The 7th Global Conference of the Planetworkshops recently took place in Évian, bringing together over 900 sustainability actors from all around the world for three days. On day 2, we had a chance to speak to George J. Gendelman, who co-founded the Planetworkshops with Éric Bazin. He shared a drink with us – and threw a few thoughts in too.
How and why did the Planetworkshops come into being?
It all started with a photo exhibition called “Les Sommets de l’Image” (Image Summits) that Éric first organised six years ago in Courchevel, centred on the idea of nature preservation. While we were putting the exhibition together, we became conscious that we needed to go further than just showing pictures. So, for the opening night, we decided to invite a dozen sustainable development and nature preservation experts to come and share their expertise with us. We started making contacts, calling acquaintances, and we met people who liked the project’s originality…
Eventually, over 70 people came, and the gathering lasted for two days instead of one afternoon.
That was the first edition of the Planetworkshops.
We realized that there were many people everywhere doing a wonderful job on these topics of sustainability and nature preservation, but that they were working in complete silos, with no communication whatsoever between them. And this is something we cannot stand. Our aim soon became to create links between these actors and the sectors in which they operate (NGOs and associations, public entities, international organisations, companies, etc.). If we want to move forwards, we must understand one another, communicate on initiatives, create networks and share. The first edition was a real success; people approached us to thank us for bringing them together around the same table.
The theme of this 7th edition is “Age of co-construction or triumph of competition?” Why choose this theme now? From what you are saying, hasn’t co-construction been at the core of the Planetworkshops approach since the beginning?
Let’s say it’s our Seven Year Itch! Talking about co-construction today shows we have achieved a first step. But it also mirrors the evolution of society: our model is now showing its limits and it is high time we put everyone together in a room and redefined their roles. Innovating without a framework is useless; people need to understand how each entity has a specific role to play, and that
we have been fooling ourselves on this role over the past 15 years.
For instance, we need to ask ourselves questions about the role of companies: they do not have all the solutions, and they have their own constraints, the first of which is to make a profit. Public entities define a frame in which the private sector does what it has to do, and civil society is here to watch, alert and accompany. Each of these actors will have weight and power if they define their roles together, and then stick to them.
After six years of annual gatherings, how do you feel that the sustainability sector has evolved? What are its new goals and challenges?
First of all, it is not a sector anymore. It is a lifestyle, a philosophy, a way to do things. When environmental issues first entered the public debate, firms reacted by creating departments dedicated to “communication and sustainable development”. Now, sustainability is part of their strategy. It is the first step towards global integration: the mission of the people who carry out environmental issues in these companies is to make their own jobs disappear, eventually. On a larger scale, sustainability is not considered a whim anymore. It’s no longer a fad, it is making its way into people’s habits. Which means that the experts’ preoccupations also get more and more precise and complex, as people get more demanding. But that is definitely a good thing.
Looking back at the past six years, how do you assess what you have accomplished with the Planetworkshops? And what are your challenges for the future?
We are reassured. Firstly, because we feel that we were right to tackle the issue the way we did. Secondly, because more and more people are getting involved. And finally, because we are managing to convince a growing number of companies that things can be seen from a different perspective. They realise that sustainability is not just a question of communication, and that it is closely linked to their long-term survival.
Looking ahead, we know that we will keep developing – we have adapted the concept for use in nine countries. Back in July, we created, with Thierry Hommel, the Planetworkshops’ Institute, which works on potential contestation or controversy issues that could threaten companies that do not take them into account.
It’s a question of anticipation in order to insure durability.
The rules have changed in economic, social and environmental terms: firms need to realise that and integrate it into their reflexion and strategy. We have both corporate and academic & scientific networks worldwide, and have decided to connect them, along with Civil Society: it gives us the ability to analyse the potential contestation issues, to identify the actors that could help solve them and to actually prevent the problem. The Institute’s role is to anticipate: it is obvious that companies can no longer settle in a country in their own way. They have to secure a growing number of parameters to ensure their own permanence in these new markets, and we help them do that.
Finally, one of our goals is of course to keep doing what we do, more and more efficiently, and to keep connecting networks and people from all over the world.
Precisely, how did you go from 70 participants to over 900 now? How did you go about reaching so many people?
We reach them with faith, energy and an incredible team. When you have faith in something, it spreads. The people who are here come here because they want to share something. That is our richness.
(Photo from http://www.ledauphine.com)