed world is ageing and contracting whereas the developing world, particularly in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, is where 90% of the world’s population under 30 live and it’s where the vast majority of the 1,000 cities that don’t yet exist will be built to house the 3 billion people that have yet to born.

Developing countries are therefore thinking about a more advanced model of civilisation that they can leapfrog to, that doesn’t seek to copy the old model but enables them to enjoy better AND more sustainable lifestyles. A civilisation that taps into their ancient indigenous wisdoms and traditions and humanity’s deep connection to nature, whilst rapidly adopting the cleanest, smartest technologies available. This was very much the talk at the summit. The Chinese already call this ‘ecological civilisation’, but the philosophy is shared by many other countries.

I leave Delhi more optimistic than when I arrived. At the summit, I met with some incredible change agents from on the ground around the world. They’re convinced that change agents are everywhere and that the pace of adoption of technologies such as blockchain, the digitalisation of agriculture and healthcare in developing and emerging economies are not only fast, but rapidly overtaking developed countries. There’s a lot of focus now on creating better enabling platforms to drive network effects to further accelerate sustainable transformations. One such platform that I came across in Delhi is Happystry, a blockchain-based hybrid marketplace and social platform with its own currency (DLites) that’s earned through generating goodwill. Happystry launches later this year and is definitely one to watch.

This brings me to a final insight that captures the spirit of the gathering. There was much talk about the importance of wisdom versus knowledge, love versus logic, impact versus greed, harmony versus dominion. These antonyms capture the essential differences in cultural values between the old paradigm of civilisation and the new paradigm that developing countries aspire to. This was distilled by a new definition proposed for a millionaire in this new paradigm of civilisation as someone who has a positive impact on a million people. What an aspirational thought and one we should all keep in mind as we develop our approach to One Planet education.

Perhaps we think too much in terms of searching for a new economic paradigm to replace the failing one we are all currently complicit in. Perhaps this is too narrow a technocratic framing of our present and our future, one that lacks the humanistic dimension and disregards a shift in culture and values. Perhaps we should be thinking more about how we transition to a new paradigm of civilisation instead?

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