Life-centric from human-centric: a shift in mindset

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  • Picture of Roberta Iley
    Roberta Iley
    Head of Regenerative Design
  • Education
  • Economics and Finance
  • Sustainability
  • Climate change
  • Youth engagement

In the second of our Anthropy round-up blogs, our Head of Regenerative Design, Roberta Iley, links the discussions she took part in at the Eden Project with the our new capabilities enquiry.

The first week of November was the wettest on record in the UK. It was also the week that brought Anthropy, a conference hosted at the Eden Project aimed at rethinking the future of Britain.

As panel members discussed everything from the future of the economy, our education system and youth leadership, we strained to hear what was being said as the rain battered against the domes – or, in one memorable instance, as we were actually rained on in the rainforest biome.

I raced between biomes on a mission (double-clad with a raincoat and umbrella). After working with businesses and civil society for the last 10 years on sustainability, the last 18 months have brought a new focus. There has been a growing recognition that sustaining where we are is no longer an option: we need to go beyond reacting to current challenges and being ‘less bad’ to proactively shaping the future and doing ‘more good’. This requires a fundamental shift in our underlying mindsets and our capabilities. Anthropy felt like prime time to hear new, positive visions for the future.

Exploring positive visions for the future

I was encouraged to note that the word left ringing in my ears after listening to many of the business sessions was ‘purpose’. Instead of discussing the ins and outs of net zero targets or diversity and inclusion strategies, the discussion centred on how businesses can have positive impact, set a purpose and actually ‘be’ purposeful. We even saw the launch of the first standard for Purpose-Driven Organisations from the British Standards Institute (BSI), PAS 808. Some of these discussions had an edge: after a long time of being awash for talent, businesses in the UK are struggling to attract or retain employees. It seems the war for talent is now being fought on the grounds of purpose – almost half (49%) of Gen Z will accept a 20% lower salary on average to work for a purpose-driven company.

But ‘purpose’ to what end, I hear you ask? Anthropy put forward a thought-provoking mission (that was even printed on each of our name badges):

Let’s build a better, more harmonious and human-centric future.

Each discussion I attended seemed to circle back to how we support better wellbeing, better inclusivity and higher levels of agency and engagement. We heard NatWest’s new mission to ‘champion potential’ and Corporate Culture Group’s proposition for ‘The Human Organisation’. I heard calls for capabilities like systemic thinking, entrepreneurial spirit, imagination, empathy, and active listening. Admittedly, the discussion was often framed around better productivity at work - the word ‘prosperity’ was arguably as overused as the other ‘p-word’. Nonetheless, it gave me hope that we are recognising the fundamental importance of the people in our organisations and the power that comes from supporting people to bring their full selves to their work and life.

Yet the one p-word that wasn’t mentioned much at all was ‘planet’. Even with a backdrop of thundering rainfall and tropical ecosystems, there was relatively little discussion – at least on the mainstages that I attended – of our relationship to the natural world, our overshoot of our planetary boundaries or how we can support healthy natural cycles. Just days before the start of the COP27 climate negotiations in Egypt we weren’t placing the future vision for Britain firmly within a wider planetary context.

The world is now dominated by an animal that doesn’t think it is an animal. And the future is being imagined by an animal that doesn’t want to be an animal. This matters.

Author Melanie Challenger

Reconnecting with our nature

Perhaps this is not surprising. Our connection with nature – indeed our recognition that we are part of nature - seems to be at an all-time low in this part of the world. The UK ranks just 16th out of 18 Western countries studied for its level of nature connection. Our music makes fewer and fewer references to the natural world. Our children’s dictionaries boast of containing just 8.5% of words that we would associate with nature. At the same time, there is a mounting body of evidence showing how a strong connection to nature is important for wellbeing and for peoples’ sense of their lives being worthwhile. We talk about rewilding areas of Britain but as many thought leaders like George Monbiot have argued, a key part of this shift is actually a rewilding of the human soul.

Reconnecting with nature is critical in the context of where we are today. Alongside governments, many businesses are making ambitious commitments to support climate and nature recovery. Over 11,000 non-state actors, including over 8,000 companies, are now part of the largest-ever alliance committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. Governments are coming together in Montreal, Canada, to discuss new biodiversity targets at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), in December. Meanwhile, 330 companies and finance institutions are calling on governments to reverse nature loss by 2030 and many have set their own ambitious biodiversity and zero deforestation goals. Yet despite the many commitments and efforts of the last few decades, we are on track for between 2.4C and 2.6C of warming by the end of the century and the latest Living Planet Index report makes for grim reading with 69% reduction wildlife populations since 1970.

It has never been more important to fundamentally reset our relationship with our living planet.

Shifting mindsets and capabilities

This requires a shift in our mindset. We need to go beyond just a ‘human-centric’ view of the future to set a wider ‘life-centric’ mission that recognises how our systems are nested and interdependent. Healthy human societies can’t exist on a dying planet.

