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4 Lessons in Sustainable Impact from Leaders in Health and Climate Sectors

28 March 2024 — Matt Whale
4 Lessons in Sustainable Impact from Leaders in Health and Climate Sectors

4 Lessons in Sustainable Impact from Leaders in Health and Climate Sectors

Feeling overwhelmed, as if challenges keep piling up one after another? You could be facing a 'polycrisis'—an entanglement of ecological, economic, political, social, and civilizational challenges, all feeding on each other. Welcome to organisational management in 2024, where our problems are accelerating into complexity.

These forces are inescapable – it’s a decisive moment for Australia. It's crucial that we actively shape the future, particularly in climate change and health. The risks are shattering. The rewards are sublime.

The risk of climate change is existential. Last year saw the hottest temperatures for 100,000 years. 20 of 35 planetary vital signs are at record extremes. We’re in 'uncharted territory'. In health, we’re facing a loneliness epidemic, surging mental health disorders, and a health system struggling to deal with increasing complex, chronic health conditions like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Despite the dire outlook, there is still cause for optimism. Reducing carbon emissions will positively impact issues ranging from drought, wildfires, flooding, poverty, health risks, species extinction, and economic well-being. By positioning Australia as pioneers in clean energy technologies and resources, we can help neighboring countries lower their emissions and bolster their energy security. It’s win-win.

Similarly in health, a shift to prevention and early intervention can improve care, increase access to health services, and alter the trajectories of individuals, potentially transforming their lives for the better.

To understand how organisations are navigating the risks and rewards of sustainable impact, we spoke with leaders from ReachOut, a provider of youth mental health services; Eucalyptus, a leading digital health service provider; Port of Newcastle, the world's premier coal export port; and MCi Carbon, a global pioneer in decarbonization technology, to learn about their approaches. They shared insights and lessons into creating sustainable outcomes.

Lesson 1: Invest in infrastructure for experimentation

Addressing youth mental health requires more than a quick fix, according to Jackie Hallan, Interim CEO at ReachOut. The organisation has invested in social impact measurement and design capabilities to innovate early intervention services through co-production with young people. Their latest initiative, PeerChat, designed with young people, introduces peer support as a complement to clinical healthcare. The unique model was refined through numerous ‘design sprints’ creating multiple experience prototypes, an online experiment, and service pilots. The result is a service model that not only seeks to address the distinct mental health challenges faced by young Australians but also exemplifies how technology can enhance human connection (and not the other way around).

Hallan highlights the critical role of establishing efficient, impactful structures to meet people's needs. ReachOut's commitment to continuously measure and learn through prototyping, experimentation, and piloting has culminated in a dynamic organisation and responsive service models, increasing accessibility and outcomes for young individuals.

Lesson 2: Challenge assumptions with an outsider’s perspective.

Challenging prevailing norms in healthcare, Eucalyptus thrives under the guidance of four founders without traditional healthcare backgrounds, turning what might seem like a disadvantage into their strength. This unique perspective allows them to question, and rethink established healthcare assumptions, leading to the development of a patient-centric model that emphasises high-touch care throughout the patient's journey. Their approach leverages technology in a way that enhances understanding and empowers patients, moving away from a paternalistic model towards one that is inclusive, and patient led.

For Clinical Director Dr. Matt Vickers, the outsider’s viewpoint is invaluable, “It paves the way for addressing stigmatized health issues with fresh eyes, focusing on what patients truly need rather than adhering to conventional practices.” Eucalyptus's model works backwards. It starts with the desired patient outcome and works its way back to the patient experience, contrary to the traditional medical training approach. This shift not only challenges the status quo but also opens new avenues for care that are more aligned with patient needs and expectations.

Lesson 3: Let go of control for cross-sector collaboration.

Australia faces a major challenge in its reliance on natural resource exports. Simon Byrnes, Former Chief Commercial Officer of Port of Newcastle, underscores the opportunity: "We're at a pivotal moment to innovate beyond exporting raw materials to build industries that create value." This shift necessitates a comprehensive reevaluation of trade and business models, emphasizing sustainability and global competitiveness. The importance of cross-sector cooperation is paramount.

The transition in Newcastle from coal to renewable energy showcases the necessity of integrating efforts across government, industry, academia, and communities. The port brought together 20+ partners to prioritise key initiatives. "Our work was about demonstrating that we can achieve more by truly working together, than by adhering to conventional adversarial corporate practices," reflects Byrnes. Building a collaborative environment requires time, trust, and space outside of typical organisational norms. New identities emerged that transcended the 'us versus them' mentality. Byrnes highlighted the critical role of shared goals as a foundation for coordination without ‘control’. Each partner could navigate complexity (and be prepared to change values, goals, methods and tasks) rather than sticking to a defined set of time, quality and cost. These partnerships continue to chart viable routes for innovative energy models, underscoring that systemic change is feasible only through collective effort.

Lesson 4: Hold back your story until it’s ready to ignite.

MCi Carbon's journey began in 2006 when founders Marcus Dawe and John Beever, inspired by the first IPCC report, envisioned repurposing CO₂ from a harmful waste into a valuable resource. They developed a technology based on natural weathering processes to convert CO₂ emissions into products for building materials and other uses. Despite challenges in scaling their clean technology in Australia's slow-moving regulatory and industry environment, MCi Carbon achieved significant milestones, including a $14.6 million federal grant in 2021 and plans for a commercial-scale plant in Austria by 2028.

Todd McHenry, Head of Communications at MCi Carbon, emphasises the importance of not jumping the gun on narrative: “Historically, MCi Carbon has adopted a low-profile strategy, aiming to under-promise rather than overhype. We have been quietly developing our technology at our Pilot Plant facility in Newcastle, whereas companies overseas in our sector have started hyping up their own solutions and products before they are outside a lab.”

Having made progress, their stance has shifted towards advocating for urgency and activism. The company is now creating significant impact, highlighted by its achievement of the #1 Cleantech award at COP26, its prominent presence addressing attendees at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, and inclusion in speeches by our Prime Minister. Their strategy of waiting until notable progress is now yielding dividends, generating significant momentum. McHenry observed, "Our role in communications is to bring everyone along on the journey. The challenge lies in making our technology understandable and sensitive to everyone. That means the community and industry." MCi's success is a testament to the effectiveness of a narrative that is both well-timed and well-defined.

Matt Whale

Matt Whale

Managing Director at How To Impact