Issue 3 2022

Journal

In this issue:

We focus on the importance of good stewardship in companies as they rise to societal challenges.

“Businesses are the wellspring of productivity and productivity is the wellspring of living standards”

Businesses are the wellspring of productivity and productivity is the wellspring of living standards. That is why companies’ role in society is so crucial. But this role has never been static, especially over the past 50 years. During this period, as inequalities between people and places, together with the climate crisis, have become more acute, businesses’ societal responsibilities have grown. So, too, has the importance of good stewardship in companies as they rise to these societal challenges. In this edition of RSA Journal, we explore some of the context and consequences of these changes.

Read this issue's articles online:

Many of the thinkers featured stress the importance of courage on the part of business leaders in the face of these challenges. Dame Vivian Hunt, a senior managing partner at McKinsey and Co, argues that this courage emerges in part from the evidence that demonstrates the long-term benefits of stakeholder engagement. In that sense, there is a divine alignment between commercial and societal objectives. Paul Polman and Andrew Winston, co-authors of Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take, write about the need for a multilateral approach across the spectrum of environmental and social issues, a form of collective courage that ‘de-risks’ the political process of business decision-making.

Gillian Tett of the Financial Times discusses the advantages of exploring the role of business through an anthropological lens if we are to understand context, and how this approach might lead us to a different set of solutions. Contextual understanding was also critical to the success of Sarah Collins’ development of a deceptively simple cooking implement that is having a staggering impact on women’s lives across the African continent. She argues that the free market remains the best way to scale innovation for social good.

Innovation shapes more than just products. US political theorist Francis Fukuyama – of The End of History fame – argues that classical liberalism has been contorted by factions both on the populist right and left. Democratic nations, while best placed to tackle the societal challenges ahead, must devolve more power to the local level and employ people who can respond to rapid innovation. Looking ahead, as Fukuyama says, the outcome of the war in Ukraine will have far-reaching (but yet unknown) consequences for global collaboration. Exploring the history of Russia’s interaction with Ukrainian culture, Maria Silina, a professor in the history of art department at UQÀM, discusses how the ‘neutrality’ of cultural institutions such as museums and galleries often benefits the aggressor.

The changes outlined here require courageous leadership and effective regulatory frameworks both in the private and public sectors. Justin Russell draws on his experience in government, and now as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Probation, to explore what

inspirational and effective leadership looks like in the public sector. John Rennie and Alice Mathers, who lead an RSA project on the future of audit, argue for a re-engineering of the profession which assesses companies’ broader impacts. Their arguments speak to the increased focus on environmental, social and governance frameworks, which Rebeca Minguela, founder of sustainability tech platform Clarity AI, argues are being used far more broadly (and incorrectly) than intended.

These issues of societal challenge, the role of businesses and governments in responding to them, and the importance of innovation and leadership in coming up with solutions, are at the heart of the RSA’s future programme of change, Design for Life. As at previous times of societal challenge, the RSA – through its staff, Fellows, trustees and partners – has a crucial role to play in delivering solutions capable of rising to these challenges.

Read more about the RSA’s new Design for Life programme

Picture of Andy Haldane
Chief Executive, the RSA

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