We are all change agents.

We are all change agents.

Wayne Visser is Professor of Integrated Value and Holder of the Chair in Sustainable Transformation at Antwerp Management School, supported by BASF, Port of Antwerp and Randstad. He is also Founder of CSR International, Director of Kaleidoscope Futures and Fellow at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Wayne is an eclectic, multifaceted and prolific scientific author, poet, futurist, film producer and public speaker, as well as being an impactful strategy analyst and sustainability advisor. His latest documentary showcasing circular economy innovations around the world—Closing The Loop—has been watched in nearly every corner of the globe and has proven to be a motive of inspiration and call to action for many. In this conversation, we explore how to create integrated value, whether sustainable transformation can happen within the capitalist system, circular Africa, winning narratives, individual choices...and more, much more.


Hi Wayne, I am delighted to have you here for a conversation. Let me kick this off by going back to your inaugural lecture at the Antwerp Management School when you introduced the framework of Integrated Value. For the sake of clarity, I follow the same steps you go through in the conceptualization of the framework: 1) identification of global challenges, 2) identification of solutions and pathways to innovation and, 3) creation of integrated value. First things first, what are the global challenges we are currently facing?

I like to come at the global challenges we face from a systems thinking perspective. When you take that step and look at our global system asking what is breaking down, you find that there are 5 areas of breakdown—which I call forces of fragmentation or triggers for transformation. They are: disruption, disconnection, disparity, degradation and discontent. All of these 5 areas relate to one of the 5 key global system elements: economic, social, ecological, knowledge and human systems.

Disruption is influencing the economic system, disconnection what I call the knowledge system—which includes technology—disparity the social system, discontent the human system, and degradation the ecological system.  We have these 5 interconnected systems and we see how they are breaking down. When you look at healthy systems—whether that’s a human system, social system or ecosystem—they match quite nicely with these 5 areas. So, areas of breakdown represent things that cause a system to fail. And by the way, I now see disconnection happening in two ways. One way is that not everybody in the world is connected, i.e. has access to the internet, smartphones and other kinds of technology. But the other type of disconnection we are starting to see in our advanced economies relates to automation and humans being replaced by robots. So, this time, we get disconnected as a result of technology, not as a result of lack of access to it.

Once we have identified these 5 areas of breakdown, which solutions and pathways to innovation do we have at our disposal?

For each area of breakdown, there are areas of breakthrough across corresponding economic spheres, which I call counter-forces of integration: the resilience, access, circular, digital and wellbeing economies. And within each economic sphere are innovation pathways, which lead to a future that is more secure, shared, sustainable, smart and satisfying.

For degradation, we get the counterforce of circular economy and the pathway is towards a sustainable future. For disruption, we get the resilience economy and the pathway towards the creation of a secure future. For disparity, we get the counterforce of the access economy, or sharing economy, making the economy more inclined towards a shared future. For discontent, we have got the wellbeing economy and the innovation pathway towards a more satisfying future. And, finally, for disconnection we have got the digital economy—I previously also called it the exponential economy—and the pathway to innovation is for a smart future.

The Integrated Value Web, Wayne Visser (2019)

Alright, 5 areas of breakdown and 5 counter-forces of integration, together with their respective innovation pathways. When is integrated value created, then?

Integrated Value happens when you can combine these different forces of integration and pathways to innovation. So, for instance, this happens when you have a solution that is smart as well as being sustainable, or satisfying as well as being shared, or secure as well as smart. The ideal situation is when we come up with solutions that combine all 5 of these goals.

Shifting from theory to practice, how can organisations achieve integrated value in their daily operations?

Integrated Value as a pragmatic tool for managing an organisation is something I have explored in another body of work, which I call Integrated Value Management. This approach foresees 7 steps—or I prefer to think of them as 7 facets—of integration. The first one is rethinking patterns - understanding the context you are operating in and making sure you integrate all of the forces that are going on around you. It’s a kind of a systems mapping exercise. The second one is realigning partners, which is about stakeholder assessment and collaboration through partnerships. The third one is renewing principles, making sure that a values dialogue is happening and that you are integrated at the level of ethics, morals and ideals.

