Putting the Steve in Sustainability

We’re here to put a dent in the universe.
Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs has passed away at the age of 56, having transformed the way we use and think about technology. Those of us working toward a more sustainable world would be wise to pay attention to how he did it.

I was working in the mobile phone industry in January 2007, when Jobs stood up on stage and revealed the iPhone to the world. Many of my colleagues looked on unimpressed – sure it looked good, but it was too expensive, too big, too slow for internet browsing, too hard to type on… in fact too just-about-everything. The consensus seemed to be that Jobs, as an ‘outsider,’ just couldn’t understand the complexities of the mobile landscape we all inhabited. What my colleagues missed was that Jobs wasn’t looking to find his own place in that landscape; he was planning to terraform it. And terraform it he did. Five short years ago very few people outside the industry had ever heard the term “smartphone,” but now it seems that every other handset you see is either an iPhone or an imitation of it.

What does all this mean for the business of sustainability? Well, Apple may not be known as a leader on environmental or social issues, but its winning formula serves as a great model for those who aspire to be. Jobs built an organisation that actively sought to shatter the status quo in every market it entered. The iPhone is just one of a number of successess – Macintosh, iTunes, iPad, and so on – that prove how a single company can really change the game if it thinks differently.

At Apple, Jobs created a culture hungry to understand its markets and compelled to disrupt them, a culture focused on simplicity and willing to say no to a thousand ideas in pursuit of one, a culture uncompromising in its pursuit of execution excellence.

Imagine if we could bottle this way of thinking, and prescribe a dose to every CEO working in the energy, food and finance industries. The growing effects of climate change, resource depletion and population growth are opening up tremendous business opportunities in these sectors – for those with the appetite, vision and courage to embrace them.

In the 1990s Jobs famously asked just one question to persuade John Sculley, then PepsiCo president, to join Apple: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Let’s put the Steve in Sustainability and pose similar questions to CEOs everywhere, starting now.

Today I have Steve Jobs to thank for the computer I’m typing on, for the phone which informed me this morning of his passing, and (lest we forget his pivotal role in creating Pixar too) for the fantastic movie that my daughter is currently being transfixed by. In twenty years’ time, I hope I’ll have something more profound to thank him for: showing a generation of CEOs that it really is possible for a single company to change the world.

This article first appeared on sustainability.com.