By: Simon Perry, Principal Associate Analyst - Sustainability, Quocirca
Published: 3rd April 2009
Copyright Quocirca © 2009
If you are one of the 205,964 or so readers of The Independent then you may have noticed that BT has been going to great lengths to communicate a wide ranging message on all things sustainability, under the banner "SustainIT".
After several months of supplements, articles, opinion pieces and attempts to stimulate wide reader feedback, the campaign culminated this week in a briefing from a panel of experts, policy shapers and writers from the Indy to explore the theme of "the contribution of IT toward achieving a sustainable and equitable world economy". BT assures that this press and analyst briefing was coincidentally scheduled right on the eve of the G20 Summit, and the various climate change calls to action that are scheduled in London. Coincidental or cunningly scheduled the event exposes some very interesting undercurrents to BT's strategy.
The format of BT's event would be familiar to anyone who has ever attended an ICT vendor's marketing event. It goes like this; first you have a third party speaker or two set the scene, usually with a dose of factual, hype-free fear, uncertainty and doubt. Then a vendor spokesperson explains what the vendor is doing or selling that solves the problem that the audience has just been given cause to worry about. Usually there's also an independent speaker or two whose role it is to help "bridge" the problem message to the vendor's solution message. The degree of sophistication and subtlety involved in that exercise varies enormously, it must be said.
At BT's SustainIT event, the chief problem describer role was carried by Tony Juniper, ably backed up by Michael McCarthy, The Independent's environmental editor. Tony Juniper is the former director of Friends of the Earth, was closely involved in the details of the Climate Change Act, and is also standing as the Green Party's candidate for Cambridge. He knows his stuff. Representing BT was chief sustainability officer, Dr. Chris Tuppen.
Meanwhile Hamish McRae, The Independent's chief economic commentator, and author Charles Leadbeater fleshed out proceedings and added a little "bridge" commentary. Charles Leadbeater's chief claim to fame, according to the introduction he was given, is to be "Tony Blair's favourite thinker", an honorific one wonders if the current Prime Minister is slighted by. So far so normal; an interesting range of speakers and a fairly standard approach to a high level business marketing message.
Which is when it all got very interesting...
For a start, it was noticeable that nobody seemed to be having any fun. Watching each speaker passionately deliver their message, the words "deadly serious" came to mind. The tone of gravitas was set early on by Tony Juniper, who in a surprisingly detailed eight minute blur of graphs (all trending from "bad" toward "really bad"), gave a synopsis of climate change science and the current state of affairs.
In case we missed the point Tony made, after the other speakers Michael McCarthy wrapped up on a similar note. Speaking about the need to keep CO2e levels below 450ppm in order to limit AGW-related temperature rises to less than two degrees Celsius, Michael pulled himself up mid sentence to say: "Look, we may as speak the truth in this room. Nobody in the Copenhagen meetings (of climate scientists, which took place early in March) thinks we're going to achieve less than a 2 degree C rise." In summary, the message that Tony and Michael had to communicate was "We're doomed".
Dad's Army references aside, the message is one that we ought to be very concerned over. BT certainly seems to be taking it seriously; indeed the obvious implication of Tony and Michael's words, taken into context of Dr. Chris Tuppen's description of BT's efforts is this: Despite everything that BT has done, and anything it might bring to market, and anything else that any other vendor might be doing, our trajectory toward dangerous concentrations of atmospheric CO2e gases remains unchanged. If anything, climate change is happening faster and to a greater degree than first predicted by the IPCC.
Assuming of course that BT has done all that it might at this stage to contribute to the solving of climate change (and indeed its efforts are to be applauded) what is therefore needed is further far-reaching action by someone else, and with a high degree of urgency.
Several of the speakers called for additional legislation, which suggests that there are is more than one corporate executive who is personally convinced of the need for urgent action, but who feels that they need the "cover" of legislation to deflect the expected market (meaning "consumer") flack, and to create an even playing field with other companies less scrupulous and less switched on regarding required action. If, however, BT has anything to say specifically on that matter it remained unstated by Dr. Tuppen.
BT is of course aware that it is in a position to enjoy a not insignificant revenue opportunity related to telecommunications and services offerings designed to measure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However it also clearly felt that this is not a business-as-usual moment as far as selling the marketing message.
The problem is that BT and its guests had the wrong audience in front of them if strong and focused government intervention is indeed the call to action that culminates from the company's SustainIT campaign.
As the twenty two G20 leaders were meeting just miles away, while protestors prepared to march and the cameras of the world's media recorded, BT's audience at the SustainIT briefing was simply left concerned and perhaps a little bemused as to what to make of the event. An opportunity to push for what is really needed was unfortunately, missed, and yet it is a call to action that it seems BT is aware that we can't afford to continue to ignore.
While the company deserves enormous credit for having the clarity of vision and the guts to deliver the message as it did at the event, BT perhaps ought to have shown the bold creativity to stage it not in a closed room off The Strand, but instead at a time and a venue where the right audience might hear it.
Failing a time slot during the G20 proceedings, perhaps an open air stage amongst the protestors might have been more appropriate. You see, it isn't just the "crusty protestors" who are calling for urgent action toward climate change, it is the "corporate professionals" as well. More people need to see that fact rather than just the 40 or so people BT assembled for this event.
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