In this era of political change, when diverse and extreme views are being expressed freely, it can be tempting to retreat into our echo chambers [where an echo chamber is defined as “an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own.” In practice, this is when we surround ourselves with like-minded friends and consume media which are more-or-less in tune with our existing political views]. I have attended a few conferences and seminars recently, which I found very interesting, but they got me thinking about echo chambers in the world of sustainability and the sustainable development goals (SDGs). In this blog I share a few instances where I’ve spotted a few echo chambers, the associated risks, and what I think we should be doing to break out of them.
Echo Chamber #1
On 24thJune I went to an event hosted by the UK chapter of the UN Global Compact (UNGC). It was their AGM along with conference-style event entitled “Making Global Goals Local Business” (the Global Goals is another term used for the SDGs). It was a great event, with some interesting observations: senior business leaders from Aviva Investors, Hermes Investment, Unilever, Nestle and so on, all talking about how they’re strategising and innovating to work towards the SDGs. I was impressed by speakers’ familiarity with the details of the SDG agenda, their emphasis on innovation and system change, and the need to move away from “business as usual”.
The audience nodded sagely along as we talked about how difficult it all was. Classic echo chamber behavior! The audience members were there to hear about the SDGs and the speakers were invited &/or agreed to speak presumably because they had something to say about the SDGs; it was the perfect SDG love-in. It would have been refreshing – if not somewhat unconventional and uncomfortable – to hear from businesses who aren’t embracing the SDGs (and why); who don’t have the distinctive coloured squares of the SDGs on their lapel pins, annual reports and websites; and who, frankly, don’t see the business case for the SDGs. We could learn from these companies just as much (if not more) than we can from those who are already on the SDG trail. There is also a risk that if we hear the leaders of big companies saying that “this” [climate change/equitable supply chains/diversity/delete as appropriate] is difficult, we give ourselves permission not to try. In other words, it’s comfortable in our echo chamber.
Echo Chamber #2
Another an echo chamber that I’ve observed over the years is within the UN: I have been at countless meetings and conferences at which someone from the UN has repeated the call to action for businesses to contribute to the delivery of the SDGs. All very well, but I’ve not heard many people from the UN articulate in greater detail what exactly businesses should do. In the UN echo chamber, it seems that the message of “business must do more” is reverberating and bouncing off the walls. And to be honest, it can get a little tiresome for companies to hear – that they “must do more” but that “more” is not clearly defined; except it is: the detail within the targets and indicators of the 17 SDGs is rich with opportunity and action points for businesses to pursue; the problem is that many companies don’t look beyond the 17 headline Goals, and apparently few UN representatives don’t advocate for the detail that lies behind them. The UN could do a better job of stepping out of their echo chamber where the private sector “must do more” and focus on collaborating with businesses to help them navigate the detail within the SDG targets.
[Note: it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the speakers at the event last week – Lise Kingo, CEO of the UN Global Compact – who spoke brilliantly, and she was crystal clear that we are facing the biggest challenge of our time with climate change and the challenge to deliver the SDGs. I was also impressed that she sat on a panel with two CEOs of global companies and spoke in financial terms, using the kind of data points that one would normally expect a business leader to use. We need more people like Ms Kingo, who can talk in the different languages of the many sectors she engages with, and who isn’t just lazily pointing the finger at business.]
Echo Chamber #3
LinkedIn. I regularly visit LinkedIn for news and updates on who’s doing what in my network. I think LinkedIn is a great platform where I can read bite-size stories in multi-media formats about sustainable development and responsible business. However I am rarely challenged by the opinions and content of my LinkedIn feed…because it’s my own carefully-curated echo chamber. By definition, I have selected the people in my network and the organisations that I follow, so of course I’m going to hear like-minded content again and again. I’m sure this is the true for the majority of us; rare is the LinkedIn user who deliberately diversifies their networks and thereby the content of their feed.
The Risks of Echo Chamber
We like echo chambers because they are more comfortable than fora where we hear alternative points of view. We like them because we can hide from accountability, especially if influencers and leaders in the echo chamber give us permission to do so (by saying this is too hard, or it’s OK not to act urgently). We feel supported and validated in echo chambers. All of this puts us at risk of not changing our behavior. Yet, behavior change is needed now more than ever if we are going to rise to the challenge of climate change, ocean plastic, diversity, equality and food security (to name but a few). There is also a risk that the answers do not lie within our echo chambers and that we need to broaden our conversations to identify innovations and improved ways of working. And sometimes we need to hear a few home truths from beyond the echo chamber – think of the role of activist NGOs in forcing companies to think hard about what they’re doing and how.
How To Break Out of Your Echo Chamber (and Create System Change)
Whilst thinking about how to get out of one’s echo chambers, I realised that many of the things we can do are coincidentally and conveniently at the heart of Wasafiri’s approach to system change (described in our Systemcraft model). Systemcraft identifies five dimensions for action to change systems and below I describe how each dimension can also draw us out of our echo chambers:
- Build shared understanding – in Systemcraft, this is all about recognising different perspectives. In an echo chamber we are sharing (and re-sharing) the same perspectives on the world. A concerted effort is needed to engage many and different stakeholders to understand the complexity and nuances of a system. Diversify your LinkedIn network; read different media; go to events which are not attended by your usual sustainable development ‘rent-a-crowd’; and actively seek alternative points of view.
- Secure commitments – this is all about aligning goals amongst those driving change in a system. I mentioned earlier how I think an echo chamber is a safe place to hide from commitments and accountability. To truly change, we don’t need one company to tell another how hard it is; we need stakeholder to hold one another to account. Possibly some of the most effective ways for a company to do this is to make targets public and to engage a ‘sustainability advisory committee’ comprising diverse NGOs, activists consumers and subject matter experts.
- Change dynamics – for system change we need to create mutually reinforcing interventions that change the incentives that drive the current system. Outside the echo chamber we encounter thinking that is free from the shackles of the current system, which is where innovation and new ideas prosper. Hackathons, workshops with external stakeholders and multi-sector partnerships all help with changing the dynamics.
- Enable coordination – for system change this refers to multi-stakeholder collaboration, convening different perspectives. This is the antithesis of an echo chamber. Be bold, get out there and invite others in!
- Augment learning – we describe this as addressing asymmetries of learning and information flow through transparency and sharing data. An echo chamber perpetuates asymmetry of data, as seen by the climate change deniers: ignorance is bliss. But knowledge is power and sharing information makes systems more equitable and inclusive. This is perhaps one of the hardest things for companies to adjust to because it’s counter-intuitive to share information, for fear of the competition.
To conclude, I am aware of plenty of echo chambers – sustainability events, the UN and my LinkedIn feed are just three examples, but there are many, many more. The risk of these echo chambers isn’t just that we aren’t held to account and our ideas stagnate within them, but perhaps moreso, the greatest risk is that we miss opportunities such as innovations and challenges that really help us tackle complex problems. To create the system change, which is needed for sustainable development, we need to take positive action to break out of echo chambers and liberate our thinking.
Now, I’m off to Link-In with a few climate change deniers…