The fourth facet is redefining purpose, which is the leadership piece and ensuring that you have bold strategic goals using an integrated approach. The fifth is re-assessing performance, which is about linking your strategic goals to integrated value metrics, like science-based targets, but also externality valuation, non-financial reporting and intangible value. The sixth facet is redesigning products - the innovation piece, making sure you integrate through your innovation. And the last step is reshaping playing-fields, where the playing-field is your operating environment, defined mainly by government policies and market forces. This is about trying to have a positive impact on the incentives that you respond to, especially through positive lobbying.

The 7 Facets of Integrated Value Management, Wayne Visser (2019)

The 7 Facets of Integrated Value Management, Wayne Visser (2019)

In your works, you introduce the notion of ‘Responsible Capitalism’, based on the principles of investment, long-termism, transparency, full-cost accounting and inclusion. A contested topic in current societal debates is whether it is possible to have sustainable transformation within capitalism or whether it is necessary to find an alternative in order to reach a sustainable outcome. Do you believe that the sustainable transformation we need can take place within a capitalist system?

This is an ongoing debate for many decades - whether the capitalist system can ever be sustainable. I think there is one central feature of capitalism that still makes it entirely unsustainable: the in-built growth. Unless we solve that issue—whether it is in 50 years or in 100 years, capitalism will be unsustainable. We will be the parasites that destroyed our host. That’s one of the reasons why I put so much emphasis on the circular economy. If we were to implement this at scale, if this was the design principle for production and consumption, then I think we would increase the probability that capitalism can be sustainable.

As you just mentioned the problem of in-built growth, this relates nicely to a recent conversation I had with Prof. Tim Jackson regarding the relation between circular economy and economic growth. While most institutional and policy documents talk about the circular economy as a sort of decoupling magic tool—being a driver for economic growth without an increase in material consumption—Prof. Tim Jackson argues that the circular economy is better seen as a tool to deliver prosperity in a post-growth economy. On which side of the debate do you see yourself standing?

In the short-term we will need growth of the sustainable solutions, including the circular economy, but this growth needs to replace something. One essential part of the circular economy—without which it doesn’t work—is renewable energy and we can only be on 100% renewable energy if we decrease the consumption of fossil fuels. As sustainable products and solutions and circular economy activities grow, the unsustainable linear economy activities and products have to decrease. There needs to be this offset. We need growth of restorative activities. Much of the problem of growth is that it has negative externalities, but if you can have growth solutions that genuinely make the world better, increase biodiversity, decrease carbon and improve human opportunities, then we want more of those solutions, because they reverse the negative trend.

Then, at some point, we need to replace quantitative growth with qualitative growth, physical growth with human development. We know that no system—whatever its nature—can grow infinitely. I think that the circular economy will never achieve 100%, but it can vastly reduce the pressure that we put on the ecosystem and our materials. As population starts stabilising, which it will in the next decades—and possibly even start to decline—that should also reduce the pressure on the overall system. We have to combine this with all kinds of technological innovations that can provide solutions to dramatically reduce our impact. It is the combination of these things that lead me to believe that there is a future in which we can still have some growth, some physical growth, but it is much less and a lot of it is linked to the circular economy.

We need to replace quantitative growth with qualitative growth, physical growth with human development

The circular economy itself has to be within a Doughnut  Economy - to use Kate Raworth’s concept. We need to respect that there are some absolute physical, planetary boundaries. Moreover, as you see from my framework of integrated value, the circular economy—and the solution of sustainable innovation—is only one of 5 parts. The circular economy doesn’t solve on its own problems of equity and social justice, it doesn’t necessarily solve problems of human wellbeing either and doesn’t help us dealing with disruption, crises, catastrophes, and technological changes. We need more than the circular economy, but I do see this at least buying us time to allow the innovations that would vastly extend our capacity to grow.

