Reflections from ChangeNOW Summit — Part II: A Call to Regenerative Action

COSMICGOLD
5 min readApr 19, 2024

by our co-founder

There are few events that truly stay with you in the mid- to long-term, leaving a lasting impact. Most of the time, you have a good time, pick up a few wise words, and then quickly return to your daily routine. However, even two weeks after the @ChangeNOW Summit in Paris, I find myself in a different state of mind. I still keenly feel the tug-of-war between hope for progress and a certain despair over what I perceive as parts of society patting themselves on the back for something that’s merely a drop in the ocean compared to what they could achieve and what they should be responsible for.

Our co-founder team — Julia & Christian — at ChangeNOW in Paris

This sentiment, as succinctly put by

(former CEO of Unilever and co-author of ‘Net Positive: How courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take’) during his Fireside Chat, particularly applies to executives and board members. According to a study, although “a strong majority (79%) say their board has a very or completely clear understanding of the strategic opportunities and risks of sustainability,” only “29% strongly agree that they have sufficient knowledge to effectively challenge management on sustainability plans and ambitions and exercise control over their execution.” This, considering the urgency of reaching planetary boundaries, is unacceptable. Polman further elaborated that he assumes the audience should no longer discuss sustainability but rather restorative or, even better, regenerative business models — because it’s no longer about pondering and acting less poorly. His recommendation: Choose your board wisely. Embrace diversity from various perspectives such as gender, ethnicity, and experience, and especially from the viewpoint of passion, enthusiasm, and personal reflection capabilities. Boards need to be proactive, not reactive. It’s the board’s task to look into the future, while it’s the management’s job to learn from the past. This division of labor is often not lived up to today.

For this to work, the board must have a multiple stakeholder view to truly understand the impending challenges and project them into the future. Primarily, this involves creating shared time to delve deeply into the topics of restoration and regeneration and to educate both the board and the management team. The age of board members plays a role too: With boards averaging 63, they grew up in different times. Thus, board members must be brought to your multiple stakeholders to make them understand, as stakeholders are not in the board’s office. This is especially crucial when you change your strategy, as it automatically means you have to change stakeholders too to get the right support.

Now, what about the role of the Sustainability department? According to Polman, they can only develop and implement. The topic itself has to be an integral part of the strategy so that everyone in the company is integrated. Courageous companies are made by courageous leaders. Therefore, every board’s question should be: What is our total impact in the world? The targets are made of science and not of what the company can handle. Hence, his call to action to all board members is clear and straightforward: “If you don’t want to change or aren’t able to learn quickly to help the company become regenerative, step aside and let younger people do your job.”

A small gesture during the Neurodiversity panel showcased how leadership and passion can intertwine: Yann Bucaille-Lanrezac stood up cautiously and quietly from his chair, took the provided water pitcher, and poured a sip for all panelists and the moderator before sitting back down and pouring some for himself. The founder of Café Joyeux, a family of café-restaurants contributing to the professional inclusion of people with mental and cognitive disabilities, aims to bring humanity back into grey cities like New York and Paris because “they lack love and fragility.” Direct contact with neurodiverse individuals highlights that there is no one right way of doing things. On the contrary — as Albert Einstein emphasized already many years ago — we won’t solve our problems if we still think in the same patterns we used to. Unfortunately, neurodiversity is not quite well understood in society. However, there are more neurodiverse people than expected because they don’t know about it but just feel like a geek. We should not forget that we all struggle with something. Neurodivergent people struggle with life in general. They try really hard in our current systems. This means autistic people can’t be treated like all other people because they don’t process like them. Always keep that in mind when you meet others.

All in all, very poignant words from the various speakers, which were further emphasized in the ‘Navigating through Polycrisis’ session. The speakers unanimously agreed that we have enough challenges in the world to tackle — many of them arise from a lack of respect for diversity. Additionally, there’s a very black-and-white look at these challenges, which leads to neglecting the grey areas. Many solutions already exist, but there’s a lack of implementation and, above all, accountability. A holistic view is necessary to understand the problems of affected people, especially those who are in survival mode. Or, as Heela Yoon (founder of Afghan Youth Ambassadors for Peace Organization) put it: “Resilience is not always a choice — raise your awareness for this.” Adaptive approaches and collaboration, instead of silo responsibility and finger-pointing, are necessary. It’s about taking individual responsibility to help people in the global south and in conflict zones. “It’s about saving human lives,” as Oleksandr Kobzarev (founder of Unbroken) succinctly stated.

Statements like these illustrate the ambivalence with which we returned from Paris. We met many very humble people who have achieved a tremendous amount for their community, usually alone and without significant investments in the background, often under the threat of their own lives. There’s a notably high proportion of women among them, even in high-tech fields like New Space. And that’s perhaps the biggest challenge for a conference of this kind: covering the diverse participants’ varying levels of knowledge regarding impact (which is a challenge in itself) while simultaneously meeting the predominantly European sponsors’ desires without engaging in greenwashing — after all, the event’s business model also plays a role in financing.

It is evident that the challenges and insights shared during the summit resonate deeply. In my first article about our experiences at ChangeNOW, I already addressed the criticism of current approaches and discussions regarding impact investments and sustainable entrepreneurship as well as the importance of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a systemic sustainability approach.

We stand at a pivotal moment in our collective journey toward a more regenerative future. Now, more than ever, action is imperative. Therefore, I urge each of us, whether as individuals, businesses, or policymakers, to heed the call to action. Let us commit to implementing innovative solutions and transformative practices that prioritize environmental stewardship, social equity, and economic resilience. Let us strive to embrace diversity, foster collaboration, and adopt holistic approaches that address the interconnected challenges we face.

Together, we can create a world where regeneration is not just a buzzword but a guiding principle ingrained in every facet of our society. So, let us seize this moment, harness our collective power, and embark on a journey of meaningful development. The time for action is now. Let’s make it count.

PS. Some of the Summit’s talks and panels are available as recordings here.

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COSMICGOLD

COMPLEXITY IS BEAUTY - From science and engineering to regenerative business