Progress and Growth

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Last year I participated in a World Café workshop held at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) on Innovation.  As an initial exercise we worked to define exactly what the term meant and almost everyone had a different perspective resulting in different metaphors and viewpoints.  One thing that struck me throughout the session, and has been haunting me ever since, is the preoccupation with “growth” – the concept that we don’t actually ‘progress’ unless we grow.

So, what do we mean by “progress” and “growth”?

In his 2004 Massey Lectures Canadian author Ronald Wright commented that human progress has largely been measured by technology because, in many instances, technology has been the means by which we, as humans, have seen change.  In short, we came to measure human progress by technology because it delivered.  This was hotly debated at the UTS workshop with many stressing that innovation was also manifest in all areas of human endeavour – in the social sciences, in the business world, in culture and art.  But, the focus on ‘growth’ remained.

We are currently in the midst of a major shift which is occurring in the global financial world which, to me, has “growth” at its heart.  In so many areas people are focusing on growth as measures of progress, rather than the concept of sustainability.  Growth – as seen in terms of profits, is a ‘lag’ indicator – it shows the outcomes of whatever activities have been undertaken.  It doesn’t show how you got there, nor what you should do next, except for maybe more of the same.  At a recent AICD (Australian Institute of Company Directors’ seminar) a comment was made that many Directors are frustrated by the focus on regulations, internal processes and short term shareholder profits to the detriment of longer term strategic planning.  As such, it is the focus on “growth” rather than sustainability that is taking their attention.

One could ask in the current circumstances if this situation had been reversed and the Directors of many financial institutions globally had focused on sustainability rather than growth whether the current “sub-prime” environment would have occurred, and whether all those countless people who no longer have roofs over their heads would be sleeping in their cars and feeding their children through welfare.

The focus on sustainability has largely been on the environmental aspects, but sustainability is much more than that.  It encompasses all aspects of an organisations’ activities be they financial, technological, social, environmental and political.  A focus on sustainability enables one to look at “lead” indicators, to see the connections between what is being done and strategically focus on the potential outcomes.

Wright stated that “each time history repeats itself, the price goes up”.  Perhaps the price may now be beginning to be too expensive – we shall see.