Forum for the Future's CEO tells Oliver Balch what keeps her going as she pushes companies in the direction of progressive transformation, with all its risks and ambiguities
Intelligence, the late physicist Stephen Hawkins once quipped, is the ability to adapt to change. By that measure, Sally Uren is a brain-box of the first order. For change is what she thinks about and works at day-in day-out.
As chief executive of the London-based sustainability specialist, Forum for the Future, Uren sees her role and that of the organization she leads as a “catalyst and convener”. Catalyzing change and convening change-makers, that is. In the 2018 New Year's Honours, her efforts were recognised when she was awarded an OBE for services to sustainability.
“We’re a non-profit,” she says, with her trademark sense of clarity and purpose. “We don’t have an agenda other than to drive progress towards sustainable development.”
Since the pioneering sustainability thinker and advocate Jonathan Porritt set up Forum for the Future just over two decades ago, the organization has grown steadily. Today, it counts some of the world’s largest companies as partners, has offices in London, New York, Singapore and Mumbai, and employs around 70 people.
My training has all been about understanding systems and how best to intervene in a system to make it resilient
No longer is it the belts-and-braces operation of old, but nor is it the United Nations. So how does Uren see it realizing her organization’s noble ambitions and driving the seismic change she’d like to see?
A substantial part of the answer to that question comes down to systems. You don’t need to talk to Uren long before this tantalizing term crops up. As anyone who has ever tried to map a basic supply chain or track a product’s lifecycle knows, systems are fiendishly complicated affairs. In the modern industrial age of global connections and instant communications, they are ever more complicated still.
Start talking about systems change and you have another order of complexity altogether. Shift one component in a system and the knock-on effects reverberate throughout. Shift two and it’s anyone’s guess what might happen. Identifying these spill-overs is hard enough, let alone trying to purposefully direct them for sustainability ends, as Forum for the Future does.
Fortunately, Uren’s background stands her in good stead. A biologist by training, she studied for a PhD in environmental science at Imperial College London. The effects of air pollution on heather beetles (her thesis subject) may seem a long way from advising multinational companies on change-management, yet she insists that both share the same rigorous approach to scientific diagnosis.
“My training has all been about understanding systems and working out how best to intervene in a system to make it resilient,” she says.
Her early academic career also showed a predilection towards disruptive thinking. As an undergraduate, she swapped to English because she grew bored of biology. She then swapped back, but as a joint-honours with economics: so evolution and scarcity, ecology and opportunity costs.
The actual act of delivering change is 'really, really hard'
“I didn't want to do the courses they [the university] set. I guess I’ve always understood that you need to think of things slightly differently.”
Her theory of change is not merely cerebral. Uren is a big believer in the need for individuals to experience the necessity of change. Why? Because the actual act of delivering change is “really, really hard”. Not just conceptually, but often personally as well. It means having to deal with ambiguity, risk and the threat of failure, and perhaps even open hostility or opposition.
Systems, she theorizes, have their own energy behind them; try and reconfigure them and they inherently resist. The closer you get to “rechanneling that energy”, moreover, the greater they push back.
Uren is open about the times she herself has been pushed back. Take her past efforts to get the international tea industry to drive forward a consumer campaign for sustainable tea. Push as she might, she met with a wall of resistance. Looking back, she acknowledges now that she was trying to shift something that she saw as pre-competitive (sustainability) into a space that the tea sector viewed as fundamentally competitive (marketing and sales). In short, a no-go proposition.
Sometimes change just takes time, she accepts. Over a decade ago, for example, she was involved in promoting a project at Forum for the Future (she was deputy chief executive for 11 years prior to her current role) called Limited Edition. The basic premise was to help brands to integrate sustainability into their new brand propositions. It was, she admits, “a miserable failure”.
“Noone was ready to have that conversation,” she recalls. “Fast-forward to today, however, and the idea of ‘sustainable brands’ is a real thing and everybody is figuring out how to do this.”
I guess people struggle with Forum for the Future if they want to maintain the status quo
Plenty of reasons exist for why change happens at certain times and not at others. In the private sector, the creation of new business models and the invention of new technologies can often prove critical. Government incentives, political policies or – as with the contemporary phenomenon of moves to reduce plastic waste – mass media coverage can play their part too.
