IN CONVERSATION WITH MANJULA LEE, FOUNDER AND CEO OF WORLD WIDE GENERATION
The June issue of TIME magazine flopped through my letterbox with sombre urgency earlier this year. On the cover Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, gazes at the camera, sad and preoccupied, as he stands thigh-deep in muddy water. Below him float the words, “Our Sinking Planet”.
In 2015, the United Nations formally set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the world to deliver by 2030. We all know the consequences of failure in this global mission: the potential mass wipe-out of populations, losing some of the world’s most precious cities and natural beauties to flooding, wildfires and other climate disasters, spawned by a 2 degree temperature rise. On his appointment into office, Guterres cited the private sector and the business world as the best allies in the world for avoiding such a failure.
“It is very important to mobilise them,” he urged attendees at Davos 2017. “We will not have the necessary innovation, the necessary capacity to discover new markets, new products, new services and to be able to develop new areas in the economy without them.”1
When facing the figures and climate consequences, it seems ludicrous that businesses are so slow on the uptake. Indeed, Guterres pointed out the ROI generated by fully implementing the SDGs for the global economy is substantial: it would mean something “in the magnitude of $30bn a year”.2 Not only that, but we’re seeing the companies who put the SDGs at the heart of their strategies outperforming the stock market by 11%. Similarly, investors are increasingly examining ESG factors when considering making business investments.3
At every turn, the path is clear and the economic argument for sustainable development is sound. So why are we not seeing more organisations race to action?
CONNECTING A GENERATION
The issue is the very mobilisation Guterres talked about. Mobilising businesses of all sizes, financial institutions and private organisations to action alongside nonprofit organisations and governments is crucial in achieving long-term, global-scale change. However, mobilising these organisations has become a logistical struggle.
“It keeps coming back to execution,” Manjula Lee, founder and CEO of World Wide Generation, told me. “Execution, execution, execution. It might be a great idea, but how on earth do we execute it?”
In January 2016, following the launch of the SDGs, Manjula set herself the task of finding a way to bring business, government, civil society and citizens together for the delivery of the SDGs. To do that, she set up World Wide Generation (WWG) as an independent facilitator to help shape the future of social problem solving. However, one year in trying to find a partnership-driven, holistic and transparent model, she realised the missing piece of the puzzle was technology. Blockchain, to be precise.
In April 2017, WWG pivoted into a sustainability fintech and began developing G17Eco, a blockchain-powered technology platform, upon which corporates, governments, financial institutions, nonprofits and even citizens can make and track investments into SDG initiatives. The aim is to come together in one global ecosystem and share trusted data across stakeholders to empower faster and more effective decision making in investment, divestment, managing risk and creating sustainability products and solutions at scale.
“Before designing G17Eco, we saw that solutions in the market were fragmented, which only increased the trust deficit between financial, delivery and beneficiary partners,” Manjula told me. It was a deficit that impacted investment rates. “Someone had to reinvent that model for delivering these goals and prove the economic argument of sustainable development.”
The start-up’s lexicon is bold and audacious: its goal is to deliver “the most ambitious project in human history”. Manjula is no less so.
“I wanted to put all my talent towards something that could potentially change the world. When I was pitching to people in 2016, they almost felt sorry for me,” she laughed. “They’d think, ‘this is the craziest idea! She’s so optimistic!’ But someone needs to be.”
“I realised that I was being told the same thing by all these people,” she told me. “They were saying, ‘who is going to map our initiatives to the SDGs, who’s going to monitor and measure performance, how do we coordinate all the actors? It’s too hard’.”
“The lightbulb moment came when I thought of a platform that could do all of those things, in the cheapest, most efficient and most transparent way. I came straight back to London and started drawing up something that looked halfway between an Airbnb and an Amazon. Basically, I created a digital monitoring and marketplace platform out of that whole investment chain.”
“We then pivoted to becoming a genuine facilitator through technology,” she continued, “which holds the principles of global connectivity, efficiency, accountability and transparency. All of which is needed to hit the SDGs.”
But that’s not all that the SDGs need. The UN estimates that delivering them requires unlocking $3.3 to 4.5 trillion per year until 2030: a huge sum which currently lies fragmented in crumbs all around the world.4
I admired Manjula’s fierce discourse of action. She wasn’t phased by the magnitude of the project; if anything, she seemed fuelled by it.
“We’ve now built a platform that is addressing all of those pain points,” she urged. “Now every single stakeholder in the ecosystem needs to be mobilised.”
In April 2017, Manjula’s project of delivering the SDGs at scale was taken to the House of Lords and discussed with one of the UK Government’s Dept. for International Trade’s (DIT) chief dealmakers. The DIT facilitated introductions to many partners, technologists and financiers to get the project off the ground. Support also came from unexpected places: her sister, her best friend and a mum from her daughter’s school all put serious capital behind the project as a sign of solidarity. She had three women backing her and with a female CEO, WWG itself was emulating SDG #5 of gender equality and female empowerment.
In September 2017, Manjula presented her project to the United Nations, capturing an audience that included governments, the private sector, financial institutions and non-profits: the big four that she needed to hit.
Following Manjula’s meeting with former PM Theresa May and the UK Cabinet, September 2018 saw the launch of the Sustainable Development Capital Initiative by the UK government and the City of London: a project intended to scale the vision that Manjula had brought to the table, of which World Wide Generation is a partner.
The finale moment happened just the week before I sat down with Manjula to chat about World Wide Generation’s journey. Several organisations from the financial sector contacted the team, articulating the same pain-points of delivering against SDG ambitions. Manjula and her team decided to get them (35 financial institutions, to be exact) together in the same room, in order to present her plan of the interoperable data platform.
“It was a historical moment,” she said. “And that’s where we are now. We’re ready. We’re mobilising with a strategy to drive value across all the different stakeholders from data providers to standard setters, to fund managers, investors, and public and private companies. We’re starting to execute. We’ve got consensus and we’re ready to onboard at scale. Our live pilot kicks off in September 2019!”
The economic argument for organisations delivering the SDGs is clear in its benefits, as is the social one and environmental one. The SDGs call a generation to rise up, take action and mobilise; simply discussing the problem doesn’t provide solutions or make it go away.
When technology steps in to connect the dots, organisations, people, and money all can move faster. Manjula’s hope is infectious and she left me optimistic. Who knows if we will actually hit the goals by 2030, but there is hope for a solution. Corporations are doing more than they seem and it’s time to change the course of history. Latent intention now must become decisive action.
- ‘At Davos forum, UN chief Guterres calls businesses ‘best allies’ to curb climate change, poverty’, UN, January 19, 2017.. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2017/01/at-davos-forum-un-chief-guterres-calls-businesses-best-allies-to-curb-climate-change-poverty/
- EY Global, ‘Why Sustainable Development Goals should be in your business plan’, EY, March 9, 2017. https://www.ey.com/en_gl/assurance/why-sustainable-development-goals-should-be-in-your-business-plan
- ‘Building better engagement for the new Sustainable Development Goals’, Sustainable Development Goals Fund, November 9, 2015. https://www.sdgfund.org/building-better-engagement-new-sustainable-development-goals