Building Sustainable Legacies

Why are global mega cities so ugly?

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I woke up to a grey and rainy skyline of the outskirts of Sao Paulo. During my breathing exercise I reflected on the many million of my fellow global citizens who will leave their homes in the country side to join cities like this. Apartment blocks lined up until the distant horizon in a general hazy, grey heavy and overcast sky. The heavy rainstorm suited that mood well. Are we crazy? Who on earth would in her right mind design such a picture of inhuman living cut off from nature as the dream of so many of us with otherwise limited futures?

Why do we design and build cities for our fellow citizens to live and work in that offer subhuman conditions and that are totally disconnected from nature. If I was an alien visiting planet Earth, I would seriously wonder what the inhabitants had in mind when they figured out how to live together. Somehow our societal governance structures don’t operate in the best interest of all. Why do we accept this? And what if we could and would actually start doing something about this?

I started my part of the 50+20 pre-RIO conference with this picture of the Sao Paulo skyline which I took this morning. I talked about where we as a global community are today versus where we need to get to to ensure that the 9 billion of us will be living well and within the limits of the planet (as per vision 2050 of the WBCSD). Nobody took offence. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have to spend more than a short moment on why we need a better world, new societies and as a result a new role for business. Swiss ambassador Meier who opened for us set the stage by highlighting all the things that are going wrong today and everybody was nodding. Given that this was the first time we talked about our project in front of a non-captive audience of mostly business executives, this was significant. There was no question about the fact that business must contribute to society and the common good. But: there was much blame on “others” and much frustration about things not going fast enough.

Thomas Dyllick from the University St. Gallen and I had lunch with Angelica Rotondaro who runs the St. Gallen hub here. She is doing a great job finding internships for St. Gallen students who want to experience the NGO or SME worlds in South America. She has an amazing network of social entrepreneurs in the fair-trade sector and she shares her challenges with us. Before long, we are in the burning issues of the agricultural world. I can’t help it but I get mad every time I reflect on the abuse that is taking place around GMO seeds of just about anything by now. The importance of fair-trade as a small but important new growth development supporting small regional farmers in their nearly impossible struggle against the multinational superpowers.

The other main issue that comes up today is the big difference between the challenges of developed vs. developing countries. As Julia von Maltzan Pacheco of University FGV points out correctly, people here in Brazil are craving for getting to the lifestyle we have achieved in the North or West (I am coining Northwest as a global new term for the developed world). People in the South and the East want that refrigerator, that car and that TV they have been longing for. We cannot tell them that “growth” is not sustainable (even if it isn’t). As Martin Bernard from Amrop points out: “there is no such thing as sustainable growth, the planet does have finite limits”. Well, we cannot even publicly say that to the folks in the Northwest! I liked Christian Cetera’s perspective (Director Training & Development of GE for South America) who humbly stated that his organization is nowhere despite having achieved an unheard of shift in their business reducing their financial services business from 55% to less than 15% of their net profits. While GE defines their ideal manager today very different from the days of Jack Welsh, he concludes that GE “has a long way to go.”

I walk away from our presentation happy with the unilaterally positive reaction of our vision. I also realize that we need to ensure that our audience understands that we have completed but the first step in a long journey: we propose a far-out, new vision that now needs concrete next steps in order to generate action and a relevant pace to realize it. We have passed the “fire drill” or “dry run” and are now ready for RIO+20!

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Author: Katrin Muff PhD

Dr. Katrin Muff is a thought leader in the transformative space of sustainability and responsibility. Until 2018, she led the Thought Leadership activities in the area of conceptual design at Business School Lausanne, where she acted as Dean from 2008-2015 until self-organization made such a title redundant. Under her leadership, the school focused its vision on entrepreneurship, responsibility and sustainability in education and research. Her business experience includes 10 years at ALCOA (GM in Russia, Industry Analyst for Global M&A in the U.S. and Business Analyst Europe), 3 years as Director, Strategic Planning EMEA at IAMS Europe (Procter&Gamble), and 3 years as a co-founder of Yupango, a coaching consultancy dedicated to start-ups and training management teams.

One thought on “Why are global mega cities so ugly?

  1. Dear Dr. Muff: It is most interesting to follow your insights as you travel through Brazil and as you reflect on what is said at the 50/20 conference.