“The circular economy doesn’t solve on its own problems of equity and social justice”

We have seen that with food. We have had predictions for many decades—since the 1970s at least—that everyone would be starving by now, and it hasn’t happened yet. Millions have starved and some still do, but as a global system we managed, through innovation, to vastly extend the productivity of agriculture, with some consequences that we now have to deal with. We must not underestimate our ability to innovate. Climate change is a real problem now, and it will probably get worse before it gets better, but when we start to have innovations that sequesters carbon in everything we do, such that every product absorbs carbon, then we start to reverse the problem.

The worrying part is that in the meantime we will lose a lot. Many, many millions will suffer and thousands and thousands of species and ecosystems will go extinct and collapse. It’s not saying that we are on an ideal path, but it’s whether we can foresee a trajectory that has a sustainable outcome. And, I think it’s possible.

In your works—see, for instance, your poem series I Am An African—your African identity comes out very strongly, together with your love for the continent and its people. You also write that “Africa is the continent of surprise, it constantly surprises me, it is waiting to surprise you, and soon it will surprise the whole world”. In your documentary—Closing the Loop—you show some inspiring circular innovations in Africa, particularly in South Africa. In this regard, do you think that—when it comes to the circular economy—Africa has the opportunity to surprise the whole world and show what are the tangible economic, social and environmental benefits coming from an implementation of circular activities at scale?

My experience in Africa and other developing countries is that when you look at poor communities, recycling is a way of life. As there is not the ‘luxury’ of being able to throw things away, they re-use, re-purpose and recycle things. There is also an economic incentive for what we often call waste-pickers in many developing countries to go through everybody else’s trash, find something of value and make a meagre living out of it. So, in some ways, the circular economy is still intuitively a natural solution in some parts of Africa. Having said that, you also see terrible waste, littering and pollution. Some of the worst is in Africa and Asia as well—the plastics problem in places like the Philippines is terrible—so it’s not that if you are poor or developing you automatically do circular economy.

“To survive you have to be creative”

When you are growing economically and becoming more affluent, you start to care less and value waste less. What is still absolutely essential for Africa and other places is that we start to place a value on that waste, because we see that already a small value placed on waste can change behaviour and create economic livelihoods. The problem is that in many countries there aren’t policies to promote recyclable materials or to assign true value to the cost of waste and true value to resource scarcity. For instance, there isn’t a carbon tax, so we are paying far too little for materials like virgin plastics. All of these things need to change at the same time, together with education and awareness that this is important, that it will improve the quality of life and the cleanliness of communities and can reduce diseases by having less waste.

There is a lot of work to do on a lot of different fronts, but the potential is huge. What you see in many parts of Africa is almost a natural entrepreneurship, because in the past it has led to survival; to survive you have to be creative. There is also a strong business culture in many countries—the market trader is a tradition that goes back thousands of years—and if all those entrepreneurs could be re-oriented towards a circular economy model, then they could be rewarded for that and the upside would be very strong.

Then, of course, it helps if we make the link to other countries beyond Africa. If these countries started to value waste rather than illegally shipping mobile phones and other electronic waste to Africa—where it is being recycled in terrible conditions—and started to pay people properly to extract value from waste, then they could show that there is actually a market for this. It is more likely that the market will emerge first in Europe, North America and other developed countries, because they are prepared to pay a bit more for products that are recycled or have sustainable features. So, we need to make these trade links connected to the circular economy, and once people see the economic value of it, as well as the role in cleaning up their own environment, then I think it should grow very fast.

Remaining in Africa, Circular Conversations has just produced a long case-study on community-led circular innovations in Nairobi, Kenya. What came out is that one of the biggest challenges to the adoption of regenerative activities and a sustainable lifestyle, is the role played by advertisements of multinationals, which have the power to change social and cultural norms in children and adults alike towards increased consumerism. And by no means is this a challenge exclusive to the African context, but rather something that we have been seeing in almost every corner of the world. You often stress the importance of having a winning narrative to successfully achieve this transition. In this respect, which elements should be part of a positive narrative pushing individuals, companies and states to engage in good, sustainable behaviour?

