Interview with David Willans, sustainability, purpose and parenting

David Willans is a sustainability professional and founder of BeingDads. He discussed with me how the pandemic will shape our attitudes towards parenthood, work and climate change.

‘The big question is – What really matters to me?’

One of the big themes from the last 18 months that stands out for me is fragility.

We’ve seen the macro fragility of supply chains, of local services and government structures. We’ve also seen the fragility of our personal health, our relationships and our lives.

When things become inherently unstable, we start to consider what needs to be treasured and protected. The question then becomes: what really matters to me? And questions like that fascinate me because they get right into identity and culture – of both people and organisations.

Seeing this fragility does interesting things to us. It’s playing out in our work – with ‘the great resignation’ so many people are now changing jobs.

‘Driving a wave of change in organisational culture’

The pandemic has seen an acceleration of the trend towards men becoming more involved as parents and carers. It’s driven by a range of factors – such as changing definitions of masculinity and the need for couples to work more equitably.

The dad may be the main breadwinner, because the gender pay gap is sadly still with us and for so many other reasons like systems not supporting breastfeeding mums to return to work’, but men are increasingly involved at home as well. There’s a genuine desire amongst many men to spend more time parenting and doing the additional work that needs to happen in the background too.

They feel better able to challenge cultural and societal norms, in order to spend more time with their kids and build stronger relationships. This is a shift we’ve seen going back decades, one that’s been accelerated by the pandemic. Dads’ hours are increasing, but so is the sense of satisfaction and connection that they’re feeling to their children and family.

Now fast forward a few years, to when that generation of men and women become the senior leaders in business. This has the potential to drive a wave of change in organisational culture, which would be a really positive thing coming out of the pandemic. This is a shift society needs. With childcare costs being so high in most western countries, and increasing costs of living and housing, wages haven’t grown to keep up. Both parents have to work, but childcare takes time. Hopefully the experiences of the pandemic will mark significant changes for the better in how work and family life are structured.

Beyond that, the next generation – the kids that lived through the pandemic – may well have different models of masculinity, which we can only hope, continues to accelerate a more equitable society.

‘It’s about boundaries, not balance. How businesses have responded has revealed the real leaders, at all levels.’

The pandemic has reminded us of the value of non-work activities.

Both work and life involve human interaction. The more you are engaged in activities outside of work, whether that’s a sports club or parenting, the more you’re practising skills that are really important in the workplace.

It’s about boundaries, not balance. The concept of a balance implies that these two things are equally important – of equal value. The pandemic has taught us this isn’t the case. Work is important, but when it comes at the cost of the other areas of our lives, it isn’t sustainable. Nor is it good for business.

The pandemic and working from home has taught us that we really need to call out those boundaries. Otherwise, we end up living to work as opposed to working to live. It’s interesting to see who’s taken the lead on this. The businesses that have are the ones with a strong sense of identity, of what they stand for.  These are the kinds of businesses great people want to work for. The businesses with leaders that haven’t have seen their people fill the void.

‘Companies will need to ask themselves better questions and take greater responsibility’

With so many of us working from home I’ve been having conversations with businesses about where they see their responsibility for employees ending.

The pandemic has totally ripped up the boundaries, arguably for the better. Companies will need to take greater responsibility in future.

Some companies are enabling change – trying to be flexible and provide the right infrastructure. But there’s a lot of work that businesses need to do to make sure they’re treating people equally.

In the workplace there’s always been a tension around how to talk about mental health. The pandemic has increased our appreciation that it‘s really important. Many more people have been exposed to mental health pressures, and as a result, thankfully, it’s become less difficult to talk about.

This is where we see the difference between the people who are leading organisations and the people in senior positions managing them. The latter’s decision making is focused on short term results, so they struggle. The former have a framework of values that they use to make these tough decisions, so can make them more easily and consistently.

‘We’re in the early days of a power shift from platforms to creators’

Another area of change that’s been accelerated by the pandemic, and one I’m fascinated by is crypto. There’s been wild and rapid experimentation around how to organize and innovate, creating de-centralised financial markets, communities, asset creation and even digital additions to renewable energy business models

From the perspectives of communities, collective action, marketing and communications, it shifts the power from the platforms to the creators.

