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What does the future of responsibility look like?

Responsibility is a growing trend where the target keeps moving further away as expectations grow. Sustainability and societal impact are increasingly discussed alongside responsibility. What do these three concepts entail and what kind of entity do they form? How do they challenge our thinking about what we mean by and how we promote responsibility in the future?

Writers

Eeva Hellström

Senior Lead, Foresight and Strategy, Sitra

Pinja Parkkonen

Specialist, Strategy, Sitra

Published

This article outlines how responsibility can be made more holistic, effective and future-oriented. This is achieved by advocating a more comprehensive concept of responsibility than the current one. We do this by bringing sustainability, responsibility and societal impact under a common framework. Finally, we examine the way in which systemic and transformative change challenges our present ideas and reporting practices concerning responsibility.

How does responsibility meet sustainability and societal impact?

Organisations seeking to respond to all the requirements of responsibility, sustainable development and societal impact often find the way in which these concepts are related to each other confusing, to say the least.

Based on several Finnish example organisations, we have built a framework that brings the three key concepts together in seven areas that are typically included in responsibility frameworks:

  1. the purpose of responsibility
  2. the societal impact of operations
  3. stakeholder relations
  4. the direct environmental and social effects of an organisation’s own activities
  5. the governance model
  6. personnel
  7. responsibility management.

Responsibility requirements in these areas differ significantly depending on whether the goal is to better manage the direct negative impacts of the organisation’s own activities (footprint) or to increase the organisation’s positive impact on society (handprint). Pioneering organisations pursue both approaches in parallel.

Table. Examples of sustainability approaches that strengthen footprint management and handprint growth

APPROACHSustainability as a way to manage and verify the footprint of one’s activitiesSustainability as a way to strengthen and assess the handprint on society
1. The strategic purpose of sustainabilityDemonstrating the organisation’s corporate citizenship through branding and differentiationThe pursuit of benefits to society as part of the organisation’s strategic objective
2. The direct environmental and social impacts of operationsManaging the direct environmental and social impacts of an organisation’s own operationsProgressiveness of an organisation’s own operating practices and being a trailblazer relative to the societal change being pursued
3. Results and impact of the actions takenAchievement of set targets, results and the cost-effectiveness of actionsThe systematic pursuit of societal impact
4. Management modelSound financial management, governance and risk managementEmphasising the underlying values behind operations and a culture that strengthens the organisation’s learning and capacity for change
5. Stakeholder relationsRequiring compliance with sustainability standards and transparency throughout the supply chainPromoting societal change through extensive co-operation networks
6. EmployeesEmployee safety and well-being, engagement and a positive employee experienceA culture that supports the role of employees in promoting and inspiring societal impact
7. Sustainability managementSustainability as a separate area of management and the use of existing sustainability models and standards in reportingProactively developing strategic objectives to align them with society’s needs and impact assessment as part of the organisation’s strategic reporting

What would future generations expect from us?

Responding to known or even rising trends in responsibility demands is no longer a sufficient starting point from which to tackle responsibility in these post-normal times of surprise and discontinuity. An organisation striving for future success benefits from an attitude of curiosity towards potential future developments and increasing responsibility requirements. Pioneering increasingly requires looking for weak signals and early signs of possible change even before they gain attention as new requirements for responsibility.

Yet, a future-oriented, socially beneficial organisation should aim even higher than this. History has taught us that what is today considered responsible may eventually appear irresponsible in the eyes of future generations. It is therefore worth contemplating what kind of responsibility demands future generations might place on us today. Those interested in future responsibility requirements are also encouraged to listen to the voices of the young. For example, what would young experts today like to have discussed and addressed?

Responsibility for systemic and transformative change

Systemic problems, such as climate change, biodiversity loss or growing inequality, require a systemic approach to responsibility. Most responsibility-related work, however, pursues various responsibility goals separately from each other, neglecting the fact that improving responsibility in one area can have a negative effect on another. Instead, tools are needed that help anticipate, visualise and manage the interactive relationships within the system.

Systemic problems cannot be solved without the simultaneous actions of several parties all pulling in the same direction. It is therefore important to develop work on responsibility towards more collective approaches that are based on co-operation between different organisations and that go beyond their own procurement and supply chains.

Transformative action is a further requirement that challenges the prevailing thinking on responsibility. We live in a time characterised by much uncertainty and discontinuity. Unpredictability is frequently present, and the changes we are facing seldom happen in linear ways. Transformative approaches strive to bring about change by challenging the status quo and prevailing assumptions. The goal is to create discontinuity, such as radical change, dissenting views or new initiatives that open paths to a different, desirable future.

Responsibility work often pursues gradual change. Instead, in pioneering organisations the focus is on analysing how transformative change challenges present activities. It is not just about rethinking how to organise the key processes of production, but about the inner changes within people and the ability to learn and innovate in new ways or from new sources.

New approaches to reporting are needed

For most organisations, it is customary to report on responsibility according to their annual reporting cycles. However, many questions related to sustainability, responsibility and societal impact require long-term work and their metrics do not fit well within annual reporting rhythms. Organisations aiming for societal impact are now facing the challenge of how to evaluate social impact within their short-term reporting cycles while being aware of the systemic and long-term nature of the societal impact.

The current responsibility standards and guidelines have been built mainly to meet the needs of individual organisations. It is now time to consider what kinds of responsibility strategies and reporting would support collective responsibility.

Future-oriented organisations should also consider reporting not only on the how their activities are developing in relation to traditional ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) criteria but also on how they aim to achieve transformative change. Such activities could include strategic anticipation of the future, development and the introduction of radical innovations, the organisation’s ability to change and change management that supports the fundamental reform of operating methods.

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