One important narrative is that we are all change agents. No matter where in society you are, what your role is, how rich or poor you are, everybody can and should be an agent for change to try to make the world better. We have to counter the feelings of apathy and of disempowerment that exist and which are real. We must always have a message of change agency, of being in control, if not of all the circumstances, then at least of how we respond to the circumstances. This comes to a message of resilience, and we all need to work on our own resilience. We shouldn’t believe that the world is going to be without its problems and that our life is going to be easy. In fact, all sustainability trends suggest that it’s going to be far more difficult, so we need to be able to adapt, be creative and be tough to survive and thrive.

“Everybody can and should be an agent for change to try to make the world better”

Another fundamental element of the narrative relates to the idea of the whole human being, so that we should never be reduced to economic agents—like you are just a consumer. We need to avoid the belief that buying stuff will make you happy, more successful and increase your social status; we have to resist that kind of messaging, whether it’s from advertising or informally on social media. We always have to go back to the basics and say we are all beautiful human beings, we all have common human needs and we have different ways to fulfil those needs.

The work of Manfred Max-Neef, with his model of human scale development, is very relevant here as it shows that there are 9 fundamental human needs, but that there are different satisfiers for those needs. We need more clarity in our communication, not to get confused between the needs and the satisfiers. One way to satisfy the need for status is becoming the leader of the youth group or doing good work in the community. We should always make people aware that we all share common human values, we have an underlying unity, and there are lots of different ways to satisfy our needs, many of which are not and don’t need to be linked to consumption or to brands.

"We need more clarity in our communication, not to get confused between the needs and the satisfiers”

You have widely written and researched on the topic of leadership and how leaders can bring about transformational change. What kind of leaders do we need in these three different spheres: public sector (i.e. heads of governments), private sector (i.e. top management of companies), and community level?

I am trying to think whether I believe we need different types of leaders in each of those different areas, so it’s interesting to me that you phrased it in that way. Let me first tell you that I think we need sustainability leadership, which I sometimes call purpose-inspired leadership, in all three of those areas. We find it more easily in civil society leaders, because many of them are already purpose-driven. But there I would say that what is often lacking is organisational competence—they need not only to inspire but also to organise effectively—and systems thinking, as civil society leaders often only see the world through their perspective, not acknowledging the role that companies and governments can and must play. I think that some civil society leaders have too much of a simplistic view of the world, and not enough appreciation of complexity.

In governments, I think we lack purpose-inspired leaders, transparency and honesty. The kind of leadership we really lack is servant leadership, as most of our professional politicians are in for the power. I think we also lack transformational leadership, as political leaders are mostly very incremental in their approach to leadership, really trying to keep all their constituents happy. We don’t see bold, visionary leadership.

“The kind of leadership we really lack is servant leadership, as most of our professional politicians are in for the power”

And, concerning business leaders, I would say something quite similar to the politicians, as business people and politicians are quite similar. There, I don’t think we have the lack of creativity and entrepreneurial leadership that we find in politics, but we still have most business leaders not having a systems thinking perspective, very power-driven, narrowly-focused on economic drivers and not particularly empathetic to the real needs of society and the environment. Some real servant leadership would go down well there, together with the ability to be bold; in most of businesses there is not an appetite to be bold and courageous on societal issues.

Together with the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, we have identified seven key characteristics of sustainability leadership, which I believe hold true for leaders in all three of those areas: 1) systemic understanding, 2) emotional intelligence, 3) values orientation, 4) compelling vision, 5) inclusive style, 6) innovative approach, and 7) long-term perspective.  

From the paper “   Sustainability Leadership: Linking Theory and Practice”   ,  by Wayne Visser and Polly Courtice (2011)

From the paper “Sustainability Leadership: Linking Theory and Practice”, by Wayne Visser and Polly Courtice (2011)

As you already mentioned during our conversation, we are undoubtedly facing very difficult times, and the ecological situation is expected to get worse before getting better. This can create high psychological stress and even deep despair for those individuals aware and caring of the situation and willing to contribute to its improvement. What do you think is the right attitude to face these historical times, getting worried enough that the problems are so severe and imminent, while keeping hope and faith for the realisation of a positive outcome?