If you look at the previous web – 2.0 – what we’ve ended up with is monopolistic media platforms – like Google, Facebook and Instagram.

That’s because their business model is based upon ad revenue, which means that they have to hold people’s attention – to serve them stuff that they like or respond to. The incentives in these business models mean that their biggest externalities are mass misinformation. We’ve all suffered as a result.

The next generation of web technology – 3.0 – gives individuals control of their assets, through their ‘wallet address’. Then, when you go to different sites and log in with that address all your assets appear there. This has the potential to be a huge shift. Currently, when you build an audience on one platform, the platform is really the owner, so if you build an audience on say Facebook,, then go to Instagram, you have to build the audience all over again. The power is in the hands of the platforms, not the creators.

In Web 3.0 your assets are attached to  your wallet. Then it’s open on the blockchain for everyone to see and it transports them to different sites. Transactions are coded through smart contracts, so locked in and not open to human interference. This transparency via the blockchain, certainty via smart contracts and ownership via wallets puts the power with the individual. We’re in the earliest days of this shift, but the pandemic has definitely accelerated it.

From the perspectives of finance and climate, web3 and crypto can increase the attractiveness of renewable energy projects. Norwegian energy giant Aker are using bitcoin mining as a load balancing economic battery. Converting excess energy asset into a financial asset.

It’s an emerging area. The technology and its applications are advancing rapidly. Given how much the web2 has changed the world, it’s something the sustainability and mainstream business community needs to start understanding fast. Unfortunately, the attitude of the early crypto communities, the complexity, the hype and scams have put many people off. I think this is a mistake.

‘The learnings from web3 can be blended and mixed with more traditional forms of organising and decision making’

The pandemic has shown us that governance at all levels is really important. And yet, we’ve seen from Covid responses that, in many cases, it didn’t work well. A spotlight has been put on the need for speed and decentralised decision making, to on the ground places where the knowledge and experience of what works and doesn’t.

The fascinating thing about cryptocurrency is that we’re seeing new forms of organisation and discussions of governance take off. You have a space with new incentive mechanisms, decision making and devolved action. In traditional organisations, the incentive structures tend to favour conformism and decision making is slower. Reducing individual risk is more important than delivering results that advance collective purpose. Web3 technologies offer ways of delivering transparency, individual accountability, with new incentive mechanisms.

It’s a big experiment at the moment, well actually countless small experiments. But over a longer timeframe, of say 10 years, the changes and experiments we’re seeing in the crypto world will become mainstream. So will new ways of organising, with new incentive structures and more visible forms of accountability.

The learnings can be blended and mixed with traditional ways of organising. It’s a really exciting time for how organisations are run. It’s an exciting time for those with curious minds, working in organisations that have a high tolerance for experimentation.

‘The threat needs to be imminent – on our doorstep. Bizarrely, this makes me more hopeful than ever’

The potential for the pandemic to enable the global community to come together against a common enemy is huge.

It reminds me of the ‘Earthrise’ picture, taken the first time we went to the moon. It kicked off a wave of environmentalism.

And the pandemic gave people time to think more about climate change. It helped them engage with their local environment and connect back to nature.

Add to that the catastrophic weather events and growing noise around movements such as Extinction Rebellion – it seems inevitable that people became more engaged.

But the question is whether we will do enough to avoid the negative consequences of climate change. It seems unlikely, unless the narrative changes.

JK Rowling said that the secret to writing good stories is to create a very clear villain. This motivates readers like nothing else and makes a story work.

What we’ve had with Covid is a very clear villain – it’s the virus. But we don’t have that with climate change – it’s far more complicated, but it is pressing and present. Gone are the days of trying to make climate change a close to home issue. This, with the realisation of our fragility and the speed of innovation we’re seeing, strangely makes me feel hopeful. More hopeful of action at the scale we need than ever, and I’ve been at this for 16 years.

Realistically hopeful, because there’s a huge amount to do and change and a lot of influence vested in the old, unsustainable ways. But I don’t see another way of looking at it. The alternative would make me miserable, which would make me a less available and present parent and that’s something I’m not going to let happen.

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