This requires us all to unlearn, learn and relearn our relationship with the world around us, as well as the capabilities we need to realign our economy and society to support a thriving future for people, place and planet. Recent CapGemini research seeking to understand why sustainability ambition is not translating into action, highlighted that less than half of organisations are currently focussed on sustainability recruitment and upskilling. Their report called for Chief Human Resources Officers to staff for sustainability and drive culture change.

We need a shared vision of the capabilities we need to support ‘regenerative citizenship’ whereby we learn, live and work in ways that are conducive to all life.

What might life-centric capabilities look like?

At the RSA we are on a journey to explore those capabilities. Our Design for Life strategy identified six core perspectives that we will all need to enable ‘next practice’ (rather than just deliver ‘best practice’). However, as we reflect on our mission to support resilient, regenerative and rebalanced futures, it is a good moment to consider how we embed these capabilities in a way that goes beyond reinforcing a human-centric paradigm to help connect us to a regenerative, life-centric paradigm.

1. Systemic

We see and change systems in nested and interconnected ways. Economic systems that benefit social systems that benefit environmental systems.

Systemic thinking has gained significant traction in recent years and is an approach of seeing and working with the interconnectedness of the world around us. This is critical for working with the complex reality when working to enable change. However, this perspective needs to fundamentally recognise that we exist as part of a living system. This changes how we understand the co-evolving interactions occurring in our systems and recognises that our economic system is nested within and in service of our society; and that, in turn, is nested within and in service of our planetary systems.

2. Collective

We bring the power and wisdom of the collective from human to beyond human, to lead change, with the welfare of all people, places and planet at the heart in equal measure.

Many are starting to recognise the value of collective approaches that draw on diverse perspectives and especially engaging those who have been traditionally marginalised. This is very important for rebalancing power structures and seeing ourselves as interdependent on the wider communities we are part of. However, we also need to see ourselves as part of places and wider ecosystems, incorporate non-human perspectives and draw on the wisdom of nature’s evolutionary insights to benefit from the R&D that has been happening over millennia.

3. Imaginative

We draw on our capacity for imagination to create hopeful alternatives to the reality we know.

Imagination is critical for seeing the potential in a system, rather than just the problems. Only by seeing potential can we create transformative innovation that reimagines the systems around us. However, we need to use our imagination to not just reimagine better, more circular clothing, food, transport systems etc. but to fundamentally reimagine our relationship with the planet around us so that we live in a way that is in tune with natural cycles and supports the flourishing of all life.

4. Good Ancestry

We hold a long-term view of success and consequence beyond this generation, with the intention to leave the world in a better place for the generations and ecosystems to come.

There are increasing calls for a ‘long-time’ mindset that recognises the consequences of our actions over a longer period. This is important for recognising our responsibilities to future generations and gaining perspective around change across multiple time horizons. Yet, in the context of the sixth mass extinction, this also needs to consider the legacy of our behaviours today for all forms of life.

5. Adaptive

We recognise that change is living as we design, iterate, grow and decompose to improve ways forward.

Taking an approach of experimentation, as well as enabling systems to be resilient in the face of a changing context is very important within the increasingly turbulent world we are living in. However, seeing ourselves as part of a living system that constantly changes and has the capacity to evolve and grow (as well as die and decompose) brings a different emphasis. It puts the focus on supporting adaptive or evolutionary capacity, rather than just preventing impacts.

6. Local for Global

We start with the citizens, assets, heritage, culture, climate and context of place to impact (bio) regionally and globally.

Working with the unique context and potential of people and communities is critical for achieving meaningful change and long-lasting impact. However, we also must recognise the specific places and ecosystems we live in are part of our unique web of life and have shaped the communities and people living in them today. This requires a holistic approach to how we understand and work with local context and essence.

How might our economic, social and environmental systems transition if we all brought these perspectives to bear into our learning, work, organisations, communities, etc.? What if everything we did centred life, creating the conditions for all life to flourish?

I for one look forward to a time when the Call to Action from a conference like this is not just to be an ‘Anthropist’ but to be a Regenerative Citizen.

Join the capabilities enquiry

Over the next six months, we're hosting an enquiry to create a shared vision for the capabilities we need to shape this future. We're bringing together thought leaders and people with diverse perspectives from across the spectrum of life-long learning into an enquiry coalition. We are inviting companies that want to deepen their potential for transformative, life-centric change to partner with us and join the coalition.

Join our Design for Life capabilities enquiry

Tell us about the mindsets you believe are critical for shaping a life-centric approach that supports the resilient, rebalanced and regenerative future we need.

Do you have a question for Roberta about anything you've read in this blog? Leave them in the comments box below and Roberta will reply when she can

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