What we certainly don’t need are blind optimists, people who just say the world is bright and sunny and wonderful and we have nothing to worry about. We do need what the late Hans Rosling used to call ‘possibilists’. We need people who see how much is possible if we put our minds to it, if we recognise the problems and focus on the solutions, and if we bring innovative approaches to ‘wicked’ problems. That’s really the spirit that we need in every part of society. We need to create this sense of urgency—sometimes called a ‘burning platform’—because if people don’t believe the problem is real or serious, then why would they change? But you always need to move very quickly to show what is possible because others have done it. We need to focus on all the good stories, positive innovations, showcases, pilots and solutions that are out there, not to walk around with rose-tinted glasses but to hold ourselves to account on how much progress are we making.

“You can’t simply scare people into change”

We have to be realistic about how quick that is going, where the most promising innovations are, and which solutions are scaling quickly and we need to spread even wider and which ones aren’t working and for which we need to find alternatives and overcome barriers. So, it is a realist-possibilist attitude that we need and I think this is true for whichever sector you are in. Having worked for decades in sustainability, I know that you can’t simply scare people into change. What typically happens is that you get ignored, you get ridiculed, and people will be immobilised from fear and go into denial. We need the urgency of the problem but if it is not linked to the solutions and the possibilities, it creates inaction, while what we desperately need is action.

When it comes to action, it looks to me as if the younger generations are among the most active in this period, with movements like #Youth4Climate, #ClimateStrike and #FridaysForFuture …

Yes, absolutely. Young people are realising that they have more power than they thought and one essential attitude in them is to behold businesses and governments to a higher standard, to be critical and uncompromising on some things. You see, on many things we know the solution, like alternative packaging materials instead of plastic, the circular economy or moving to a plant-based diet. So, whenever we encounter poor performance or lack of choice—for example on food or consumer products—we should ask: why aren’t you offering me a sustainable option?

“Once it is coupled with action, then it becomes very powerful”

I really think that this attitude should be for everyone and especially for young people, to speak up and to make their voices heard by boycotting products, brands, shops and political parties. Movements like Climate Strike and Youth for Climate are a very important part of the solution to create that sense of urgency, but it has to be coupled with action on what we are consuming, how we are living our life, what lifestyle choices we are making, what we are wearing, what kind of transport we are using and so on. Once it is coupled with action, then it becomes very powerful.

As a final point, I sometimes encounter people who are very active in the circular economy debate but who do not necessarily feel the urge to adopt sustainable lifestyles. What’s your view on this?

I think we should all strive to be consistent between our values and the way we live our life. None of us is perfect and we all have choices to make. I do believe that focusing professionally on sustainability or the circular economy can have huge multiplier effects—you can have a much bigger positive impact through that work than you can as an individual through individual choices—but it shouldn’t be a trade-off; why do you have to do one or the other? More and more, you can do both. I have been vegetarian for 30 years, and I made that choice for a variety of reasons - health, ethics, animal rights. At the time I made the choice, environmental issues were not a big part of the reason, but they became stronger and two years ago I went vegan. The reason is that at some point you realise that you are not consistent with your values and with the solutions you are trying to bring into the world. That’s the same reason why I went for an electric car as a Tesla early adopter and why I only use 100% renewable energy. Of course, I have had to pay more for a lot of those choices, and I am fortunate that I have been able to do that.

“Individual action is always part of the solution”

This goes back to where I started in our conversation: systems thinking. One way in which a system changes is if the individual parts change. They don’t have to communicate with each other and agree on a direction; if they are moving in the same direction, they can pull the rest of the system. So, in that sense, individual action is always part of the solution. Then, of course, there are other ways to change a system, and one of them is to find leverage points, which is often more the work of professionals. And finally, participating in social movements can help to bring about shifting societal norms.

Thank you very much for the inspiring and stimulating conversation, Wayne! Now, let’s work all together to finally close the loop. For good.

June 2019

Conversation between Emanuele Di Francesco & Wayne Visser

To explore the world of Wayne Visser: http://www.waynevisser.com