Yet, for Uren, it’s people who ultimately catalyze many of the most progressive changes that we witness. Some of these individuals are very senior. So Tea 2030, for instance the more recent (and more successful) iteration of Forum for the Future’s tea-sector programme, counts a CEO group of top industry executives.
Other change-makers are further down in the guts of an organization, often as not in sustainability-related functions. For instance, Forum for the Future is currently working with a group of US-based beauty and personal care firms to increase the number of sustainable products on the shelves. The idea originated not in a boardroom, says Uren, but in a conversation between two passionate sustainability practitioners at Walmart and Target, respectively.
The common factor among all the individuals that Forum for the Future works with is their desire to “create, transform, and shift the system around”, she says: “I guess people struggle with us if they want to maintain the status quo.”
Yet working to effect change isn’t a walk in the park either. One of Uren’s main innovations since taking up the helm is the establishment of Forum for the Future’s School of System Change. The aim of the school, which has had four cohorts of students, in both the US and Europe, is to equip mid-career professionals to become effective change-makers in the systems where they find themselves.
There is an increasing recognition of the need to drive transformational change [but] very few places to get help
“There is an increasing recognition of the need to drive transformational change [but] there's actually very few places you can go to get help and guidance,” Uren notes. “So the school is our response to the need that we see to equip professionals in their ability to drive this kind of systemic change.”
Tools no doubt feature highly in the syllabus. As Uren readily concedes, Forum for the Future has a thing for change-oriented management methodologies. Value Network, Scaling-Up Impact and 6 Steps to Significant Change are just some of the examples she rattles off during our interview.
This commitment to robust and systematic thinking sets Forum for the Future apart from the cottage-industry of other sustainability organizations now out there. Its reputation in scenario-planning and “horizon-scanning” is particularly strong. Most notably, the organization’s future-gazing work is credited with helping US clothing company Levi’s come up with the idea for Water<Less jeans.
As you might expect having spent much of her career with an organization with ‘future’ in the title, Uren believes a forward focus is essential to large-scale disruption. Transformational change generally happens if you are able to rethink what you're doing, she reasons, and strive towards a potentially different goal.
“By taking people into the future, it really does open people's minds to new possibilities ... So through scenarios, through exposure to trends, through sharing weak signals, we're essentially helping individuals and organizations reimagine their future and critically create futures that they want.”
Another word to sum up Uren’s approach could be “collaboration”. However much of a brain-box you may be, no single individual has all the answers, she observes. More than that, achieving change at scale means “bringing everyone in the system together”.
Whether its initiating, co-ordinating, directing, encouraging or generally putting her weight behind them, collaborative initiatives end up occupying a lot of her time. The latest in Forum for the Future’s long list of collaborative initiatives is Cotton 2040, pitched as an effort to bring together all the various strands of work in the sector so that they “add up to more than the sum of their parts” (See Unpicking the confusion over sustainable cotton).
I'd love to see us running global collaborations that are capable of shifting the system
The principle of collaboration is one that she brings to her management style as well. “If you asked my chair, he'd say I was too collaborative and that I need to be more direct at times,” she laughs.
Uren can be direct when she needs to be, though. Asked where she hopes to take Forum for the Future she is categorical: “I'd love to see us running global collaborations that are capable of shifting the system as well as sharing insights about the future so that we can help not just business but also trusts, foundations and non-profits to work alone and together to create the future that we want.”
And her advice for when the going gets hard? Try to step back and identify what’s behind the barriers you’re facing; accept that you may have to devise a new strategy or adapt your approach; and, finally, retain a “bloody-minded conviction that things have to change”.
CV: Dr Sally Uren
Lives: Wandsworth, London
Children: Three (ages 10, 14 and 17)
Chief executive, Forum for the Future
Head of business programme/deputy chief executive, Forum for the Future
2002 – 2013
Director, Casella Stanger (now Bureau Veritas)
1991 – 2001
PhD, Environmental Science, Imperial College
1998 – 2002
Forum for the Future disruptors supply chains Cotton 2040 Levi's BPC Sustainability Project CSR SDGs